This month I would like to shine a spotlight on a highly valued member of our local genealogy community: Charles Kenneth Barker. Charles has been a frequent participant at our Central Indiana DNA Interest Group [CIDIG] meetings, and I soon learned that he had founded a DNA Discussion Group himself. Seeing a need within the Indiana African American Genealogy Group, he kicked off monthly knowledge sharing sessions “to help our members and others to learn about the use of DNA testing and analysis.”
Our two DNA groups complement each other. Many individuals have attended programs at both locations, including some of our CIDIG team leaders.
I asked Charles if I could share some of his fascinating genealogy journey with readers on my blog, and he agreed.
“I am the first born of six children,” Charles told me. And as a result, he said, “I developed a sense of responsibility and reverence about my family. As a young adult, on visits back to my parents’ home in Clarksville, TN., I would quiz my grandmother about all the Barkers in the Clarksville phone book. Her answer: ‘They are another set of Barkers.’ I did not know the significance of her statement until I later learned more about slavery. The ‘other set of Barkers’ were descendants of slaves, who took on a required surname after emancipation. Names, customs and families had been systematically altered by the European society and government to maintain their economy. Many of the newly freed slaves were previously owned by a prominent tobacco planter named John Walton Barker, who owned 68 slaves per the 1860 census slave schedule.”
Charles had taken his first steps on a lifelong pursuit of history and genealogy. There are many parallels between the challenges he confronted as a Black Hoosier growing up in poverty and the challenges facing those pursuing African-American genealogy. In both cases, Charles looked to education and a belief in himself (“If they can do it, I can do it”) to carry him forward.
His mother was employed as a domestic. His father earned money picking up trash and hauling coal with his truck. Charles attended school #19, an all-black primary school in Indianapolis. After Indiana passed the School Desegregation Act in 1949, he went on to Emmerich Manual High School, but the all-white staff there gave him little encouragement. Nevertheless, Charles had ambition. He finished high school, took a day job, and went to night school for a trade certificate in electronics. But upon completing it, he learned that color still proved a barrier to hiring in Indiana. Undeterred, Charles returned to high school to get the college prep courses in algebra, trigonometry, chemistry, and physics that he hadn’t been offered before. After that, it took 14 more years of night school—while working full-time and raising a family—but he completed a Bachelor of Science in Computer Technology from Purdue University at Indianapolis in 1973. Hard work then carried him up the corporate ladder. When Charles Barker finally retired from United Presidential Life Insurance Company, it was as Senior Vice President and CIO of Information Systems.
Charles applied the same perseverance to his passion for genealogy. When he began, back in the days of cranking dusty microfilm readers, he found few resources to help guide Hoosiers exploring African American roots. Twenty years ago, the Indiana African American Genealogy Group [IAAGG] was formed to respond to that need, and Charles was a charter member. Since then, he has served as Treasurer, Education and Research Chairperson, Vice President, and he is “currently serving the second of two separate terms as President—and spearheading the 17th consecutive annual conference scheduled for September 19th of this year.”
Just as with his professional aspirations, Charles didn’t take “it’s not possible for Black people” as an answer to his genealogy goals either.
He’s pursued skills and knowledge from the IAAGG meetings and conferences such as Midwestern Roots, the Midwest African American Genealogy Institute, and the Southern California Genealogy Jamboree. He has also sought out local Special Interest Groups and online webinars. Just a few of the books on his bookshelf are these:
- Black Roots by Tony Burroughs
- Finding A Place Called Home by Dee Palmer Woodard
- The Black Tax by Shawn D. Rochester
- The First Emancipator by Andrew Levy
- Carrying the Colors by W. Robert Beckman (about Andrew Bowman, IAAGG member’s grandfather)
- The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabell Wilkerson
- several books by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
In 2008, Charles realized that DNA testing could be “an important tool to mitigate the void created by slavery and the untold truths about the subjugation of Black Lives to this day.” Since then, he has done Y-DNA, mtDNA, and autosomal DNA testing (FamilyFinder, AncestryDNA, MyHeritageDNA and 23andMe), and he counts GEDmatch and DNA Painter among the tools he uses.
“DNA testing and analysis have been primary in solving several brick walls,” he reports. As an example, he offers the discovery that “My great-grandmother was Betty Hopper and not Betty Harper as is listed on all of her offsprings’ death certificates.” A match on FamilyTreeDNA led to “a focused, collaborative research by both of us. We concluded, contrary to what my 100-year aunt said, her grandmother was of a Hopper descendant. This knowledge extended my tree by two generations.”
Charles has also made “connections and established relationships” with cousins of varying degrees, discovered unexpected genetic kinship with fellow IAAGG members, and he’s found evidence supporting lore about his wife Shirley’s roots in North Carolina too.
Personally, I’m inspired by all that Charles has accomplished—not least of which is publishing three family history books and arranging family reunions. Even more, I admire his community volunteerism. In his professional career, Charles has always embraced opportunities to contribute his time and knowledge to help develop others. It’s no surprise that he took the same initiative with the IAAGG and now the DNA Discussion Group too.
“The history books, after over 400 years of subjugation of Africans and their African American descendants are just beginning to set the record straight,” Charles says. He embodies the mission statement of the IAAGG: “to help African Americans ‘Tell Our Story’.”
For details about the IAAGG and their virtual fall conference on September 19, 2020, see Indiana African American Genealogy Group – 2020 IAAGG Annual Genealogy Conference **Virtual via Zoom**. I’ve heard both speakers previously; they rock! DNA features prominently in the day’s sessions, and it’s easy to attend remotely. I’m looking forward to it!
(c) Aug 2020, Ann Raymont, CG®