Aaron Day has traced his roots back to the days of slavery and has also penned a book about the black history of Long Beach.
Aaron Day has traced his roots back to the days of slavery and has also penned a book about the black history of Long Beach. (Scott Varley/Staff Photographer)
To most of us it's just a little cup and saucer not worth much.

But, to Aaron Day, it's a family treasure - a link to his past, helping him understand who he is and where he came from.

"When I was a little boy, my great-grandmother showed me and my brothers a miniature tea set she had been given as a birthday gift when she was a little girl," Day said. "She said it brought her good luck. She had a special shelf in the living room for her treasured set."

When Day's great-grandmother died, the set was broken up and distributed to different family members. Day's mother got one of the cups and saucers and often told the story of the lucky tea set to visitors until she died 32 years ago.

That cup and saucer with a floral design, manufactured in the 19th Century in Germany and passed down through six generations of the Day family, now has a special spot in Day's living room in Long Beach.

Like Day, I think we all have similar family items that don't mean much to others but are priceless treasures to us. I have an old, orange ceramic Fiesta bowl in which my grandmother used to make Jell-O that I devoured as a boy growing up in Chicago. My siblings gave it to me as a birthday present because they knew how much it meant to me, a link to my past just as Day's cup and saucer is to his.

Day tells his cup-and-saucer story with pride, just one of the many stories he has discovered in his quest to learn about his ancestors. Day made his living as an accountant, but he has had a second life as a genealogist, an author and a lecturer chronicling not only his personal family history but also the black community.

He and Indira Hale Tucker have co-edited an excellent book, "The Heritage of African Americans in Long Beach." Working in association with the Long Beach African American Heritage Society, Day and Tucker compiled a rich history of the African American community in Long Beach, including interesting census information going back to 1900.

The book is dedicated to the pioneers who came to Long Beach "with a sense of adventure, seeking economic opportunity and less oppression," and to the activists "who fought for a more just society by founding civil rights groups, organizing petitions and protests, participating in civic life and running for political office."

Day said he and Tucker produced the book to document and preserve the past and present history of African Americans in Long Beach.

"We want future generations to know their history. They paved the way for us. We stand on their shoulders," he said. The book is a wonderful read anytime but especially during Black History Month.

Day's journey into his family's past was motivated years ago when he realized that he knew very little about his father, James H. Day, and his ancestors.

"I wanted to know our family history because learning about our ancestors and their accomplishments gives us a sense of pride; their pioneering efforts have made many things easier for us and, most of all, our children need to know their heritage," Day said.

Day was born in 1939 and grew up in the small town of Xenia, Ohio, northeast of Dayton.

"There were restaurants where we could not eat," he recalls. "There were neighborhoods we were able to work in, but could not live in." He was in the last class of the segregated East High School where he was editor of the school newspaper and co-editor of the yearbook.

Day has seen his share of discrimination and bias against blacks. In 1964 he graduated from the Dayton Technical Institute, the only black in the class.

"I will always remember being told by one of the students, `I don't know why you are bothering to take this class; you know you are not going to be able to get a job.' I was very proud of my classmates who came to my defense. They told me not to pay any attention to him."

Day moved to Los Angeles and not only got good jobs, but he became the first black instructor at a mail-order company, the first black administrator at a San Diego bank and the first black supervisor at an electronics company. 

He retired in 1998 but he already had started working as a volunteer with the Long Beach Public Library teaching reading and almost anything else he was asked to do. He became so well-known in Long Beach libraries he acquired the nickname, Mr. Library. Day started reading as a little boy and, to this day, is a voracious reader.

In digging into his family history, Day became something of a detective finding clues here and there in putting together pieces of information from the census, court documents and many other sources in solving his family puzzle.

One of the things he had discovered was that many of his ancestors were free long before the Civil War ended in 1865. His traditional genealogical research also helped him trace back to Rachel Day, his great-great-great-great-grandmother who was born around 1760. He had also discovered records that give him the possibility of connecting to three generations beyond her to Virginia and 1692.

But in all his research something kept nagging at Day. What about his African roots? How could he research that?

In 2001 Day came upon invaluable information in his quest. That's when he first heard about a link between DNA and genealogical research. In 2005 he attended the Pan African Festival in Los Angeles and learned that the African Ancestry Company had compiled a database of more than 22,000 DNA samples representing 135 African population groups.

Day sent a sample of his DNA by taking a swab in his mouth and sending it to the African Ancestry laboratories.

In six weeks he received the results. The report said that Day's paternal ancestry traced back to Liberia and his maternal ancestry traced back to Nigeria.

"I had finally traced my bloodlines to Africa," Day said. "It was a wonderful feeling to learn about my African ancestry. As you can imagine, I could hardly contain my enthusiasm that day. I wanted to tell everyone. My phone bill was higher than usual that month."

This DNA research has resulted in another book written by Day, "DNA to Africa: The Search Continues."

As Day's search continues, he encourages others to trace their roots.

"Many people think that tracing their ancestry is too difficult a task. It's not," Day said. "There is so much information available now. And the rewards are so great. There is a certain healing that takes place, too, in the search of one's self."

Day's No. 1 tip in starting your genealogical journey: Just do something, anything. It might be something as simple as talking to family members and writing down their stories. There are many other sources on the Internet.

If you get really stuck or just feel overwhelmed on how to proceed, you can always call Day at 562-335-8595. He said he would be glad to help.

Don't forget to ask him about his great-grandmother's cup and saucer.


rich.archbold@presstelegram.com, 562-499-1285, http://twitter.com/richarchbold1