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 1903-1969. My 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.