Ancestors unKnown: Interview with Dana Saxon

Dana P. Saxon

Dana P. Saxon

Christine: I am having a conversation with Dana P. Saxon, Founder and Executive Director of an exciting resources for teachers, youth, and community organizations called Ancestors unKnown. Dana, on the website, readers can learn about the profound impact genealogy research had on you and why you developed Ancestors unKnown. Briefly, what would you say was the greatest surprise, or “Ah ha” you had doing your own genealogy?

Dana Saxon: Prior to digging deeply into my family’s history, I was under the impression that it wouldn’t be possible for me to find information beyond the 20th century, much less that monstrous 1865/1870 “brick wall” that stands in the way of discovering my enslaved ancestors. So one of my greatest surprises was my ability to poke holes in that brick wall. I believe the first pre-1870 record I found was my 2nd great grandfather’s 1862 Civil War enlistment with the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops. Thomas Warren Long was 23 years old at the time. This discovery blew my mind – and my research wide open. I had no idea one of my ancestors fought for our freedom in the war. And with a record to prove it, I had far more traction to trace the steps of my ancestor, both during and after the war. With his related pension file at the National Archives, I’ve also gained some insight into his life while he, his wife and their daughters were enslaved in Jacksonville, FL. So while I still acknowledge that brick wall as one of the greatest challenges of researchers with enslaved ancestors, I said “ah ha” when I realized it didn’t have to be the end of my story – or anyone else’s.

Christine: How interesting! I’ve worked with people who have run into that brick wall, and it’s so helpful to hear about how you confronted it. What did you find most difficult, and what were you able to in response?

Dana Saxon: I’m interested in both sides of my family’s history, researching the family trees of both my mother and father. But unfortunately I didn’t start this research until several years after my father’s death. So although genealogy best practices would advise any researcher to begin with an oral history interview to gather as much information as possible from an elder, I couldn’t tap into my Dad’s memories to help me. Honestly, that challenge will be something I’ll always regret – wishing I had the opportunity to ask my father countless more questions.

Christine: Yes, I’ve also wished I had thought to ask more questions while elders in my family were with us.

Dana Saxon: Fortunately, I was able to make headway by digging into my grandmother’s photo albums, much of which she made sure to label with names and dates. Also lucky for me, my mother remembered some things about my father’s family that I never knew (perhaps even more than my father would have remembered in some cases). So I was able to fill in a few of my research gaps with some pointed questions. Even without firsthand knowledge from my father, I’ve been able to document his family to the mid-19th century, as well as trace the family’s migration from Florida and South Carolina to Philadelphia, where both Dad and I were born.

Christine: Ancestors unKnown works with schools and non-profit community organizations. Is it possible for individuals to access or purchase any of the curriculum?

Dana Saxon: At this time, we’re only providing curriculum licenses to schools and organizations that can facilitate the Untold Histories and Genealogy Research lessons for groups of students. With this approach, we’re seeking measurable academic and personal impact among participants.

Christine: What a great idea! So much curriculum that I see being used doesn’t go through a research process that examines its impact on participants. I think your plan to do so makes sense.

Dana Saxon: The added benefit of introducing the program in classrooms is the students work together in groups. Supported by each other and volunteer researchers to further their family history research projects, as well as participating in local field trips and being visited by expert guest lecturers, we’re setting students up for greater success with a more holistic approach. However, we certainly see the need to make our message and services available to as many people as possible. In the coming months we’ll be introducing webinars and periodic lessons that will be open to the public, focusing on our themes of untold histories and genealogy research. And in the longer-term future, we’ll introduce lessons and a toolkit that any individual or family can use to introduce genealogy research to a younger generation. Stay tuned!

Christine: What advice would you give to young people of color when they get stuck because they cannot find much information about their ancestors online?

Dana Saxon: I advise young people to start and end their research offline. Although the research that’s done online can take someone’s family tree a long way (mine included), the Internet is certainly not an all-inclusive resource. Because many archived records have not been digitized and continue to live in libraries, courts, historical societies, and city hall basements, sometimes you have to go to the records themselves. If you’re looking for specific vital records, such as birth, marriage or death records, I recommend investigating the helpfulness of the city/county where your ancestor(s) lived. When did they begin recording births? Which office houses the death records? Have there been any fires that would have destroyed relevant documents? Is there a local historical society that’s holding onto documents and photos from your ancestor’s era? Once you have an idea of what’s available and where it might be, make a phone call or pay a visit (depending on where you’re located). Oftentimes a small fee or a really nice person on the other end of the line leads to some incredible documents showing up in the mail – documents you never would have found online!

Christine: What advice do you give to young people of color who were adopted?

Dana Saxon: Sometimes it is just impossible to trace your blood line, particularly in the case of closed adoptions that don’t allow for any knowledge about birth parents. But this is also the case for young people who are being raised by one parent or grandparents and have no knowledge about at least one of their parents. It’s a common challenge. I remind all of us that our stories and our origins are not only about our blood relatives. We also come from communities. So, for example, when a young person doesn’t have a family member to turn to for an oral history interview, a member of the community where s/he was born could be a great starting point. For example, a church leader, a local business owner, or an older teacher could share rich anecdotes about the community’s history and earlier generations. Digging more deeply into the history, evolutions, and migrations of a community can be almost as telling as the individual story of a family, and certainly worth researching.

Christine: What is your vision for Ancestors unKnown over the next several years?

Dana Saxon: I’m so excited about the vision for Ancestors unKnown in the future. I’d like to see the program introduced in classrooms throughout the U.S. and internationally, with the curriculum constantly expanding to incorporate multiple languages and local history lessons. But as we expand to tell the world’s untold histories and introduce young people throughout the world to their unique family histories, I’d also like to emphasize globally shared histories. Students, teachers, and volunteer researchers can gain tremendously from understanding the histories and genealogy research processes in other parts of the world. Therefore, Ancestors unKnown will be connecting our students, teachers and volunteer researchers worldwide through online discussions, virtual classroom dialogues and, in the longer-term, research-focused study abroad opportunities. I see Ancestors unKnown as a rising global community of young researchers who will be breaking down myths of forgotten histories for years to come.

Christine: I’ll be tuning in to Ancestors unKnown on a regular basis to see where the project goes. Thank you for creating this wonderful project, and thank you for this delightful and informative conversation.

Dana wrote a great blog based on my conversation with her, and an interview with Kristen Luschen at Hampshire College. You can read it here


  1. […] you catch my written interview over on Christine Sleeter’s Critical Family History Blog back in February? Well, the opportunity to be interviewed by Christine was plenty exciting. And […]

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