On #GenerationReader and Literacy

Since it does pertain in part to genealogy…


In academic libraries, there is almost constant talk about information literacy. But it’s not as often that I get to talk about plain ol’ literacy, which is a topic near and dear to my heart. My father used to say that if you can read, you can learn to do anything, because everything else is built on a foundation of reading.

There’s a Twitter conversation going on right now via #GenerationReader which explores the idea of inter-generational trauma and the connection between privilege and literacy. One of my research interests focuses on the connection between poverty and literacy rates, with an emphasis on urban communities and people of color.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA My grandfather as a high school freshman. Look at his baby face! He would go on to become the first in his family to obtain a four-year college degree.

My family is southern by heritage, as are many black families in America…

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On Family Accomplishments: James H. Aycox

Born near Athens, Georgia on May 31, 1919, James Henry Aycox, also known as Henry Aycox, was the fifth child of Earl Aycox and Daisy Witcher Aycox and older brother to my grandfather. When Henry was around eleven years old, his parents removed the family from rural Oglethorpe County, Georgia to the industrial town of Gadsden, Alabama. (The Aycoxes story as recorded so far can be found here and here.) At that time, there was no high school for African American students in Gadsden. The founding of Central High School in 1934 means that Henry and his sister, Maggie, would be the first of the siblings to receive a high school diploma.

Carver High School (The Central-Carver Foundation)

Carver High School (The Central-Carver Foundation)

In 1936, a new K-12 school was build for African American students and named Carver High School, after Dr. George Washington Carver of Tuskegee fame. Henry, seventeen at the time, wasted no time in establishing himself as a part of the school leadership. The following year, Henry traveled with a group of delegates to Montgomery, AL, as part of the Older Boys Conference, where he served as secretary. The delegates were also in attendance at the annual Alabama principals conference, where one of the topics of discussion was  “the possible value of the new national education outlook among Negroes to the principals and teachers in Alabama high schools” (New York Age, Dec 4, 1937, pg. 11). Additionally, that fall, Henry made waves as quarterback for the inaugural football team of Carver High, the Wildcats. During their first game of the season, the Wildcats played Barber Seminary and beat them soundly, with a score of 19-0. One of the Aycox brothers also played forward for the Wildcats basketball team in 1938. It’s not yet determined if it was Henry or his brother, William “Bill”. In 1938, as a rising senior, Henry had a leading role in the school’s nativity play, On the Road to Bethlehem, which was deemed “impressive” (The Chicago Defender, Jan 1, 1938, pg 6). Henry finished out his term at Carver as class president of the class of 1938. Their motto was “Give to the world the best you have and the best will come back to you.” Bright eyed and ambitious, the senior class departed the halls of Carver, determined to make their mark.

Unfortunately, the rest of the world wasn’t so promising for young African Americans in the 1930s, particularly in the

Carver High School, Class of 1938. James Henry Aycox, seated center

Carver High School, Class of 1938. James Henry Aycox, seated center

south. Schools were still segregated, with no promise of changing anytime soon. Job opportunities were very limited as well, with many black institutions, particularly in the South, offering programs strong in practical trades. The State Agriculture and Mechanical Institute, later known as Alabama A&M University, was no exception. As Booker T. Washington had admonished forty-three years earlier, Henry cast down his bucket where he was and settled on learning to become a tailor. He studied at the State A&M Institute from 1938 until 1942, when he received his certificate in tailoring. He was the first known individual in his family to receive a college education and only the second to complete high school.

James Henry Aycox, U.S. Army, 1940s

James Henry Aycox, U.S. Army, 1940s

When Henry stepped out of the halls of the State Agriculture and Mechanical Institute, it was to a world at unrest. The “War to End All Wars” had not lived up to its name and the United States was drawn into World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Not one to be left behind, Henry traded his books for a uniform and enlisted in the United States Army on August 15, 1942 in Ft. Myers, Virginia.

For the next four years, Henry served in the Armed Forces. It’s not yet known where he was stationed or whether he saw combat. Unfortunately, the Armed Forces during World War II was still largely segregated and African Americans had to overcome discrimination and overt racism to be recognized as men, women, and citizens while fighting for the democracy they rarely got to experience on American soil. It wasn’t until July 26,1948, three years after the end of World War II, that President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which called for equal treatment of all serving in the Armed Forces, regardless of race, ethnicity, or religious background. The Armed Forces wouldn’t complete its desegregation process until the 1950s.

On February 14, 1946, James Henry Aycox was honorably discharged from the services of the United States Army. The close of the second World War ushered in a second wave of the Great Migration. Many individuals who had served  in the military came home, only to realize that while they had been hailed as heroes abroad, their own country still didn’t welcome them. Such was the case of George Dorsey, a fellow veteran who was lynched just thirty miles from where Henry was born. Disillusioned with the conditions in the South, many African Americans left for slightly calmer waters in the North and Midwest, often joining relatives who had already left during the earlier migration movements. Henry was one of them. His older brother, Benjamin, had already relocated to Philadelphia and started a family there. Henry settled on nearby Washington, D.C. But it wasn’t enough to just live in a new place. Perhaps feeling the possibilities of starting anew, Henry decided to go back to school. This time, he had the opportunity to study a non-trade curriculum. He chose to do it at American University, becoming the first in his family to attend a predominantly white institution.

Henry started out studying Business Administration, per the 1950 AU Talon yearbook, but by his graduation in 1951, he finished with a B.S. in Social Science. Following his graduation, he went to work for the United States Postal Service, where he stayed until his retirement in 1979. Henry married and raised two children in D.C. His younger brother (my grandfather) joined him there, also marrying and raising a family. James Henry Aycox passed away in 1988.

An ironic postscript to this story is that I’m now employed at the same university where Henry obtained his degree. It’s a few days late for Black History Month, but I still think his story is worth sharing.

Starting Genealogy

Genealogy (n.) – the study of family history; the history of a particular family showing how the different members of the family are related to each other. Also, an account of the descent of a person, family, or group from an ancestor or from older forms (Merriam-Webster)

How does one “start” genealogy? Is there a “proper” way to go about it?  While there is no one approach that will guarantee quick results, I have learned a lot from my own research and the research of others that may prove helpful. I’ve had a few people ask me about how to best get started with the genealogical research process, so I figured I may as well create a blog post, so that I can link to valuable resources. Below are my suggestions on getting started and staying organized. Let me know if there is anything I’ve left out or anything you’d like to see featured and I’ll do a follow-up post.

Getting Started, or What Do I Do First?

  • Figure out where you are – One of the easiest ways to begin genealogical research is to record what you already know. Even the most basic facts about your family’s history can go far in narrowing down names, locations, and paths of emigration. Start from yourself and work your way backwards. An ancestral chart is good place to begin jotting down what you already know. It will also provide you with a written record to refer back to for clarification. You won’t remember everything, ever.
  • Consult your elders – Oral history has played an important role in history and the remembering of the past. This is even more true in genealogical pursuits. Parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, they all were around before you were born. They will remember things about the family name, individuals, and family traditions that you may not be aware of. Also, one day you will be glad you did this.
  • Be compassionate and sensitive – It is possible that you will come across relatives who don’t want to talk about the past, for fear of letting out family secrets or revisiting a past they’d rather leave forgotten. Don’t force the matter. If they don’t want to talk, let it go, but keep the lines of communication open and maintain your relationship. It’s possible they may change their minds and come around in the future.
  • Exhaust all sources – Keep in mind that everyone will remember things differently. In order to get a closer to accurate picture of your family history, you’ll want to consult multiple individuals. If your grandparents have surviving siblings, try to talk to them as well. In some cases, direct elders may have passed away. I was able to get some information about my grandfather’s youth by consulting his lifelong best friend. This will take time, so don’t be concerned about getting everything done next week. Take your time and enjoy getting to know the stories. Don’t forget to record sessions either by taking notes or using a digital media recorder (always ask permission of participants if recording audio or video).

Organization, or How Do I Know What I Already Did?

  • Record your progress – Keep a genealogy journal or blog. (Be mindful about putting sensitive information on the internet, though. Information about living individuals or that may impact living individuals is best left in your personal files, unless you’ve gained explicit permission to share with a wider audience.) Keep track of information you’ve discovered. Many people are using or moving to computer based databases or information management systems. I use RootsMagic. Other popular options are Family Tree Maker (FTM) and Legacy. Being a librarian and an analyst at heart, I enjoy using charts and tables to organize information as well.
  • Cite sources – It’s very, very, very important that you know where you got your information. It saves time, it adds clarity, it adds value, and it provides a stepping off point for future researchers. Citation is also critical to the analysis process, which may include determining the validity of your sources.
  • Create goals – Based on what you’ve discovered through charting and oral histories, determine what you want to know next. This will help you to determine where you need to look to find this information, be it an online database, the county courthouse, or your great-aunt’s attic.

Getting To The Hard Parts, or Going Beyond the Internet

  • Consult primary sources – Many individuals choose to start off with Ancestry.com or similar sites, in order to use digitized census records and vital records. If you do this, check with your local library. Odds are they have a subscription that you can use (usually onsite) for free, so that you don’t have to pay membership fees. FamilySearch is another good option and it’s 100% free. Check with archives in the state where your family originated, as some have digitized collections of vital records or newspapers. If you’re lucky, your relatives may have possession of a family Bible, written diary/journal or correspondence of ancestors. Feel free to copy or scan (with permission) for your records.
  • Never stop learning – Connect with other genealogists via blogs, online discussion groups, or social media. (The Our Black Ancestry group has been invaluable to me in gleaning from others’ research processes, bouncing ideas off of other members, and getting a second eye to try to decode handwriting.) Join local genealogy societies or meetup groups. Participate in workshops or classes at your local library or archives (hint: they’re often free). Talk to librarians and archivists; they may have helpful suggestions, particularly when you’re dealing with specialized collections or topics of research.
  • Travel – Ancestry.com is not the end all to genealogical research. State, county, and community archives and research centers are not going to have records posted online. For land, probate, some vital records, and more, you’ll have to access records physically. Also, cemeteries are a great place to verify family history. Take pictures! If time, money, or personal responsibilities prevent you from traveling, you can check with genealogists who live close to where you’d like to research. Some kind soul may be willing to do a few copies or a look-up for you. (Don’t, however, expect them to do all your work.) You also have the option to hire someone to scan/copy/research for you.

A Few More Tips, or  Things I Just Want to Add

  • Africa was not yesterday – As much as we all want to find that connection to the Motherland, as soon as possible, it’s important to consider that A.) a good family history focuses on capturing the lineage, but also the stories and the people and B.) the sheer amount of individuals victimized during the transatlantic slave trade means you’re probably going to be looking at many African connections, versus just one. I’ve been researching for nine years and have yet to come anywhere close to Africa. It takes time.
  • Have fun! Genealogy can be very addictive and rewarding. It’s okay to enjoy yourself. Also, consider beginning to record your own story for your descendants.
New Grove Baptist Church cemetery

A photo I took at New Grove Baptist Church cemetery in Athens, Georgia (2012).

Books and Printed Resources

Burroughs, Tony. Black Roots: A Beginner’s Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree. New York: Fireside Book, 2001.

Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence!: Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian. Baltimore: Genealogical Pub., 1997.

Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Pub., 2007.

Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. New York, NY: Random House, 2010.

Woodtor, Dee. Finding a Place Called Home: A Guide to African-American Genealogy and Historical Identity. New York: Random House, 1999.

Websites and Electronic Resources

African American Research – FamilySearch.org

Afro-American Genealogical Research – Library of Congress

Beginning Your Genealogical Quest – FamilySearch.org

Oral Histories: How-To –  Genealogy.com

Oral History Interviews – Library of Congress

Organizing Your Files – FamilySearch.org

Helpful Blogs and Sites

The Legal Genealogist – Contains valuable information on the legalities of navigating genealogical research and sources.

Our Black Ancestry – Contains links to social media sites, blog, tutorials, and more. Their state resources list is of interest, as is the book list.

Reclaiming Kin – Always excellent posts, with a focus on genealogy education; check out her Hot Posts section.

There Were No “Good” Slaveowners

Along the same lines of remembering, check out the blog post below. I know that some people remember so that they can hate and harbor resentment. I don’t advocate for hate or bitterness. This profits no one. Remember, rather, because the legacy of our ancestors’ strength is what enables us to take pride in our past and build on the sacrifices they made. In forgetting, we lose a part of ourselves.

Reclaiming Kin

A Slave's Back A Slave’s Back

This is a super-long post, because this has been on my mind for awhile, and I hope you’ll read it all. I don’t usually do “opinion” pieces, which this is, but because it is my research on the enslaved that has formed the opinion, I’ll let it slide.

A new book has come out that I’m reading called, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” by Edward Baptist that I highly recommend. The book places the brutality of slavery front and center and its emergence as the economic driver of our nation’s founding. Those of us researching African-Americans are frequently come face to face with horrors of slavery in the documents we review.

This is why I don’t believe in the concept of a “good slaveowner.” (Caveat: I am not talking about freed blacks who became “slaveowners” when laws forced them to buy…

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Following Up on “Making Connections”

Since I initially discovered the probate records of Richard Minter, which disclose the slaves he owned at the time of his death, I have been mulling over possible additional connection. I already know, thanks to said records, that ownership of Leroy Minter, my ggg-grandfather, passed from Richard’s estate to William S. Minter via an estate sale. I don’t know who Leroy’s parents were, but I suspect Mariah may have been related, as well as Vinson, due to naming patterns in Leroy’s descendants.

I mentioned in the previous blog post that I had found William S. Minter in the 1840 census, but that it didn’t tell me much about Leroy. I was wrong. I took another look and the census and realized something interesting. The 1840 census shows that Minter has three slaves: a male under ten years, a male between twenty-four and thirty-five, and a female between ten and twenty-four. Initially, I thought this census would have been taken before the estate sale and therefore not relevant. However, according the Census Bureau website, this census was enumerated between June 1, 1840 and November 1, 1840. The estate sale took place on January 13, 1840. So what, you ask? Weeellll….what this means is that these three individuals listed as slaves in the census are the three individuals purchased by Minter in his father’s estate sale. In other words, my ancestor was one of the ones who “participated” in transitioning Minter to a slaveowner.

William Minter was born in 1810 to Richard Minter and Nancy Ragland Minter. This would have made him thirty years old at this time he purchased Leroy, Elijah, and Sucky. At the same time he purchased them, he also purchased a plot of land from his father’s estate. I don’t know yet whether he owned land prior to this point, further research is needed on-site in Jasper County. Historically, voting rights when to male, white landowners. In the Jasper County locality, to be a slaveowner was to be respectable. In essence, at thirty years old, Minter was transitioning to a “full-grown” man. With his father deceased, he likely would have taken over many of the legal responsibilities for his mother. In addition, it appears that William functioned as a guardian to his younger brother(s). In 1840, he has another male between twenty and thirty years old living in his household (the probate records reference William serving as a guardian for John P. Minter). By 1860, his younger brother Richard is residing with him.

Because we already know Leroy was under ten years old, likely having been born around 1835, it makes sense that he would be the youngest individual in the census. This means Elijah was a bit older than I originally thought him to be; he was a grown man. The title of “boy” would have been how those conducting the sale (and purchases) perceived him only. It also means he was old enough to be Leroy’s father…which leaves me with additional questions. Likewise, Sukey was much younger than I thought her to be. As she was between ten and twenty-four, she could have been young enough to be Leroy’s sister, or old enough to be his mother. Were they purchased by the same individual because they were a family unit, or was it just a random purchase intended to supply William Minter with his beginning stock of slaves?

Another interesting thing that I noticed is that Nancy Minter, William’s mother, lives quite close to him. She also kept some of the enslaved individuals, which I did not initially realize. As Richard Minter died intestate, I’m going to assume that the enslaved persons who were sold to provide for Nancy and her minor offspring, but that the ones she retained for labor were intended to continue bringing profit to the plantation . There’s a possibility that Leroy’s relatives may be among this latter group. The individuals enslaved to Nancy in 1840 included a male child under ten years, two men aged thirty-six to fifty-four, a young woman between ten and twenty-four, a woman between twenty-four and thirty-four, and a woman between thirty-five and fifty-four. It’s quite possible that William’s increase in slave ownership by 1860 came about through his mother transferring ownership to him. Nancy remarried to Richard Foster in 1845. Perhaps she wanted William to retain control over his late father’s wealth and estate. It’s certainly something to consider. Nancy died twenty years later, in 1865.  To date, I have been unable to uncover probate or estate records. My hope is to soon travel to Georgia to take a look at deeds of sale from pre-1865 in Jasper County, as well as land and tax records from after 1865. I think that will be my graduation gift. :)

Robbins, Illinois: home of black flight

It’s been such a long time since I posted, I know. But, I’m still plugging away at that Master’s degree. This summer I am interning at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, working on some digitization and digital collections projects. Today, while working on the Black Aviators Videohistory collection, I discovered some interesting things about Robbins, IL. Let me preface my discovery by saying that Robbins, IL is connected to my mother’s side of the family. My gg-grandparents were Frank Witcher and Amanda Powers Witcher. Their daughter, Daisy Witcher Aycox, would go on to become  my maternal great-grandmother. Daisy had an older brother, Armstead Witcher, namesake to his grandfather, Armstead Powers.

Armstead Witcher was born around 1881, one of nine Witcher offspring. They were raised in Clarke County, Georgia, in the rural community of Sandy Creek. Like many young African American men of the time and region, Armstead didn’t learn to read or write.  Labor demands would have kept him out of the classroom. He likely relied on his more educated wife, Anna Neal, for navigating textual situations. They were married on  November 16, 1899. To their union were born at least eight children. The Witchers continued to reside in Clarke County for another twenty years after their marriage, before joining the rush of people leaving the south in what has come to be termed the Great Migration.

By 1930, Armstead, Anna, and five of their children reside in Bremen, a township in the village of Robbins, Illinois. It turns out that the Witchers arrived in Robbins at a critical point in the village’s history. Robbins is a historically black township, founded in 1892 by James J. Smith and Company, who sold sub-division plots in anticipation of the Chicago World Fair of 1893. Unfortunately, the anticipated boom never happened and many landowners sold their property for cheap to go somewhere more prosperous. The subdivisions were purchased by African Americans who wanted the proximity to Chicago, but were fine with residing in the rural community. Indeed, in some ways, they preferred to carve out a community of their own, where they could grow crops and sustain their livelihood, while still having access to the more industrialized Chicago. They were also free from the racial discrimination and violence encountered elsewhere in the north. In time, the area attracted more families. Chicagoans also escaped to Robbins for leisure activities. Robbins was incorporated in 1917 and governed by blacks, having a population of 753 by 1930.  (Just thirty years later, the population had jumped to 7,511, with over 98% of the population being black.)  So, the Witchers joined this number. In 1930, Armstead was employed as a building laborer and the family owned their own home.

Meanwhile, next door, important things were happening in the field of black aviation. Many people know about the Tuskegee contract with the U.S. Army Air Corps to train and recruit black pilots during WWII. The venture aimed to prove, or disprove, the notion that blacks could fly competently. However, lesser known (and entirely unknown by me, until today) is the history behind the Tuskegee flight experiment. At that time, doors across the nation were shut to black pilots. Those who desired to be licensed and/or become instructors were turned away from flight schools and aeronautical engineering schools, because of the color of their skin. But these men and women did not allow this to deter them.  Cornelius Coffey was a Detroit mechanic with dreams to fly. He later met and befriended John C. Robinson, in Chicago, who had similar dreams. They determined to learn at all costs, and being denied the opportunity through formal study, became self-taught pilots.  Being interested in the mechanical side of aviation, they enrolled in a program at the Curtiss-Wright School of Aviation. They worked, saved money, and made gradual payments on their schooling, only to show up on enrollment day and be turned away. The school didn’t realize the money was coming from black men and offered to return their money to them. With the help of their white employer, Emil Mack, they were able to gain admittance and graduated first and second in their class.

Unfortunately, Coffey and Robinson still found most doors closed to them. Airports denied them access and other pilots didn’t want to fly with them. When the airport they worked at closed down, they purchased a plot of land in Robbins in 1931, which they turned into the first black-owned and operated airport in American history. I can imagine the Witchers shielding their eyes to watch the small aircraft take off and land. Perhaps their offspring even dared to dream that one day they might take to the sky.  Tragically, a short year or two later, a violent storm swept through Robbins, destroying the airfield and their small fleet of planes. Coffey and Robinson relocated their flight program to nearby Chicago, where they taught aviation education in the Civilian Pilot Training Program.

Interestingly, in the 1930s, Coffey and Robinson flew down to Alabama to try to pitch the idea of an aviation program to Tuskegee institute, but then-president R.R. Moton wasn’t very interested. Frederick Douglas Patterson, third president of the Institute later took them up on their idea, sparking the aviation training program that birthed the Tuskegee Airmen.

Another few interesting tidbits: Willa Brown, the first commercially licensed black woman pilot in America was trained at Coffey’s flight school and would later become his wife.  Also, the Civilian Pilot Training program also existed at Howard University and Hampton University, among other HBCUs, where students could learn to fly. Tuskegee is best known for producing the first black U.S. Army combat pilots.  And to think, it all started in Robbins!