The moment he saw her, Floyd Harris stretched his arms open and embraced the sister he never knew. He held her close for a few moments and rocked from side to side.
Gripping her cane, Emma Lee Harris Thomas hugged Harris back with one arm, a wide grin spread so far across her face that her cheeks forced her eyes shut.
"I'm so glad to see you," said Harris, 74, as he held his new sister close. Another sister stood close by wiping tears from her face. "We have been looking for you."
"This is a miracle," Thomas, 77, of Georgia, said later. "I'm very overwhelmed. I am so happy."
For decades the Harris siblings and Thomas lived far apart and didn't even know each other. But they were able to connect recently when relatives on both sides of their family tree discovered each other while researching their ancestry online.
Thomas never knew she had other siblings through her father — a man she had never met. The 10 Harris siblings knew about Thomas because their father often talked about her, but they never knew how to find her.
The siblings met for the first time, after more than 70 years apart, in south suburban Harvey last month.
Once rare, meetings like the one between the Harris siblings and Thomas are becoming more common as more families research their roots, experts said.
In recent years, there has been a growing interest among Americans to research their family histories and verify their family origins using online tools, said Matthew Deighton, a spokesman for ancestry.com.
"What attracts people to family history the most is … they find a story and a connection to their country that is only applicable to them," Deighton said. "That personal connection is what brings people back and what makes people interested."
According to ancestry.com, 87 percent of Americans surveyed said they are interested in studying their family lineage, Deighton said. There are 1.7 million subscribers to the service, which charges a monthly fee for access to birth, death, census records and other archived information.
Now that records are online and more accessible, relatives are able to find one another in a way they weren't able before, he said.
"It used to take thousands of miles of traveling and weeks of searching records," Deighton said. "Now these records can be accessed from home. It's much faster and much simpler."
The Harris siblings and Thomas are African-American. And for African-Americans, there is a special curiosity about family genealogy, said Thomas C. Holt, a professor of American and African-American history at the University of Chicago.
During slavery, African-Americans were separated from their blood relatives and weren't allowed to keep in touch with family. After the Civil War and during the Great Migration, many black families made it a point to stay connected to relatives, despite the distance and obstacles.
"For African-Americans, we don't have the records from Ellis Island telling the root origin of our families," Holt said. "In some sense that has always piqued our curiosity about our roots in this country.
"Feeling cut off may stimulate people's imagination and desire. There's a long-standing theme in African-American history of people trying to track their family roots," Holt said.
As the Harris siblings grew up and created lives for themselves in the Chicago area, their sister Emma was one family mystery that their father would never let them forget.
Somewhere in the world, Manuel Harris would tell them, the clan had another sister.
Family tree finds a lost branch
A long-lost sister is found thanks to online genealogy searches
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