Personal photo of
Dr. Mitchell’s grandfather,
George Eddie Washington.

I did not need a DNA test to tell me I had African ancestry and descended from enslaved people – my family told me what they wanted me to know about their journey. I began my genealogical search to fill in the holes I did not think or know to ask my paternal grandfather, George Eddie Washington before he died. When asked about his family, my grandfather told us he was an illegitimate child from Arkansas. As far as he was concerned, his family was the one he started with my grandmother. My nine-year search has revealed generations of ancestors that I never knew about. My research has connected my story to pivotal periods in the history of African Americans. 

Poring over census records, vital records, and news archives made the Reconstruction Era,  the Jim Crow Era,  and the Great Migration more personal. My life’s work as a macro social worker is to mitigate the deleterious impact of these pivotal periods on Black people. My mother’s family researched and traced our ancestry six generations back through oral history and LDS genealogy records. I use a popular genealogy site to research my paternal side. Along the way, I found information that I wasn’t looking for that corroborated what I knew about my maternal side and my husband’s family. Searching for my paternal ancestors without knowing their names and life stories has been a quest for ‘needles in a haystack .’ I have gone down numerous rabbit trails containing wrong information and found many gems along the way. 

I wanted to find my enslaved ancestors, but enslaved people were the property of other people. The archives of slavery-era documents listed the monetary value of the enslaved people to determine the net worth and tax liability of their enslavers. There were usually no names listed for enslaved people, only gender and age. Without knowing the names of the enslavers, it is nearly impossible to determine who enslaved my ancestors and where they were enslaved. In my social work training, I was always taught that “if it’s not in writing, it didn’t happen.” To have no name means you don’t exist. My ancestors were listed on tax documents as if they were livestock. My Black ancestor’s names were undocumented until after the civil war. They had no names and could not have legitimate families until they were free. My genealogical research is heart-wrenching, laborious, frustrating, maddening, and fascinating. When I read Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” poem, I identify as “the dream and the hope of the slave.”  People who technically did not exist dreamed of being able to be educated, earn wealth, and raise families. I felt my ancestors’ dreams and hopes whenever my grandparents beamed with pride at my graduations.  

My grandparents were born in the rural south, and there are no birth records. As I learned about the poverty and oppression of the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, I wondered if my ancestor’s births were disregarded because they were black. As a social worker, I wonder what was so traumatic about my grandfather’s early life that he chose to edit it out of his story. What did it mean to be an illegitimate child fathered by a pillar in the community in the early 1900s? He’d told us that his father was a preacher, teacher, and the principal of the school his mother attended. In the reconstruction era, church denominations started schools to educate Black children who were barred from schools for white children. Church newspaper archives revealed that my great-grandfather, ED Washington, was who my grandfather said he was. He was a presiding elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, a teacher, and principal of Walters Institute in Wilmot, Arkansas, where my grandfather was born and raised. Church newspapers show that ED Washington was an educator as early as 1896, but on the 1900 and 1910 census records, he is listed only as a farmer and a preacher. He was not identified as a teacher until the 1920 census.  

ED Washington married twice, and census records document six ‘legitimate’ children and at least three ‘illegitimate’ children, including my grandfather. The church newspaper archives showed an active denomination of God-fearing, intelligent people concerned with spreading the gospel and addressing social issues and politics. The newspapers contained editorials and commentary about church leaders. I reviewed dozens of issues, searching for news about my great-grandfather’s extramarital affairs. There was no documentation in the papers or church conference proceedings that he was ever admonished for fathering illegitimate children.  

Photo from

In the 1920 census, ED Washington’s household included some misspelled names, and two school-age children were listed as females. I researched the Washington ‘girls’ for seven years before learning they were boys. I wondered if the inaccurate documentation was due to the census takers’ lack of concern for the Black people’s family legacies. Perhaps people who were considered property for 300 years might still be seen as less than human and not worthy of accurate documentation. Learning the correct gender and names of my great uncles led to discovering their delayed birth certificates, which listed ED Washington’s hometown in Mississippi. Before that, I did not have enough specific information to narrow my search for records of ED Washington’s life, so I searched for documentation across the entire state of Mississippi. I had searched for records of him at colleges in Arkansas because I learned that Black colleges in the south educated teachers. 

Once I knew his hometown, I learned that ED Washington lived one county away from Alcorn A&M College, and he was listed as a senior there in 1888. Alcorn A&M was founded during Reconstruction along with several other historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). These institutions trained teachers, preachers, farmers, and other African Americans who were not permitted to study at mainstream universities (NMAAHC, 2023).  

Photo by Mississippi Digital Library.

ED Washington was born between 1861 and 1864, around the time that slavery was made illegal. The first verifiable documentation of ED Washington’s parents is a Mississippi marriage index from 1868. Loyd and Emily Washington were born about 1824 and 1840, respectively, and enslaved people were emancipated in 1863.   My great-grandparents were probably born into slavery, but they were nameless on most documents before 1863. Enslaved people were not allowed to marry before the end of slavery, so they often jumped over a broom to signify their covenant and commitment to each other. I ‘jumped the broom’ at my wedding in 2007 to honor my ancestors whose marriages were not allowed by their enslavers. 

1920 census records also showed that my great-grandmother lived with her parents and siblings near ED Washington in Wilmot and that my grandfather was not born in 1916 as we had been told – he was actually born in 1912. My great-grandmother, Minnie Smith, obtained a delayed birth certificate for my grandfather so that he could enlist in the army. My grandfather did not graduate high school.   He had some education but likely had to focus more on the family’s farmwork than school. He told us he went to “CC camp,” which I learned was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). CCC was established in 1933 by President FD Roosevelt as a “New Deal” initiative to put young men to work in forestry after the Great Depression (Smith, 1997). I believe that my grandfather went to the CCC to support himself and get out of rural poverty. His mother likely changed his birth year to make him younger and eligible to enlist in the army in 1940. Isabel Wilkinson’s The Warmth of Other Suns memorializes the great migration through individual stories of people who escaped the poverty, violence, and segregation of the south to live in northern and western states. 

According to an AME Zion Church missionary newspaper from July 1923, church leaders in northern states recruited southern congregants:

The colored people in many of the southern states; namely, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and some sections of North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee have become exceedingly restless and very much dissatisfied with the conditions that obtain in those states and by which the entire colored population are affected. And those same people have come to a definite and positive decision that they will not continue their lives under such intolerable conditions and by which they have been forced to submit. So the colored people are leaving those southern states herein referred to in large numbers daily, and are migrating into the northern and western states where political, educational and civil conditions are more conducive. The entire civilized world is looking on the white south of the United States in astounding amazement. The end to such a horribleness cannot be much farther away. Come on up North brothers and sisters, maligned and oppressed, we will help to make a place for you and your children. ((AMEZMS, 1923,p 399)

After returning to the US from WWII in Europe, my grandfather came to California rather than return to Arkansas. My grandmother had followed her older sister to California from northern Mississippi. After nearly a decade of searching, I still cannot locate any vital records for my grandmother before she moved to California. One of the first records I found of my grandparents were their marriage certificate and voter registration records. They could not vote in the south due to Jim Crow laws, but they registered soon after they moved to California.  

In a funny twist, my father told me that my grandmother changed my grandfather’s middle name to Edward. She reasoned that Eddie “just didn’t sound right” and Edward sounded better. The middle name “Eddie” was likely a reference to his father, ED – my great-grandmother probably did not know that ED stood for Edmund Duke. My father’s middle name starts with an E, and so does mine. When I earned my doctorate and began teaching and publishing, I was intentional about using the name Dr. Yakiciwey E. Washington Mitchell. The E. Washington is there to honor my grandfather, who was ashamed of his illegitimate birth and worked to create a better life for his family.  

I do not know if I would have done such extensive genealogical research if my grandfather had a story he was proud to pass down. I am grateful that I have learned how my family’s story fits into what is known and taught about Black history. As a social worker, I know that people want to belong to family, no matter how dysfunctional or healthy they are. As an African American woman, I have often wondered where I ‘fit’ in America’s history. Researching my ancestry has added personal context to famously known events. Our story continues, and I’ll add to it with gratitude and enthusiasm. 

Yakiciwey began her career developing and implementing community-based social service programs through public/private partnerships. After 20 years as a child welfare administrator, Yakiciwey founded Edifying Nations Consulting, Inc. to integrate services to vulnerable children and families. 

Yakiciwey is an Assistant Professor in the CBU College of Behavioral and Social Sciences. She is passionate about improving outcomes for vulnerable children and families. She is committed to developing and promoting community and public/private partnerships to improve systems. Her mission is to build people up and help them to thrive. She received her bachelor’s degree in political science from UC Santa Barbara, a master’s degree in social welfare from UCLA, and her doctorate in social work from California Baptist University.


AMEZMS. (1923). AME Zion Missionary Seer Newspaper 1922-1923.

NMAAHC. (2023). 5 Things To Know: HBCU Edition. National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Smith, S. T. (1997). The Civilian Conservation Corps in Arkansas, 1933-1942 A Historic Context Written and Researched.