Former instructor an expert in genealogy


Carefully straightening the precious contents of a manila folder, Thirkelle Harris Howard sat with the poise and confidence of a well-researched historian. Civil wars and scientific theories did not grace the pages of her file, but rather lists of ancestors and family trees. Howard is an expert historian on her past.

However, the former K-State instructor of genealogy and family history did not always know about her ancestors. When she was a sophomore at Wichita East High School, her social studies teacher assigned the class to fill out an ancestry tree. While her classmates brought back pages and pages of family history, Howard – the only African-American child in her class – struggled to fill just one page. But 45 years later, one never would have guessed it.

At first, Howard contacted as many known relatives as she could, asking for information about their parents and grandparents. But coming from a long line of slaves, her family knew very little about their past.

“My granddad was a slave in Tennessee, and I knew his last name was Harris,” she said, “but my dad never knew his father’s sisters and brothers because his father didn’t know them. My granddad died in 1923 when my father was still young, and there was just no information.”

A young Howard continued to ask her oldest aunts, uncles and cousins about their elders, determined to find out where she and her family had come from – a curiosity that eventually sparked a passion that still burns today.

In addition to teaching genealogy courses, Howard was the director of the multicultural engineering program at K?State for eight years and the administrator for the Kansas Department on Aging in Topeka for 10 years prior to that. Now that she is retired – she let out a chuckle, “Retired? I’ll never really be retired.” – Howard is volunteering at the Manhattan Public Library leading genealogy-help classes once a month to assist others in their family-history quest.

Linda Henderson, research department employee at the library, helped Howard set up the classes and said she was very pleased with the first class last Tuesday.

“Everybody was there with different skills, different talents and different questions and Thirkelle did a great job,” Henderson said. “She wants to be able to help as many people as she can.”

In the classes, Howard guides attendees through genealogical Web sites like and She said she believes one of the best resources for uncovering your deep roots is the Internet.

But when Howard began her quest, her family was stumped and there were no computers, so it was not as simple as clicking through a few links. Instead, she turned to the U.S. Census.

Every 10 years, the government conducts the household surveys. Howard said public census records are available from 1930 back to 1780, when the census first began.

However, prior to 1860, many blacks were considered property and not free citizens. Howard said she has had to look at property records from her ancestors’ slave masters – the same way you would look up livestock – to find clues to her past. But soon enough, the computer was made popular and shortly after, the World Wide Web.

Howard said in some cases, she has been able to find the location of her ancestors’ plantations and who their slave owners were but still needed some extra help. She said she began posting information on, asking people to respond if they were related in any way. Almost immediately, Howard began receiving e-mails.

“Since more African Americans were brought here as slaves and have been here since 1820, we have at least seven, eight, or nine generations of family members that are here,” she said. “Most African Americans are at least seventh or eighth cousins in this country – it’s just a matter of finding out where they lived.”

After decades of research, Howard is truly a master at her craft, now able to speak with knowledge and confidence about who she is, where she came from and where she has yet to go.

“Learning more about my family and the history of Africa gives you more of an insight to why you are the way you are,” Thirkelle said. “There’s a saying that says you have to know the past – which is your ancestors, in order to understand the present – which is you, in order to change or improve upon the future. If you don’t know the past, you don’t really know why you are the way you are.”

She said family history is one of the most popular things for people to look up online.

‘Most people have about between 100 and 150 thousand living relatives,” Howard said. “How many of them do you know?”