At the back of the library, Erik Swartz, a soft-spoken 14-year-old with shaggy hair, flips through papers. They’re rosters he found on Ancestry.com.
“It’s basically the document from the Japanese internment camp from rural Arkansas,” he says.
He scans the document, pointing to several names.
“Francis, my great-grandmother… Jane, one of my great-aunts,” he reads.
He always knew that his family was forced to move to relocation centers during WWII, but didn’t know the time, locations or names. He later learned that they lived in a horse stall, where his grandmother was born.
“It wasn’t like a concentration camp, but it wasn’t the greatest either.”
In interviews with his grandmother, she told him they lost everything—officials took their jewelry, the family’s silver and gold, and kicked them off their land. Swartz says it’s a part of history that’s often only captured in short blurbs in American textbooks.
“It’s basically like in today’s standards, after 9/11 you threw every Muslim in a camp because they’re Muslim, it’s sort of like that, and it’s all because of civilian fear,” he said. “And that’s wrong.”
Swartz is one of dozens of 8th graders at Durant Road Middle School who spent weeks digging into public records, interviewing relatives and logging onto Ancestry.com. Teachers have been encouraging students to learn more about their families and who they are.
One student discovered she’s related to a former presidential candidate, another researched about his grandfather’s service in WWII, and one kid learned that her family lived under a tree for a month after a bad earthquake in Mexico.
“I was surprised at how many kids didn’t know what I thought were pretty basic things, like even where their parents were born,” says Kristen Ziller, the school’s media specialist.
Ziller was involved in a collaboration between Ancestry.Com and LEARN NC to create a multimedia how-to guide for teachers who want to take on similar projects with their students. She says using family history resources in the classrooms help kids make connections in history.
“Their social studies curriculum comes alive or characters in books and they’re like ‘woah that was like nana,’” says Ziller.
One student who worked especially hard on the project is 14-year-old Sophie Walsh. She was always curious about her great-grandfather’s cousin. During WWII, he was part of the German Wehrmacht, or air force.
He flew a bomber that was disguised as civilian aircraft and was eventually captured by the British, who taught him English as a prisoner of war. Walsh talked with several relatives, dug into documents and helped build a family tree.
“I wanted to make sure I got like everything right, whereas someone who may have not been in my family like a famous person, I don’t really care as much,” Walsh says.
After weeks of researching, students assembled presentations featuring images, timelines and videos.
Fourteen-year-old Mario Eason shared a story with classmates that had initially shocked him. His great-great uncle killed his brother-in-law with an ax on October 8, 1921. He reads an old newspaper article aloud in front of his class.
“Officers are continuing their search for Larry Aycock, prominent farmer who yesterday killed his brother-in-law… by striking him in the head with an ax,” Eason reads.
Eason first heard the story from his grandmother, but she was too ashamed to share many details. So, he logged onto his computer and began searching the name “Larry Aycock”
“It’s a big secret, you should tell your family that if there’s a murder in the family,” he says. “When I tell people their mouths drop to the floors and they’re like ‘what really?’”
Thirteen-year-old Khanaja Woodard also has a family story that she was initially hesitant to share. She presented right after Eason.
“My dad was incarcerated, yes, my dad went to jail,” she says.
For her project, Woodard explored her upbringing and in the process learned more about her dad’s encounters with the law through police records.
“My memories of my dad going to jail weren’t bad or traumatizing, it was actually pretty interesting, it like built my relationship with my dad,” she says. “So yeah, this is a mug shot of my dad.”
She says her 33-year-old dad from New Jersey made bad choices when he was younger, but he’s on the right track now. And that he wants what’s best for her, including finishing high school.
“I never understood to the full extent why he was always so hard on me on about school, and I found out he didn’t go to high school and he wants me to do better,” she says.
After her presentation, Woodard shared that she has two big dreams. The first is to open a beauty salon one day.
The other is to study policy to help make neighborhoods like her dad’s safer places for kids to grow up.