Thursday, January 31, 2008

My Black History: Little Gifts

One year ago this month, inspired by Henry Louis Gates' "African American Lives" series, I began exploring MY black history--that is the history of my family. I took advantage of a free trial on and typed in some family names. Within seconds I was looking at my grandfather's World War II enlistment papers. Weeks later I was holding my great-grandmother Josie's death certificate, learning her parents names and why she died at just 30 years old. Since then, I have traced nearly every branch of my family tree back to the generation just pre-emancipation.

My work is harder now. Moving further back in my family's history will require examining slave census records, bills of sale, wills and bibles from slave-holding families and other documents. Big breakthroughs are fewer and farther between, but every now and again I get these little gifts. I'll take another look at a census and find a missing relative right under my nose. Or, a long-lost cousin will contact me and help solve a family mystery or share a wonderful story that adds texture to the bare facts about my ancestors.

Consider the details I learned a couple weeks ago about the family of Mattie Rivers, one of my maternal great-grandmothers. My new cousin Ed wrote me:

There are a handful of Rivers in Tuskegee, Alabama....The Rivers were in
Talladega...teaching in the mid 1800s. Booker T. Washington was looking for a
strong black resource to relocate to Tuskegee to teach the black children there.
He asked Samuel of Edmund Jr. (my great-great-grandfather) to relocate to Tuskegee to head up the program. Not sure how many of the Rivers family relocated...but Samuel and Sarah did relocate and opened the first black school in Tuskegee..still operating today..Booker T. used to ride down from I'm told...on his white horse to see how they were doing.
I can't wait to tell this story to my nieces and nephews. Learning my family's history has helped me feel connected to ancestors who lived more than a hundred years ago, and it has helped me understand my place in American history.

Want to research your family tree?

Step one is gathering all of the information you can from relatives to construct a loose tree of family connections. Don't just find out who was whose daddy, ask about uncles, aunts and neighbors. Where did your people live? Did they move? Did the men enlist in the service? Did your ancestors own land? Are their people of other races in your family tree? It's okay if you only have a little information. It will all help you when you begin records research.

Throughout the month, I will blog more about my family history research and how you can get started digging into your own family's past.

In the meantime...

Read more about my attempt to find female ancestors here.

Read about the importance of learning history here.

Watch this month. The genealogy site often offers free access to African American records during Black History Month.

Take part in Mamalicious' 32 Days of Black History Month blogathon here.


Mes Deux Cents said...


This is a wonderful post. I have a desire to know more about my family but I don't have much info.

So thanks for letting me know that I can still search for info.

I'm going to give it a try.

Anonymous said...
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mrshadow33 said...

Thank you Tami for the post. I am fortunate to know a great deal about my family via the oral tradition but I need to do as you have done and collect documents and papers from my family. I am going to look into that myself. Oh I went over to Mamalicious and registered to hopefully contribute an article or two.
Thats all for now, I visit your post regularly now so I know that we will talk again

Shelly said...

Hi Tami,

Good luck with finding out as much as you can about your history. I would love to do the same but because my family are West Indian immigrated to the UK, the process of finding any tangible evidence of genealogy is near impossible. Still, I might just give it a go nonetheless.

Thanks for the inspiration! :-)


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