Jameel Reese expected to spend his summer swimming, hanging out, goofing off with friends. Instead, he spent it finding family.
Jameel discovered his great-great-great-grandfather by -- of all things -- going to camp. He and six other black children ages 7 to 15 attended Youth Genealogy Camp, which seeks to nurture an appreciation for the struggles of those who came before them.
"He was trained to be a casket maker while he was still a slave," the soft-spoken 12-year-old said of his ancestor. "He was sold when he was 11. He must have cried a lot then."
The month-long day camp is the brainchild of Antoinette Harrell-Miller, founder of the nonprofit African American Genealogy Connection.
"So many kids have no idea of their own history," she said. "They don't stop and think about how their family got here or how they lived."
Harrell-Miller discussed the idea of the camp on her local public-access cable TV show, "Knowing Your Family History." She and a group of parents financed the camp, spending about $1,200 on this first year.
"Parents started calling me and saying they wanted their kids to attend," she said.
The campers pored over records in the library and the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University. They also visited cemeteries and older relatives and went to parish courthouses.
They dug through birth and death certificates, deeds, registrations, and voting lists.
"We took them to federal and state offices so they could learn how to get records," Harrell-Miller said. "The thrust of the camp was to teach them how and where to get information."
Younger campers, who might have struggled with some of the more difficult searches, were asked to bring pictures of relatives from home.
"It's pretty rough to have to get up early in the summer and drag yourself down to the library, but it was worth it," said Jordan Rock, 12. "I found out about 'Wild Man' Rock, who was a Mardi Gras Indian master. And L.C. Beauregard -- he was in my family, and he was a mulatto policeman in the 1880s."
As fascinated as Jordan was with his ancestors, his 15-year-old sister, Amandia, was even more amazed by the discovery of a white member of the family tree.
"She was my father's great-great-great-grandmother," Amandia said. "I was shocked. I never thought of myself as being white in any way."
Akanke McKinsey, 10, said she thought the camp might be boring, but it wasn't: "It was like reading a story about me."
Akanke proudly displayed a picture of a 1910 federal grand jury that shows her ancestor Homer Cyprien. "He was the first black man invited to sit on a federal grand jury in Louisiana," she said.
Discoveries like that, and the sense of family history they give a child, are important for the city of New Orleans, said Mayor Ray Nagin.
"This may be one of the keys for unlocking what is one of the biggest problems in our city," he said. "Our young men, more than anyone else, need to know their history. They are the ones dropping out of school and getting into drugs and crime and shooting each other."
Harrell-Miller said she welcomes white campers next summer. She said it is easier for people with European ancestors to trace their genealogy because records have been better preserved.
Harrell-Miller has backed a bill filed by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) that would establish a national archive for the preservation of vital records relating to slaves and their descendants.
"I thought about it when I went to Ellis Island," Harrell-Miller said. "There were records there for people of European descent to discover their heritage, but where do African Americans go?"
Records are now scattered in courthouses, county seats and historical societies, she said.
"Many times they have been lost or destroyed," Harrell-Miller said. "We need to have a central place for them before more are lost."
Meanwhile, the camp has created some junior genealogists.
"I've done my family tree on my father's side," said Sarauniya Zulu, 7. "It was a lot of work, and I still have to do my mother's side."