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.
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.