Standing a head taller in a crowd than the next person, you can’t miss him! Perhaps you already know Thom Reed, one of FamilySearch’s Deputy Chief Genealogical Officers. He’s known for being a key ambassador and liaison for FamilySearch to organizations and associations that promote and provide resources for African American genealogy, culture, and history.
Thom’s Formative Years
Like many people, Thom’s sense of identity is unique and has been refined over the years. When he was younger, he wasn’t entirely comfortable with the designation of “African American” because technically, he is Japanese American, howbeit both of his parents are African American. You see, Thom was born in Japan and lived there for the first few years of his young life while his father was stationed at Tachikawa Air Force Base. He’d later return to Japan on his own for a few years (more on that a little later). His father considered the family’s time in Japan a high point in his career and spoke of Japan with fondness throughout Thom’s childhood. After his father’s tour in Japan finished, the family moved to California and then later to Illinois—the place Thom will say he is from.
The influence of living in starkly differing cultures in his youth has refined Thom’s art of diplomacy and ability to see and relate to multiple perspectives.
Even as a child, Thom possessed a natural ability to connect with people from all kinds of backgrounds and faiths. Like his father, he makes friends easily, values relationships and associations with people, and he accepts people unconditionally. Through one of these valued friendships, he learned about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although he grew up attending Baptist and non-denominational churches, in 1991 Thom joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
At 21, Thom applied to serve as a missionary for the Church and was pleasantly surprised to be assigned to labor in Japan—the place his family loved so dearly—and where he was born. He says his father was elated when he announced he was “going back home” to Japan when learning of his missionary assignment.
While in Japan, Thom refined his gift to share messages of faith, hope, and oneness and build relationships with those who believed differently and came from different walks of life. Thom discovered that he could deliver a more meaningful message when he knew and understood the people he served. This experience prepared him for the work he does now as he works to understand people, to help provide inspiring family history experiences to them, and to connect communities.
Building a Career
Thom Reed’s career path has not been a direct one. He admits in retrospect that a Higher Power has been guiding his journey and providing him with experiences for his current role.
Thom graduated from Illinois State University with a marketing degree, and later from Brigham Young University with an MBA. He worked in consumer product marketing at several reputable companies, but like many others, lost his job in the economic crash of 2008.
Scrambling to find work, Thom eventually found a position that required him to relocate to Utah. On the cusp of making the move from Illinois to Utah with his young family and little spare cash, he recounts the story how the family minivan died and was beyond repair the night before he was supposed to tow it behind their U-Haul. Miraculously, upon arrival in Utah, he was gifted another minivan for a dollar, and he was able to make a smooth transition. His life has always been full of such tender mercies like this, and he credits heavenly influence in all accounts.
Rising above Set-Backs
In Utah, Thom joined a small, promising start-up company. He muses that it didn’t pan out and was part of a very low point in his life when it was difficult to land firm employment. With the help of an accelerated job search program for executives, he was able to develop new strategies and business contacts, and more doors of opportunity opened for him.
During this time, he was asked what he thought about working for FamilySearch, a global nonprofit genealogy organization. There was a partner marketing position open, and Thom’s experience made him a perfect candidate. As you can already guess, he was offered the job—setting him off on the path he’s on now.
Discovering His Roots—A Defining Experience
Working at FamilySearch, Thom’s interest in his ancestral roots was kindled, and he began researching his family history. His journey to self-discovery would lay the groundwork for his passion to help others have similar experiences. Like many descendants of enslaved ancestors, he found family lines dead-ended in Mississippi and Alabama with the 1870 census. Thom felt discouraged and took a break from researching his roots.
That changed when he was sent to Ghana on a work assignment to meet with local tribal leaders and develop training materials, as well as a program for preparing contractors to collect oral histories.
It was on this trip, in a dungeon in Ghana in West Africa—the historical final holding place where countless slaves were held captive preparatory for a treacherous journey across the Atlantic as part of the slave trade—that Thom ignited a burning desire to find his African roots. A photographer who accompanied Thom Reed and the team captured a tender moment as Thom touched the wall of the holding cell which would have housed as many as 2,000 African men, all destined for the same fate.
Thom came home from the trip and took a DNA test. It placed his ancestors in Cameroon and Nigeria. He announced his discovery in real-time as a Facebook live event. He was overwhelmed with the unanticipated emotion. It was raw and defining.
He is now committed to helping others to have such inspirational experiences, and it’s part of what gets him out of bed every morning. He shared a transformative moment of discovery and connection to ancestors that occurred on stage with LeVar Burton, a famous African American actor, who was invited to speak at the RootsTech 2017 conference for African Heritage Day. Thom was asked to present LeVar Burton with his family history records that had been researched by expert genealogists. Words hardly describe that moment and the impact it had on LaVar Burton, Thom, and everyone who witnessed that singular revelatory moment of joy and discovery about family. LeVar was overcome with emotion and could only utter as he gazed at the big screen behind him on stage depicting newfound ancestral roots, “Those are my people!”
Contributions to Family History
While African American outreach continues to be one of Thom’s key focuses, it isn’t his only role. If you’ve ever used FamilySearch Family Tree’s Partner Access links to resources on Ancestry.com, findmypast, MyHeritage, and other sites while doing your research, then you’ve benefitted from Thom’s work. He and his colleagues helped negotiate and put in place contracts and collaborative cross-links between different data systems that streamline your research and efficiently port sources into Family Tree from partner sites.
Thom also spearheaded the Freedmen’s Bureau Project. This year-long effort to index records from the Freedmen’s Bureau made over a million Civil War–era historical records fully searchable online for descendants of former slaves, poor whites, and other marginalized groups. For those who are looking beyond the 1870 census to African American Online Genealogy Records, the Freedmen’s Bureau records are rich in genealogical information.
For many years, Thom has played pivotal roles in carrying out various elements of RootsTech, the world’s largest family history celebration that takes place each year as an event but now also offers wonderful content all year long. For the first time in 2021, the conference was totally virtual, known as RootsTech Connect. The 2021 event included 39 sessions that pertained to African heritage family history and culture. If you missed the RootsTech event in real-time, you can view these sessions for free online.
Today, Thom’s days are most often spent developing partnerships, building relationships, and collaborating on projects that benefit family history and increase personal and family discovery and connections for others.
Creating Experiences that Connect
Thom wants everyone to have the same creative, inspiring family history experience that he had with LeVar Burton. You’ll hear him repeat “finding ancestors completes us,” a core truth he comes back to again and again. That is why Thom Reed is passionate about the work he does.
You, too, can become involved in African American family history by opting into FamilySearch’s African Heritage Newsletter that will keep you or someone you know abreast of the work FamilySearch is doing to help African Americans discover their heritage.
Visit also the African American Digital Bookshelf in the FamilySearch Wiki for an expanding anthology of digital books about specific African American ancestors.
For Black History Month and Juneteenth you will find fresh content on social media celebrating black history, genealogy, and culture in fresh exciting ways by following Thom Reed using his username @iamthomreed on all social media platforms.