Tag Archives: newspaper articles

Using church names and obits to find your ancestors in rural areas

When it comes to genealogical research, few places in America have challenged my grey matter like the Old Ninety-Six region of South Carolina.  I’m laughing as I write this next bit: old Ninety-Six has literally given me a few grey hairs.

South Carolina Districts 1769

There are a few simple reasons for this:

  1. Everyone with roots in Old Ninety-Six , regardless of ethnicity, are related to one another.
  2. Not only are people from this region related to one another, they are related in multiple ways. One cousin and I share no less than seven common pairs of ancestors – who were related to each other, as it so happens. This is due to entrenched endogamy. We’re talking cousin marriages that stretch back to early colonial Virginia. In some cases, generations of cousin marriages began in Great Britain. By the time my British-descended ancestors began producing children with enslaved African-descended women, they passed this inter-related mix to their mulatto children. These children, in turn, also married other mulatto and black cousins.  By the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, no one in Old Ninety-Six could move without bumping into a cousin of some sort or another.  This brings me right back to point #1 above.
  3. DNA segment triangulation is a nightmare. Try applying specific surnames to DNA segments with a fourth cousin when the two of you share an above-average amount of DNA across more segments than fourth cousins should typically share. In the case of the cousin I mentioned above, you would think we were second cousins rather than fourth cousins.
  4. While a slight exaggeration, everyone in a rather huge extended family used the same dozen or so names for their children. Everyone. I have enough Old Ninety-Six Janie Lou’s – white and black – to fill a modestly sized New York City music venue. Even a name like Hazeltine, which should be more or less unique, was commonly used.  It makes identifying records for a specific person a challenge.

So when it came to dealing with a family tree that is exploding in size due to the Moses Williams Project…I had to think of another way of finding the records I needed for specific individuals myself and the project team has been researching.

A different approach hit me out of the blue.

My Old Ninety-Six ancestors and family worshiped at specific churches.  Churches like Springfield Baptist Church, Liberty Springs Baptist Church, and Shaws Creek Baptist Church were established and built by members of my family. Their descendants still worship at these churches to this day. That was the clue that I needed. It’s one of those clues that has been under my nose the entire time.

I decided to do a general search on the terms ‘Liberty Springs Baptist Church’ and Greenwood, South Carolina’ on Newspapers.com. I struck gold immediately.

newspaperscom

There they were…dozens upon dozens of obituaries and news accounts specifically related to Liberty Springs. Surnames that I now know as well as my own – Adams, Gilchrist, Moore, Parks, Keys/Keyes, Dean, etc – leapt out at me.

I took a gamble. I decided to try and do a bit of reverse engineering.  I added a new orphan profile page on Ancestry.com for the first few individuals I found on Ancestry.com.  By ‘orphan’, I mean the individuals I added  weren’t attached to anyone else in my tree.  They were stand alone ancestral profiles. I keyed in the relevant information from the obituary I was working from:  full name, date of birth, date of death, county of birth, county of death, their parents’ names, the name of their spouse, children’s’ names (and their places of residence based on the date of the obituary), siblings’ names (and their places of residence based on the date of the obituary), and any other family members who were mentioned. And…bingo!  Ancestry produced the correct records for the person I whose obituary I had. I didn’t have to trawl through two dozen possible death records or Social Security Claims Index records for a dozen or so Willie Mae Joneses in the hopes that I could find the right record for the specific person I was researching.  Ancestry gave me the correct one immediately.

The reason is pretty simple:  I already had all of the correct, specific, vital life information. This included maiden names, which are gold dust.  Having all of this information made it far easier to locate correct census returns. I could easily place this person’s branch of the tree into my overall tree within two to three generations.

Even better…I was picking up the trail of my black family members who left the south as part of the Great Migration into the northern states. It still strikes me as nothing short of miraculous that family deaths in places like Washington DC, Newark, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Newport News, Detroit, Chicago, and Boston were being reported back home in South Carolina.

Using this approach enabled me to plug some serious gaps in the Old Ninety-Six, South Carolina part of my tree within a matter of three days.  OK, three days of rather intensive focus using this approach.

This approach works for a few simple reasons. My Old Ninety-Six family stayed in the same place between 1860 and 1890. The family members who left as part of the Great Migration stayed in contact with the family left behind in South Carolina for at least one generation afterwards. Last, but not least, those family ties to their family church remained – and continue to remain – strong.

Now, as always, there is a caveat.  Obituaries were not the preserve of everyone prior to 1940.  Not in South Carolina at any rate.  If your family was poor, regardless of race, the chances are slim there will be an obituary.  In terms of this part of South Carolina, prior to 1940, the handful of obituaries I’ve seen for people of colour fall into two categories:  1) either the ancestor was classed as an ‘exceptional negro’; or 2) he or she did something remarkable (like live to be 115 years old and have over 40 children).  If your family was poor and white, well, your ancestor had to do something extraordinary and/or heroic to warrant an obituary.  After 190 is different – blacks, and whites of modest means, begin to have obituaries in the local papers in this part of South Carolina.

Basically, there are three things you need to have in order to make this research approach work:

  1. A family tree that has more than your immediate family line (in other words, it also has the siblings of your ancestors, and their extended family and descendants;
  2. Familiarity with all the families your ancestors married into (allied families); and
  3. The name of the church where your ancestors and their family worshiped.

I’ve only used this approach for family who lived in a very rural area.  I haven’t applied it to those who lived in cities.

I hope it’s an approach that works for you.  Let me know!

 

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Filed under AfAm Genealogy, ancestry, Black History, Edgefield, family history, genealogy, searching census records, South Carolina

Leila Sheffey-Taylor: A life lived in the turn of the 20th Century black press

Part of what drives my genealogy journey is putting flesh to the usual vital statistics details for my ancestors. Vital statistics are unquestionably important.  However, it’s rather dry stuff. For me, it’s about making the ancestors three-dimensional, living, breathing people with personal histories, quirks, and foibles.  You know, the things that make people, well, people. I face the same challenges in researching ancestors who didn’t move among the great and the good as any other genealogist. There is a distinct lack of anecdotal materials, letters, journals, or diaries to achieve this goal.

My Newspaper.com membership, however, is enabling me to catch glimpses of the personal lives for quite a few of my ancestors and ancestral kin.  Actually, that membership is working overtime. However, it’s a double-edge sword.  The lives of my less melinated ancestors and kin who were middle class or wealthy have been fairly well documented in old newspaper clippings, letters, journals, and diaries.  Not so for my ancestors and kin who were poor or people of colour. From my experience to-date, people of colour rarely appeared in your everyday newspapers.  If they did, it was for reasons that weren’t very happy or positive.

Enter newspapers whose audience were primarily people of colour. These papers have proven to be an information goldmine.  They chronicle the social lives and careers for their community – as well as state and national news that directly affected their readership.

leila-a-storm-sheffey

Leila A Sheffey , 1906

When it comes to Leila A “Storm” Sheffey, a cousin who descends from a different Sheffey line than mine, African American newspapers have revealed a story worthy of a Jane Austen romance: a plucky, astute, and educated heroine; solid middle class values; a trip; an illness; a society courtship; and a marriage. OK, this being an Austen story comparison…a good marriage.

The heroine of this real life version of Austen was Leila. Of course, none of the clippings I’ve read explain that ‘Storm’ nickname. Although one of them certainly commented about it. She was the daughter of a middle class NW Washington DC family. In 1899, her father, Isaac Taylor Sheffey, was a successful carpenter while her mother, Laura Ann Woodson, worked for the US Bureau of Engraving.

leila-a-storm-sheffey-visit-10-mar-1899The thing that strikes me about the 1899 article above is a sense of the seeming innocence of a bygone age. It would be inconceivable to print anyone’s full address in this day and age. Yet, there hers is.

Even better, there’s a snippet about her general demeanor: unassuming and positive in a marked degree. It just makes me think of the Parthenon of strong leading ladies amongst Austen’s heroines.  Aspects of Elizabeth Bennett, Emma Woodhouse, Anne Elliott, Catherine Morland, and Elinor Dashwood spring to mind.

The other thing that immediately sprang to mind was the sheer distance and expense of travelling from Washington DC to Des Moines, Iowa. In 1899, that would have been quite the journey by train.  It was definitely an adventure. This too tells me something about her.

The last thing that struck me about this seemingly superficial account was the strength of family connections. George Woodson was the nephew of Leila’s mother, Laura Ann Woodson. George and Leila both had deep roots in Wythe County, Virginia. While Leila’s family moved to Washington DC, George struck out for Iowa.  Both families clearly remained in contact despite the distance between them.  I can imagine the letters that passed between both households in Iowa and Washington DC: catching up on all the usual family news that fill such letters. The fondness, and the bonds between them, were clearly strong.

The article describes Leila’s cousin, attorney George Woodson, as ’distinguished’. His career certainly was.  However, and this will be touched upon in a further newspaper clipping, the paper was conveying another emphasis through the word ‘distinguished’. Leila’s mother, Laura Ann, was believed to be the 3x great-granddaughter of President Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. This Woodson-Jefferson family link is hotly –and I do mean hotly – contested between the Woodsons and the Monticello Organization. In this instance, we have a strong oral family tradition butting heads against a DNA test showing otherwise. Nevertheless, in 1899, this is what was believed.

On her father’s side of the family, she was a great grandniece of Virginia Congressman, Daniel Henry Sheffey (1770-1830), who was quite the politician in his day.

I can only suspect it was these family associations that led to the length of the article. What strikes me is that details of their respective family backgrounds were known. I have to laugh, it took me years of research to reclaim this lost knowledge.

leila-a-storm-sheffey-visitor-28-oct-1904

From 28 Oct 1904, Iowa State Bystander

Between Oskaloosa, Des Moines, and Washington, DC, there are plenty of snippets for Leila like the one above. Whether it was singing at recitals, or fetes, family gatherings, or visits, there’s been a wealth of short print pieces that bring her to life. I’ve included an extra one below:

leila-a-storm-sheffey-visit-24-oct-1902

Her 1906 engagement announcement is simply pure gold:

leila-a-storm-sheffey-engagement-9-nov-1906

Again, there is a hint to another Presidential link.  Her future husband, Dr Charles Sumner Taylor, was believed to be either a descendant of, or cousin to, President Zachary Taylor.

Putting modern American black viewpoints about such associations to one side, as genealogists and historians, we can only view things from our ancestors’ point of view. Generations ago, such family associations clearly meant something. That would be the ‘belonging to the first families of the old dominion’ bit. No matter how we feel about such things today, you don’t get a newspaper article like the one above without such connections meaning something to the reporter who wrote the article, the publisher, and the community in general.

Honestly? There are other parts of the story I find far more insightful. She was a respected court reporter. She clearly worked, and worked hard. In doing so, she earned the respect of her peers. This was no easy feat for a woman in 1906. She was active in her community. And the couple seems to have been generally well-liked and admired.

And, of course, I can’t help but wonder if she met Dr Taylor during her earlier visit in 1899, the visit where she fell ill. Was he the doctor who tended to her? What a story to tell their children and grandchildren. Did that first meeting, and his courtship, lead to her permanent move from Washington DC to Iowa? She’d clearly been resident in the town for a few years prior to her engagement and marriage. Whether this is how their romance happened or not, the newspaper snippets and articles I found for her truly transformed her from a name on my family tree to a living and breathing person.

I heartily recommend checking out both Newspapers.com and ChroniclingAmerica.loc.gob to find your own ancestors’ stories.

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Filed under AfAm Genealogy, AfAm History, ancestry, Black History, family history, Sheffey family, virginia, wythe

Melvin Harrison Schools: Early GI Bill recipient

There are many reasons why I decided to share stories from the various branches of my family. One of the best is meeting strangers who turn out to be distant relations. And things get even better when they have family stories to tell. What better way to remember and honour people forgotten by history than by sharing snippets of their history!

Michelle, a distant relation on the Roane side of my family, had a great story to share about one of her direct ancestors, Melvin Harrison Schools, who passed away quite recently. Melvin was a Roane through his mother, Bertha M. Roane (whose sister Lucinda also married into the Roane family too). His family tree follow below in order to place him into a wider context in the Roane family.

The Virginia-born Melvin was an early recipient of the GI Bill which funded his further educational studies in 1950s America.

The article below is courtesy of Michelle – many thanks for sharing this!

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The first thought I had after reading the article was that this was a man who had been though quite a bit in the Korean conflict, a war which was never really covered in school. Clearly, this man was made of stern stuff considering the horrific injuries he suffered and the bravery he showed in the face of war.

I hadn’t realised that as late as the Korean War, there were still Negro-only war units. I don’t know why but I assumed that military units were no longer segregated after WWII…which clearly wasn’t the case. I guess I based this assumption on television shows like Mash, which seemed to portray an integrated military.

An early recipient of this support for war veterans, Melvin’s awards and numerous citations does show a shift in the perception of blacks serving in the military.

I also wondered if Melvin and distant cousin Fred Clifton Sheffey crossed paths during this conflict. They all served in Korea at the same time. While it’s highly improbable they would have known they were related to one other, serendipity is a funny old thing and any of these three men could have met one another.

My last thought was around the notion of service. Military service, the teaching profession and the medical field seems to have drawn enough of my ancestors to become statistically interesting; especially amongst the Roanes and the Sheffeys.

Melvin’s obituary provides more insight into a truly remarkable man: http://www.timesdispatch.com/obituaries/featured/melvin-h-schools-sr-of-tappahannock-decorated-korean-war-veteran/article_8cf6840e-3956-59c0-a42c-08d9c45dabaa.html

Melvin Schools family tree:

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Filed under AfAm History, Black History, family history, Roane family