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Archive for the ‘Writing Your History’ Category

Newspapers are a wonderful genealogical source, we all know that, but one of the main reasons I suspect they still remain untapped for many of us is how difficult and cumbersome they are to research.  Although commercial enterprises like GenealogyBank and  public efforts like Chronicling America aim to make newspapers more accessible, I  must say I often find trying to sort through the digital morass just as much of a struggle.

I luckily (or crazily?) have a microfilm reader in my home that I purchased from Ebay years ago and newspapers are one of the types of time-killing resources that benefit from this. I purchased several reels of microfilm  of the local paper (the Savannah Courier) from the Tennessee State Archives. This paper covered Hardin County, TN, one of my research areas.

I thought I’d post examples of the variety of genealogical jewels that I’ve found in the pages of the Courier. There are things that you simply won’t find anywhere else.

There are the expected death and marriage notices, well before state mandated vital record-keeping, but there were lots of other things that stood out to me as I perused the pages. This is a small, very rural farming Southern community, and I was surprised to see things like a regular column on high fashion and periodic articles on international news–even serialized fiction stories. The ads are in and of themselves a telling source of social history–you see all the medical potions and crack “cures”, stoves and sewing machines, the local country stores and their wares and the schedules and prices of the steamboats that plowed the mighty Tennessee river. As you travel across time (1870s-1930s in my case) you see the changes in life brought by the advent of the car and other technological advances (especially the car–people crashed all the time!). Farming was a major theme, with articles on animal husbandry and the latest crop techniques.

Local news was big–seemingly every action a person took was “monitored” by the paper. Short trips people took (“Tom Jones went to Paducah today for a week to visit his mother”) illnesses (“John Reed is stricken with small pox and has been quarantined”) and even visits to the city of Savannah (“Mssrs. John Holt and Sol Bradley were in town today.”). I suppose the nature of a small town is just that–you pretty much know everything everybody is doing. If not, the paper will sure tell you;).

The quality of the copies varies, but hopefully, taking a look at some of these article clippings (and yes, this post is LONG) will inspire you to check your local newspaper if you haven’t yet. I suggest giving yourself a timeframe (perhaps an hour at a time) as not to destroy your eyes.  I also recommend my friend Tim Pinnick’s excellent book, “Finding and Using African-American Newspapers“, and be sure to subscribe via his website to his new email newsletter on using Black Newspapers.

Savannah Courier Clippings (the year of each post is stated in the caption)

I found postings from local courts that I used to locate court documents. This also illustrates that if your locale had fires that destroyed records, newspapers can still provide some of that information:

1888

1935

Look at all the black organizations I found evidence of. I couldn’t find data on these anyplace else:

1885

There were short periods of time where very small articles covered the black community. I would expect this to be different for different locales. In Savannah, one of the black areas was called Newtown–thus the Newtown “Dots”:

1887

While deaths of white locals were almost always covered, only periodically were deaths of blacks noted:

1890

1889

Fairs were always a big deal in rural areas, and the “colored” fair was no different and was noted every year:

1888

Hints at emigration can be found in the paper. This one I believe included some of my collateral ancestors–I wish it would have stated names!:

1909

As can be sadly expected, lynchings were often noted and the period of the late 19th century was particularly brutal. The first one is my gggrandfather’s brother. Notice how they said it was a “suicide”:

1887

1886

1890

And this ominous editorial snippet in the paper reads to me like a threat:

1889

By 1908, at least some on the community were obviously not in agreement with the methods of the “Night Riders”, but the very fact that it shows up so much as a topic tells me it was a problem:

1908

1909

1911

The crash of the titanic was a huge story in 1912. It was interesting to read this story after having seen the movie:

1912

This snippet hinted at the possibility of a semi- interracial celebration in 1919 for World War I soldiers. Everytime I read this I wonder if my great-grandfather Lawson Holt was there. It also notes the ‘Holtsville’ glee club, Holtsville being a school started by my ancestor John W. Holt.

I found lots of information on black teachers and black schools every year:

1911

By the 1930s, they were printing lists of people who had lost their land to tax sales. How useful is that for us!:

1930s

Indicative of the times, minstrel shows were a big part of entertainment:

1929

A few were pretty humorous to me, with my 21st century sensibilities. This one talked about the nuisance of people letting their hogs run loose in the city:

1919

And my personal favorite–this poor man, a minister, has to announce that his wife has left him:

1888

There is lots of other information I found on the black community (on churches and ministers, for example) but I hope what I have posted has encouraged you to take that dive into these valuable records.

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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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Michael Jackson’s untimely demise has got me ruminating on the meaning of music. I got so emotional about his death and wondered why? One reason is truly that so much of his music plays in the background of my life. I started to think about this from the perspective of a genealogist. We’re so used to recording the facts of a person’s life…..shouldn’t we also include the music that defined that person? Doesn’t that give you some insight into that person? When I do video interviews, I always ask about what music, what movies, what tv shows that person listened to or watched. The cultural zeitgeist of the times we live in inevitably define us in numerous ways. So I became intrigued with this concept and thought I’d list a little “discography”, if you will, of my life so far.

My very earliest memories of childhood Christmases was the Jackson 5 Christmas Album. My brother and I couldn’t wait to hear it every year, so much so, that at some point, the 8-track tape (am I dating myself?) actually broke! We got another copy pretty soon, and even today I know every song by heart. On I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, I used to love to hear Michael say, “I’m gonna tell…I’m gonna tell my daddy!;)

I was a child during the 70s, when as a young girl I recall my mother constantly playing R&B and soul albums. It’s funny how in my memory, that period is defined by whatever albums my mom owned and played at the time. My most vivid recollections are of Natalie Cole, the Commodores, Minnie Riperton, and the Stylistics. My aunt Denise had some jeans where she’d written “Brick House” down one pants leg with a magic marker. I had no idea what that was, but I wanted to be a Brick House too.

70s

The 80s, I maintain, was a good decade musically, but an awful decade fashionwise to “come of age”.All those MC-hammer pants, and shoulder pads, loud colors, big gold jewelry…..think Dynasty meets Fresh Prince. Oh, the horror of it all…LOL. As a teenager, I had the biggest hair you’ve ever seen in your life! But I digress. This was a wonderful era for music, and of course Thriller was sort of a bookend for the decade coming out in 1982. These were big albums in my memory:

80s1

prince

soul

We bought Michael Jackson and Prince buttons to wear on our jean jackets. And Hall and Oates, oh my goodness. Culture Club. Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?…..We listened to bands like Duran, Duran and Journey too. I remember Air Supply. Madonna ruled the 80s. Anita Baker and Luther remind me of my first boyfriend who broke my heart, and I used to walk around crying singing those songs convinced I would never love again. And Keith Sweat, who could forget him? HAHAHA.

I would be remiss without mentioning the fact that my generation saw the birth of hip-hop music, which was a thing of beauty in the 80s (no cursing and misogyny back then). I will enjoy telling my kids about the birth of that style of music, just as I can imagine the previous eras that saw the birth of the blues, rock and roll, bebop and other truly American art forms. I still have an autograph from L.L. Cool J I got when I was 14 years old when he came to the local music store on my street. I thought I was just going to DIE from the giggles.

hiphopMy best friend and I wanted to BE Salt n’Pepa, and we would frantically dance around the living room trying to look cool. My first concerts were to go see these hip-hop artists at the Capitol Center in Maryland. What terrific memories those years are for me. Wow. We used to rewind and listen to the songs so we could memorize the raps. I also listened to alot of go-go music, being from the D.C. area, which is sort of our homegrown local music.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point I’m making about the place of music in our lives and our ancestor’s lives. Certain artists and songs just bring back all sorts of memories. I got happy just writing this post, remembering all this stuff. The last 10 years or so have seen my tastes veer distinctively towards classic jazz and old school R&B (classic sign of getting old, right…LOL). So, think about what songs would be in your life’s playlist, and write them down. And write down why. Ask your parents and grandparents. Years from now, this’ll be great conversation for your descendants. If they don’t know the artist, it may prompt them to look them up, and say to themselves….who was this James Brown person anyway?

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Sometimes I have two or three days where I am on a research high..there is no other phrase to really describe it. One day last week I went to the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis. I talked and laughed with my cousin Chris who works there, then I made copies of the agricultural and social statistics census records for several counties in Maryland. If you haven’t utilized the non-population census records, you’ll want to. These will really help to put flesh on the bones of your ancestors when you write your family history, as they say. I found one that showed my ancestor’s farm raised honeybees and sold honey. I wouldn’t ever have thought that. The social statistics don’t have individual names but give a snapshot of the entire community. In one community, I saw where they had few schools or newspapers, but over 20 churches. That gives you some insight into what was important in people’s lives at  a certain point in time.

But the centerpiece of my trip that day was looking at Slave Tax Assessments for Montgomery County, MD. I am lucky (at least in this case) that this county has these records for 1851-1864. And the beauty of them is that they list slave names and ages, by slaveowner. I live and breathe for records that actually name slaves..the revealing of those upon whose backs so much pain was inflicted still gives me chills. They are so often voiceless, and I think of this pursuit as trying to give them back that voice.

I correlated these tax assessments with:

I used all of these together and got a pretty good picture of the slaveowner’s family on this line: Nathan Cook. He enslaved my great-great-great grandfather  Rezin Prather of Montgomery County, MD. In fact, this exercise gives me a good picture of many of the slaveowners in that county. I’m going to try to get it written up in some fashion to share it with others who may researching slave ancestry in the county.

The very next day I went to the Montgomery County Historical Society, which is hands-down the best I’ve ever been to. The staff is knowledgeable and friendly (sadly, everyone I encounter while researching is not friendly) and their resources are endless. I finally joined the Society..I wanted to support them since they have helped me so much. I copied family files and obituaries and maps and tons of books unavailable anywhere else. I found a book on the community of Goshen that had an entire chapter on “Prathertown”, an area of Montgomery County founded by members of the Prather Family. A historical marker was placed at the site in a public ceremony in 2003. The photo in the header on this blog are many of Rezin Prather’s descendants.

prathertown

All this good information in two days. Nothing but a “genealogy high”.

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