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Archive for the ‘General Research’ Category

I have been absent from my blog. I started teaching my Advanced African American Genealogy course at Howard County Community College, and I’ve spent the last few weeks revamping my class from last semester. I’m always excited about the class and meeting my students. So I haven’t had alot of time to post lately, but I plan to remedy that this weekend. For now, I thought I’d share some of my most favorite, coolest websites in the world. Well, maybe that’s a little strong, but these are some that I tend to go back to again & again:

Hope you find some little nuggets above that you find interesting. If you know of a great website you’ve utilized for your genealogy research (besides the major ones we all know: Library of Congress, Cyndi’s list, NARA, Ancestry, Footnote, all the newspaper ones, etc.) please do share in the comments here.

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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?

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j0439262I enjoy sharing resources I love with other genealogists. Today I want to share the possibilities for genealogical research that are buried in theses and dissertations.

When I am reading a historical book or article, I tend to notice the footnotes first. I’m looking to see if there are any resources for that subject or location that I have missed, and in general I’m just curious as to what sources the author is using. Think about it: Ph. D students are master researchers. Their resulting theses and dissertations can be a boon for genealogical research. Other than pointing the way to missed or hidden resources, I like the fact that many of them give social context to understanding the lives and times my ancestors lived in. After all, one of my biggest passions is trying to encourage us all to step away from digging awhile in order to actually write up a narrative on your family lineages (fully sourced of course). Once we’ve gotten the names/dates/places, many of us are stuck about how to craft an interesting story. Theses and dissertations are just one more way to find that kind of information.

The great news is that the Internet now provides instant access to many of these documents, particularly for the last 5 years or so. In fact, many universities now mandate that these works be submitted electronically. Here are just a few examples of some of these websites:

Even better, is the Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations which compiles a listing from many schools.

As an example of using this type of resource, let me walk through the University of Maryland (UM) link shown first above. The homepage tells you that there is a link containing theses and dissertations from 1997, but that link is restricted to only University of Maryland staff, students & faculty. However, their “DRUM” database is publicly accessible and contains full text downloadable documents dating from 2003. So we click on that link.

Then, I like to find the link that allows me to browse by department or category—for the UM site, that’s available from the link on the left that says “Browse by Communities and Collections.” I do this because remember, a college has all kinds of theses and dissertations (engineering school, divinity school, etc.), but I’m primarily interested in ones done by the History Department or perhaps those in Sociology, or even Political Science. Those are typically in the College of Arts and Humanities. Once the list pulls up, I click on “History Theses and Dissertations” and it allows me to do a search.

I search for keywords like slave, slavery, African-American, blacks, etc. but I also search for the county or city I’m interested in, and anything else I can think of. Be creative. Part of my family research is in Maryland so I’m generally interested in the experience of blacks throughout the state, and in a few counties specifically. Look at some of the documents I found at the UM site using some of these search terms:

  • “‘There Slavery Cannot Dwell’: Agriculture and Labor in Northern Maryland, 1790-1860″, by Max L. Grivno (this one actually has very detailed information about slavery in Frederick and Washington counties)
  • “A Tradition of Struggle: Preserving Sites of Significance to African American History in Prince George’s County, Maryland, 1969-2007“, by Courtney Elizabeth Michael (this was especially interesting to me since I grew up in PG County)
  • “Capital Constructions: Race and the Reimagining of Washington, D.C.’s Local History in the Twentieth Century”, by Megan Elizabeth Harris

Look at these titles from Pennsylvania State University:

  • “Black East St. Louis: Politics and Economy in a Border City, 1860-1945”, by Charles L. Lumpkins
  • “On the Edge of Freedom: The Fugitive Slave Issue in South Central Pennsylvania, 1820-1870″, by David Grant Smith

Isn’t this wonderful? And get this: most are available immediately as downloadable PDF documents!

If you haven’t tried this research avenue yet, give it a shot. A couple of things to remember:

  • Check elite ivy-league schools, large state schools and smaller local colleges, but don’t forget Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) which may have a higher proportion of theses and dissertations with emphasis on African-American history
  • Many sites won’t allow full access to all theses & dissertations; portions may be restricted, but ALL should be available in hardcopy at that institution if you live nearby and really want to take a look. Also, I found that some universities seem to have third-party relationships with Proquest/UMI Databases to handle this function, and some of those I couldn’t access.
  • Think in broad terms. We want to understand our ancestors lives from the 1700s (and before, if possible) right up until today, so a dissertation about the lives of blacks in your city in the 1960s is going to be just as meaningful from a story-telling perspective as an article about freed blacks in the 1850s in your city.
  • Although I recommend starting in the History department, don’t think good information can’t be found in other departments. At the University of TN, I found one called :“The Health Status of Early 20th Century Blacks from Providence Baptist Church Cemetery in Shelby County, Tennessee”by Rebecca J. Wilson. She was getting her Masters in Anthropology!
  • I’m sure I don’t need to state the obvious, but of course, be mindful of plagiarism and copyright issues as you utilize information found in theses and dissertations.
  • I always like to send the authors a brief email if possible letting them know how useful their theses or dissertation was for me.
  • Remember, many of the dissertations are easily 500 pages, so don’t plan on printing them out unless you have plenty of paper! I typically will zero in on the Abstract and any sections that are especially relevant, including of course the footnotes.

I’d love to hear back from you if you found something useful using this process. Good luck!

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