Generation X (born 1964 - 1981)
Nicka Sewell-Smith was born in Harbor City, California. Both of her parents were raised in Chicago, Illinois. Her father was a supervisor at the Continental Baking Company/Wonder Bread, the only company for which he worked. He also had a second career as a barber. Her mother was born in Lake Providence, Louisiana and was a quality control technician working in a lab testing foods for contaminants before they went out to the public for consumption.
As a child, Nicka lived in Carson, Lakewood, and Moreno Valley, California. The youngest in a blended family with twenty-two years separating her from her oldest sibling, she grew up in a household with both of her parents and one sibling while she had three other siblings that lived out of the state. Her mother always kept her busy with activities like dance and cheerleading and Nicka’s father's love of music spilled over to her. She always had two things wherever we lived: animals (usually dogs) and a pool. Her parents were married for twenty-three years before her father died. She was always active in extracurricular activities in school ranging from cheer and dance to the newspaper and yearbook clubs, but schoolwork was always her first priority. She was in honors classes, part of the honor society, and graduated magna cum laude from high school. From an early age, Nicka was always into family and family history. One of the first memories she has was reading her family tree and asking her mother where all the kids that were her age lived.
Nicka attended Menlo College, earning a degree in Mass Communications. While at Menlo, she participated in many activities on a campus where she was one of a few students of color. Nicka was a resident assistant for two years, part of the campus radio station, and editor of the college paper. She also participated in cheer and pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.
She graduated just months before September 11, thus proving a challenge to obtain employment in the communication industry. She began working in healthcare at the largest private healthcare system in the country in medical staff credentialing which was a precursor to her work as a professional genealogist. If she was curious about whether she could learn to do something, she would try to figure it out using her family history project which has now been run by her since 1999. She achieved her dream of having relatives search for their names online and find the family website she built, well before the practice was commonplace.
In 2010, Nicka launched her website www.whoisnickasmith.com and in 2014, she founded the show BlackProGen LIVE as a resource for those interested in people of color genealogy. She has filmed over 120 episodes over the last six years and has helped scores of people dig deeper into their family history. In 2017, Nicka became a consultant with Ancestry which has led to her working with everyday people to celebrities such as Dionne Warwick and appearing on different shows such as:
- Who Do You Think You Are (Regina King)
- TODAY Show (Al Roker)
- CNN (Calvin Osborne)
- MSNBC (Simone Boyce).
She has also been a guest for a host of interviews.
Nicka has been honored with the Ida B. Wells Service Award, Sons and Daughters of the Middle Passage and the Elizabeth Clark-Lewis Genealogy Award, Afro American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS).
Nicka describes her most significant life accomplishments as tracing the descendants of 250 enslaved people on plantations in Louisiana and Mississippi that helped to build a $24 million empire with more than 5,000 people (living and dead) tied to the community and 300 who have DNA tested, confirming the last slaveholder of her Atlas ancestors and tracing her family tree to nearly 4,000 people (living and dead), and having more than 100 family members DNA tested.
She enjoys sewing and making clothes. She is also an avid gardener, having an active spring and summer garden, which includes growing the crops of her ancestors.
Nicka is married and has one son.
Oral History Summary
Nicka Smith: Ancestry consultant, Cherokee slave owner’s descendant, Nation citizen.
Nicka discusses attaining her Cherokee Nation citizenship; being a descendant of Cherokee Old Settler Chief John Rogers Jr. who by force, reproduced with her 4th great grandmother Annie May, of African descent and enslaved by another Cherokee, resulting in their daughter Martha May who became a teacher; Martha’s son, Isaac Rogers, enlisting in the 1st Kansas U.S. Colored Troops, the first black regiment to suffer deaths in Civil War, working for a "hanging judge" in Arkansas, capturing outlaw Cherokee Bill who was later hung, then, Bill's brother shooting and killing Isaac on a train platform in Indian Territory in 1897; her paternal ancestors enslaved by a founder of Amherst College and the father of Ole Miss; President Andrew Jackson's niece buying a share of her enslaved 3rd great grandfather, King Atlas, who was owned by a lawyer in Jackson's family, Atlas being allowed to keep in profits from hiring himself out while enslaved by his progressive slave owner who was against secession and poor treatment; contrasting with 5th great grandparents Sago's and Fatima's slaveholder and Harvard graduate, Israel Trask, profiting and living off loan interest from their enslavement while living in Massachusetts and his daughter marrying into an abolitionist family; and Revolutionary War patriot Richard Field, a European from Virginia, marrying Susanna Emory, a Cherokee. Nicka talks about growing up in Southern California; her audiophile father teaching her to swim and having lots of animals; participating in cheerleading, dance, honor society, in high school with yearbook and newspaper clubs helping her decide to major in journalism; attending Menlo College in the San Francisco Bay area with affluent classmates, being one of few blacks on an academic scholarship, having a radio show, and participating in cheerleading, newspaper, talent shows and joining Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc; her father passing a month before graduating college; her job verifying doctors' credentials, like medical genealogy; recovering from dad's passing by researching his family; seeing family tree as a child then expanding it to 50 feet; leveraging family research skills, producing family websites and publications, to prove journalism capabilities, landing a health policy communications position; consulting for Ancestry, producing Black ProGen LIVE genealogy web series and a podcast, writing, doing reveals for individuals and celebrities, appearing on TV's "Who Do You Think You Are?", consulting for TV pitches and individuals hitting brick walls; interest in sewing and gardening, growing crops of ancestors; maternal family including Freedom Riders and an ancestor who testified for U.S. Civil Rights Commission; Isaac Rogers, marrying Sarah Vann, a Cherokee and not enslaved; slavery as a national system; pursuing DAR since she was also applying for Cherokee Nation citizenship, both requiring the same documentation; Uncle Ben, Cherokee brother of Sarah Vann, listing family and leading to patriot on his application for Trail of Tears compensation; Uncle Ben denied rights in Cherokee Nation being on Freedman roll not listing blood quantum although his grandfather was by blood; choosing Cherokee line to join DAR; joining to add credibility to research, show black ancestry is more than slavery, and on behalf of ancestors who couldn't stake their claim; standing proxy for those who will come after her into DAR; black and East Indian friends helping with her application; joining a Tennessee DAR chapter having members with an ancestor who served as Deputy Marshall with Isaac Rogers; chapter service awards to people of color in community feeling like they were preparing for day she would get there ; “My own history is important and the fabric of what makes nation what it is ...it is varied, complicated, painful, beautiful but it is me and it is us, that's our strength.”
Nicka Sewell-Smith's oral history was recorded on December 13, 2020