Archive for the ‘Genealogy Conferences/Meetings’ Category

Thanks to everyone who commented on my previous post about slavery and slaveowners. If anything, it kicked off some great discussions and dialogue about the country’s worst and most contentious period of history. I’ll leave that topic with one quote from one of our greatest slavery historians, Ira Berlin:

No understanding of slavery can avoid these themes: violence, power, and the usurpation of labor for the purpose of aggrandizing a small minority . . . The murders, beatings, mutilations, and humiliations, both petty and great, were an essential, not incidental, part of the system. [emphasis is mine]



Today I want to talk about something that I constantly stress to researchers. I say it a lot: you’ve got to learn methodology. But what do I mean when I say that? What is methodology and how does it relate to genealogy? When I say it, I mean take the time to learn “how to use the records.” In genealogy, we use many different types of records, but there are are many ways to use each kind of record. And there are a set of best practices that optimize  your use of the records.

Let’s take a few simple examples. You may find your ancestor on a census, and gather relationships, marital status, occupation, ages, etc. That’s one way to “use” the census. But another way—another method—is to use it to recreate your family’s “FAN club”–their Family, Associates and Neighbors. This is the principle that cluster research utilizes. People usually married people who lived nearby, so if you refocus your efforts on the community at large, you stand a better chance of identifying spouses and parents of individuals. You can take also the census, which identifies landowners, and pull deed records for those landowners in order to plot the land on a modern map. This is again taking the information from the census a step further. You can look at migration patterns in the census—what states are people coming from? What states were the children in the family born in and what states does it say their parents were born in?

For probate records, you may look for a will and if none exists for an individual, you may think your work there is done. But what about looking for records of people who died intestate, without a will? What about looking for probate records of extended family members, neighbors and in-laws? What about looking at probate guardianship records to discover people’s ages? What about using estate distributions to discover the relationships of people where none is given?

Like the old adage says, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and some of my best discoveries have been made by using traditional records in multiple ways. I have used deed records to find out a married woman’s full name, and I have used them to find out when a man took a new wife when marriage records did not. I have used vital records to research cemeteries and I have used census records to show that a woman’s name on her marriage record was incorrect.

As mentioned above, I also use “methodology” to mean that you know and use genealogy best practices. That you know the importance of and use source citations and that you know the difference between an original and derivative source and the importance of examining all relevant evidence. That you know how to analyze evidence. That you understand that most genealogy research still takes place in person at archives, libraries and courthouses. Do you know how to pull every piece of evidence from every source? Do you use all those other columns on the census that can help you? Can you extract all the information possible from a probate or deed record? Do you check the instructions given to the enumerators so that you are clearly interpreting each census year? Do you have an artificial brick wall?

These are just a few examples, but I hope they hint at how important methodology will become to your research once you get past what I call the “low-hanging fruit” of easy discoveries. That’s usually the first year or two.

Learning genealogy methodology takes a conscious effort by reading genealogy how-to books and blogs, taking classes, on or offline, attending learning conferences and reading case studies of how others solve problems.  All of these expand your skills, give you new ideas on how to attack those real brick walls and enable you to notice bits and pieces of evidence that you may have previously overlooked. EVERYONE involved in serious research needs to have books like The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy by Val Greenwood, Evidence Explained by Elizabeth Shown Mills, and The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy by Loretto Dennis Szucs in their personal libraries. These types of books (and others) will teach you good methodology. Some are huge books, but you can get used ones for great prices. *Absolutely everyone* should have the newest book out on Genealogy Standards. It’s easy to read and simplified and designed for everyone, not just professional genealogists.

I have a somewhat new philosophy that finding genealogical information for others does not really help them. It’s nice, and in some instances I will do it out of my own curiosity. The problem is, it doesn’t teach others how to research themselvesit doesn’t help them to develop their own skills. They often just return when they’re stuck again and ask someone to help them solve the next problem. Now, I try to give clues—to give hints—to encourage people to find the answer themselves. So instead of pulling a census record someone else couldn’t find, I might say, Have you tried alternate spellings? Have you searched the neighboring counties? Have you searched for just the names of the children?

I believe there is a much sweeter satisfaction to this research when you make discoveries independently. It also helps to belong to a group of others who are researching their families–it will keep you inspired.

Another word that comes up pretty often and is related to methodology is “strategy.” What is your approach to a particular problem? Do you have a research plan? Most of us can easily get lost in researching records, especially online, and then a few weeks later, we can’t remember what we already looked for. Write down a plan of attack–it doesn’t have to be complicated. For example, there are several well-known strategies for finding the last slaveowner  (LS) of a former slave. One is to search for any slaveowners nearby with the same surname. But we know that some slaves did and some did not carry the surname of the last LS. So, another strategy is to find landowning slaveowners living nearby of any surname. Yet another strategy is to research whites who had associations with the family in freedom, like those who sold the family land. And so on.

When I suggest to someone stop and they read a certain book or two if they are just starting, it sometimes takes all the excitement out of the research process. But taking the time to learn these things will save you time–years–that some of us only wish we could get back. It will make your research more efficient; you won’t spend time spinning your wheels in a direction that is unlikely to pay off. I wish these books had been available when I first started researching. I didn’t know a hoot about source citations, and I didn’t know didley about how to conduct an oral interview. I can’t get those people or that time back. I remember distinctly pulling pension records for men who ended up being white simply because I didn’t know that only those listed in the index cards as serving in the Colored Troops were likely to be African-American men. Oh the stories I could tell.

So, here’s a link to my list of recommended books. I’ve also posted a list of my favorite slavery-related journal articles. Start building your library.

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My friend Marion is teaching a free class this Saturday at the Kensington branch of the Family History Center. Anyone who is in the local MD/DC/VA area should take the time to see this presentation. I blogged about her book awhile ago, and I’ll toot her horn a little to say her book was a finalist in the 2012 National Indie Book Awards in the African-American Non-Fiction category.

Her’s her description and more info on the class:
Learn how you can take an active role in preserving the history of the communities where your ancestors lived. The class is taught by Marion Woodfork Simmons, a family and community historian who self-published the book Memories of Union High:  An Oasis in Caroline County, Virginia 1903-1969.  She will use her experience to provide tools, tips and resources to empower ordinary people to research, document and preserve local history.

What You Will Learn:
1. How to select a topic.
2. Resources and repositories to use when performing research.
3. How to analyze and verify information.
4. Various methods for documenting local history.
5. Where to donate historically significant items.

The class is FREE but you must register.
For further information and registration, please email info@wdcfhc.org or call 301-587-0042.

“Preserving Local History”
Date:   Saturday, June 16, 2012
Time:  9:30 – 10:30 am
Washington DC Family History Center
10000 Stoneybrook Drive
Kensington, MD 20895

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If you live in the Metro MD/DC area, I’d like to invite you to the kickoff meeting of the Central Maryland Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS) chapter this Saturday, January 23, at 1pm:

  • Owen Brown Community Center
  • 6800 Cradlerock Way
  • Columbia, MD 21045

Our topic is for the meeting is Oral History Research, and our guest speaker is Millie McGhee-Morris, who discovered the shocking family secret of being a cousin of J. Edgar Hoover. She’s written about it in two books, “What’s Done in the Dark” and “Drifted Back in Time, Deep Secrets Revealed” and both will be available for sale.

We’ve got lots of exciting things planned and we’re hoping that many who attend will choose to join us for our regularly scheduled meetings.

We generally meet every other month on the 4th Saturday. Please visit our blog for more information.

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My good friend Tim Pinnick has made a special request for me to give a little more detail on NGS this year in Raleigh. Tim’s specialty is black coal miners, but he lectures and writes on a wide variety of African-American historical topics and is one of the most lively and gracious individuals you’ll ever meet. He’s got loads of information on his website, so please check it out if you haven’t already.

Friends1So thanks Tim for that reminder. My godmother Carole and I drove down to the conference on Tuesday and the weather could not have been more perfect—the drive was relaxing and restful. There was an African-American panel session that was scheduled for that Tuesday that was advertised as having Dorothy Spruill (who wrote the groundbreaking Somerset Homecoming) and Henry Louis Gates. It was disappointing that at some point they changed the program and neither individual came. I did hear that Dr. Barnetta McGhee White’s presentation was wonderful.

I will say I was dismayed that there were not many classes focused specifically on African-American topics. In comparison to the Federation of Genealogical Society’s (FGS) conference over the past few years, FGS was far more responsive to the special requirements of African-American research. In fact, at NGS there weren’t many classes relevant to any minorities. There was one excellent seminar on African-American research by Reggie Washington from the National Archives, but that was it. There were also classes on:

  • Plantation Papers at the North Carolina State Archives
  • Melungeons
  • Indian Ancestry
  • Mid South African-American AG Professionals

That’s four classes and one seminar out of nearly 100 sessions! I think NGS can do better than that. I’m not sure how many of us submitted papers to present, but if that was the issue, then we need to step up the plate. I certainly think this illustrates why the upcoming International Black Genealogy Summit in Fort Wayne in October is so important and so desperately needed.  This will be the first major genealogical conference that brings together African-American genealogy organizations from around the country. It will be held October 29-31, 2009 in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Nevertheless, there were plenty of good lectures and great teachers at NGS. The classes were insightful and instructive. Needless to say I came away with lots of new methodologies and research to try. Much of it was reinforcement of things I haven’t paid enough attention to.  Don’t you constantly feel that there are just not enough hours in the day? Dr. Thomas Jones and Elizabeth Shown Mills continue to be at the top of their respective games and I attended several classes by them both. I get exhausted just listening to the level of detail and meticulous nature of their research! It shows me just how much more I have to do. One of the things I’d like to point out about their lecture handouts is that they always give reference lists of journal articles to reinforce the lessons they teach—I often get copies of these articles and have found them particularly helpful. Other standout classes for me this year were several sessions on court records, one on using topographic maps, the new Rootsmagic 4.0 genealogy software , and a terrific lecture on what exactly is considered reasonably exhaustive research.

exhibithallA few more points: I would be remiss if I left out that one of the highlights of the conference was the Exhibit Hall.  They had so many interesting exhibiters and books, books and more books! A few I’ll highlight:

  • Historic Stagville—a project to uncover in part the descendants of the 900 enslaved individuals that belonged to the richest antebellum family in North Carolina, the Bennehan-Cameron family. This was a fascinating organization, doing important work—check out their website.
  • Caswell County Historical Association–rarely do I see the average genealogical or historical society undertaking the type of slavery project they are here–they purchased and are spending thousands to restore and digitize a critical slave ledger for Caswell County. It consists of 148 pages of recorded tobacco and slave trading information from 1837-1845. I don’t think there is information about the ledger on their website, but if you are interested, I’m sure you could contact them. They had the ledger out on their display table.
  • Genlighten-this new company aims to hook up people who need copies of documents with people who can get the documents. It’s not a new idea, but the way they have it set up, I think it’d be nice for some side income.

We researched at the North Carolina State Archives a few days, and the Archives staff could not have been more welcoming or helpful. There is a free shuttle that runs all day long downtown, so we just hopped on the shuttle in front of the conference center and got off a few blocks down at the Archives. You can also purchase copies of lectures from the conference if you didn’t make it-I’m a big fan of doing this and there were long lines of folks buying.

I had the odd experience in Raleigh that was a fire at my hotel one morning, prompting everyone to have to evacuate before 9am. Luckily, it wasn’t anything serious, but as I had just gotten out of the shower, I have never gotten dressed so fast in my life!

Overall, the conference was a good experience. One of the benefits of attending conferences is all the sidebar conversations you get to have with lecturers (thanks to J. Mark Lowe for all those tips on Tennessee!) and the people you get to meet while having lunch, waiting for aahgslectures, etc. etc. I met two wonderful women from the AAHGS chapter  in New York and we hung out a few days. Now I’ve got two more hopefully lifelong “genealogy friends” to add to my roster of support and encouragement.

Whew, that was a long one. Well Tim was that enough detail? LOL

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I attended NGS a few weeks ago, and I can’t say enough about the need for genealogists to take as much training and expose themselves to as many different opportunities to learn as possible. They are all around us. Classes, genealogy groups, online chat rooms and discussion forums, professional genealogy journals and mass media genealogy magazines, blogs…there is just no excuse not to soak it all in. After 12 years, I’m still learning how to be better at this and don’t expect that to change.

Tonight I attended my friend Alice’s last genealogy class of the semester. She and I both teach non-credit genealogy classes at Howard Community Classes, and we always try to support one another. Alice is a great teacher.

bookTonight was a real treat because Angela Walton-Raji gave a lecture about Black-Native American Research. Angela is an expert in Black-Native American research and has been for some time. I bought her book, Black Indian Genealogy Research when it first came out years ago, and I didn’t realize there was an updated version out. So I’ve got to buy that. This book needs to be in every African-American genealogist’s library. She also has another website she has maintained for years, African-Native Genealogy and History.

Angela’s talk, of course, was informative and reinforced many thoughts I’ve had about my own family. I came away energized and enthused. Angela started an African Podcast awhile ago, and if you haven’t tuned in yet, you should make it a weekly habit.

Just another example of all the good stuff out there if you just poke your head out there and jump in.

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