Joe Kennedy's 10-year search for a long-buried document ended as he barreled down the interstate at 65 mph. He was seated in the passenger seat, browsing a historical website on his laptop when he pulled up a newspaper ad dated Sept. 26, 1836. Two words blazed from the screen: "Haney" and "slave."
"Pull over," he told his mother, Jean Megginson Kennedy, who was driving from Pittsburgh toward Washington, D.C., that April day in 2009. She checked the rearview mirror, looking for a police cruiser. No, he told her, he wanted her to stop driving so she could brace herself for incredible news. Facing him was a newspaper advertisement for the slave sale of his great-great-great-grandmother, Hanie Megginson.
On the berm of the road, mother and son laughed and then cried over the discovery. "It was a magical moment," Kennedy said. "It's so rare to find this. I didn't even know if the document existed. It was exhilaration beyond belief."
Six months later in October 2009, Kennedy founded Riverbends Inc. (www.Riverbends.org), a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that helps people reclaim their family history. While the Internet has led to proliferation of genealogical services, Riverbends focuses on African-American genealogy, where the obstacles are formidable and records are often nonexistent.
To retrace his own family's history, Kennedy, 43, spent countless hours and thousands of dollars of his savings combing census data, roaming graveyards and collecting photos and recipes from far-flung relatives. The search soon took on a life of its own. When he joined his mother for that road trip in 2009, he brought along his laptop and spent most of the drive using his cell phone as a wireless modem. He couldn't bear to squander even a moment of research time.
"Part of the reason I formed a nonprofit is so African-Americans in particular and other people in general won't have to spend 10 years and all of their money doing this," Kennedy said. "Along the way, I learned so much about free resources and how to take advantage of digital technology."
With the motto "Family history is your birthright," Riverbends works with schools, religious and corporate groups and other organizations to develop presentations and curricula tailored to their needs.
Kennedy has partnered with Shady Side Academy Middle School this year on two social studies projects related to his work. In the fall, he shared a presentation on his own ancestry during a seventh grade unit on slavery. He then returned in April to teach the students how to construct their own family tree on MyHeritage.com as part of a lesson on immigration. Kennedy told students to guesstimate birthdates and the spellings of surnames and record common nicknames. He showed Dr. Michael O'Neil's class how to log on to EllisIsland.org and Ancestry.com to search for their ancestors, some of whom came to this country through Ellis Island.
After receiving interview coaching from Kennedy, students called their relatives to fill in the gaps in their family histories. Kennedy urged them not to rush: "If you only say, 'When is your birthday and what is your maiden name?' and then hang up, they won't get to tell you very much."
Students then drafted a report on what they learned about their family history and immigrant experiences and what they still wanted to know. Kennedy was thrilled by the enthusiastic response to the project.
"They were fascinated by how they learned about their own history just by asking and doing some online research, and they were particularly interested in learning about each other's histories. I was moved by the attention and respect the students paid to the variety of immigrant experiences," Kennedy said. "They do not have to spend 10 years on it like I did, but they must understand that this kind of research does take some time."
Amy Nixon, head of the Middle School, said, "I was really happy to have Joe Kennedy work with our seventh graders on their family trees for a lot of reasons. It was a great way for them to start conversations within their own families, and it was fun to hear all of the things they learned and had no idea about before. In sharing their stories with their peers, the students began to understand the amazingly wide variety of experiences their families had, but in the end, how very similar they were. The fact that Joe had gone so far back in history with his own family was tremendously inspiring to everyone."
O'Neil said, "My students commented repeatedly that Mr. Kennedy's lessons made history more relevant to them. It sparked their curiosity concerning historical events in the lives of their ancestors. A number of students mentioned that their families experienced a bonding over the discussions of their ancestors."
Seventh-grader Cristina Bermudez, for example, was excited about mapping out a family tree that started in her native Chile, where most of her relatives still live. She vividly remembered Kennedy's fall 2011 presentation in which he outlined his odyssey to find his ancestors, despite the scarcity of written records. "He never lost hope," Bermudez said. "That was inspiring. I can't believe how far back he went."
Kennedy traced his family tree all the way back to 1726. Along the way, he discovered that his eighth maternal grandmother, Elizabeth "Betsy" Berry, belonged to a branch of the family who were "freeborn men and women of color." But this freedom required them to carry papers that described their physical features and keep another copy registered at the courthouse. "Any white person could demand to see your papers at any time," Kennedy said. "If you couldn't whip them out, you risked being captured back to slavery or going to jail. You were constantly in danger of the person tearing up the record. Even though they were free, the freedom was tenuous."
Kennedy said the documents reflect a degrading form of apartheid. But today, preserved as a historical record, they provide him with a detailed physical description of people who lived before the advent of photography.
The more Kennedy dug, the more he was rewarded with narratives, especially about the Megginson branch of the family, who settled near Lynchburg, Va. He found the notice of the sale of Hanie – the paper misspelled her name – in the same ad announcing the sale of farmland and a horse.
Hanie's life fascinated Kennedy. "I call Hanie the real-life Miss Jane Pittman," he said. "She was born in 1796 and died in 1901 at the age of 105. She lived the first 70 years of her life in slavery. She lived to see her son, Albert Megginson, become one of the largest landowners in that area of Virginia. Three years after the Civil War, he started purchasing farmland when most blacks and whites were penniless."
Though he never learned to read or write, Albert founded the Megginson School for black children in the 1870s and donated land for a black cemetery and a black church. "He was born as a slave and died illiterate, but Albert was almost like Andrew Carnegie," said Kathleen Ealing, executive assistant at Riverbends. Kennedy is raising funds to purchase and restore the family's homestead, which he plans to use as a museum for Riverbends.
His father's side of the family, the Kennedys of Philadelphia, was filled with musicians, a talent Joe inherited. His great-great-grandfather John Kennedy was a prominent trumpet player, caterer and restaurateur in Wilkes-Barre whose death made front-page news for three days straight.
With a lawyer's eye, Kennedy overcame one dead end after another to locate his ancestors' documents. "Graves were unmarked," Ealing said. "People didn't have last names. The births and deaths were not reported in the paper, even post-slavery. But Joe is a lawyer. He knows how to research."
His research has made him the keynote speaker at his family's large reunions, where relatives come from around the country to hear him speak about their ancestors. Kennedy's aunt, Theressa Turner of Upper Marlboro, Md., said relatives are so enthralled by his research that they leave inspired enough to start their own family trees. "It has spread like wildfire," she said. "Millions of dollars couldn't compensate for what he has done for generations of our family. He has such a captivating spirit."
Kennedy was an accidental genealogist. As a young man he aspired to be a transplant surgeon. But he credits his well-rounded education at Shady Side Academy, which he attended from kindergarten through high school, with infusing him with a love for both the sciences and the liberal arts. "I developed a love of learning at Shady Side," he said. "I lived in the music room and the library."
After receiving his B.A. in political science from the College of Wooster, he earned his law degree in 1993 from Cornell University Law School, where he served as the first black editor-in-chief of the Cornell Law Review. He began his career as an attorney for Reed Smith LLP and Mellon Bank.
Kennedy left his legal career in 1999 and briefly considered a life in politics before starting his work for nonprofits. About the same time, he and four other lawyers (including Hugh McGough '74) started a musical sketch comedy troupe called the "Absolute Pitts," Pittsburgh's version of the Capitol Steps.
Rogers taught Kennedy more than the ins and outs of award-winning children's television. "He talked about the importance of family relationships and understanding the powerful ways that families can be instruments of growth and change," Kennedy said. He had just started researching his family tree, and Rogers' message pushed him to persevere.
In September 2008, Kennedy left Family Communications to begin work on starting Riverbends. To fund the project, he raised capital through donations, grants and foundations. He chose the name as a unifying theme for the various branches of his family tree. All 78 of the ancestors he has found lived along the bends of rivers. Riverbends, which is also the title of the book he is writing, symbolizes the connecting threads between the generations.
He keeps making those connections from the past. When he pores over the documents about Hanie Megginson, he thinks of how she kept going under the most degrading circumstances. "The experiences were horrible, inexcusable," he said. "But they happened, and I try to think about her strength. When I compare my difficulties to someone who spent the first 70 years of her life in slavery, I have a better perspective on being stuck in traffic on Route 28. I marvel at how my forebears got through their days."
Kennedy said his journey as a genealogist has made him feel more connected with his own family – and to the rest of humankind. "You may have to go back into the mists of history, but you realize that every human being is at least distantly related to every other human being," he said. "Each of us has an important part of the puzzle of human history to tell."
by Cristina Rouvalis | Photography by James Knox
Published in the Summer 2012 issue of Shady Side Academy Magazine