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Posts Tagged ‘Savannah’

MC900433938I have posted before about the value of black newspapers and the goldmine of information they have. I think newspapers, like Freedmen’s Bureau records, are an important resource that haven’t yet been made widely accessible and easy to research. However, great strides have been made by various providers, including the Library of Congress, digitizing newspapers. They are still time-consuming to search, but I suppose anything worthwhile in genealogy is that way. I was even surprised to recently discover that the local newspaper of Montgomery County, MD where my ancestors lived was digitized bythe Maryland State Archives. That paper has been on my “to do” list for years. It was not a black newspaper, but I still want to search it for relevant news of the times.

The Chicago Defender was founded in 1905 by Robert Abbott and eventually became the largest and most popular black-owned newspaper in the nation. The paper was famous for detailing lynchings and racial oppression, to referring to blacks as “The Race” and for putting “(white)” after white people’s names in the paper the same way white papers did to black people. The Defender was  a driving force in convincing Southern blacks to migrate to the North. More than 100, 000 black people came to Chicago alone between 1916-1918.

What I didn’t realize until I read my friend Tim Pinnick’s book was that the small, rural towns many of our ancestors migrated from were often covered in these large urban papers. It made sense I suppose: people wanted news from their towns. But I would have never searched in a Northern paper looking for news of my family, especially if they didn’t live there. Tim’s book explains that the papers hired correspondents from those small towns who submitted news. There would be a page called “Tennessee News” and then perhaps 20 or 30 paragraphs, one for each community. The same for North Carolina and other states.

I have recently been searching the Chicago Defender through Proquest Historical Newspapers which is available from my local library (and able to be searched from home!). I was surprised to find that one of my Holt relatives, Annabelle Holt Crowder, who had lived in Chicago for a time, was actually one of the correspondents for her small town of Decaturville, TN! That meant she wrote a lot about her family. Her husband Dave was the principal of the black high school, a revered man for whom the school was later named for.

The tidbits of local history gleaned from these columns is simply priceless. In addition to marriages, births and deaths, they talked about who was sick, who was moving, the black schools and politics, the benevolent and lodge organizations, the teachers and farmers and of course, the ever-prominent black churches and ministers. The articles are filled with visits from out of town relatives and I thought to myself as I read that it looked tome like they spent all their free time socializing! But, because I pulled articles form mostly the late 20s and early 30s, I had to remember there was no television, and radios and cars were fairly new.

There is of course lots of juicy family history, especially because the articles often mentioned the town where people were visiting from, as well as specifically naming parents, siblings, grandkids, etc. Here are a couple of snippets I found from my local TN towns:

September 1928

September 1928

Richard Kendall was indeed a Civil War veteran, and this article gives the names and locations of his relatives from all over the place. Imagine if you were one of his descendants.

This next one names several of my Holt relatives (Lawson was my ggrandfather). I was most fascinated to discover that they enjoyed fox hunting! I would have never guessed that. Notice also how they say “motored to” instead of “drove to.”

November 1930

November 1930

Here’s one more:

April 1930

April 1930

I’ve had luck before with the Indianapolis Freeman newspaper, and I’ve got to believe similar articles may be found in the Pittsburgh Courier and other large black newspapers of the times.

Take a look and let me know if you have any luck finding any of your small towns. It’s important to mention that MOST newspapers are not online and are not digitized, but there were in fact hundreds of black newspapers.

P.S.-Tim has a truly wonderful lecture on researching black newspapers on YouTube. It’ll teach you almost everything you need to know to get started!

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We Tree’s Weekly Genealogy Prompt #27 asks us to visit the graves of local celebrities and talk about their lives. I’ll do a small twist on this which is that the celebrity is not in my local area, but is in the local area I am researching.

My maternal ancestors are from a rural, Southwestern county in Tennessee called Hardin County that most folks haven’t heard of unless they’re from there or have been following my post. Many of my family members lived in a town called Hooker’s Bend, which is fodder enough for another post, but Hardin County’s largest city is Savannah (you didn’t know there was one in Tennessee, did you?) Well, as the title of my post exposes, Alex Haley (the author of Roots) is Savannah’s biggest celebrity and he plays a prominent role in the tourism brochures for the area.

Alex Haley grew up in Hening, Tennessee, which is actually several counties over in Lauderdale County. But the reason Alex is Hardin County royalty is that his grandparents were prominent and well-known Savannah citizens from the end of the 19th through the early 20th century. They were Alec/Alex Haley and his wife Queen. They’re also (stated with utter pride) in my family. (His name is found in records written both ways, but I will call him “Alec” in this post to differentiate between him and his grandson.)

Alex Haley

Alec Haley

Queen Haley

Queen Haley

The Holts (my grandfather’s surname) are one of my major Hardin County lines and they intermarried with Haleys in two places on my tree. This is sorta confusing, but I’ll give it a shot: my great-great-aunt, Madelina Holt, married Abner Haley. Abner was one of Alec and Queen’s sons. Their other son, Simon, was Alex Haley’s father. Another Holt ancestor married Julia Haley, who was the daughter of Abner Haley. So there are Holts and Haleys all over the place.

Let me tell you a little bit more about Alec and his wife Queen, because they were a fascinating couple. Alec’s fame was mostly because he operated the ferry that took people across the Tennessee river to the city of Savannah when that was the quickest way to travel if your horse took too long. So he knew just about everybody in town, white or black. One year (I can’t remember what year) he saved a white woman who almost drowned, so after that, he was vaulted to forever sit amongst the echelons of “most beloved” colored folk (this incident was written in the local newspaper).

The Cherrys were one of the wealthiest families in Hardin County from the early-mid 1800s, and they owned what came to be known as the Cherry Mansion. The Cherry Mansion sits right on the side of the Tennessee river and was where Alec Haley’s ferry picked up passengers to go “‘cross the river”. His (mulatto) wife Queen worked in the Cherry mansion. Their house was about 100 yards from the Cherry Mansion. So Alec drove the ferry and his wife worked for one of the richest white families in the area. The Cherry Mansion (which still stands and is a tourist attraction) was so grand that when General Grant brought the Civil War through Hardin County for the Battle of Shiloh, he camped out at the Cherry Mansion. Much of this is covered in the book and movie.

When Roots and Queen shot Alex Haley to fame, there was a rush of visitors to Savannah, and people sought out elderly folks, both white and black, to ask them their memories of the couple. This created a positively rich record of them passed down via oral history, in addition to the wonderful book written by Alex. All kinds of neat details emerged, like the fact that  people got baptized down at the river. One woman talked about when the circus came to town, how the elephants would swim across the river. Alec was described as a hard-working, smart, honest man who didn’t like “no ‘ficety kids.” Queen was a tiny woman, who claimed Captain Jackson was her father her entire life (she came from Alabama). Queen’s “mental spells” were the stuff of legend–everyone knew of her time spent in the mental hospital at Bolivar. Her spells “made an indelible impression on everybody.” One elder claims, “Miss Queen had fits, but she told us she acted that way to get what she wanted!” Others agreed about how smart she was and how they loved to hear her witty sayings: talking once about a girl’s dress being too short, Queen suggested she put a “condition” around the bottom of it–meaning a ruffle;) Queen’s spectacular way with gardening was noted: “She was crazy about flowers and her yard was beautiful. She had elephant ear plants all over the place.” Stories like these are the kind I live for in genealogy.

As a genealogist, I have enjoyed tracking this family through the census. By 1930, Abner and Madelina Holt Haley migrated to Detroit, part of the Great Migration of African-Americans to the North to find better employment and escape the hardships of the South. Last summer, I joyfully got to meet several of my Haley ancestors who live outside Detroit, in a township called Inkster. We exchanged pictures and information about our shared Tennessee roots.

Meeting Haley Cousins

Meeting Haley Cousins

I see my cousin Chris Haley much more often since he’s also here in Maryland and does alot of genealogy-related activities. Alex Haley is his uncle and he also is affiliated with the Kunte Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation. He keeps the Roots message alive in his speaking engagements and reminds us all of the wonderful gift Alex Haley left ALL genealogists. In this picture, we were at the FGS Conference in Philadelphia last year.

Robyn and Chris

Robyn and Chris

I’ll end with a photo of Alec Haley’s grave down in Savannah:

Alex Haley Grave

Alex Haley Grave

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