I started researching my family history in Caroline County, Virginia in 2004. I was frustrated by the dearth of information on African Americans. As I talked to African Americans in the community I would hear interesting stories of their lives growing up in the county. As I listened to their stories, I would often think what interesting information it was and that someone should preserve it.
In 2009 I decided to become that someone and take an active role in preserving the history of the communities where my ancestors lived. My first project would be to preserve the history of Union High School – Caroline County’s only secondary school for Negroes during the era of segregation.
I knew nothing about the school and had never written a book; however, I decided to take on the challenge. Once I began to spread the word about the Union High History Project many people were eager to participate. The result of the project is a book titled Memories of Union High: An Oasis in Caroline County, Virginia, 1903-1969. The book available at amazon.com and my website.
In addition to writing a book, I have collected a large amount of Union High memorabilia and ephemera including hundreds of photographs, a complete set of yearbooks, commencement programs and school newspapers. I plan to donate these items to libraries and historical archives. Because of the collaborative efforts of numerous ordinary people, the history of Union High School has been preserved for posterity.
You many not want to take on the monumental task of writing a book. Here are some ways you can help preserve local history on a smaller scale:
- Donate items to libraries, historical archives and genealogy societies. When going through family members’ belongings, save old documents, papers, photographs, memorabilia and ephemera and donate them to a local library or archives. A lot of historical items are classified as junk and thrown away because the person who is cleaning out an elderly or deceased person’s home is not mindful of the significance of the items.
I urge people to donate original items on a regular basis and keep copies for their records. Using this method, you or your family members will not be faced with the daunting task of sorting through a large amount of information years later. You don’t have to organize the items just put them in a box and take them to the organization. Some organizations may even send staff to your house to retrieve the items if you have a large amount of information.
L. R. “Jack” Davis, the funeral director of Davis Funeral Home (which later became Storke Funeral Home) in Bowling Green, VA, was responsible for moving graves after the government purchased land in Caroline County, to establish the AP Hill military reservation. Mr. Davis kept very detailed records in a 250+ page document which provides information of the location of graves before and after the move.
Many years later, his daughter made copies of the document and distributed it to libraries and the Caroline County historical society. This document is an excellent resource for anyone performing genealogy research in Caroline County. Because of the generosity of Mr. Davis’ daughter, numerous family historians and genealogist have been able to obtain valuable information about their ancestors.
- Write articles for newsletters. As I research my family history I also collect information about the communities in which they lived and the organizations in which they were members. I have written several articles for the Caroline Historical Society newsletter in order to share this information.
- Create a website or blog. I acquired several documents from the Fort A.P. Hill Environmental Office that continued valuable information about the people who lived in the community prior to the establishment of the military reservation. I uploaded the documents to my website to make them more accessible. I have been contacted by people all over the world who were very grateful for this information being on the internet since it was not feasible for them to travel to Caroline County to perform research. Some information may be copyrighted so be sure to get permission from the owner before you post any information and documents on the internet.
- Give speeches and make presentations. I have made several presentations on the subject of researching, documenting and preserving local history. I share my experience from the Union High History Project and give tools and tips for preserving local history.
- Share research strategies and information with staff at libraries and historical archives. Performing genealogy research for African Americans can be a frustrating experience, especially when researching our ancestors who were enslaved. Because slaves were considered property, the traditional methods for performing genealogy research can not be followed.
I frequently perform research at the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The staff is very friendly and helpful. On one occasion I struck up a conversation with several staff members who inquired about my research. I told them I was searching through documents about my ancestor’s deceased slave owner (Elijah Wigglesworth) to learn more about my ancestors. I explained how I had to research my ancestor’s slave owner family in addition to my own
family in order locate my ancestors. I showed them how my ancestors were listed in the Inventory and Appraisement of the slave owner’s estate, and how the document showing the distribution of his estate showed my great great grandparents family being separated when the slave owner’s estate was divide among his wife and children. I then explained how I had to search for slaves in wills, inventories, and other court documents for each of the new slave owners to trace my ancestors’ movement during the slavery.
I pointed out that since the names of the slaves were not provided on the summary for documents in the collection I had to spend hours reading through documents in hopes of finding information on my ancestors. They agreed this was not an easy task since many times the documents were handwritten with poor or fancy penmanship, faded and very difficult to read.
Once the CRHC understood the research strategy they began including the slave names on the summary for documents in the collection that is published on the CRHC website. I find most staff at libraries and archives are very helpful and open to suggestions. I recommend that you share your research strategies and ideas whenever you have a suggestion for improvement.
- Participate in activities to preserve the history of the communities you are researching. In 2007, the Fort A.P. Hill Environmental Division initiated the AP Hill Oral History Project to preserve the history of the communities that existed before military reservation was established. I was one of several individuals hired to interview people who had lived in the community. The end result of the project was a book titled Wealthy At Heart: Oral History of Life Before AP Hill.
Although I live over 100 miles from Caroline County, I was still able to contribute to the project by interviewing former residents who lived near me. All interviewers were required to take an oral history training class. Therefore, not only did I help preserve the history of the community where my ancestors lived, I also learned techniques for performing oral history research that I still use today.
- Support genealogy and historical societies. Most genealogy and historical societies rely heavily on volunteers and donations. I urge you to volunteer at the genealogy and historical societies where you perform research, become a member and make financial donations.
Preserving local history is not just the responsibility of professional historians. It must start with the ordinary people who live, work and have an interest in the community. I urge you to follow the above steps to help preserve the history of the communities where you and your ancestors lived.