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Thoughts of an Accidental Local Historian

I recently was the recipient of the 2013 Caroline Historical Society Award in recognition for my efforts to research, document, promote, and preserve the history of Caroline County, Virginia.  This was one of several awards that I have received for my efforts to preserve local history.  As I drove to Caroline County, Virginia to attend the meeting where I would be presented with the award I thought about the path that led me to become a local historian.

I have always been a bookroom who loved school, reading, writing and performing research.  However, as a student, history was my least favorite subject.  It was just an endless list of dates and events that had no significance to me.  Despite my lack of interest in history, I did enjoy researching my family history.

I became interested in genealogy as a teenager after Alex Haley’s book and movie Roots became popular in the 1970’s. My research at that time mainly consisted of talking to a few relatives and reviewing census microfilm.  As a young adult, college, career, marriage and motherhood caused me to put my research aside; however, every once in awhile I would do a little research.

In 2004, I began to devote more time to my research. Technology has changed greatly since I first started my research back in the 1970’s. The internet has provided me access to many resources and people that were previously unavailable.   Additionally, the 1930 census was now available and this document provided the link that I needed to research my family all the way back to 1870 in Caroline County, Virginia.  I was able to locate cousins who lived in Caroline County and began traveling to the county to perform research.

As I became more involved in my research I wanted to know more than names on a pedigree chart. I wanted to know about the everyday occurrences of my ancestors: Where did they live? Work? Go to School? What clubs and social organizations did they belong to?  I became interested in the community where they lived, the impact they had on the community and the impact the community had on their lives. Understanding this information gives me a better understanding and appreciation for my ancestors.

I began taking an active role in preserving the history of the communities in which my ancestors lived.  I created my website (woodforkgenealogy.com) to share documents and other information that would help others with their research. I was one of several interviewers for the Fort AP Oral History Project. The final product of the project was a book titled Wealthy in Heart: Oral History of Life Before A.P. Hill.   

As I traveled to various, archives, libraries and other repositories to perform research; I noticed a dearth of information about African Americans.  However, as I talked to African Americans in the county, I would hear interesting stories of their lives growing up in Caroline County.   As I listened to their stories, I would often think, “This is wonderful information. Someone should write it down and preserve it.”   In 2009, I decided to become that someone.  I initiated the Union High History Project to research, document and preserve the history of Caroline County, Virginia’s only high school for Negroes during the era of segregation. The end product of this project was a book titled, Memories of Union High: An Oasis in Caroline County, Virginia 1903-1969My experience with the Union High History Project inspired me to start speaking to genealogy groups on the importance of preserving local history.

I no longer see history as a list of insignificant dates and events. Instead history gives me a better appreciation for what I have today,  inspires me to continue the legacy and make the future better for the next generation.

Genealogy Buddies

My mother piqued my interest in family history when I was child by sharing her photo albums, memorabilia and tidbits of information.  I started researching my family history when I was in high school but did not get serious about my research until almost 30 years later.  By that time, my mother had dementia and was not able to share in my research.  No one else in my family shares my passion for genealogy so I usually don’t discuss my research with family.

Although my husband does not share my interest in genealogy he is very supportive of my interest.  He does not complain when I ask him to make a detour when we are on vacation so I can visit a library or archive to do some research. He always obliges me when I ask him to proofread something I have written and does not mind that my research stuff take up 95% our home office space.

My husband is a great sport when it comes to my research.   However, when I really need someone to talk to I call on one of my genealogy buddies.  I rely on my genealogy buddies to share the joy of a new discovery, commiserate about the frustration of a brick wall and to keep me motivated.

One time I went into a panic when I thought I had lost a notebook containing all the research on my Shakespeare ancestors.  Although I had backup copies of all the items in the notebook, the thought of losing my neatly organized binder nearly brought me to tears.  “What are you looking for”, my husband asked when he saw me frantically searching in the office closet.  “I can’t find my Shakespeare notebook”, I replied.  “I am sure you will find it”, he calmly replied and went on his way.  I needed to talk to someone who would truly understand what I was going through so I called my genealogy buddy, Robyn.  “I can’t find my Shakespeare notebook”, I wailed when she answered the phone.  “Oh girl, I know how you feel”, she replied and proceeded to tell me about the time she had misplaced some of her research.  We talked for a while and I was much calmer after our conversation ended.  I later resumed my search and found my notebook.

My genealogy buddies give me a push when  I need it.   When I had a very rough draft of my book on Union High School, I shared it with a graphic designer to get his input for a cover and the book layout. My heart sank as he flipped through my draft and made comments:   He did not like my tentative title, he did not like my idea for the cover design, he did not like the pictures I had selected, and he did not like my concept for the book layout. In short, he did not like anything about the book.  As I drove home after the meeting I became dejected and started to doubt my ability to complete the project.  When I got home I put my rough draft away and moped around the house for awhile.  Then I called my genealogy buddy, Vanessa, and told her about my experience.

She could hear the dejection in my voice and sought to reassure me.  She pointed out that this was just one person’s opinion and that I should not let it deter me.   She encouraged me to seek the advice of another graphic designer and others who had published local history books.  After my conversation with Vanessa, my vision for the book became clearer and my motivation returned.  I thought of a new title for the book and found a graphic designer and editor who helped turn my vision for Memories of Union High:  An Oasis in Caroline County, Virginia 1903-1969 into a reality. I have received many compliments on the book, congratulations from my congressional representative, recognition from the Caroline County Board of Supervisors and the book was a Finalist in the African American Non-fiction category for the 2012 National Indie Excellence Book Awards contest.  None of this would have happened without Vanessa’s pep talk.

I am also inspired by many other genealogist and family historians: Alice Harris, President of the Central Maryland AAHGS chapter  who always does such a great job planning so many informative events for the chapter,  Thomas McEntee who shares a lot of useful information on his blog and has so many inspirational guests on his GeneaBloggers Blog Talk Radio show,   Bernice Bennett who also has great guests on her Blog Talk Radio show, as well as, the many people I meet at genealogy conferences, forums and chat rooms.

Every family historian needs genealogy buddies to keep them going.  I am so thankful for mine.

Appreciation for the Opportunities We Have Today

Performing genealogy and local history research gives me an appreciation for many of the opportunities I have today.  For most adults, attending school as a child and learning to read and write are skills we take for granted.  Such was not the case for many of our ancestors.  For many, educational opportunities were few to non-existent.  When educational opportunities did exist, many people could not take advantage of them because the daily tasks of providing food, shelter and clothing often took precedence over receiving an education.

A few years ago while visiting a cousin who agreed to share information on my Woolfolk ancestors; I had an experience that caused me to reflect upon my life.  One of the items my cousin shared with me was a letter written in 1906 by Lucy Jane Woolfolk Ellis, the sister of my great grandfather, Overton Woolfolk.  Lucy Jane was born in 1875, a little more than ten years after the end of slavery.  According to the 1900 census, Lucy Jane could not read or write so the letter may have been written for her by someone else.

Lucy Jane Woolfolk Ellis Letter – 1906

Reading the letter was a stark reminder of the value of education.  The letter did not contain any punctuation and was filled with so many grammatical and spelling errors that it was almost impossible to read.  After almost an hour, I was able to decipher the letter and learned some valuable information about my Woolfolk ancestors.

Like many of my contemporaries, I never give a second thought to the fact that I can read and write.  I am cognizant of the educational opportunities I have received and appreciate how those opportunities have greatly enhanced my life.  However, I don’t think I am special.   Lucy Jane’s letter made me pause and really appreciate all that I have and how far all of the Woolfolk descendants have come.

This experience illustrates the importance of family and community history.  I believe people who understand the past have a better appreciation for what they have today and will feel a responsibility for continuing the legacy and making the future better for the next generation.  As family and community historians we must continue to preserve the past and encourage the next generation to take advantage of all the opportunities afforded them.

My Ancestors are Talking To Me

I try to be very organized when I am performing research.  Before going on a research trip, I identify the ancestors I will be researching, check the library’s catalog to determine what resources are available and make a list of questions I would like to answer.   However, some of my best genealogy finds have happened when I was not looking for the information.  When this happens, I jokingly say my ancestors are talking to me.

Here are some examples of some great information I stumbled upon while performing genealogy research.

  • My 2nd great Aunt Matilda Shakespeare had several children while she was enslaved.  One was a son name John Henry Lewis.   At the end of the Civil War Matilda married Dingo Rollins and they had several children.  I found their marriage certificate and the family in the 1870 and 1880 census.  I also found a death record that indicated Matilda died on June 27, 1882.  I could not find any more information on the Rollins family after the 1880’s.  One day I traveled to the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center in Fredericksburg, VA for a research trip.   The volunteers were very helpful as I searched for information on Dingo Rollins, his children and John Henry Lewis. Unfortunately, we did not find any information on the Rollins family.

A few days later I was contacted by the volunteer who was helping me on my research trip.  She told me she had located documents for a court case involving John Henry Lewis and Dingo Rollins’ children.  She happened upon the information when she was looking through a box that was sitting on the shelf.  Another volunteer told her the box had been there for awhile.  The court documents contained a wealth of information on Dingo Rollins and his children including the married names of his daughters and their spouses, as well as the fact that they had moved from Caroline County, Virginia to Washington, DC.   I was able to use this information to further trace the family line and locate some of Matilda and Dingo’s living descendants. They shared with me a family Bible which had a lot of birth, death and marriage information, as well as, numerous photographs.

Matilda & Dingo Rollins’ Daughter Mary Rollins Jones

Matilda & Dingo Rollins’ Daughter
Rachel Rollins Ferguson

John Henry Lewis Sr

John Henry Lewis Sr
Matilda Shakespeare Rollins’ son

  • Two of my ancestors were born, lived and died in Washington, DC.  I assumed they were married in the city as well.  On several occasions, I looked for their marriage certificate at the DC Archive and did not have any luck.  One day while on a research trip to the Library of Virginia, I was scrolling through a microfilm for marriage records when I realized I had scrolled past the name I was looking for.  I looked closely at the microfilm and to my surprise I had stopped on the marriage certificate for the ancestors I believed had married in Washington, DC.  They were married in Alexandria, Virginia which is a little more than 10 miles outside Washington, DC.   Since, I had known both the bride and groom to have lived in Washington, DC all their lives; I never thought to look elsewhere for the marriage certificate.
  • Emma Woolfolk is the sister of my great grandfather, Overton Woodfork.  She married Barnett Hawkins on February 22, 1883 and they had a son name William (Willie).  Willie married Fannie Turner on February 25, 1909. They are listed in the 1910 census and in a 1916 deed, but then the trails went cold. A few years later, I was at the Caroline County Court researching schools for a book I was writing.   I was flipping through a Chancy Court book to locate a certain page and realized I had gone too far.  I glanced at the page as I prepared to flip back a few pages and the name Fannie Hawkins caught my eye.  I had unknowingly stopped on the page that contained the divorce decree from Fannie and William Hawkins.

What about you?  Share some of your stories when you accidentally discovered information that was helpful to your research.

My Martha Shakespeare Saga

If you read my Genealogy Envy post , you know that I am always complaining that my family is boring.  Yesterday, I thought the genealogy gods had smiled on me and given me a breakthrough.  It turns out that would not be the case, but I thought I would share my adventure.

On Saturday, November 19th, I attended a meeting at the Central Maryland Chapter of AAHGS.  Angela Walton-Raji , gave a very informative presentation on the Best Internet Resources for African American Genealogy Research. After leaving the meeting I was inspired to visit some of the sites she mentioned.  I have not been working on my family history for the past two years, because I have been doing research for a book I am writing on Union High School in Caroline County, Virginia.

I decided to search FamilySearch.org for my 3rd great grandfather, Sancho Shakespeare. I had searched the website in the past but had not found much information.   To my surprise I found an entry in the Ohio Death records for  Martha Lewis who died in 1914. She was born in Virginia and her father was Sancho Shakespeare and her mother was Lucinda.  I got excited because there was a link to view the death certificate for FREE.    With the exception of her mother’s last name, all of the information  was what I expected.  Unfortunately, the death certificate did not have an informant.

Martha Lewis Death Certificate

Martha Lewis Death Certificate

Martha Shakespeare is the sister of my 2nd great grandmother Louisa Shakespeare. Everything I found out about her has been by accident.  She is listed in the Freedman’s Bureau Register of Colored Persons of Caroline County, State of Virginia, cohabitating together and husband and wife on 27th February, 1866  as one of the children of my 3rd great grandparents, Sancho and Lucinda Shakespeare.  She is also in the 1870 census with them.  After that I could not find her.  So I stopped looking for her.

After a few years I found her marriage license by accident when I was searching the Central Rappahannock Heritage database for my great 3rd great grandfather, Sancho Shakespeare.  She married Arthur Lewis.  This was her second marriage because she is listed as a widow and her name is Martha Hart.  I found Arthur and Martha Lewis in the 1900, 1910 and 1920 census in Washington, DC  that I thought were them, but could not find anything else.  So I stopped looking.

Arthur Lewis and Martha Hart Marriage Certificate

Arthur Lewis and Martha Hart Marriage Certificate

My new find on FamilySearch.org let me know that Martha and Arthur had moved to Ohio. I started searching the census in Ohio and found her and her husband in the 1910 Hamilton County Cincinnati Ohio census living in the household of John W. Merritt.  John’s wife was Ella Merritt.  Martha was listed as John’s sister-in law and her husband  was listed as John’s brother in law.  Since John’s wife was born in Virginia and Arthur was born in Virginia, I guessed that Arthur was Ella’s brother.

Arthur continued to live with the Merritts in the 1920 census.  However, in the 1930 census he was a boarder in the household of Gertrude Anderson.   I wondered what happened to the Merritts.   Further research in FamilySearch.org showed that Arthur Lewis died in 1935 in Cincinnati OH.  I retrieved his death certificate and saw the informant was Ella Merritt who was living in Chicago Illinois.  That solved the mystery of what happened to the Merritts.

Arthur Lewis Death Certificate

Arthur Lewis Death Certificate

I looked for the Merritts in the Chicago, Illinois and found them in the 1930 census. John and Ella were living in Cook County Chicago Illinois. Their adult children: William, Arthur D. and Lenora were living with them.

I continued to search for the Merritt’s in Illinois.  Ella died in 1945.  Her son, Arthur died in 1969.  The social security death index in Ancestry.com had a link from the record to the Cook County, Illinois website which has a lot of their vital records online.  Each record can be accessed for $15 plus a $1.75 fee.  I didn’t want to spend $30+, so I took a gamble and purchased Arthur’s death certificate since he died more recently.  I was hoping I could use the informant on the death certificate to locate a living descendant.  I paid the fee and retrieved his death certificate.  Much to my chagrin, the informant was the Admitting Clerk at Mercer Medical Center.  I WASTED my hard earned $16.75.

Arthur Merritt Death Certificate

Arthur Merritt Death Certificate

Arthur and Martha did not have any children that I could tell. (The census says Martha has one living child, but he/she is never living with them.)  I was hoping to trace the Merritts to a living descendant and find out more about my Shakespeare ancestors.  But that trail ran cold because all of their children never married, never had any children, and lived with their parents forever!!!!!

So now I am stuck again!!!!!    My genealogy luck stinks. :(

But on a positive note, I did learn that FamilySearch.org is a great research tool.

Genealogy Envy

I often get frustrated when tracing my family history because I rarely find anything interesting.  “My family history is so boring”, I often complain to my genealogy buddy, Robyn. “Your family history is much more interesting”, I tell her.   Robyn just laughs and says, “Girl, you are so silly!!!”

Sometimes when I listen to Robyn talk about her family history, I get a slight case of genealogy envy. One of her family lines is the Holt’s from Hardin County, Tennessee. She is related to Lester Holt who is a news anchor for the weekend edition of NBC’s Today and Nightly News.  Her Holt relatives intermarried on two sides of Alex Haley’s family and she is related to his paternal grandmother, Queen. The Haley’s have been a part of her family for awhile and attend the family reunions.  Her great great grandfather, John Holt, was the largest black landowner in Hardin County, was the Postmaster, owned a store and had a school named for him (Holtsville).

The The Children of

The Children of John Holt

If that is not enough, another of her family lines is the Waters from Eastern Shore, MD. Several of them were Methodist ministers and the family had been free since 1819. Her paternal grandmother, Pauline Waters Smith, went to Bennett College and served on the Board of Trustees. Her paternal great grandmother was a Prather and was educated at the Institute for Colored Youth in Pennsylvania, a prominent school that later became Cheyney University and is the oldest historically black college and university (HBCU) in the nation.

And there is even more.  Her grandfather (Pauline’s husband) William Smith started a string of successful pharmacies in Jacksonville in the 1940s. The family was well-known and prosperous. They owned a beach house on American Beach – a popular beach for Negroes in Florida during the era of segregation – and were featured in several newspaper articles.

On top of all this she has met numerous new relatives.  And almost every new relative she meets shares a ton of pictures and information with her.  The room in her house where she does her genealogy research looks like a museum with all the photos of her ancestors!!!

Most family historians would love to have ancestors who were movers and shakers in their community.  However, for many that will not be the case.  Many of our ancestors were just ordinary people who spent their lives working hard to provide their families with the basic necessities of life.

I come from a family of ordinary folks who lived ordinary lives.  My family is very private and does not talk much about the family history. There is no oral history that was passed down through the generations.  I have a few photos of my grandparents, but nothing for the previous generations.   Most of the family history I know I obtained in bits and pieces from relatives and a lot of research.

Willie Woodfolk my paternal great grandfather's brother

Willie Woodfolk - My paternal great grandfather's brother

Susan Woolfolk Waugh

Susan Woolfolk Waugh - My paternal great grandfather's sister

I have not met anyone who is researching my direct family line.  However, I have met a few cousins who are descendants from siblings of my great grandfather, Overton Roy Woodfork.   One cousin in Philadelphia had an interest in the family history and had done research.  She shared with me a family bible, pictures and other documents that were very helpful.  We still talk occasionally.  I have met a few other new cousins who have been helpful as well.

One time I thought I had found something interesting, but it fizzled out.  I was contacted by the descendant of my ancestors slave owner (Elijah Wiggelsworth) after being featured in a news article about the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center (CRHC) in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  We scheduled a meeting.  The meeting was pleasant, but uneventful. The majority of the information the lady had on the Wiggelsworth family was after the Civil War (which was not very helpful to me) and she did not have any information on their slaves.

I plan to read Melvin Collier’s book 150 Years Later:  Broken Ties Mended in which he discusses his journey to locate descendants of his ancestors who were separated during slavery. I believe the book concludes with a discussion of how all the descendants he located got together for a family reunion 150 years after their ancestors had been separated.  How exciting!!!  Maybe one day I will be so lucky.

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