I started out writing this on Monday. Really, I did. And the WoW was going to be “courage”. But as I sat writing the script for what was to be this week’s podcast, the words simply didn’t flow. No matter how I backtracked and edited, the text remained stiff and impersonal – and uninspiring even to me.
So, I decided to give myself a break and concentrate on other things before completing the task.
After that I admit I got sidetracked. You see, I am very much into genealogy, so when I saw that some new genealogical information had become available online, I surfed on over to see whether or not I could find a trace of my own ancestors somewhere on those pages.
If you – like me – come by your African roots via the so-called New World, you realize just how difficult it is for most of us to trace our families back more than a generation or two. Sometimes it’s because we realized too late that one day those family stories and pictures would take on a real and tangible significance in our lives. The “old folks” whose stories may have bored us as children are now no longer around to ask; their wisdom and histories lost forever.
But we also know how the institution of slavery uprooted and oppressed our forefathers and -mothers, ripping apart families and often making it impossible to record the facts and details – great and small – of human lives that were neither honored or respected or cherished.
For me, at least, having a better understanding of where I come from means comprehending more completely what it took to make me the person I am today. As I pour over page after page of information on the internet, I discover not only nuggets of information about my own extended family, but also am empowered by the testimony of the lives of those scores of men and women who persevered through horrors you and I can only partially imagine.
The death certificates were a particular treasure of both information and sorrow. In addition to names of husbands/wives, I’ve often (finally) found out the names of an ancestor’s parents, allowing me to add another – earlier – branch on my family tree. But the causes of death were the real window of insight. I was surprised to see the number of people who lived to be very old, even by today’s standards. A twinge of heartache overtook me each time I searched another unfamiliar cause of death, only to find out it was nothing more than the aftermath of poor nutrition or bad hygienic circumstances – or both. I also felt a deep sense of sorrow for the many babies and small children who didn’t live to reach adulthood, as well as the many (young!!) women who died during or shortly after childbirth – or trying to prevent yet another pregnancy.
So Monday I was going through the recently published list of names of freed blacks working under contract to a white plantation owner after the American Civil War when I came across the name of one of my own ancestors: Chloe Singleton. Next to her, another woman – maybe a sister – named Jane Singleton. Although I didn’t know anything about my Chloe’s siblings, I do know that she had named one of her daughter’s Jane…
Could this be MY Chloe?
After an initial tingle of elation, I had to accept my own faulty logic. Chloe had married my great-great-grandfather, Sidney Brown, by the time that list was made, and would therefore have already been Chloe Brown. In all probability I had simply stumbled upon another woman with the same (maiden) name.
But my itch that day hadn’t been sufficiently scratched, so I continued browsing new sources, looking for new leads. It was then that I happened upon a site called
Sounds pretty macabre and halloween-y, right? But it’s a site powered by family memebers, friends and volunteers who post online information about the people buried in cemeteries across America. Sometimes with a picture of the loved one lost. Sometimes with a picture of the headstone.
That’s when I discovered this:
It was only while looking through the census information from the beginning of the century that I found out that my great-mother had died somewhere between 1910 and 1920, and that my great-grandfather had then re-married. I never knew exactly when Elizabeth Brown Roach died, but here I’d found her gravestone. Unfortunately, the stone has sunk so deep into the earth surrounding it, that the date of death can no longer be read. I don’t know exactly when she died, nor what was the cause, but now at least I know where to find her.
What surprised me more, though, was finding this:
On one census you can find information on how many live births a woman had versus how many of her children were still living. This was sometimes often heartbreaking to read, because some women had lost more than half of their children to sickness or accidents. For my great-grandmother Elizabeth the number was 7 live births with 5 living children in 1910. Until Monday, I knew nothing about those two lost children. My grandfather and all his sibling are long dead, so there isn’t anyone to ask. I’ve also never unearthed a death certificate for them online. Now I know, though, that I had a great-aunt Lillie who isn’t present on any census. I think she must have been born around 1890, because the census for that year was lost in a huge fire. Because the stone has been broken at the bottom, it can’t tell me anything for sure about that, nor about the day she died. I do know, though, that she was loved enough to be memorialized in this way.
Whose roots are you?
There were many reasons some families didn’t talk more about their history, and didn’t preserve more information to document their lives. I wonder if they knew how potentially important that information would be for their descendents?
What are you doing to make sure that those who come after you find a piece of their own life’s puzzle by being granted insight into yours?
- Do you journal or keep a diary?
- Have you got photo albums where the pictures are clearly marked with names and dates and other relevant information?
- Do you collect and record stories from your older family members, and share stories about your own life?
Just as it’s important to find out more about our own roots, it’s important for us to remember we’ll be someone else’s window into their extended past someday.