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.