Families Are Forever
Dellums Traces His Roots
Many religious faiths are concerned with where we are going to after death; the Mormon Church is unique in its preoccupation with where we’ve come from. Since the early days of what is officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a project to collect the genealogical history of all humankind has been underway. The church has now amassed more than 3 billion pages of family-history records, with more added daily from collecting sites around the world. These records are stored in a 1.5-acre vault in a mountainside near Salt Lake City, protected by 700 feet of solid granite. The mandate to gather this information is based on the belief that families can be together for eternity, as long as all members accept the church. It is the duty of the living descendants to collect vital data on ancestors, who then are baptized by proxy in a temple ceremony using stand-ins. This work is underway at virtually every Mormon Temple around the world, including the majestic edifice looming above our city.
The Mormon project predates the recent surge in genealogical fervor in the culture as a whole. Genealogy Web sites are among the most profitable membership sites on the Internet, second only to pornography (proving that Satan’s still in the lead, at least in cyberspace). The Generations Network (a private company based in Provo, Utah, which employs many church members), operates several genealogy sites, including the popular Ancestry.com, and reports yearly revenue in excess of $150 million. As millions of gene-junkies marvel at the vast historical data now available at the click of a mouse, the church has been happy to encourage a symbiotic relationship. At more than 3,400 sites called Family History Centers, the general public can access the same archives stored in Salt Lake, free. The Oakland Family History Center is a state-of-the-art facility, with 18 computer workstations, rows of microfilm readers and enough book stacks to resemble a modest town library. Any microfilm not housed at Oakland can be borrowed from Salt Lake for a small fee. Five days a week, a small army of cheerful volunteers awaits all who come in search of their family’s missing link.
On a Saturday afternoon in February, one person through the door was Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums. The mayor was invited to the center in recognition of black history month, but it quickly became clear that this was not merely a photo-op. Hizzoner was here to do some digging. Armed with ancestors’ names collected mostly by his genealogy-buff sister Teresa, the mayor settled down at a workstation. Marge Bell, assistant director, got him started. She had prepared a rudimentary “pedigree” chart of the Dellums family going back several generations. Many unknowns remained, but Dellums cleared up a few. “My paternal grandfather, William Henry Dellums, was the son of a Swedish immigrant named Fortson and a Cherokee woman named Kitty,” said Dellums. “Kitty later married a black man named Dellums; that’s how we got the name.” Bell entered names and birthdates, and a handwritten birth record for William Henry appeared on the screen. The mayor, grinning now, said, “The person I really want to know better is Sandy Poole.” Poole, who was Dellums’ maternal great-grandfather, was held up as a role model in stories told by his mother and grandmother. Dellums thinks Poole owned a barbershop and might have been a political organizer.
Sandy Poole proved elusive, but Marge Bell intends to continue the research. If anyone can find Poole, she can. A 24-year veteran of the Oakland Family History Center, she has been a genealogist longer than she’s been a Mormon. A Mayflower descendant, she has made it back eight generations on some of her lines.
“When you are involved in researching ancestors, you begin to love the people,” Bell said. “You want to meet them. My great-great-grandfather Benjamin Cushing wrote letters every two weeks during the Civil War. He stopped by Washington, D.C., on his way home from the war to view the body of Lincoln as it lay in state, and I have the letter he wrote about it.”
“What would really be fascinating would be to trace all of myself all the way back to Africa, and to wherever,” mused Dellums, who was clearly hooked. But those virtual trips to “wherever”—including Sweden, Italy and the Cherokee and Choctaw tribes—would have to wait for another day. The 72-year-old mayor joked that this is the kind of work he had expected to be doing at this stage of life, instead of running California’s eighth-largest city. He may still have time to do both: His great-grandfather Mose Anthony lived to be 100.
—By Matt Dibble
The Oakland Family History Center, 4766 Lincoln Ave., is open 10 a.m.–9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
E-mail Matt Dibble at email@example.com.