kinkofa founders Jourdan Brunson and Tameshia Rudd-Ridge

When Jourdan Brunson and Tameshia Rudd-Ridge first met, they shared a background in tech and bonded over an interest in researching their family histories. Then they discovered they were cousins and were inspired to help make life-changing connections like theirs more readily accessible to others looking to find “their people.”

43% of Black Americans have explored their roots by talking to relatives about the past.

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The founders of genealogy startup kinkofa are far from alone in their passion for learning more about their family trees. According to a 2022 Pew Research Center study, 43% of Black Americans have explored their roots by talking to relatives about the past, conducting online research, or using a DNA testing service.

But those efforts are often thwarted by incomplete records and systems and services that don’t accommodate the unique challenges of tracing family lines back to and through the time of slavery. For instance, African Americans were included in national census records only from 1870, creating what many genealogists have dubbed a “brick wall” for researchers trying to go back further in time.

Established in 2021, kinkofa aims to help clear the log jams by providing a centralized clearing house-cum-community center for Black family historians. And that matters because knowing your past isn’t just an interesting hobby; it’s fundamentally important as it relates to health, culture, and the future.

Rudd-Ridge points to communities in places like Africatown near Mobile, Alabama, where there is a high incidence of cancer among descendants of those brought to America in 1860 on the Clotilda, the last known slave ship. “What are some of the epigenetic and genetic things that are making this particular area have it?” she asks. “Is that tied to environmental things? Is that something that’s passed down? Is that a mutation?”

Then there’s the danger of missing out on potential innovation “because we don’t know the stories of the people who have been lost to history,” she says. “You can’t be what you can’t see . . . It’s important that we understand where we came from to understand where we’re going. You can’t plan for the future without knowing your past.”

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Providing solutions

Though Alex Haley’s famed 1970s book and TV series Roots sparked a wave of interest in genealogy, “from that point to the present day there really hasn’t been a tool, a service that accommodates the specific journey Black folks have been on in uncovering our family histories,” says Brunson.

Even with her background in tech, when Rudd-Ridge started researching her family online she found it to be “an awful user experience . . . I would be really frustrated by how hard it was to understand.” Plus, some of the ugly realities of history got glossed over by some ancestry sites: “In particular, if you know that you have a grandmother who was forcibly impregnated during enslavement, you have to basically list that grandmother as a spouse in your family tree to put them there. It’s really gross.”

Recognizing that much genealogy work currently occurs in separate pockets, Brunson and Rudd-Ridge began by creating a trial database where people could share their different findings and cross-reference them. It resulted in more than 30,000 connections, with participants learning about relatives for the first time. “There’s been exchange of information, in-person meetings, [even] companies formed” as a result, says Brunson. “Just imagine the sort of personal transformation and larger impacts that can be had just by a simple conversation and finding out that you’re connected to someone.”

Among those who have discovered new family connections—including Brunson and Rudd-Ridge as her cousins—is Shana Wolfe-Augustus, a legislative auditor in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who devotes much of her spare time to researching her family “because time is not always on our side.” Kinkofa has “listened to the many concerns of our community and created a platform that could be useful to our research,” she says.

That includes the Black Cemeteries, which aims to help document and preserve burial sites that are in danger of being lost to land development, along with their important informational links to the past. “One of the challenges in researching our families is not knowing when ancestors died or where they are buried,” says Wolfe-Augustus, who regularly visits Mississippi’s state archives to pull death records. “This often prevents us from tracing our families back further.”

Margo Falls, a senior care coordinator in Sacramento, California, turned to kinkofa for help in researching her family after the death of her father in 2020. DNA testing and building a family tree led her to her paternal great-grandparents in Slidell, Louisiana. She discovered not only Mexican but Creole and African American lineage. “This was a question of my ethnicity finally answered,” she says. “The solutions kinkofa is building are a blessing for all of us.”

Raja’Nee Redmond, a communications and special projects associate at Vocal Justice, in Chicago, began researching her family history while in high school but had been stalled in her efforts until she connected with Brunson and Rudd-Ridge. With guidance she was able to find documents, including a land deed and a will that were “major breakthroughs.”

The information had been available online for years, she says, “and all I needed was to learn where to look and how to use these tools. I believe there is something to find for everyone, and we just need the knowledge, resources, and guidance to be able to do it. Kinkofa offers that and so much more.”

Losing history

The COVID-19 pandemic both heightened interest in family history research and highlighted the urgency of it. More people turned to online archives to learn about their families as a way of passing the time during lockdown, with reports of a 25% increase in searches of some state digital archives. Meanwhile, the death toll among elderly COVID patients increased the loss of many of the Black community’s unofficial family archivists.

“We’ve lost a lot of history recently in the form of older folks passing away, and so I think there’s an onus on all of us to think about what stories do we have that are worth preserving and discovering, and talking to those elders in your life and realizing that humanity is only here for a limited amount of time,” Brunson says. “We have to preserve these stories and this history in this moment, and I think younger people are really taking that mission up.”

There does appear to be growing interest in the importance of family history among younger people: that Pew study found that half of Black people under 30 have talked about family history with relatives. Brunson believes that uptick is fueled in part by concerns about the way what’s being taught as history is being restricted in schools. “And so, I think younger folks, students, are taking it upon themselves to discover the history they’re a part of.”

In addition, technology makes it easier for them to get involved. “Perhaps 30, 40 years ago you were having to be head-first in an archive, looking at microfilms, and now you can access that information from anywhere.”

With a nod to the ‘Sankofa’ proverb of the Akan peoples of Ghana and Ivory Coast, which champions learning from the past and moving forward, Brunson and Rudd-Ridge came up with the name kinkofa (the lack of capitalization reflects African language conventions) which broadly means, “Go get your kin.”

The company’s new DNA testing service, debuting this fall, traces both maternal and paternal heritages, unlike other tests that follow only one line. Anyone who has results from other DNA testing services can upload the details to the kinkofa site for cross-matching. Users can collaborate on building a shared family tree. Other resources include Rememory, a tool for recording and preserving family histories, with guided questions for topics like grandparents, parents, communities, and family reunions.

By making the kinkofa tools user-friendly, they hope to encourage intergenerational involvement in projects between older family members, those with the information, and younger ones who know how to use technology to capture it.

Kinkofa’s mission prompted a social impact partnership with Descendant, the Netflix documentary from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground production company that traces the story of the Clotilda families. The film’s website highlights how kinkofa can help individuals preserve their family histories.

Brunson and Rudd-Ridge are also working on a documentary of their own, in partnership with nonprofit Remembering Black Dallas. With funding from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, the film will tell the story of a freedmen’s community in Dallas where some of the historic homes are in danger of being lost to development.

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Finding connection

Personal interest in family history primed both Brunson and Rudd-Ridge for their new initiative, and previous work experiences prepared them for it. A business administration and applied science graduate of the Illinois Institute of Technology, Brunson started his career in “providing access to different resources in the form of tech” at Lyft. That was followed by spells at several startups, always centered on “connecting the resource to the people who need it.”

Rudd-Ridge followed her studies in International Relations and African and African American studies at the University of Arkansas with a master’s in communication and media there. She lived in Africa for several years, including time in Rwanda where she interned at the First Lady of Rwanda’s office and foundation, working on community programming and fundraising.

For Rudd-Ridge, her surprise connection with Brunson illustrates what kinkofa is all about. Through discovering their family links, she first learned about Clora Bryant, a Los Angeles-based jazz musician who played with Josephine Baker and Billie Holiday back in the day and who was Rudd-Ridge’s great-grandmother’s cousin.

“Listening to oral histories that I’ve found, I just have this connection to her,” Rudd-Ridge says. “She was fearless in the time of Jim Crow . . . her house and all of her records were ruined during the riots in Watts, and she still had a joy and [a will] to keep going and keep making a difference in a field like music that didn’t always give her the respect that she was due. So, I’m very inspired by her story.”

In addition to inspiring a new business, Rudd-Ridge’s surprise family connection with Brunson has “given me a deeper sense of knowing,” she says. “I’ve been very fortunate to gain a cousin and a co-founder, and I don’t think a lot of people get to say that. We’ve learned a lot about each other; we’ve met each other’s family members, our shared family members. I’ve done a lot of things I’ve wanted to do in my life, but this feels the most full circle . . . probably the most right thing I’m supposed to be doing.”

For Brunson, Rudd-Ridge has helped him dream bigger. “She really helped me to see a path that was much further ahead,” he says. “My life has changed a lot. I was already on my own personal family history journey, and now we’re on this journey that helps so many other people. That’s been really cool.”

While kinkofa has initially focused on helping bring Black families together, it has a broader vision. “Once we solve this for Black folks, we have opportunities to do [the same] in culturally affirming ways for indigenous people . . . the Latinx diaspora, the Asian diaspora. We’re not the only people that go through this, but there’s a very specific pain and harm that has to be fixed for Black people first,” says Rudd-Ridge.

The family dislocation caused by conflicts and climate issues forcing people away from their communities is only going to increase the numbers of people “searching for who they are,” she adds. “So, we really have the opportunity right now to build the most inclusive digital family history and genealogy company that exists.”

JOURDAN BRUNSON: MY WAYMAKERS

I had the fortune of both living with and spending a lot of time with all of my grandparents who were living. I got to learn a lot of life’s lessons from them and also learned a little bit about their stories. All of my grandparents had entrepreneurial paths, and I got to learn about the difficulties of that, but also the triumphs and thrives… it’s something that I try to carry with me every day, even at the most celebratory and difficult moments. Having gotten both that ancestral piece, or connection to them, but also the practical lessons from life from my grandparents has been super-rewarding for me.

TAMESHIA RUDD-RIDGE: MY WAYMAKER

My mom was probably the most important. I’ve wanted to understand my family more because I know that she went through so much childhood trauma that she didn’t want me to go through, so I could have the most joyful childhood… One of the best gifts she gave me was, if in kindergarten I knew I wanted to be the first lady or I wanted to be the president or I wanted to be a garbage man, she never told me that I could not do any of those things. She would always tell me to figure it out… I think I got from that learning that I kind of have an unfathomable confidence in myself, that I’m able to figure [something] out and do it, whether I have the full resources to do it today or not.