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).
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.
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.
My grandfather, Sylvester Roy Woodfork Sr., was a World War I veteran. His funeral program indicates he was a member of a special class of soldiers trained in radio technology at Howard University and that he experienced combat with the Battery F, 351 Field Artillery. I did some research and learned the 351st Field Artillery was one of several units where Negro soldiers were trained as artillery officers.
After obtaining his military records from the National Archives, I learned my grandfather was not in this unit but the 52nd Company 13th Battalion 153rd Depot Brigade in Camp Dix, New Jersey. The records also show he was a private, not an officer. The situation illustrates the importance of performing thorough research.
Many families have family history that has been passed down from generation to generation. In many cases this information has not been verified yet everyone accepts it as a statement of fact. Most family historians would like to uncover exciting information about their family. We would love to have ancestors who were movers and shakers in their community or made history in someway or another. The truth of the matter is not every one will be that fortunate. Some of us are the descendants of ordinary folks whose major focus in life was working hard to maintain the basic necessities of life.
As family historians we should not embellish the truth or make up stories to make our family more interesting. We must remember it is our responsibility to have respect for the truth and the whole truth. In cases were the truth is not pretty; there is no need to air the family’s dirty laundry or change the facts to make it better. Just remember the old adage, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”.
I try to keep the following rules in mind when I am performing research: 1) Just because it is published does not make it true and 2) Just because someone says it does not make it true. We must remember that researching is the systematic process of collecting, analyzing and verifying information in order to establish facts.
A systematic process is repeatable. You can demonstrate how you came to the conclusion again and again. If another person follows the same steps, they will come to the same conclusion.
Collecting, analyzing and verifying information are three very important components of performing research. Collecting is gathering information. Memorabilia, ephemera and artifacts are excellent sources of information. However, after the information is collected it must be analyzed. We must ask ourselves: Does it make sense? Does it seem accurate? Is it from a credible source? Verifying information requires us to locate a primary source and to cross check information against a variety of sources to determine the validity. A lot of people collect information, but they don’t analyze or verify it. All three steps are important.
The end result of research is to establish facts. We must be careful to make a distinction between facts and opinion. A fact is objective information that is verifiable. Opinion is a judgment, view or assessment. It is subjective and is not verifiable
Although it is disappointing when we find information that contradicts well-known family history, we must resist the urge to ignore the truth. It may possible that my grandfather was a member of that special unit in World War I or he may not have been. I have to do more research to determine the facts.