“Dr. Sam” Arungwa drew one step closer to the realization of his dream of a free college degree in family history at a recent collaborative pilot event between Texas’ Prairie View A & M University (PVAMU) and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).
A one-week class with curriculum designed for PVAMU was offered to over 40 students as a pilot program to test its success, as well as the feasibility of an ongoing, more extensive family history course. The students received course recognition for the hours they attended at no cost. FamilySearch, the genealogy organization of the LDS Church, provided the personnel for training and technical support.
It was not by chance that Arungwa chose PVAMU for this pilot program. Arungwa came to PVAMU five years ago from Nigeria to earn a PhD in Juvenile Justice. “I thought I was in the Garden of Eden,” Arungwe said.
PVAMU was established originally for freed black slaves. “Ignorance is how you enslave a people, knowledge is power. A former slave plantation is now a place where a black person can become a doctor, and I am one of those,” Arungwa said.
Arungwa, a member of the LDS Church in Waller, Texas, expressed his vision for bringing curriculum to those who can pay with time. “As a church, we have always expressed our love for black people. What they need is knowledge and that’s what this is,” he said.
Frank Jackson, Mayor of the City of Prairie View and Governmental Affairs Officer at PVAMU, sat in on a class to show his support. “I’m glad the students are starting to get into (family history) because this helps them to recover their historical memory. This is an awakening. This is important. We are all one family – one human family and this helps them recognize that,” Jackson said.
“I’m so excited. I’ve always wanted to do African American genealogy,” said Lakeisha Pierre, an older student with three children. “This has been such a blessing. I found my great-great-grandfather, his military records had his mother’s name on there, so now I know who she is. I’ve been having a ball.”
Fellow student Jazmin’ Cobb expressed gratitude to participate in the free course. “I’ve always wanted to map my family history. I was trying with my mom before, but roadblocks stopped us.”
“We witnessed a remarkable event,” said President Mark Mortensen of the Houston Texas Mission for the LDS Church. “Almost every student with whom I spoke talked about how excited they were and how long they had been waiting for this class. It struck me as strange. When I asked one student how long she had been waiting, she said, “From my earliest childhood memories I’ve wanted to know who I am.” It was inspiring to feel the Spirit in among a group of college students hungry to understand their identity more fully,” Mortensen said.
Curriculum adaptation and instruction was provided by LDS Church member Sherri Camp, genealogy librarian and family history consultant since 2005, and vice president of the national Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS). Under Camp’s expert tutelage, and assisted by members and missionaries of the LDS Church from Waller, Texas, students quickly navigated their way into finding records for themselves and doing indexing for the Freedmen’s Bureau project (discoverfreedmen.org), to make available millions of records for African Americans. “Every seat was filled. I was blown over. I am impressed that we had dedicated people to be here. The second thing that was impressive was how quickly they were building their family tree,” Camp said.
Elder Daniel Jones, representing the LDS Church throughout the Texas Gulf Coast Region, spoke enthusiastically of the event. “These fantastic students engaged our instructor with great interest, which grew stronger each day as they started identifying their ancestors. What was particularly gratifying were the growing pedigrees, which were almost as plentiful as the incredible smiles we saw as these amazing students turned their “…heart(s) …to their fathers,” Jones said.
Both Brad Lowder, Director of International Marketing and Todd Jones, with the Public Outreach Division of FamilySearch were overwhelmed with the response. “People are discovering who they are, discovering their family stories, feeling connected and bound to their families through the generations. Here we have seen the convergence of an opportunity both for the students to learn about themselves through their ancestors and an opportunity for the LDS Church to provide a very meaningful service to African-Americans throughout the world, starting here in the Houston area. This is a pilot to prove the concept and refine the curriculum so that we can expand it and offer it in different formats. Dr. Sam has such a broader vision that inspires me and I want to find ways to help him see his vision become a reality,” said Lowder.