Yesterday would have been the 100th birthday of my grandmother Pauline Celeste Waters. She was born April 13th, 1915 in the sleepy town of Stillpond, Maryland. Her death in 1997 is actually what started my journey into my family history research. Like many beloved grandmothers, she had a tremendous impact on her family and friends. She attended Bennett College in North Carolina and later earned a master’s degree from New York University. She taught high school for over 40 years in Jacksonville, Florida.
What I remember most about her was how smart she was and how witty she was. She was tall and regal in her bearing, dignified and sure of herself. She was a strict disciplinarian who did not suffer fools lightly, both with her sons and with her students. She loved God and the Methodist Church, which is no surprise since she was the daughter of a Methodist minister. Her religious beliefs shaped her entire life. I don’t think you ever left a conversation with her without her talking about God or praying for somebody. She would just reach out and touch your forehead and start praying.
Everybody has memories of relatives like this. So I thought I’d provide here some examples of how I researched her life’s story in the hopes that it will give others ideas for doing the same. Happy 100th birthday, granma! We love, remember and cherish you.
Genealogical Research I Have Collected on Pauline’s Life:
1) Every census taken during her life, her two marriage certificates, and her death certificate.
2) Her college application from Bennett College. I also had her entered into a book written by Juanita Moss, a former “Bennett Belle”, and reading that book provided more insight into her experience there in the years 1931-1935. My grandmother was the first alumni student to serve on the Bennett Board of Trustees, and she was so proud of that.
3) Her bible which included the family tree, copies of some of her diplomas, and a cache of priceless letters she wrote to her son and to her husband before their marriage.
3) The deed to the home in Jacksonville that she lived in when she married William Smith and had two sons. It was the house where William had himself been raised in.
4) William and Pauline eventually purchased a summer home on American Beach, the African-American beach. I have plenty of stories about their time there from my father, but I learned a lot about the history of not just Amerian Beach, but “black” beaches all over the country.
5) Pauline’s first job out of college was at the Boylan School, a private school for negro (as they were then called) girls run by the Methodist Church. It is that job that bought her to Jacksonville, where she would meet her husband and stay for 50 years. At an online database hosted by the State University of Florida, I found a program book for the Boylan School, dated 1932. Although it is from a few years before my grandmother taught there, I found it fascinating to get insight into what the school was like and what life was like for its teachers.
5) I found newspaper articles about the horrific lynching of Matthew Williams in Salisbury, MD in 1931. My grandmother’s family was still living there. Even though she had just left for college, I can only imagine the terror it struck in the whole community. The racial climate was so bad, the Eastern Shore earned the nickname “The Lynching Shore.” Sadly, I also discovered through newspaper articles that her half sister (by a previous wife of her father) was murdered and found in a white neighborhood.
6) I read several terrific books that flesh out African-American life in Jacksonville during the 1940s through the 1970s, covering specifically the civil battles of the 1960s as well as Jim Crow in general. Several pictures of Pauline and her family were in the book of photographs below.
7) I collected interviews with her former students, her younger brother and her sons. The personal stories are simply the best. Of course, I have many photographs and I also have artifacts, like jewelry that she gave to me.
Lastly ( I could go on and on), I was fortunate that she wrote a book about her life. Many years later I got it published as a birthday present for my father. Needless to say, that has been priceless. In the book, she tells me her life story, even though I didn’t start my research until her death.