Tag Archives: Washington DC

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

Calling Edgefield, South Carolina-descended families for one of the biggest American Family reunions

CallingAllBranchesHeader
The 2nd to 4th of September 2016 (Friday to Sunday) will see descendants from over 120 family branches from one family tree gather in Washington DC for a historic genealogy event.

Each branch of this tree represents a different family surname with deep roots in Old Ninety-Six / Edgefield County, South Carolina. 

The ‘Calling All Branches’ family gathering will see kinsmen and women gather in the same place for the first time since the early 1800s.

This multi-ethnic and multi-racial family reunion also promises to be the largest family gathering in the Metro Washington DC area’s history.

The story of our family is the story of America in microcosm. There will be plenty of family stories and history to share!

Below is a working list of surnames from the extended family:

Adams
Abney
Alexander
Allen
Anderson
Andrews
Berry
Bettis
Blalock / Blaylock
Bland
Blocker
Bonham
Borum
Bosket
Bottom(s)
Bowles
Brooks
Brunson
Bugg/Buggs
Briggs
Burris
Burton
Bush
Butler
Carley/Corley
Calhoun
Chappelle
Collier
Collins
Coleman
Cooke/Cook
Cummings
Dansby
Davis
Demery/Dimery
Deveaux
Devore/DeVore/Devoe
Dobey
Donaldson
Dorn
Dozier
Etheridge/Etheredge
Fair
Freeman
Garrett
Gaskins
Gibson
Gilchrist
Glover
Gomillion
Gray/Grey
Griffin
Hammond
Harlan/Harling
Harris
Harrison
Hightower/Hytower/Hightour
Higgins
Hill
Hobbs
Holloway
Holmes
Jackson
Jennings
Jeter
Jones
Kemp
Key
Laborde
Lagroon
Lake
Lanham
Little
Martin
Mat(t)hews/Mathis/Mathes/Mattis
Mays/Mayes
McCollum
McKie
Medlock
Merriweather
Miles
Moss
Oliphant
Ouzts
Palmore
Parker
Peterson
Phillips
Pinckney/Pinkney
Portee
Powell
Price
Quarles
Payne
Reed /Reid/ Ready
Richardson
Robinson
Ryan/Ryans
Sheppard
Scurry
Senior
Settles
Sharpton
Sheffey
Shibley/Shivers
Simkins/Simpkins
Smith
Stephens/Stevens
Sullivan
Swearingen/Swingarn
Talbert/Tolbert
Timmerman
Thurmond
Truesdale
Turner
Walker
Wallace
Ware
Washington
Watson
Weaver/Wever
West
White
Williams
Wise
Wrights
Yeldell
Young

It will be a weekend of fun, family, excursions, and yes, food!

For more information, please visit the reunion website:
http://callingallbranches.wix.com/ourrootsrundeep#!welcome/mainPage

Calling All Branches on Facebook:
https://www.facebook.com/groups/849084695209183

There’s an early bird event registration discount, which ends on 1st May 2016. 

I hope to see you there!!

 

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Filed under ancestry, Edgefield, family history, genealogy, Matthews/Mathis family, South Carolina

In search of my Jewish great-grandfather

Thanks to the new DNA project from Columbia University and the New York Genome Center, DNA Land (https://dna.land), I’m one big step closer to finding one of my maternal great grandfathers.

I’ve had my autosomal DNA analysed by quite a few DNA testing and analysis services: DNA Land, Ancestry DNA, Gedmatch and Genebase. They all show that a fifth (20%) of my autosomal DNA comes from an Ashkenazi/Levantine ancestor. All of my Jewish cousin matches from these services match me at an estimated 3rd to 4th generation level. Which strongly suggests that the ancestor I’m looking for is a great-grandparent or a great-great grandparent.

I know all of my great-grandparents and great-great grandparents with 100% certainty except for one: my maternal grandfather’s male line. This narrows down the field enormously. How? It’s easier to know that I’m only looking for one individual. And, I know the gender of that person. I also know which side of my family tree he falls within.

I’m looking for a man who in lived in the Washington DC area at the turn of 20th Century. Which is also a boon. I know the area he lived in and when he lived there. This too narrows the search parameters.

I know the man I am seeking would have been born roughly in the 1880s. Either he, or his parents, would have emigrated to Washington DC between the 1820s and the early 1900s. Which is another clue.

DNA Land, Ancestry DNA, Gedmatch, Family Tree DNA and Genebase all show that my missing Jewish great grandfather has a distinctive Jewish admixture: Polish, Hungarian, Ukrainian and Russian. There is a zero Western or Northern European footprint in his DNA. There’s one place on the world map where a 19th Century European Jewish community had this admixture and emigrated to the US between 1820 and the 1880s – Galicia.

I immediately thought of Spain when I saw Galicia. Turns out, there is more than one European region with that name. The one that directly relates to me is the one in Eastern Europe. Once an independent kingdom, Galicia is a region that has been intensely fought over, and possessed, by Russia, Poland and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Today, it’s southern region is part of Ukraine.It’s northern region is now part of present day Poland.

Armed with this new knowledge, I went back to Genebase, the more advanced and thorough of the DNA testing services I’ve used, and trawled through a mountain of DNA analytic results, chromosome by chromosome. It turns out that the man I’m looking for comes from a very specific part of Galicia: Eastern Galicia. Another incredibly strong filter.

map of the Galician Region

map of the Galician region

My Jewish autosomal DNA has the strongest resonance with present day people located in the southeastern area that encompasses Halicz to the west, Rawa to the north, Zbaraz to the east and Husiatyn to the south. That’s how precise my Genebase DNA test results are.

Armed with this new knowledge, I sent an email to Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. I explained who I was, the ancestor I was looking for any information sources they could recommend where I could find out more about the Galician Jewish community in Washington DC. In less than 24 hours I received an incredibly helpful reply.

In a way, I lucked out that my unknown great-grandfather, or his parents, chose Washington DC as their new home. Compared to other immigrant Jewish communities in the US, the one in Washington DC was relatively tiny.  20,000 or so souls lived in the Greater DC area at the turn of the last century. It was a very, very tight knit community. Which means there is a real chance that I could actually discover his name.

DNA testing is the tool needed to crack this. Specifically, my genetic cousin matches. Family names like Dunau, Fidel, Kessel/Kissel, Rosenberg, Tannenbaum and Yisrael hold the vital clues. Armed with a gender, a rough year of birth, a specific area or origins and a US place of residence, I can now begin the process of emailing my Jewish DNA cousins and ask if they know of any family who lived in Washington DC in the early 1900’s. While I wait for their responses, I can begin looking at digitized records from the Jewish Synagogues that served this community in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. And look for the family names I’m becoming familiar with.

I have to laugh at this point. I am descended from four forcibly displaced people who were scattered to the four corners of the globe: African, Irish, Jewish and Scottish. All four present the same challenges for any genealogist: non-existent or poorly kept records. None were considered human by those who controlled their fate. All present hurdle after hurdle when it comes to stitching their family trees back together again.

However, researching my African American ancestors has taught me patience, diligence and how to use my innate ability to not see a box (so I don’t have to ‘think outside’ of one) in order to crack genealogical barriers and mysteries. This skillset will definitely come in handy when it comes to cracking the mystery of my unknown Jewish great-grandfather. In the meantime, I’m learning about his Galician world and the world of the 19th and  20th Century Jewish community of Washington DC.

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Filed under ancestry, family history, genealogy, Genetics