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Going Back In Time To Discover Your Own Virgin Islands History

If you want excitement, mystery and surprise look no further. It is not a video game and or on YouTube.

According to three genealogists — photographer and visual documentarian Marvin Elliott Ellis; preservationist Sonia Jacobs Dow and author Melvin Collier — it’s discovering your own family history that can reveal your joy of heritage.

Panelists Ellis, Dow and Collier will present a discussion, “In Search of Our Roots: Genealogy and the African Diaspora,” 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 21, at Miami Dade College, Wolfson Campus, 300 NE Second St., Room 803, Building 8, third floor. The focus is African-American and African-Caribbean people, their genealogies and family histories.

After more than 30 years, the annual Miami Book Fair International continues to provide an eight-day literary party. The fair, part of The Center for Writing and Literature at Miami Dade College, is a cultural and academic initiative that promotes the advancement and appreciation of literature throughout the year.
From Nov. 15 through 22, more than 450 authors from the U.S. and around the world will read and discuss their work. At the street fair, more than 250 publishers and booksellers exhibit and sell books. For a schedule of activities of free events and ticket information visit

Dorothy Jenkins in Miami

Thousands of South Florida schoolchildren will participate in the Children’s Alley activities including theater, arts-and-crafts, storytelling and readings by children’s book authors. Comics and graphic novels will again be featured with a new section for kids and teens.

Creator and organizer Miami native Marvin Ellis designed the genealogy panel to encourage others in the community to become interested in researching their family histories. Three decades ago, Ellis began researching his African-American and Antillean Creole genealogy and family history. As a result of his intense interest in the pursuit of finding and identifying ancestors and relatives, he developed and last year chaired the first Miami Book Fair International panel discussion focused primarily on genealogy and family history of descendants of Africans in the Western Hemisphere.

To beginners, Ellis’ first step to becoming successful is don’t be afraid to try, just do it.

“The most valuable advice I can offer others is don’t procrastinate,” he said. “Begin immediately with what you know about yourself and your parents. Then continue going back in time. You will be amazed at the discoveries you will find; and that genealogy is doable, exciting and can be fun.”

Technology has changed and made it simpler to research and create a family tree. Millions of public records are now indexed and searchable online. With just a name and tap of your finger on the keyboard local, national and international records and databases are available. Subscribe to or and you may find information that answers questions about mysterious situations that have been difficult for your generation to understand.

Panelist Sonia Jacobs Dow serves as executive director of the St. Croix Landmarks Society in the United States Virgin Islands. Passionate about genealogy, she has documented nine generations of her family on St. Croix. Over the past 40 years, Dow has found records about her paternal family in the Virgin Islands and her maternal ancestors on Vieques and neighboring Puerto Rico.
Landmarks Society’s mission is to advance the understanding and appreciation of the historical and cultural legacy of St. Croix. The story of the island combines the enslaved Africans whose ingenuity, courage, strength and skill made it possible for Europeans to seek wealth in the sugar islands of the Caribbean.
The society’s Research Library Family History Center offers academic researchers and family historians one-stop access to an unparalleled collection of church, census, tax, inventory, court, vital statistics and other government records. This collection is the core asset available to individuals looking for their ancestors.

In recent years, Dow’s focus has been on researching individuals her parents acknowledged as cousins, without knowing the family lineage. This has led to her current project of researching the genealogy of an entire Crucian estate, Estate Anna’s Hope, one of many former plantations where Africans and their descendants were enslaved on St. Croix.

Beyond researching her family’s history, she believes programs that help youth and adults to develop a firm sense of self, place, and responsibility are key to recapturing traditional values and bringing about positive social change.

One of her clues is to involve youth and young adults in genealogy and researching family histories. A signature education program at Landmark’s Society, Discover St. Croix Camp, “engages the next generation of preservationists, historians, and educators and fosters relationships marked by trust, respect, loyalty and willingness to accept guidance.”

Panelist and author Melvin Collier has conducted historical and genealogical research more than 20 years, starting at the age of 19. He has written two books, Mississippi to Africa: A Journey of Discovery, second edition released in 2012 and 150 Years Later: Broken Ties Mended (2011). He maintains a genealogy blog called Roots Revealed,

Collier’s books have been used by genealogical and historical scholars as reference sources. He appeared on the NBC show, Who Do You Think You Are, as one of the expert genealogies in the Spike Lee episode.

Currently employed by the U.S. Defense Department, he earned a Master of Arts degree in African-American Studies at Clark Atlanta University and graduate coursework in Archives Studies from Clayton State University. He is a recipient of the Marsha M. Greenlee History Award by the NationalAfro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.

“I wondered where in Africa my ancestors came from. So, I began my search, which included DNA analysis,” said Collier, recalling his teenage years. “For most African Americans, this search is not recreational, but an important question that produces strong emotions.”

Mississippi to Africa captures Collier’s 14-year journey in unearthing the buried history of his maternal grandmother’s family — a journey that took him back seven generations from northern Mississippi to the Piedmont hills of South Carolina, and even back to a specific people in West Africa where his ancestry undoubtedly began.

On the panel, Collier’s intent is to help “inspire, entice, and propel readers into the fascinating world of genealogy and historical discoveries through the use of federal, state, and local records, other public records and oral histories.” His latest clue explains how autosomal DNA testing validated his research findings.

Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to

melvin collier
Melvin Collier is a panelist at the Miami Book Fair.

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