Finding My Great-Grandfather in a Box of Memories

Last year my mother was searching for something in storage when she found a chest that my paternal grandmother had given her when her mother, my great-grandmother (Grandma Della) died. It was filled with old bills, cards, letters, photographs, Bibles, and various knick-knacks that belonged to my Grandma Della. Although it appeared to be junk, I asked her to send the contents to me. The historian in me just knew there would be a great find among all that stuff, and I was right. I found my great-grandfather–not literally of course, but figuratively.

I was very close to Grandma Della. I was always at her house. Among other things, she taught me how to bake and crochet. She passed away while I was in college. Her husband Jim died when I was 5, so I can’t recall very much about him. I called him Jim, not grandpa or granddaddy, but apparently everyone else did too. He had a heart attack and was in the hospital for a week before died. Even though I wanted to visit him, I was not allowed inside his hospital room. I remember his funeral. He was a World War I veteran, and the American flag draped his casket at the gravesite.

Jim in his Army uniform, circa 1918.

Jim in his Army uniform, circa 1918.

I found some wonderful pictures inside the box, including Jim in his World War I uniform, Grandma Della and Jim together and with their young family, and my great-uncle James as a baby (born in 1923).  My interest was piqued, so I began to gather the documents, Grandma Della’s stories, recollections from other relatives, and research from Ancestry.com to flesh out Jim’s story.

Jim was born in Kemper County, Mississippi in 1894. Not much is known about his early life except that he attended Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. He registered for the draft in June 1917 and was called into military service in August 1918, three months prior to the Armistice. He served overseas, most likely in France. A year later he was discharged from the Army. He and Grandma Della married in December 1919; she was still a teenager. She told me that Jim had come to “court” her, riding his horse with his Army uniform on.

Jim, circa 1950s

Jim, circa 1950s

Grandma Della and Jim raised seven children (and some grandchildren too). They worked  hard and were able to buy several acres of land and build a small house.  Grandma Della was a cook. Jim was described in city directories and census records variously as a laborer, yard man, and a janitor. He apparently had lingering physical and psychological issues resulting from his time in the military. As late as 1939, his physician noted in a letter requesting disability that he had difficulty walking and pain in his knee and shoulder. He also experienced nervousness, difficulty sleeping, and “all manner of bad dreams.” A contemporary diagnosis would probably be that he had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Because of Mississippi’s reputation for almost totally eliminating the black vote prior to the Civil Rights Movement, I was surprised to find evidence that my great-grandparents were registered voters, at least as early as the mid-1950s. The box contained poll tax receipts and sample ballots. If they were able to vote, perhaps it was because Jim was a World War I veteran.

Poll Tax receipt, Lauderdale County, Mississippi

Poll Tax receipt, Lauderdale County, Mississippi

I suppose grandchildren can never really know about the lives of their grandparents. After all, Jim was almost eighty years my senior. But I feel as if I know him a little better now, and I certainly enjoyed searching through the box of memories.

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Starting from Scratch: Researching My Family History

A collage of some of the pictures and other documents that I found.

A collage of some of the pictures and other documents that I found.

I am approaching the topics of genealogy and family history with trepidation. I was raised with my grandparents and great-grandparents and always enjoyed hearing stories about their lives. Having studied African-American history for so long, I knew that I was likely to uncover a history that would make me angry. So, I told myself that it was better not to know. In fact, I was perfectly satisfied listening to my friends’ discussions of their family research and even providing historical advice and context, but I never thought of engaging in my own research until I posted on my great-grandfather for the blog. Both Da Hype 1 and I received such good feedback on the posts we did on our family histories that we decided to revisit the topic. Since I am the novice in this arena, I decided to discuss the process of getting started with genealogy or family research.

1. Gather Information: The first step is to gather information about yourself and your family members. Some of the suggestions include: letters and postcards; diaries and journals; photographs, photo albums, and scrapbooks; marriage, baptismal, divorce, and death records; tax records and property deeds. I have had success searching through Bibles. Large family Bibles often provide a space to record marriages, births, and deaths. In addition, people often put important papers and photographs between the pages of the Bible.

2. Inform and Interview Family Members: After having gathered all the relevant information that I have, I e-mailed my aunts to ask them if them might have additional documents that they could share with me. As it turns out, my Aunt Debra keeps old obituaries just like I do. So, she will be able to provide some of the ones that I am missing. Genealogists also encourage researchers to interview family members, especially elderly ones, who may be privy to family history, traditions, and secrets that younger members are not.

3. Organize Information: After having performed steps one and two, the experts suggest organizing the information before moving on. I found numerous websites that have family trees and other useful forms that are available to download free of charge. (See first link below.) So far, I have extended my tree out five generations.

An obituary/program from my great-grandfather's funeral.

An obituary/program from my great-grandfather’s funeral.

The most valuable documents that I found during my research were obituaries. They contain birth and death information; names and relationships of the survivors; and often the names of parents. I am cautious about using all the information without verification because they sometimes contain inaccuracies. For example, my maternal grandmother’s obituary falsely stated that she was married to my grandfather, who preceded her in death. Although they were together for more than 20 years, they never married. However, my mother insisted that the obituary state that her parents were married. (I know she wanted grandma to be viewed as “respectable.”) Fortunately, I know about this, so I won’t spend time looking for a marriage license that doesn’t exist.

My research is just beginning, and I am excited about what is to come. I am also looking forward to family gatherings (like Thanksgiving) as a way to learn more.

I found the following links helpful: