When I refer to an artifact, I am referring primarily to those items passed down within our families, or items we’ve dug up from family members during our quest. Pictures are one kind of course, and family bibles, military papers, marriage and birth certificates, letters, deeds, and even quilts are things commonly found within families. I wanted to post some of the items I have gathered, both old and older, and show how each has expanded my understanding of my family and the communities in which they lived. The artifacts tell their own stories, and we should use them in the writing of our histories alongside the census and other records that we uncover. In many ways these are even more valuable because many of these can’t be found in public records or archives.
I’ve got a silver necklace my paternal grandmother gave me when I was probably about 16 (thank God I didn’t lose it). It had belonged to her mother Beatrice Prather and it came with a note that reminded me that it “was pure silver, and don’t be too proud when you wear it”;). Beatrice was an extremely well-educated woman to have been black (negro or colored in her era to be more accurate) and born in Maryland in 1888. I have several of her diplomas, including this one from Armstrong Manual Training School in Washington D.C. in 1910:
The Armstrong school itself tells part of the story of black life in and around Washington D.C. at the turn of the century. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places and graduated luminaries like Duke Ellington and Billy Eckstein.
My great-grandmother Beatrice was an educator, and also later a nurse and a beautician. I have a paper she wrote on “Negroes of Interest Born in the State of Maryland”:
Beatrice even wrote her own obituary (and yes, it was used):
In Tennessee, my maternal grandfather Luther Holt was a proud Union member and leader. I have his lifetime membership card from Local 801 International Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, and my mom told me he was thrilled when Richard Nixon wrote him a letter congratulating him on his role in a crucial Union vote. I was excited recently to find a collection of the records of this local union at Wright State University along with a very concise introduction to its history. My grandfather was a retired Frigidaire worker, and when he retired he got more involved with the work of the union. I thought about granddaddy alot during the recent Presidential elections and the debates about collective bargaining and the “battleground” states of Ohio and Pennsylvania.
My granddaddy also was an accomplished carpenter and woodworker who could build or fix anything. He made treasured handcarved gifts for his 3 daughters and his only granddaughter at the time (that would be me;)). This is a photo of the beautiful sewing box he made for my mom:
A cousin in Tennessee had some of the most amazing artifacts that his father, George W. Holt, had saved from his father and grandfather. These include receipts for paying the poll tax, one of the most pervasive tools in the Southern States used to disenfranchise black people and poor white people:
He also had a copy of his membership card in the Prince Hall Grand Lodge, popular in the black community especially in the 20th century:
There was also a receipt indicating payment of tuition for his 5 children in 1923 (although I wish the school was named):
George Holt’s records also contained a letter from “The Inter-Racial League of Tennessee,” addressed to Prof. Joe White from R.E. Clay illustrating the political prowess used to get a new school built in the community for black folks in the 1920’s. Interestingly enough, R.E. Clay was Robert E. Clay who led the Rosenwald School Fund in Tennessee, which is the very last topic I blogged about.:
All of these records speak to a family (the Holts) that was well-educated, landowning and upwardly mobile to say the least. That isn’t the case for all my lines; every one is different of course.
When I got the idea for this post, I didn’t realize how many terrific artifacts I’ve collected over the years regarding my family, so I’ll close now and leave more for ‘Part 2′. In the meantime, tell me about what artifacts you’ve found and what did they tell you about your family’s life?