One of the first things we’re instructed when we begin our genealogy journey is to interview our family members, especially our elders. This is by far one of the most important things for us do. Our family members can provide information we may never find in documents. It has always been to me, one of the saddest ironies that when most people are interested in tracing their roots, is generally when they are a little older and many of their elders have passed away.
Because this is the case, I advocate to anyone who will listen that even if you have zero interest in tracing your roots, please ask the important questions to your family members NOW and put the piece of paper with those questions and answers to the side. Although you have no interest, maybe your children will. Maybe you will later on, when all the people you need to talk to are gone.
However, we need to understand that oral history has to be assessed in the same way we assess information from other sources. It is another piece of evidence. Everything Cousin Bebe or Uncle George says may or may not be accurate and there are many reasons for this. As we age, our memory can fade, or as my mamacita Carole likes to say, “we have trouble with data retrieval.” (smile)
Stories passed down over generations can change ever so slightly in detail such that by the time we hear it, it bears little resemblance to the original tale. And of course, as humans, we can have valid reasons for “glossing over” or completely omitting details that were hurtful or considered shameful at the time. Divorces, “outside” children, children born out of wedlock, bias, embarrassment, indigent circumstances, interracial liasons, abandonment and criminal behavior are just a few of the kinds of issues that pop up somewhere at some time in many, many families.
Oral history covers not just formal interviews with family members, but also information your parents or other family have given you over time. Letters. Phone conversations. Things you “know” because your family has told you so. So the first step is to write the story down. Write who told you and when. You must attempt to ascertain where the story originated, and whether or not that person had firsthand knowledge of the event. Is your mother telling you something that her great-aunt told her when she was a little girl? Write that down. From page 157 of the book “Evidence Explained” we learn a crucial point about oral history:
Oral history is a resource that is at once important yet questionable. It’s credibility rests upon the reliability of the channel through which the information has been conveyed and the veracity of the original source. [emphasis is mine]
Next, you want to do what you can to verify the information. Some of that will be as easy as ordering vital records to prove/disprove births, deaths or marriages or consulting census and probate records about birth and death dates of children or spouses. Of course, some stories are not as easy to verify. Many African-American families have stories about who enslaved ancestors were owned by or that the slaveowner was the father of our enslaved ancestor.
DNA is now a powerful tool that we can use along with more traditional sources to prove even those connections. My good friend Jonnie Brown is a great example of that. Her father had always maintained that their enslaved ancestor was fathered by the white slaveowner. DNA was able to confirm the truth of her family’s oral history.Though it was a common practice, finding it in written documents is rare. (My friend Aaron was one of the lucky ones)
As I mentioned above, there are all sorts of reasons for oral history to not be accurate. Here are a few examples of oral history in my family and my attempts at verification:
- One 92-year old elder shared that his aunt, Idella Prather (shown in all her glamorous glory in the photo heading this post) “worked for a Senator in Washington, D.C. His name was Watts.”
Verification: This elder almost got it right. In the 1930 census, I found Idella and her husband George working as servants in the D.C. household of Congressman Henry Watson.
- My maternal grandmother told me: “My daddy had one half-sister I remember. Her name was Mary Neal. She was very fair, almost white, and had long, straight hair like an Indian.”
Verification: It took the 1940 census for me to finally find the elusive Mary Neal, and unravel her family history. She was indeed a half sister to my great-grandfather, but her multiple marriages would have made her hard to find without this critical piece of intel. Joyously I met her descendants last year, who confirmed that she indeed looked exactly as my grandmother remembered.
Verification: This is a good example of something that happens frequently with oral history. There are things that are both accurate and things that are inaccurate in the statement above. There were so many free blacks in this area that it came known as Freetown. This name led to speculation over time about how that came to be. There was indeed a man (whose name was Richard Waters) who freed a large number of his slaves beginning in the late 1700s. He inherited his land and his slaves. And he was not Scottish; his family was from Virginia and before then, from England. But I’ve read the Scottish part of the story from other people, so I do wonder where that started.
Richard Waters was not a missionary, but he was a prominent Quaker, and was probably led by those religious beliefs to free his slaves. Though he freed many slaves, there were other whites in the area who also freed their slaves, some of them moved by the strong influence of the Methodist church. And in closing, there was indeed an African-American postmaster, Emory Graham Waters, who was a great source of pride to everyone in this community.
- One cousin shared oral history that our enslaved ancestor John Holt was from North Carolina and had been a free man.
Verification: All the evidence I’ve uncovered over the years (deed records, slave schedules, court records) supports that John Holt had been enslaved until the Civil War, was born in and always lived in Tennessee.
- Several people I’d interviewed over the years who grew up in Hardin County, TN, spoke of a racial disturbance that occurred early in the century. They spoke of the black community arming themselves and fighting back against a white mob. But no one remembered exactly what the incident was.
Verification: I’d tried searching the local newspaper and consulting with local historians. It wasn’t until the Tennessee State Archives posted a map from a court record to their blog this year. That led to me finally discovering the case of a young black man who, in 1916, shot and killed a young white man (James Young)in a dispute over a woman. The young man, Lennie Kendall (shot in the foot), hid out for about a week before being caught. I read the details and the timeline, I knew I’d finally found the story I’d been searching for for almost 20 years–the one I’d heard from so many elders.
I ordered copies of the entire court case (I won’t tell you how much that cost;)) and thankfully, it was all typewritten. The racial caste system of the times is in full effect, and it’s clear from the files that the (white) community disapproved of James Young’s relationship with a black woman, and that is largely why this Lennie Kendall was let off pretty lightly given the times. Here are two newspaper articles (1 week apart) from the episode:
I have seen some people hold firm to oral history when the evidence they find clearly points in another direction or disproves the oral history entirely. We need to be aware of these biases and fight that impulse within ourselves. Sometimes the story is so fantastical that we really want to believe it, but we shouldn’t let that desire drive our research.
In closing, I have two sidenotes. I want to thank everyone who came out to the International Black Genealogy Summit on September 1-3 in Arlington, VA. I met so many wonderful people and I gave a lecture on Artificial Brick Walls that was very well received. In addition, people are still buying my book in droves and even better, telling me how much it has helped them in their research! I am humbled and I enjoy every minute I spend with fellow researchers. We always have a great time.
Secondly, I have added new information to my previous post about Jordan Anderson, so if you enjoyed reading the former slave’s letter, please go back to the post and see what I’ve added.