Scoundrels, Liars & Cheats: Doing Family History

You know, I was never really interested in doing any sort of genealogy work. My mom’s side of the family had never kept track very well, and my dad’s side vehemently refused to talk about what they might be. So while friends and classmates would go on and on about their ancestors, I just sort of shrugged it off. I figured it was a class thing mostly. You know, rich people could keep their documents, didn’t have to run from place to place, and actually had relatives they WANTED to talk publicly about. Me, not so much. Besides, it would just be too hard to do.

Then I saw African American Lives on PBS, and was astounded! Here were people who tracked down the ancestors of black folks, through slavery and sometimes even back to the African villages those first humans had been stolen from! (I almost used the word slaves in that last sentence. But white people did not go over to steal slaves from their families. We stole humans from their lives and made slaves of them. Words have power and word choices matter. A lot.)

And tracing these lives was not an easy thing at all. A lot of the basic tools for family history were not part of the path here, because of all the legal avenues that were shut off to black folks. Sure no one in my family was talking about our history, but I wasn’t faced with a system bent on completely erasing my entire existence either.

The other thing that kept me from looking at my past is that I just told myself it wouldn’t matter. What good would it do to know where I came from? How could that possibly help who I am today? Why should I care? Then I watched the change that came over people like Chris Rock as he found out that there was a Civil War hero in his woodpile. Others brightened and lightened too as they were introduced to past relations. Most of them were able to see a bit of them in those long gone loved ones. Another surprise was how many of their ancestors owned land. Lots of land. Some to the tune of hundreds of acres. That led me to see another side of post Reconstruction history we were taught in high school.You know, in high school textbooks I was pretty much taught that emancipation happened, then Reconstruction, and you know, black folks just never quite got their stuff together and moved on.

Yeah, not so much. It actually turns out that even this quick look through personal genealogy shows that almost every time black folks started to get ahead, us white folks snatched it back from them, either legally or violently.

I’m sure you gathered by now that this awesome show energized me to start looking into my own family’s woodpile and see what I could turn up. So far I haven’t gotten much, I know I have a TON more to do, and I’ve learned a few interesting facts:

1) It seems to be that my dad’s name, even down to the middle initial, was very popular in Arizona around the time he was born and for maybe 10 years after. I have no idea why.

2) This isn’t considered a standard genealogy tool, but using a quick Intellius background search, I’ve come up with some people they say my dad is related to whose last names I have never heard of.

3) Tonight I saw photocopies of an 1870 census that clearly shows I have relatives on my moms side who came here from Ireland.

And I realized that I have the opposite problem of most everyone else who’s written anything about tracing your family. They all seem to be shocked, surprised, or saddened when they come across someone in their tracing who is bad, shady, or at all criminally minded. So there are a lot of articles about how to deal with that situation when it happens.

I’m not sure what I’ll do if I ever find anyone decent in my tree or woodpile (aside from my grandmothers family on my mom’s side. They’re just flat out awesome.). Having given out that pass, I fully expect to end up with a tree full of thieves, swindlers, con artists, ex cons, and other shady characters. *sigh* It’s just the way a lot of my family has handled themselves during my lifetime…why should blood be more pure further upstream?

But I am looking forward to the journey. And it’s one more way to keep my research skills sharp. I’ll keep you up to date as I find stuff, and we’ll see how my predictions play out. 🙂 Btw, if you want to watch some of the African American Lives videos or check out some resources for yourself, here’s the link:     http://www.pbs.org/wnet/aalives/index.html

 

Advertisements