African American Genealogy Part VI: Family Memories

Posted October 7, 2011 by SharonGeni | 4 Comments

This blog series provides information on how to conduct family research — with a special focus on the challenges that apply for African Americans. Our goal is to help you appreciate history, learn how to research your family and be inspired to join a community – Geni.com – that seeks to unite the entire world into one big family. Join us for an adventure that is sure to last a lifetime!

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Family Memories

by Sharon Leslie Morgan

Family stories are incredibly powerful because they put flesh on the bones of our long dead ancestors, telling us a great deal about who these people were; how they survived and what they felt. And this is where every family historian starts — recording the stories of everyone in your family who has memories to share. You will find factual stories repeated from generation to generation as well as “tall tales” embellished with personal details. Even when stories are not factually correct, almost every one of them has a basis in truth. It will be up to you as the researcher to ferret out the fact from fiction.

When I was born in 1951, I had a great grandmother who was still living. Her name was Rhoda Reeves Leslie. She was, at that time, 101 years old. I remember her well, even though I was far too young to talk to her. She died when I was three years old. With her demise, I still had my grandparents, three of whom survived well into my twenties, and my parents, both of whom I lost within the last ten years. My mother lived with me during the last two years of her life. We filled many hours talking about her past and making family connections. Unfortunately, like most people of her generation, she hadn’t talked to her parents very much, which left big gaps in what she could tell me. In my father’s case, he didn’t want to talk about anything at all. It took years for me to get him to open up.

What he told me led to a plantation in Lowndes County, Alabama, the place from which his grandparents emerged into “freedom.” They went first to Opelika, where his grandfather worked on building a railroad. Later, they went to Montgomery, where they built their lives and raised their children.

My mother’s memories led me to an ancestor who made a claim for herself and her children for recognition as Mississippi Choctaw Indians before the Dawes Commission to the Five Civilized Tribes. Her claim was rejected, but one of her sons succeeded in obtaining a land grant, only to be driven away from his fields by “Night Riders” (minions of the Ku Klux Klan).

Another story, from my mother’s father, led to an uncle who served our country in France in World War I. He died of gas poisoning in a state institution. I learned that he had a wife we had never known about. From other stories, I was led to cousins who crossed the color line and whose descendants, until I met them, had no idea they had black ancestry.

All of these discoveries started with simple stories. It worked for me and it will work for you too. I continue to cherish the sound of my uncle’s voice when I recorded him many years ago telling family stories.

Get a digital recorder and capture those memories while the people who hold them are still alive. If you don’t, you will regret not doing so. It will help a lot if you prepare a list of questions ahead of time before you interview anybody.

Geni can be a great conversation starter. When I loaded my information and invited my family to participate, everyone was eager to contribute. They helped me clear up names, dates and places that I had gotten confused, which helped promote a lot of face-to-face conversation.

Post written by Sharon Morgan

Sharon Leslie Morgan is a marketing communications consultant and the founder and webmaster for OurBlackAncestry.com, a site dedicated to African American family research. She is co-authoring a book entitled Gather at the Table: Steps Toward a Post-Racial America to be published by Beacon Press in 2012. These blogs express the views and opinions of the author and should not be attributed to Geni.com.

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  • Edyeld

    Hi Sharon, I enjoyed your post. I’m very interested in my own genealogy.. I did some digging and got some results, but I have an unusual situation. All of the people in my immediate family are dead. So I’ve had difficulty. But I do want to pursue it further. Maybe we can talk about it one day.

    • Sharon Morgan

      Sure. Join my FB page = Our Black Ancestry. It doesn’t matter that you immediate family are deceased (and I am sorry that is so). Everyone leaves a paper trail, and that is what genealogists are looking for.

  • Sgknan2

    FAMILY MEMORIES:–
    MY GREAT GRAND MOTHER KAMATCHI GOPALAKRISHNAN WAS A BRAVE WOMEN (MOTHER INDIA). WIDOWED AT THE AGE OF 24, DRIVEN BY IN-LAWS FROM HER HOUSE AFTER TAKING ALL HER ASSETS (BELONGINGS), PENNILESS, PREGNANT WITH 8 MONTH BABY AND HOLDING 4 YEAR OLD BOY, CAME & SETTLED DOWN AT DHARAPURAM (SOUTH INDIA).
     WITH HER BROTHER;S HELP MANAGED TO BRING UP BOTH CHILDREN (ONE BOY & ONE GIRL) AFTER UNDER GOING LOT TENSIONS/DIFFICULTIES, SETTLED THEM WELL IN LIFE. THAT PREGNANT 8 MONTH BABY WAS MY MATERNAL GRAND MOTHER MANGALAMBAL VAIDEESWARAN.

  • http://profiles.google.com/kcleage Kristin Williams

    My mother’s mother’s father’s family was from Lowndes County but I don’t know what plantation they came off of. Their names were Joe and Emma Turner and they lived near Hayneville.