| Photo by Steven Halperson/TISARA Photography|
Char Bar would like to be remembered for helping people who did not know their history find it, giving them their past, and making their future brighter.
By Christa Watters
ALEXANDRIA, VA. - Char McCargo Bah has a passion for Alexandria’s African American history and genealogy. Through her research, speaking, and writing on this topic, she has made a lasting contribution to our city.
Bah has researched and reported on the background of Alexandria’s African American Community for more than thirty years. She had a pivotal role in the publication of African Americans of Alexandria Virginia – Beacons of Light in the Twentieth Century (History Press, 2013), which she co-authored with four other volunteers. Believing the research and writing done in conjunction with a project for the Charles Houston Recreation Center to honor Alexandria African Americans could become a book, she found a publisher.
She shepherded the group through writing the book proposal and marketing plan, which was accepted. Bah served as primary genealogical researcher for the book, which features the narratives of 63 African Americans who made a difference in the City during the years 1920 to 1965. It is the first substantial book of African American history of its kind published about Alexandria. It was Bah’s idea that all author royalties and all profits from the sale of the book within the City’s museum shops should go to the Office of Historic Alexandria to fund future African American History projects through the Alexandria Black History Museum.
Char McCargo was born in Alexandria on February 9, 1957 to Jasper Lee McCargo (deceased in 1978) and Bernice Scott McCargo. She grew up in the Parker Gray District with four siblings. A 1975 graduate of T.C. Williams High school, Bah graduated from the University of the District of Columbia in 1982 with a bachelor’s degree in Urban Studies. In 1983, she received a second BA in African American History.
It was during her college years that Bah first realized how much she didn’t know about the history of her people. She became determined to learn more. In the late 1970s, she read Alex Haley’s book, Roots, and watched the televised miniseries based on it. It was the first time she realized that African Americans, even those who came from former slave families, could find their family roots and history. Around that same time, she and her family took a walking tour of Alexandria sites during Black History Month, organized by the Alexandria Black History Museum. That tour, which revealed so much history previously unknown to her, was a further spur to learning more about Alexandria’s past. “It was one of those ‘Oh wow!’ moments,” she recalled recently.
What started as a hobby quickly became a passion, and she immersed herself in studying how to become a genealogist, taking courses and earning certificates in legal investigation, research, editing, and publishing. She has been a student of the University of Toronto since 2011 in the advanced genealogy and methodology program.
Bah’s primary career is with the Federal government, where she began working in 1975. She left the Federal government for eight years in the 1980s, working as a contractor for MCI Telecommunications, the Brookings Institution, and the World Bank, including a stint in Sierra Leone, West Africa, from 1987 to 1989. There, she and her husband and their young daughter lived with her husband’s family and learned its traditions. Bah recorded oral histories of the ethnic groups of her husband’s home country. In 1989, she returned to the Federal government, where she is now a policy writer in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Her second career, as a genealogist, grew out of her passion for African American history and the individuals who made it. As she began to succeed at her new craft, she was inspired by people’s reactions. “They took such pride in knowing where they came from and who their people were, even ordinary people,” she said. Sometimes there were stories of great successes among their ancestors. Other times, she uncovered darker stories. “It all contributes to completing the picture of their family history,” she said.
Bah offered workshops and lectures at the Alexandria Black History Museum beginning in 1995, working as a volunteer until recently, when the museum began paying her to help with public inquiries about genealogy. From 1999 to 2005 she facilitated the Alexandria chapter of the Go On Girl Book Club at the Museum. The club is a national organization focused on reading works by African American authors.
Also through the museum, she worked on Hayti, a newsletter about Alexandria’s historically black neighborhoods. Out of that grew her blog, The Other Alexandria, about the projects she researches on Alexandria history: Parker Gray, the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery, African American churches, and other topics. She also lectures across the country on her Alexandria research, and has often been interviewed on radio and television concerning her work in genealogy. Bah recently joined the Alexandria Society for the Preservation of Black Heritage, which provides support to the Alexandria Black History Museum. She serves as membership chair.
Bah began volunteering with the Friends of the Freedmen’s Cemetery in 1997. Based on her work in genealogy, she was hired in 2008 by Dr. Pamela Cressey, then Alexandria’s City Archaeologist, to help find descendants of the people buried in the Freedmen’s Cemetery. For nearly 20 years, the city had put out queries asking Alexandrians if they knew of any African American ancestors who were in Alexandria prior to the Civil War and might have been buried in that cemetery, but only one family was found.
Cressey recalls that the day after hiring Bah and presenting her with a list of 1700 family names, Bah called back and said she had identified 50 to 100 family names that she recognized as possibly being descendants. Within two weeks Bah’s genealogical research verified four more families. Since then, she has found the families of 130 of the deceased. Last year the City renewed Bah’s contract to lead the continuing genealogical quest for descendants of people buried there.
Cressey said that thanks to Bah’s research, the bronze tablets at the Alexandria Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery will have Descendant Family markers placed on the names of those buried there for whom descendants have been identified.
“Sometimes in life you have to stand for something that is meaningful and that can impact someone in a positive way. I would like to be remembered for helping people who did not know their history find it, giving them their past, and making their future brighter,” Bah said, reflecting on why she spends so much time on genealogical research and gives so much time to volunteer efforts above and beyond her paid contracts.
Char is married to Mumini M. Bah, whom she met in 1972, when he was an undergraduate student in this country. They have a grown daughter, Maimoona Bah-Duckenfield, who is married to Dwayne Duckenfield.
On October 22, 2013, the Alexandria Archaeological Commission awarded Char Bah the 2013 Ben Brenman Archaeology Award for Outstanding Genealogy for her work on the Alexandria Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery.
Audrey Davis, acting director of the Alexandria Black History Museum, nominated Bah as a Living Legend. “Char Bah made a lasting contribution to our city through her genealogical research and pivotal role in the publication of African Americans of Alexandria, Virginia – Beacons of Light in the Twentieth Century. She has helped give prominence to Alexandria’s African American history,” Davis said.
Living Legends of Alexandria is an ongoing 501(c)(3) photo-documentary project to identify, honor and chronicle the people making current history in Alexandria. The project was conceived in 2006 to create an enduring artistic record of the people whose vision and dedication make a positive, tangible difference to the quality of life in Alexandria. Platinum and Gold sponsors this year are the Alexandria Commission for the Arts, Alexandria Toyota, Club Managers Association of America Gregg & Monica Murphy on behalf of Senior Services of Alexandria, Linda Hafer, Goodwin House, Inc. and Nina Tisara. This is one of a series of profiles that will appear this year. For information, to volunteer, become a sponsor or nominate a future Legend, visit www.AlexandriaLegends.com or contact Legends@AlexandriaLegends.com.