I find myself thinking about this question a lot when it comes to my family history. It has never for me been about “gathering names” or seeing how far back I can go. I have always grappled with trying to recreate my ancestor’s lives, trying to understand the forces of history they lived through and what drove them. What connects my life to theirs? What’s different? Those issues endlessly fascinate me. I think those are the things that inform us and have the potential to ever so slightly turn the lens of life that we see ourselves and our own lives through. I know who am I and where I am as a young woman today (well maybe not so young anymore) because each branch of family–so different, shaped by vastly different lives—collectively moved the ball forward for me to have greater opportunities. And I embrace all of that.
I’m always trying to encourage people to take a break from researching long enough to actually write up your research. I know it’s hard and trust me, I have a few lines I still need to write up. But thinking about the details about what their lives were like can provide the meat to make your write-up interesting. No one will read a list of names and dates with much interest, but if you can make it come alive (and you don’t have to be Toni Morrison) you can get some serious credibility with the family. Here are some ideas and questions to ask as you ponder what their lives were like:
- Many of our ancestors were farmers. What crops did they grow? What kinds of animals did they have? Check the agricultural census. How did that shape their lives? Growing tobacco is very different from corn or wheat. Read up on it or do some research at this cool website on agriculture. Were they sharecroppers or landowners?
- Some of our ancestors were professionals, such as teachers and ministers, some were business owners. I found out all manner of detail on my great-grandfather who was a Methodist minister through the journals at Drew University, which is the archives for the Methodist church.
- What was going on in the nation politically, socially, and economically that shaped their lives ? Of course most of us know the enormous role that race played. What was the news of the day? What about locally? Blackpast is one of my favorite sites for researching African American history timelines. I found out long after my paternal grandmother died that there was a lynching in her town of Salisbury, MD while she lived there in the 1930s…I would have liked to ask her about that experience.
- What kinds of technology impacted their lives? My mother remembers the exact year her family got a television set. My maternal grandmother recalled life before refrigerators, which is still hard for me to imagine. But then I tell younger people that we didn’t have the internet or email when I was in college, they look at me like I’m 100 years old!
- What games did they play as kids? What did they do for fun? My grandmother talked about going to shows/parties at school (which somehow would never have occurred to me in rural Tennessee) but also about spending lots of time socially at church. Her father told the children folktales that she remembered very fondly, scary stories at that.
- If they got to go, what did their schoolhouse look like? What subjects were taught and how long did they go for? Did many people in the community get to go to school, or was that something only a lucky few got to do? I found a picture of my grandmothers Tennessee schoolhouse (which burned down in the 1940s) in “Negro School Records” at the State Archives…she would have enjoyed seeing that.
- What music did they listen to? Did they have a radio? (you can find that data on the 1930 census) What movies did they watch?
- What kinds of food did they eat regularly? This link talks about foods the enslaved ate. My great-uncle who grew up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, recalled the fresh crabs they caught and the oyster fritters and other seafood treats.
I could go on and on…this is just a small sampling of the multitude of thoughts that go through my head when I am trying to recreate my ancestors’ lives. What questions do you ask yourself when wondering what their lives were like?