BERKELEY -- Who are you? Who came before you? Are you sure?

More than 50 Alameda County students spent the past several months digging into their family histories and participated Saturday morning in a presentation on genealogies at the Malcolm X Elementary School called "Who Am I? Family Journeys."

The event's keynote speaker, retired San Francisco State University professor Wade Nobles, told several hundred people here that he considers himself to have been born in 1836.

That was the year "my great-great-great-grandfather was enslaved on a plantation in South Carolina," Nobles said. "My father's father was a slave."

"Who we are did not die in slavery. It did not die in poverty. It did not die in prison," said Nobles, who is African American and Director of the Institute for the Advance Studies of Black Families.

He urged people to look both to history and the future, to learn their genealogy as well as leave a legacy for those who follow them.

"My great-great-great-granddaughter is going to say, 'What did Wade Nobles, born in 1945, do in life?' "

Other speakers acknowledged that digging into a family's past can cause pain, but said it can be endured.

"Some students went home and asked questions and got cursed out," said Nicka Smith of the African American Genealogy Society of Northern California.

"Don't harbor the secrets," she said. "Share it. Don't horde it. Allow people in your family to know it. You have to go to your grandmother and say, 'What was your life like?' "

Dozens of genealogy projects were on display in the school gym.

The students, Smith said, learned to do research and organize their findings.

"This is going to help them in college," she said.

One of the event sponsors, Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, said family histories can be challenging for people of all races.

He noted that people of Japanese ancestry could learn that their families had been placed in internment camps during World War II, or Mexicans might learn their forbears lost land and wealth when California became part of the United States.

"It is not necessarily pleasant," he said, adding that his father "refused to talk about Texas," where he lived before moving to California.

"People have to enter into a dialogue about their history," he said. "We need a better understanding of where we come from."