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.
In an earlier post , I talked about my genealogy buddy Robyn and how I would sometimes get genealogy envy when she discussed her ancestor’s many accomplishments. Robyn recently wrote a great post on Joseph Harbour, one of her ancestors with a criminal past. Since I had written about the many accomplishments of Robyn’s ancestors, I thought I would share this story to remind everyone that almost every family has some ancestors with a shady past. When we are researching and preserving our family history we must document the good and the bad. One thing I love about Robyn is she always has an interesting story to tell.
Robyn also wrote a great post on Alabama Convict Records which gives great tips on using convict records to locate ancestors who seem to have disappeared for a few years.
Writing your memoir is a great way to preserve family history. Many people think their life is too mundane to share. You don’t have to have lived a miserable childhood, suffered some tragic fate or hobnobbed with the rich and famous to write your memoir. Everyone has a story to tell. Telling your story is a great way to preserve your legacy and show others how you came to be the person you are today. In addition others will learn valuable life lessons from your experiences.
It does not have to be a Pulitzer Prize novel like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes or a great family saga like Alex Haley’s Roots that is published for the world to see. Just write down your recollections of people, places and events in your life and share it with your family and friends.
My mother wrote her memoir in which she described her life growing up and living in Washington, DC from the 1920′s forward. She wrote it out in long-hand on notebook paper. We typed the information, supplemented it with pictures and other memorabilia and had it copied and bound at the local copy store. My mother’s memoir is truly a family treasure that can be passed on to future generations.
In addition to preserving family history, writing your memoir is also a great way to preserve local history. Florence Coleman Bryant wrote her memoir titled Memoirs of Country Girl which contains her recollections of growing up in a farming community in Caroline County, Virginia during the Depression. I used the book as a resource when researching Union High School in Caroline County, Virginia in preparation for writing a book. Ms. Bryant’s memories of Caroline County and Union High were a value asset to preserving the history of the county and school.
Here are a few tips for writing your memoir:
- Pick an area of focus. It is not necessary tell your life story in chronological order starting at birth. You can write about a particular time period in your life, a particular event, or a person who influenced you. Your memoir can be a collection of unrelated stories about your life.
- Just write. Your first objective is to get your memories on paper. You can either type or write them, whichever you find easiest. Make a list of memories as they occur to you. Don’t worry about the details, spelling, grammar, punctuation. You can make changes later. Just let your thoughts flow and write.
- Be Yourself. Write in the first person in your natural voice.
- Take Your Time. Don’t’ try to write everything at once. Write for awhile, put it down and come back to it later. Some people find it useful to write every day for at a certain time in a special place. Others write whenever a thought comes to them. Keep a pen and paper or digital recorder with you at all times so you can record your memories when they occur.
- Be truthful but tactful. You want to be truthful but it is not necessary to write a tell-all novel that spills the family secrets or divulges all your personal business. Some information may be too personal or painful to share.
- Be gracious. Refrain from make disparaging remarks about others. Be aware that the statements you make will impact their life. Be sure you are able to support what you say.
- Use photographs and memorabilia to jog your memory. Look through photo albums, scrapbooks and memorabilia and write down what you remember.
- Use periodicals to jog your memory. Browse magazines and newspapers and make a list of national, state and local events. Write down your memories of these events and the impact they had on your life.
- Listen to music. Listen to old songs and write your memories as they come to you.
- Fill in the details. After your finish the draft add some background to put your story in the proper context. Searching the internet is a good place to find information. Search for events, people and places you mentioned in your story. Do research to confirm your recollection of historical facts or well-known events is accurate. For each story you have written, ask yourself: What was the occasion? Who was involved? When did the event occur? Where did it take place? How was my life impacted by the event?
Early I wrote a post about the Washington High DC School Cadet Corps.
A few months ago while performing research at the Martin Luther King Library in downtown Washington DC, I came across several photos of Washington High DC School Cadet Corps. I was surprise to find a photo of a female cadet corps since everything I read about the cadet corps indicated it was for males only.
I decided to post them here to compliment my earlier post.
One of my early childhood memories is practicing writing my name so that I could get my own library card. I wanted to be a big girl like my siblings and check out my own library books instead of having my mother check them out for me. Once a week my mother would take my siblings and me to the local library where we would check out shopping bags full of books, magazines and records. For big research projects, my mother would take us to the main library downtown where we had access to a larger selection of materials.
The library system has grown a lot since my childhood days. It is now possible to obtain a library card for a variety of library systems. In addition to providing access to items in the library, the library card also provides access to a wealth of online resources.
Here are a few tips for accessing resources outside of your community library.
- Community College – The community college in my county allows residents who don’t attend the college to obtain a Community Patron library card. Check with the community college library in your community to see if they have a similar program.
- Reciprocal Library Agreements -Some library systems have reciprocal agreements with the library systems in nearby communities which allow patrons with a library cards to obtain a free library card by showing a card from their library.
- Nonresident/Out-of-Region Access - Library cards are not always limited to residents of the community. Some libraries will also give library cards to people work, go to school or own property in the community. Other libraries will give a library card to nonresidents for a small fee. I do a lot of research in Caroline and Spotsylvania County, Virginia. These counties are serviced by the Central Rappahannock Regional Library (CRRL) system. Since I have no ties to the state or counties, I do not quality for a free library card. However, I am able to obtain a nonresident library card for an annual fee of $30.
- College Libraries – Many college libraries will grant library cards to alumni and staff. Additionally they may have Friends of the Library Program which will give library cards to people who make donations to the school. College libraries are excellent source for research because they provide access to theses, dissertations and other resources not available at your community library.
- Library of Congress – For those you who live near Washington, DC, the Library of Congress provides access to prints and photographs, historic newspapers, maps, manuscripts and film and a host of other materials. Most material must be used onsite, but the Library of Congress is an excellent place for research.
- Interlibrary Loan Program (ILL) and Worldcat - Most libraries have an interlibrary loan program (ILL) which allows the user of one library to borrow books from another library. Worldcat (http://www.worldcat.org) provides access to library collections around the world. I use Worldcat to locate books of interest and then request them through my local library’s interlibrary loan program. The books are sent to my local library branch where I can pick it up and return it when I am done.
If you follow the above suggestions you will have access to a wide variety of materials in libraries all over the country which will greatly enhance your research.
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.
- 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.
Summer is almost here. Families will be gathering for barbeques, cookouts and reunions. There will be many stories of days gone by and lots of photo albums and memorabilia to share. As you are visiting with family this summer, why not use it as an opportunity to preserve history. Not only will you learn family history, you may also learn that you have history makers in your midst.
Beryl Jackson is such a history maker. She shared her memories of being in the first group of students to desegregate the Caroline County School system when I interviewed her for a book I was writing on Union High School in Caroline County, Virginia. In 1965, Beryl and a few other students transferred from Union High (the high school for Blacks) to Caroline High ( the high school for Whites). Although her experience did not make national news and is not recorded in history books like the story of the Little Rock Nine, it did change the Caroline County School system forever.
Your family member’s memories have historical significance, not just for your family but for the community as well. Here are a few topics that are likely to come up during family discussions:
- Way of Life –What was the lifestyle of the people living in the community?
- Employment – How did people in the community earn a living? (ex. farming, working in steel mill)
- Migration – Did family members come to America from another country? Move from one area of the country to another? What was their experience?
- Clubs/Social Organizations – How did family members socialize with other members of the community?
- Institutions – Where did family member go to school or church? What impact did these institutions have on their lives?
- Community/Neighborhood –Communities change overtime. What was the community like when your family member lived there?
The next time you go to a family gathering be sure to take your digital recorder and/or video camera and preserve history.