Always the loudest man in the room, the widest smile, the best stories, the worst jokes, the biggest heart, and the most full of life. I just can’t stop thinking about Otto. Impossible to wrap my head around his hasty exit.
And it might be getting impatient. Now is the time!
Lost histories and forgotten ancestors just shouldn’t be a thing. So I’m in the business of getting family trees started. Check out the new pages of Black Girl Gone, Seeking Ancestors, to learn about my family history research services. And once you’re ready for some answers of your own, let’s get started on your family tree.
Special offer for Black Girl Gone readers! Blog subscribers: receive a 10% discount if you submit a research request before August 31, 2014
Also, I remain committed to the powerful benefits of genealogy for young people with my nonprofit, Ancestors unKnown. (Stay tuned for an exciting reboot over there that’s coming soon.)
For the first time in a very long time, I wasn’t unhappy to be somewhere at 9 a.m. on a Saturday. Believe it or not, I was even early. At the National Archives of Suriname, I was meeting the participants in the local genealogy project for the first time.
When I was in Suriname last year, I developed the project in partnership with two organizations: Naks, well-known for its education and celebration of Afro-Surinamese cultural heritage, and Evangelische Broeder Gemeente in Suriname (EBGS), responsible for the archives of Suriname’s Moravian Church. Both groups are invested in history, ancestors, education, and young people. And each group has its own youth audience. So it made sense to approach them with the idea of introducing genealogy research to a new audience of Afro-Surinamese young people, combining the extensive archives of EBGS and the historical knowledge of Naks.
Although logical, the plan wasn’t without concerns. Mainly, the two groups don’t typically work together. The church group is typically opposed to the African history side of things, choosing the teachings of the missionaries in their approach to education, perpetuating beliefs that African ancestors = non-Christian = bad (I’m going to do my best to stay neutral here, since these are my friends). Since Naks openly celebrates traditions that are rooted in African heritage, they have a tendency to rub the Christians the wrong way. You know, with the voodoo and all.
But both groups assured me this would be a perfect opportunity for a bridge to mend an arbitrary divide. If young people from Naks and EBGS could come together to learn about a common Surinamese history, while identifying their ancestors and where they come from, a step could be made in a new direction. Everyone (well, at least the decision makers) was on-board to cooperate and experiment with the new partnership.
My other concern had nothing to do with Suriname, but young people everywhere. I wasn’t so sure the passion for genealogy research would translate for a non-retiree audience. I pictured teenagers losing their eyesight from deeply-committed eye-rolls, incapable of seeing documents that were not produced by and/or for their phones. And I feared history and ancestors would be rejected by a forward-thinking generation. My insecurities had me convinced I was too idealistic in thinking young lives could be impacted and changed through knowledge of the past. But again, Naks and EBGS assured me their young people would get it. They assured me it would work.
So in spite of my unplanned return to Amsterdam, planning for the project continued. Thirteen participants were identified for a pilot run of the project, 5 from Naks and 8 from EBGS. They kicked-off with a special event back in November. And the bi-monthly sessions began in January, alternating between genealogy research with EBGS and Surinamese cultural heritage workshops with Naks. I had been receiving updates and general assurances that things were “going well.” But I still wondered if they were just keeping secret the fact that the young people were bored to tears – that is, when they weren’t sparring with crucifixes and voodoo dolls.
Now that I’m back in Suriname, Saturday was my first opportunity to see it firsthand – see my idea come to life, see it actually working. So I woke up early.
Not all of the participants were there, 3 or 4 were missing, I think. And not all of them are young, with ages ranging from late teens to early 30s. But that didn’t matter even a little bit (at least they were under 70, right?). I couldn’t have been happier to see them.
To begin the research process, they had already spoken with their families, arriving at this session with hand-written notes on their family trees. They introduced themselves and explained their interest in their ancestry, and why they wanted to know where they came from (most of this was in Dutch – I did my best to follow). They listened intently to the brief lecture/explanation from the Archives staff. They welcomed me and my brief introduction with smiles (and embarrassing applause). They broke into groups and helped each other comb through the census archives. They chatted with me and answered my random questions enthusiastically. They took vigorous notes. They even went over time and continued to research. And although I was looking at them carefully, I didn’t see one yawn or eye-roll. They actually seemed interested. And when the session ended, they planned to return on their own time to continue researching.
It was like a dream come true. Beyond the empowerment of these young people to do their own research and learn the value of their own histories, I was excited for their ancestors. Finally recognized. Finally going to be known.
Gosh, I cried a little when I got home.
Although I don’t regret moving by any means, I often say that Amsterdam would be 100x better if I could transplant all of my favorite people there. Sadly, no one seems willing to support me on this mission. At least not yet. But one good thing about leaving a lot of people you love behind is having the opportunity to appreciate them even more when visiting. My time in the States is quite short, with only two weeks split between nyc and chicago. So on this visit, I have had to soak up as much love as I can as quickly as possible. And not knowing when I will see many of them again makes this visit that much more critical.
This July visit was planned before my one-way ticket to Amsterdam was even purchased. As soon as my dear friend knew the date of her wedding, I knew my return to the States would be planned around it. Shortly after that, I found out my sister was expecting her third child, who would be born in March. Two visits wouldn’t have been possible. So the priorities of this July visit were baby, wedding, and friends. And since my Mom is in Chicago, it only made sense to tack on an extra leg to the midwest.
I arrived at JFK on Tuesday evening and was immediately greeted by a funky wave of humidity. And having left behind a 70-something degree situation in Amsterdam, this was less than pleasant. Then after about a 25 minute wait, I was on the A train headed for Manhattan. As if no time away from the city had passed, the familiar smells of day-old piss and body odor made me feel right at home. Five semi-talented boys attempted to entertain the car for a couple of stops by jumping around and dancing, a loud family of four shared with all of us the happenings of their day, and a stinky lady passed through only briefly, but left behind her odor for many stops to come. I already missed the independence and odorlessness of my bike rides.
The reunions and couch surfing began immediately. Late-night chats, lunches, dinners, drinks, desserts. And somehow, I’ve managed to see most people I have on a priority list. My niece made a special trip into the city from jersey to meet me, wearing the cutest little outfit and accompanied by my sister. We had most of a day together while my sister worked. The following day my friend’s wedding was perfectly gorgeous and full of love, giving me my fill of good friends, tasty food, alcohol, and dancing (my favorite combination of things, by the way). And it’s been nonstop since then.
The whirlwind tour will continue with some more family time before I head out to Chicago in a couple of days. In the meantime, I’m sitting in union square park, waiting for my next date. Almost every bench is filled, as the lawn is “temporarily closed.” An insane number of temperamental drunk people apparently use the area as a meeting spot at this time of day. And the noise of the traffic is only slightly shielded by the fighting drunks and a little girl crying. Once I see all the people I love, I’m ready to get back to the parks and (my) lazy days in Amsterdam.
I used to love, love, love Christmas (still do!). And judge me if you’d like. But it didn’t have anything to do with baby Jesus. I’m purely into the secular and commercial aspects of the holiday. I believed in Santa until my sister killed the illusion. And I probably could have kept the fantasy going for much longer because I wanted to believe in it. Not so much the fat, white man breaking into homes while people sleep part – that’s undeniably creepy. But it was the mystery of a generous spirit arriving once a year to reward you for being good and kind. And the excitement, generosity, and overall happiness of my family. It was all so fantastic.
And my Mom went big with it. Christmas was such a major affair in our house. We’d have the tree decorated well before the holiday, including the various ornaments my sister and I made throughout the years, and lots of pretty lights. A few wrapped presents were placed under the tree in advance. But the real magic would happen overnight between xmas eve and xmas morning. We’d go downstairs early in the morning to find a fantasy land where barbies and cabbage patch dolls came to celebrate. My dad would have put some things together, with plenty of treasures for my sister and me to enjoy in amazement on our respective sides of the tree (I think she normally had the right side and I had the left). The barbie pool and several dolls would stand out on her side, while a big sled and the “hungry, hungry hippo” game waited for me. I have such vivid, and fond memories of looking over the railing from upstairs to see what was in store for us downstairs on xmas morning. It never disappointed, always filling me with incredible amounts of joy. And although it was somewhat materialistic (who doesn’t like to get fun things every once in awhile?), the overarching sentiment was the fun of anticipation and surprise.
As part of the natural cycle of life, my sister, brother-in-law, and I stayed up until about 3am this morning to prepare for xmas morning for my two nephews. Wrapping, assembling things, making it all look festive and exciting – it was a serious effort. And just like it has pretty much every year before, it made me super happy, remembering how much I love this holiday. The only major difference between xmas now and then is the ability to sleep through the night (xmas was the only day of the year on which I thought it perfectly acceptable to start my day at 4am). And just like my sister and me, my nephews are lucky boys – surrounded by family, love, and incredibly cool presents.
I’m not into many holidays. Valentine’s Day can stay in its exclusive, cardboard, heart-shaped box, Easter and its bunny never really caught on (though one year I got a poorly handwritten note from the Easter bunny thanking me for the cookies I provided, which was really sweet), and 4th of July offends me and my enslaved ancestors. Christmas is my favorite. And for this reason, I’ll always make my best effort to celebrate it with my family – even if that means flying in from Amsterdam every year.
Although the Dutch also celebrate xmas on December 25th, their major holiday around this time of year is Sinterklaas. It’s similar to xmas in that gifts are given to children and there’s a Santa-like figure named Sinterklaas, who happens to be thinner than Santa and from Spain. One major difference is it’s celebrated on December 5th. Oh, and Sinterklaas has a little helper named Black Piet, who is normally a white man in black face, clearly acting as Sinterklaas’ slave. Uhhhh, yeah. I’ll probably have more to say on that next year. But let’s just say I don’t think the Dutch holiday will be replacing xmas anytime soon on my list of favorites.
For now, I’ll just leave it at Happy Holidays to all, whether it’s Christmas, Sinterklaas, Festivus, or whatever holiday brings you joy. I hope everyone is even slightly as blessed as I feel on this day.
As an extension of my genealogy research, I’ve been working on a video project, documenting the process of discovery that I’ve been on with my family this year. When my Mom and I traveled South in July, I took a Flip camera along to record various moments of the journey. Between the videos and documents found, I think it ends up being a pretty interesting story to tell. I’m calling the video “Finding Family.”
One aspect of documenting the story of discovering my family’s history that brings to light a frustrating barrier is our lack of family photos. Since I have no living grandparents, and neither of my parents were particularly nostalgic about holding onto old photos when they would have had access to them, we just don’t have many images of our ancestors. And when we started to think about who would have access to photos, as well as any other details about the family, we came up with some cousins who might be the key to what we’ve needed. Only problem is we don’t have relationships with these (or any) cousins – on either side of my family. Good news is this research project has not only introduced me to ancestors and their remarkable stories, it’s also been an excuse to find the living family. Family with photos, perhaps.
Well, the first new family I’ve found in this process actually found me. Using her ancestry.com account, she found that we have an ancestor in common. Our great grandfathers were brothers, meaning we have the same 2nd great grandfather – Calvin Strother. So she sent me a short email through ancestry, asking if I was indeed related to the Strothers, and if I might have more information about the family. I was so excited to hear from her. We quickly got into long email exchanges about our families and what we could piece together about the Strothers. I would happy-cry uncontrollably, looking at photos of my new cousin, her family, and the one photo she had of her great grandfather, James – my great grandfather’s brother.
I see an unexpected resemblance between him and my father.
She shared details she knew about our 2nd great grandmother and the date of her death, based on a letter her great grandfather received from one of the other brothers, asking for money to help with their mother’s burial costs. Perhaps my great grandfather received a similar letter. I shared information I found about Calvin’s involvement in a controversial 1876 election in South Carolina. He and his brother were among the first black voters to begin voting democratic and faced tons of harassment as a result. Transcripts of their depositions in the trial that followed are fascinating. So anyway, my new cousin and I were so happy to have found each other. I’m looking forward to meeting her at some point.
And then there’s the white woman who received the surprise phone call from her black cousin. I described in an earlier post the discovery that my great grandfather’s white father has family still in Dawson, GA. My 2nd great grandfather and Kathy’s grandmother were siblings. Now since her grandmother never talked about her brother’s black family, cousin Kathy couldn’t give us much information or any photos of my great grandfather or his siblings. But we did leave Dawson with photos of my 3rd great grandparents.
More recently, as I’ve been wrapping up the video project, I’ve gotten more and more frustrated by the complete lack of photos of my mother’s father. In spite of the fact that I knew him well and I was in college when he died, I don’t have access to one photo of him. So my mom and I decided she would reach out to a long lost cousin – her first cousin.
After my mom’s parents were divorced and she moved from Jacksonville to Philadelphia with her mother, she lost touch with much of her father’s family. But since her father and his father were brothers, and she knew him until she was about 9, we figured it wouldn’t hurt to write him a sincere, handwritten note (note to self: if you don’t want someone to write sincere, unsolicited, handwritten notes to you in the future, make sure you can’t be found on google).
Just a few days later, they were speaking on the phone for hours. And he was learning to use a scanner in order to begin sharing the many photos he has of my mother’s family, including my grandfather, great grandfather, great grandmother, and even my 2nd great grandfather (Thomas W. Long). Many of these photos will be of people I’ve never before seen. Fortunately, he described his mother (my grandfather’s sister-in-law) as a pack rat. The possibilities of what he will share are endless.
To hold us over, he shared one incredible photo of my mother and uncle with my grandparents. This is the first photo I’ve ever seen of my mother at this age – same for my grandparents. Pop looks so cool and happy. Nana just looks lovely.
I think most people associate genealogy research only with making connections to the past – at least I used to. But I’m learning that it also creates opportunities to find family and connect in the present, making up for lost time…and lost photos.
Although I started my family research only earlier this year, I quickly became obsessed with it. I also achieved an unusual amount of success in a relatively short period of time. It’s been such a powerful experience. I highly recommend it for any/everyone.
A few people have asked me for tips on getting started with genealogy research. I do not claim to be an expert by any means. But I have learned a few things along the way that may be helpful to some folks. So I figured I’d share. And since I had lots of success by starting online, here are a few tips for starting online family research. (Note: keep in mind I have mostly black ancestors, which in many ways informs my approach to the research.)
1) Write down who/what you know:
- Parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, grandparent siblings, great grandparents, etc.
- Full names (including middle names, if possible), birthdays, birth locations, death locations
2) Sign up for an ancestry.com account (they have a 14-day free trial)
- Populate the family tree with what you know
- Check out the hints they provide
3) Comb through these records:
Federal Census Records
- The most recent published federal census is 1930
- They go back in 10-year intervals (note: the 1890 census burned in a fire back in the day and, therefore, only exists in rare pieces. Don’t count on finding someone in 1890 using the federal census)
- Go backwards – start by looking for your grandparents as children (knowing the date and place of their birth will help you find them on the census)
- Keep in mind that only white ancestors will be found on the census prior to 1870, though free blacks should have been recorded in the northern states (I don’t have personal experience with this)
- Each year they recorded different facts on the census. Everything is useful, but pay careful attention to (and record) the following:
- Names of parents, siblings, anyone else in the household
- Birth location of individual and their parents (this is especially useful when looking for the parents of the oldest people in the household)
- Ages/birth years (some census records will also provide the month of birth) – Note: ages and birth years are rarely precise and commonly change with each census – families frequently estimated birth dates
- Some years the census will ask # years parents were married, providing year of marriage
- Some of the later census records ask the household’s mother # of children born & # of children still living – compare this to who’s still in the household
- Different spellings of names; are they using their middle names?
- Address – at least get the city and county; later years will tell you the street name and house number (note: google the address – sometimes the street and even the house is still there)
- Is the home Owned (“O”) or Rented (“R”)? – an owned home may give you access helpful property records
- Literacy – who can read and write?
- Occupation (confusion about whether a person is the same from one census to the next can sometimes be resolved by the occupation)
Federal Census Slave Schedules – 1860 and earlier
- These records are not incredibly helpful. But if you have an idea of a slave owner’s name, and the approximate age of an enslaved ancestor, you may find these helpful.
- They record the gender, age and race (black vs.mulatto) of black people – no names
State Census Records
- Ancestry will pull state and federal censuses at the same time. State records are helpful because they could take place during the off years of the federal census (for example, Florida has an 1885 and 1935 census). They’re unpredictable. But take a look at what your states of interest recorded.
- Wife’s maiden name – this will allow you to search for a woman as a child, potentially leading to her parents
- Date and location of marriage are important to record
- Age at time of marriage
- Social Security death index – with this, you have the social security #, which will help if requesting an actual death certificate from the county
- Death Certificates – they provide lots of information, though they’re frequently not found online, and sometimes not fully completed
- Look for: date of death, age, location and address, length of time in location, married/single/widowed, name of spouse, maiden name, name of parents
- WWI registration cards – ancestry has many of these. If an ancestor would have been military age through 1918, it’s worth looking for a registration card.
- Look for: age, physical description, address, occupation, single/married, date of registration
- WWII registration cards – also found on ancestry
- Civil War registration cards for Union and Confederacy also provide physical descriptions, locations, and ages. You’ll also get the name of the unit, which likely has been documented well enough to tell you the battles fought with a basic google search.
4) Some other helpful sites to try, using the information you already have:
- http://search.labs.familysearch.org/recordsearch/start.html#start and https://beta.familysearch.org/ – the Mormons are known for having the most comprehensive collection of genealogical resources. Most of these records are found in Salt Lake City, UT. But they’re working on getting everything online. The site is free and has a number of documents not found on ancestry.
- http://my%5Bstate%5Dgenealogy.com (for example: http://mygeorgiagenealogy.com or http://myfloridagenealogy.com)
- they seem to exist for every state
- if you know the county(ies) where ancestors lived, go to the specific county pages
- these sites provide lots of helpful information about how/where records are maintained in the state/county, including links to whatever is maintained online
- http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gs& – Find a grave. You need some information before this will be useful. But you might find a few grave this way. (Note: if you find one person, look nearby for others in the family)
- http://www.afrigeneas.com/ – African ancestored genealogy
- http://www.slavevoyages.org/ – if you’re lucky enough to have enough information to take you to the trans-atlantic slave trade, this site has collected details about specific routes of the trade, and lots of information about specific ships, including those captured.
5) Use Google – search in creative ways
- last name, first name
- “last name, first name”
- “first name last name” + city, state and/or county
- “first name last name” + birth year-death year
- “first name last name” + occupation + location
- any combination of the above
5) Don’t forget about siblings and spouses. They can lead to information about your direct line. They also have interesting stories of their own.
6) Stay cool. It can be frustrating.
My mom and I left the “black belt” on Sunday, driving from Jacksonville to Atlanta, then flying back to NYC, where my mom has stayed for another week before returning home to Chicago. I was so excited for this trip, anticipating an exciting hunt for new information and uncovered stories. I was also worried that my anticipation doomed me to disappointment. Thankfully, I was wrong about the dooming part. I think it’s safe to say the trip exceeded both my mom’s and my expectations. We now have new details and even some photos that add tremendously to our quest. I’ve shared a few stories in the last couple of posts. So I figured I would just sum up a few things before returning my attention for a bit back to Amsterdam.
The primary focus of the trip was on my mother’s family. Although my father’s mother had some roots in Jacksonville, we didn’t really uncover any new information about them while there. We did, however, drive by the site of my grandmother’s childhood home, which, along with many other parts of Jacksonville, looks eerily similar to the way it must have looked in the early 1900s. My maternal grandfather, Pop, has all of his roots in Florida, much of them in Jacksonville. The roots of my maternal grandmother, Nana, go from Georgia to Jacksonville. So our visits to Georgia and Florida benefited both of my mom’s parents.
Nana’s paternal grandparents: Lora Hardwick and George C. Harper. I feel like I’ve written endlessly about George C. Harper, the white guy from the wealthy family who had the long-lasting relationship with my 2nd great grandmother, Lora. George and Lora are just fascinating to me. Having read an article in Dawson, Georgia’s weekly newspaper, dated somewhere around 1880, about the evils of miscegenation and the hateful descriptions of the people who engaged in mixed relationships, I can’t begin to imagine their daily struggles as an illegal family. Now don’t get me wrong, black men who only date white women really annoy me. But evil and illegal? That’s taking it a bit far. I wonder what Lora and George looked like, what they talked about, and whether he willingly gave the black children his prominent last name, or if she forced him. Different parts of me want both scenarios to be true. I imagine Lora as quite strong and proud. Although she was “mulatto,” and her children were therefore a quarter black (although I haven’t yet seen his image, my great grandfather describes himself as having blue eyes), Lora raised all of her children to identify as black. Even more, each of the children went on to marry people with dark complexions, including my great grandmother. It may seem like a trivial coincidence. But at a time when black people were given incentive to shun their blackness whenever possible, I have the utmost respect for the pride and the unquestionable identification with black folks of the light-skinned family.
But I digress with my black Harpers obsession. My point when bringing them up was to describe the mysterious grave of an infant. When visiting the graves of the white Harper family with cousin Kathy, she pointed out each headstone as if reciting a familiar roll call. But one headstone tripped her up: “The Infant of Mr. and Mrs. G.C. Harper, Died Feb. 2, 1904.” G.C. Harper is white George. And the youngest black child we know of was born in the late 1890s. Could there have been a later-born black Harper who died at birth? And would they have actually listed Lora as “Mrs. Harper” in cryptic fashion? George did later marry a white woman. But they didn’t have any children (this woman lists herself as giving birth to 0 children on the 1910 census). Kathy wasn’t sure who the grave belonged to. I don’t think she had ever noticed or paid much attention to it. But honestly, after spending the morning with her new black cousins, I’m not sure she was sure about anything anymore. After much thought and debate that lasted us until Jacksonville, mom and I agreed that the infant must have been a child born to George’s white wife. The timing just didn’t add up because we’re pretty sure Lora had died by 1904. Sad for George, his white wife, and the infant with no name. And really disappointing for us that we can’t claim a black baby snuck its way into the fancy white cemetery.
And one more thing about the Harpers. Along with photos of white George’s parents (my 3rd greats), published in a book we found a photo of the original Harper home. It’s super blurry, and difficult to see much detail. But as soon as we saw it, my mother said, “it looks like there’s someone standing on the porch.” You could make out vague figures. But beyond that, it wasn’t worth the eye strain. I scanned the photo after returning home. And after zooming in and perhaps incorporating some wishful thinking, I feel pretty certain I see an image of a black woman holding a white child, alongside other, less distinguishable figures. Lora’s mother, Julia (also my 3rd great) was the cook for the Harpers in the 1880s. And I know they commonly used the black servants to hold the white children in formal family photographs, as sort of invisible props. So it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Julia would be holding one of George’s younger siblings in this blurry image of the Harper family. Or I could be stretching. Either way.
Nana’s maternal grandparents: Rose and Jim Jackson. Rose (often referred to as Rosa, and also after whom my grandmother was named) and Jim Jackson have been big question marks throughout my research. I just haven’t been able to find either of them on census records as children. And other than a story my great grandmother told my mom as a child about her grandmother, Mary, attempting to escape slavery as a teenager and being caught by a dog, we haven’t had any information about either Rose’s or Jim’s parents. If the Mary story were even true, we didn’t know if she was Rose’s or Jim’s mother.
So when arriving in Georgia, I was hopeful that we could get even the slightest bit of information on the Jacksons. After an unsatisfying visit to the Dougherty County library, we came out with only one real piece of information that very well could have been about other people: a marriage index listing for a James Jackson and Rosa Phillips. The marriage date was several years after my great grandmother’s birthday, so I at first dismissed it. But my mother verified that she knew they were indeed married years after their children were born (the scandal!). Worth looking into, but beyond going to the courthouse, there was no way to be sure this record was for my ancestors.
Fast forward to the Dougherty County Probate Court. They were able to pull the marriage certificate, which didn’t provide much more information than the index. But the trick was requesting each of their death certificates. Although death certificates are unpredictable with regards to the amount of information they include (it depends on how much the informant knew at the time of death), we were prepared to pay $25 for each certificate, if only for a hint of any new information. Not only did the nicest woman in Albany, GA return with two completely filled out death certificates, with all four of their parents listed, but she didn’t charge us a cent because we were requesting the information for genealogy research…”I’m not gonna charge ya for these copies.” Once I got over the emotion caused by her kindness, I teared up over the names of an entirely new generation of my great grandmother’s family – her grandparents! Jim Jackson was a junior, as his father was Jim Jackson, Sr. His mother was Mary Gilbert, which verifies the story about a Mary, and explains why my great grandmother’s brother’s name was Gilbert. Rose’s parents were Dinah and Martin Phillips, verifying that her maiden name was indeed Phillips and we had located the correct marriage certificate. And if these discoveries weren’t enough, we went back to the hotel to look at earlier census records, finding Jim Jackson as a child, living with his parents…and his grandfather, Miles Jackson! That makes Miles my 4th great grandfather. It’s almost too much, yet never enough.
Pop’s maternal grandparents: Laura and Alexander Brooks. Okay, these two still remain somewhat of a mystery. Although Pop’s father’s family has taken me to a Zulu ancestor, his mother’s family has been harder to trace. It was only earlier this year that I learned Laura and Alexander’s names after finding them on the census, living with my great grandmother who was a young girl at the time. Beyond that, I’m stuck. While in Jacksonville we were able to narrow down the years of each of their deaths by going through public directories and seeing when they were no longer listed. But then I couldn’t find either of them listed in the local death index. They died years apart, yet they are equally impossible to find.
I just have to keep trying. What I have learned throughout this process is the information is there…somewhere…waiting to be found. And the ancestors certainly want to be found. Some details may just be a bit more difficult to uncover, perhaps a bit dusty, or maybe even lacking sufficient pixels to make anything out. But trust that none of these challenges will stop me from digging. Every day it becomes more and more important to give names to my ancestors, making sure they know their lives and their legacies have not been erased or forgotten. I owe them at least that much.
Yesterday’s high temperature in Albany, GA was 101 degrees. Today will be the same. Going between an air conditioned car, an air conditioned hotel, and air conditioned libraries makes it bearable. The luxuries of today didn’t exist for black folks one hundred years ago. On top of the countless adversities they faced that we frequently discuss, like deadly threats of racism, insurmountable economic challenges, and unequal access to health care, I can’t begin to imagine how they dealt with this heat.
In addition to the race, age, occupation, literacy, and a few other interesting facts, the 1910 federal census provided the street and house number for each family. Based on street maps of their addresses, we’re able to place every family member who participated in the census that year, which is actually most of them. So we assume that, living several blocks apart in 1910, my teenage great grandparents would have met somewhere between Madison and Flint Avenues in Albany, Georgia.
Since we’ve come to Georgia to learn more about who they were and what they experienced back in the day, it only made sense to plug the 1910 addresses into the 2010 GPS. And since Albany isn’t a very large city, we didn’t have to drive more than 5 minutes from the main library to arrive 100 years back in time.
The homes that my ancestors lived in are no longer standing. However, what must be exact replicas remain across the street. George Harper, my great grandfather, lived with his older sister and her family on Madison Avenue. They were in a tiny, one-story home that may have only looked slightly less dilapidated and depressing then than they do now. One of the homes that still stands has a “Danger” sign on the front door, undoubtedly warning against the inhabitable nature of the structure. Sadly, we saw people living in similar homes just a few doors down.
We drove down several blocks to Flint, where my great grandmother, Essie, lived at 14, and where her parents lived for the duration of their lives, and where my grandmother and her brother even lived for much of their childhoods. Tiny wood structures, which at one point had no running water or electricity, were homes to 5, 6, even 7 people. To be honest, I can’t begin to imagine how they did it, as I sometimes feel selfishly cramped in a one-bedroom apartment by myself. Living on top of one another in those homes…really, how did they deal with this heat?
Driving to the Dawson library to meet Kathy, the white cousin we discovered by phone the day before, I was quite nervous. We already know the black children of my white 2nd great grandfather, George, were not accepted by his family or neighbors in Dawson, GA, which is why they all moved to Albany and lived in poverty after their mother’s death. Although Kathy’s sentiments may be a far cry from those of her grandmother’s (George’s sister), my biased perceptions of the South made me fear she would feel exactly the same about the secret black family as they did in 1890.
Walking into the library, we had our eyes open for an older white woman with a furrowed brow. Instead, we were met with a smiley woman, waving at us, standing toward the back of the room. My mother and I shook her hand and we all walked toward the genealogy room, where we had done our research the day before. Kathy said what summed up all of our sentiments, “I just can’t wait to learn more!”
We shared facts, traded dates, and exchanged photocopies. She was riveted by the stories of the black side of the family, and the ways in which paths crossed with the ancestors she knew. Although her grandmother, aunts, and uncles never spoke of her mysterious Uncle George, his black lady-friend, or his black children, she had some interesting details that added to the puzzle of their mysterious lives. She described “small tenant homes” by the railroad tracks, about 100 yards from the main (mansion-type) house, which at one point were the only other homes on the property. That must have been where my 2nd great grandmother (Lora) lived when she began the affair with George. And perhaps even more interesting, Kathy’s aunt told her a story of a smaller house behind the main house that their mother “built for Uncle George.” George would have been in his twenties, and he had about five children. His mother may have been pissed at him for falling in love with a black woman, whose mother was her cook. But she cared enough for him to make sure they were taken care of, at least for the short term. We presume the children only left the decent arrangement after Lora died, and George moved on to marry a white woman.
After about an hour of story-sharing, Kathy took us on a driving tour of Dawson. We visited the graves of my 4th great grandparents and many other members of the family, as they all share an impressive lot in the cemetery. We saw the main family home, and where Kathy now lives across the street (her grandmother’s former home). We saw the railroad tracks, and where Lora’s small tenant house formerly stood. And we saw the larger house that was built for George and his secret family, which, by our Albany standards, was quite substantial for a black family at the time. Overall, in spite of a few awkward moments stemming from Kathy’s discussion of her former cook, Cookie, and her preference to be color-blind (she only has the best of intentions), we had a delightful afternoon in Dawson, GA with our new, white cousin.
Our family story just gets more and more colorful by the minute.
As most of you know, Amsterdam isn’t the only journey I’ve been seeking recently. I have been working hard for the past few months on researching my family history. It’s become a borderline obsession, really. It only took one minor discovery on an 1880 census record (a woman whom I recently figured out wasn’t even my actual ancestor) to trigger hours and hours spent online, and more recently in the NY Public library to put together puzzle pieces of stories that go back almost 200 years.
The first couple of months felt easy. Everywhere I looked I found treasures of information. In combination with long phone calls, memories, and investigative skills of my mother, it seemed like we could go as far back as we cared to. Maiden names, siblings, parents, spouses (and surprise multiple spouses), birth dates, death dates, burial locations – so much information was there waiting for us. And then it was a matter of documenting addresses and understanding migration patterns on both my mother’s and father’s side, which strangely overlap in some cases. All more time consuming than challenging.
But after a few months of taking advantage of the low hanging fruit, it’s become time to start climbing the trees. I am still uncovering new information, just not as frequently. For instance, the woman I mentioned above from the 1880 census – I had been told my 2nd great grandmother on my father’s side was Anna. She was always Anna. So when I found her, along with a woman by my great grandmother’s name listed as her daughter, it was a no brainer. But last week, after further research, and finding the death certificates of two of her children (including my great grandmother, Mamie), I not only learned that her maiden name was Scott, but her first name was Emma. Emma Scott…not Anna. Along with that, I found her husband, a man whose identity has eluded me this entire time: John A. Perry. So my original sources have not been exhausted yet. But it’s about time for me to take the next step to uncover more details, more names, and hopefully more years.
The next step in this research project involves getting on a plane, meeting my mother in Atlanta, and essentially taking a trip back in time to learn more about our family. At the end of this month, we’ll rent a car and drive to two small cities in Georgia: Dawson and Albany. Much of my mother’s family originates there. In Dawson I’m hopeful that we may be able to break through the intimidating barrier to research known as slavery. If we can get our hands on some property records for the man we suspect enslaved my third and second great grandmothers, Julia and Lora, we may be able to find out where Julia came from and the names of her parents. Just the thought of that makes me anxious to get there.
Lora’s son, my great grandfather, George (after whom my late uncle was named) later moved to Albany with his siblings after his mother died. George is the one with the white father and somewhat curious family circumstances that I described in an earlier post. When he was about 18, he was living down the street from my great grandmother, Essie – she was about 13. We believe they met during this time, although they weren’t married for another 10 years or so (after he returned from WWI). In Albany we plan to go to their old addresses and imagine what it must have been like for them to live there in 1910. Based on the Google maps streetview, we have a pretty good chance of seeing the original houses. There are a number of other items to uncover in Albany. But I have a feeling 1910 might be the coolest year.
From Albany we’ll head down to Jacksonville, Florida, where there’s just tons of history, for both my mother and father. Here’s a good one: my grandfather (mom’s father) never talked much about his family. So much of what we’re learning about them is brand new information. His grandmother’s married name was Laura Brooks. Unfortunately we don’t know Laura’s parents, and haven’t known her maiden name. We only have her married to my 2nd great grandfather as an adult. The curious thing is the earliest I’ve been able to find her in the census, in 1880 when she’s married with kids, several of her children have different last names – Mitchell, not Brooks. They’re listed as “stepchildren” in relation to Laura’s husband. Did she just have a lot of children before she was married, and gave them her maiden name? These children were relatively old, indicating she had them when in her late teens. But then, five years later, she’s still living with my 2nd great grandfather and they have several children, including my grandfather’s mother. (It only gets more confusing. So if you’re lost, just skip to the next paragraph.) The older, half-siblings are no longer there. But they just might be adult neighbors living with their own families. Instead, there’s a whole new set of children with yet another last name – Kyler. These Kyler children are similar in age to the Brooks children. They’re listed as stepchildren to Laura’s husband, just like the Mitchells five years earlier. Who is the father of the Kyler children? And while we’re at it, who’s the father of the Mitchell children? And where were the Kyler children five years earlier when the youngest of them was born six years earlier. Were they living with their father? And how is Laura still functioning after having all of these children (we’re up to 12)? Well, long story less long, we discovered her in 1870, 5 years before she met my 2nd great grandfather. She’s living with the oldest set of kids, but they’re very young. There’s no husband/father. But her last name is Mitchell. She’s living with two single men – one has kids; the other is alone and named…Harrington Kyler. The oldest Kyler child was born 4 years later. Something fishy is going on there. And I’d like to get to the bottom of it. Hopefully we’ll get another clue while in Jacksonville.
And, with just as much importance, my mother grew up in Jacksonville. So while we’re there in the depths of history, I’m expecting we’ll also take this as an opportunity to remember the not so distant past, allowing her to revisit her childhood. I’m looking forward to learning more about my ancestors on this trip. I’m looking forward to learning more about my mother. And I’m looking forward to learning more about myself. All equally.
This might be a first: I’m more excited about this vacation than any other I have taken in the past. And I’m not even leaving the country!