Performing genealogy and local history research gives me an appreciation for many of the opportunities I have today. For most adults, attending school as a child and learning to read and write are skills we take for granted. Such was not the case for many of our ancestors. For many, educational opportunities were few to non-existent. When educational opportunities did exist, many people could not take advantage of them because the daily tasks of providing food, shelter and clothing often took precedence over receiving an education.
A few years ago while visiting a cousin who agreed to share information on my Woolfolk ancestors; I had an experience that caused me to reflect upon my life. One of the items my cousin shared with me was a letter written in 1906 by Lucy Jane Woolfolk Ellis, the sister of my great grandfather, Overton Woolfolk. Lucy Jane was born in 1875, a little more than ten years after the end of slavery. According to the 1900 census, Lucy Jane could not read or write so the letter may have been written for her by someone else.
Lucy Jane Woolfolk Ellis Letter – 1906
Reading the letter was a stark reminder of the value of education. The letter did not contain any punctuation and was filled with so many grammatical and spelling errors that it was almost impossible to read. After almost an hour, I was able to decipher the letter and learned some valuable information about my Woolfolk ancestors.
Like many of my contemporaries, I never give a second thought to the fact that I can read and write. I am cognizant of the educational opportunities I have received and appreciate how those opportunities have greatly enhanced my life. However, I don’t think I am special. Lucy Jane’s letter made me pause and really appreciate all that I have and how far all of the Woolfolk descendants have come.
This experience illustrates the importance of family and community history. I believe people who understand the past have a better appreciation for what they have today and will feel a responsibility for continuing the legacy and making the future better for the next generation. As family and community historians we must continue to preserve the past and encourage the next generation to take advantage of all the opportunities afforded them.