For Father’s Day last year my wife gifted me a subscription to Ancestry.com the service that allows you to further explore your family’s roots. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but never really got around to it. My aunts on both sides of my family have been working on our family tree for years themselves, so fortunately I had a starting place when I began my research. As usual, my wife chose the perfect gift, because it’s the perfect mix of history and storytelling. Over the past 8 months since I started the project, I’ve made tons of progress in bursts. I’ll find myself drawn in for hours looking at old artifacts, birth certificates, death certificates, draft registration cards, census records, each new document spelling out a new clue to my past, present, and future.
It’s an emotional endeavor for me, finding my roots. Growing up as a military kid abroad, moving around a lot, I never felt really tethered to a place, and thus somewhat disconnected from my own story. (I attended at least 4-5 primary schools, 3 middle schools, and finally only 1 high school where I both of my parents and most of my family graduated). Where did I come from? Who were my people? As I got older, I was constantly impressed with people who knew their histories intimately. I wanted to know these same things. And so my search began.
What I’ve learned has been striking. Thus far I’ve traced my family back up to 6 generations, to the pre-Civil War era on both sides. As a history buff, I wanted to know, how come both my paternal and maternal grandparents were unable to make their black migration north stick? My paternal grandfather and grandmother attempted to relocate to Chicago in the late 50s, where my dad was born, but by the mid-60s they were back in Anderson, South Carolina. Similarly, my maternal grandmother and grandfather found themselves in New York City, but the south drew them back. I guess I’m glad it turned out that way, because then neither of my parents would have met in high school right? Hearing my grandma tell the story, their network was just too great back home.
There were moments I gasped such as when I found my paternal great, great, great grandfather listed as a non-person in the 1850-1880 US Selected Federal Census Non- Population Schedule. I’ve confirmed family legacies on my mother’s side as well, including the well known family “secret” of my maternal great grandfather. (Quick side note- he lived well into his late 90s and I would spend my middle school years sitting on the porch or watching baseball games with him). As it turns out, he was bi-racial, but not in the way I expected. Born in 1903, his mother was a white woman from a fairly wealthy local family, and she actually married a black man. I’m sure that was scandalous (and illegal- According to PBS’s Frontline- The last state to legalize interracial marriage was South Carolina in November 1998. It amended its constitution to repeal a clause banning “marriage of a white person with a Negro or mulatto or a person who shall have one-eighth or more of Negro blood.” The clause is, of course, a dead letter, and has been ever since 1967 when the Supreme Court found anti-miscegenation laws to be unconstitutional.)
But perhaps the most fun part of all of this learning about my past has been sharing the experience with my extended family and my children. Currently one of my cousins is also working on a similar project so we’ve been comparing notes. Each Sunday on family calls with my dad, grandmother (my only living grandparent on either side), or other relatives, I’m filling in missing sections of our story with oral histories from those who still remember. I feel like I’m in a race against the clock to learn my history before those who hold all of the stories are gone.
After my recent discovery on a two hour search I can’t wait to this Sunday’s call with my grandma to verify a few new family stories. It’s been cool seeing the girls get into it as well. We’re getting ready to start working on building their tree for my wife’s side of the family. My hope is that as they get older, they’ll appreciate the stories as well, feel affirmed in their history and how it informs their identity.