Learning about your African-American family history starts with asking questions, which can sometimes be challenging. Expert Angela Walton-Raji shares tips on talking to your relatives to uncover your family’s stories and heritage.
All of our relatives have unique stories. Like these young ladies at a Naval Air Station spring formal dance in Seattle, Washington, in 1944. (Click on the picture to learn more about it.)
Many African-American families share particular types of memories and experiences–for better or for worse–from having lived in the United States. Recently genealogy expertAngela Walton-Raji joined Lisa Louise Cooke on the Genealogy Gems Podcast episode 201 to share tips about researching these stories.
She especially talked about the importance of interviewing elders, and shared several questions she suggested asking. These will help you learn more about your relative’s own life and other family experiences with the Civil Rights movement, migration, and military service. These questions also delve deeper into passed-down family memories that may help you trace your family history back to the era of slavery.
What to ask in African-American oral history interviews
1. Do you know of anyone in the family who was born a slave? (If old enough: as a child, did you know anyone personally who was born a slave?)
2. Who was the oldest person that you remember when you were a child? And did that person ever talk about anyone who may have been enslaved?
3. What do you know about where the family was from? (Were we always from Georgia, or was there a time when we came from another place? Why did we move? Who remembers that journey?) These questions may help you trace your family during the Great Migration.
4. Were you (or other relatives) involved in the Civil Rights movement, in the Garvey era, with the Freedom Riders, or other important events in your lifetime? What kinds of things did you see?
5. Who in the family participated in the military (in World War II, World War I, or the Spanish-American War)? FYI: African-American military units through the mid-20th century were still referred to as Buffalo soldiers. (In the interview, Angela mentioned the Triple Nickel, a unit of all-black World War II paratroopers.
“If you just drop a couple of key words you might jar their memory and get an amazing narrative to come out.” -Angela Walton-Raji
Have you used WPA records for genealogy? Their Historical Record Surveys and local and oral histories may help you in your family history research. Existing records and locations vary widely. Here are tips to help you in your search.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, employees of the Works Progress Administration (WPA, also known as the Works Projects Administration) created new resources for U.S. genealogical research. It’s possible you’ve even consulted some of these without being aware of their WPA origins. After all, the projects and their formats varied. They didn’t always prominently credit the WPA and some were printed long afterward. We’re going to shine the spotlight on WPA-era local histories, oral histories and statewide Historical Record Surveys.
WPA Records for Genealogy: Local Histories
In Annie Barrows’ novel The Truth According to Us, Layla Beck heads to the small fictional town of Macedonia, West Virginia to write a local history as a WPA assignment. Drama ensues, both in Layla’s personal life and as she tries to learn local stories, which everyone reports a little differently. (We featured this book in the Genealogy Gems Book Club.)
Actually, local histories were written as WPA projects. Their scope, topics, and formats varied, depending on the unique background and resources of each region and how active WPA workers were in each state and county. For example, WPA historical materials in Morrison County, Minnesota include “histories on townships, cities, churches, schools, businesses, the military, and miscellaneous county history topics,” which have since been collected and reprinted by the county historical society. Many historical projects included photographs, such as this one for the city of New Orleans.
WPA Records for Genealogy: Oral Histories
WPA workers also captured oral histories of individuals, too. Many were collected in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940, now online at the Library of Congress. According to the collection description, “The documents chronicle vivid life stories of Americans who lived at the turn of the century and include tales of meeting Billy the Kid, surviving the 1871 Chicago fire, pioneer journeys out West, factory work, and the immigrant experience. The documents often describe the informant’s physical appearance, family, education, income, occupation, political views, religion and mores.”
Other important WPA oral histories are narratives of former slaves and their families. You can browse an enormous collection of these online at the Library of Congress. These aren’t the ideal eyewitness accounts we wish for, as they were gathered so long after the end of slavery, from many who were young children at the time. Also, many researchers believe interviewees may not have spoken candidly, especially to white interviewers who may have known them personally.
It’s a long shot to find an ancestor mentioned by name in WPA oral histories. In some instances, pseudonyms were even used for names and places. But, you can still learn a lot from others’ descriptions of daily life and unusual events your ancestors may have experienced.
From one of the slave narratives mentioned in this article.
Historical Record Surveys
The Historical Record Surveys created by the WPA are among the most genealogically-valuable of their projects. “Under the auspices of the WPA, workers went to archives, historical societies, public and university libraries, and compiled inventories of manuscript collections,” writes Bryan Mulcahy in an online report. “They went to courthouses, town halls, offices in large cities, and vital statistics offices and inventoried records. Besides compiling indexes, they also transcribed some of the records they found.”
Today, many of their efforts still exist. They include indexes to cemeteries, newspapers, and naturalization records, as well as inventories of courthouse records, church records, and other manuscript collections in various archives or libraries. Of course, some records may have been moved or destroyed since inventories were created, but knowing what records existed around 1940 and what they were called may help you locate surviving collections. Some indexes, such as those of cemetery tombstone inscriptions, may actually be more valuable since they captured information from tombstones that may no longer exist or be legible.
A blank WPA Historical Records Survey church records inventory form. Image courtesy of the State Archives of Florida. Click this image to find it online at Florida Memory.
One great example is the Historical Records Survey for the state of Oregon, described as “the most comprehensive documentary project of Oregon history and related records of its time.” It includes historical essays, document transcriptions, interviews, research notes, photographs, pamphlets and more. According to its collection description, “The territorial and pioneer periods of the mid-to-late nineteenth century receive the greatest attention, with an emphasis on the growth of state government and infrastructure, business and agriculture, transportation, education, biography, and relations between social groups. Native Americans figure prominently in this collection.”
Finding WPA Records for Genealogy Online
Some WPA projects were carried out on a federal level and others by state agencies. They were never centrally published or collected. Today, surviving original files and published volumes are scattered across the country. Some can be found in the National Archives, many in state libraries or societies, and many more available at local repositories.
A Google search such as historical records surveys and the name of the state and/or county is a great way to start your search for WPA records for genealogy research. Some results will lead right to the kinds of resources you want, such as this guide to WPA records in archives in the Pacific Northwest. Others, such as this one for the Iowa Historical Records Survey published in The American Archivist, are mostly a history of the effort. However, they do contain several useful bibliographic citations to records that were created. Add the name of the county to your search and you may find more targeted results, such as this library catalog entry for the inventory of the Jasper County archives. Click here to learn more about Google searches for genealogy records you want to find.
Remember, though, that many WPA publications and collections aren’t identified as such. Don’t fixate on needing to find WPA listed in the title. Just concentrate your efforts on finding the local and oral histories, photos, historical record indexes and inventories, and other resources that may be out there. When you find one created during the Great Depression, you’ll know it may have been done by the WPA.
Writing your personal history can be simple and oh-so-fun with the step-by-step approach from our own Sunny Morton. She has just released her book “Story of My Life” and we are ecstatic to tell you about it! This fill-in-the-blank workbook will guide you as you write and organize the story of your life from birth to retirement.
Beginning Your Personal History Journey
Writing a personal history is a big project and one that many of us consider overwhelming. As time rolls on, I know I feel a tugging on the old heart strings to write more of my own history for posterity. I just don’t know how or where to start.
Sunny has the answer in her recent workbook titled Story of My Life. It’s not only a fill-in-the-blank workbook, but inspiring and instructional for any novice or experienced writer. Sunny has also included many tips and hints for how to jog your memory or the memory of others. Others? Yep–others. I love the way she has incorporated ideas in which we can include the memories of others in our personal memoir.
Why This Book is Unique
When asked why her book is different, Sunny shares:
“This book helps you say more than, ‘I remember.’ It helps you say, ‘This is what I got out of my life.’ That’s the ‘so what’ factor that gives your best stories value and staying power. Story of My Life works for every life path and life style, too: its questions cover the gamut from childhood to retirement, motherhood to military life, school to hard-scrabble working, triumphs and failures, and relationships of all kinds.
Along with traditional questions like when and where you were born, Sunny includes places for you to record other special memories. Some special memory ideas include writing about an influential teacher or coach, a godparent, or a flashbulb memory. A flashbulb memory is described as “your memory of a highly public event.” Just reading that reminded me of where I was standing, in an Army base hospital, when I saw the Twin Towers fall on 9/11. It was an event that is burned in my memory and had a lasting effect on me.
More Ideas for Projects and Preservation
Like I said before, Sunny suggests collaborating with others to recall memories of your life from a different perspective. I thought it would be neat to work with my sisters on the “Me and My Mother” worksheets for childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. These help us each reflect on our relationships with her during different seasons of life. I thought it would be neat to collect these worksheets from each of my siblings and have them bound together to give to Mom on Mother’s Day.
Other ideas include tips for preserving your precious artifacts and memorabilia.
Writing Personal History at any Time in Life
Whether you are just starting out in your adult life or if you are in the prime of retirement, you will finally be motivated and able to complete your personal history. Everyone can use a little motivation and encouragement to write those stories. Follow along as Sunny shows you how to weave your way through the good, the bad, the triumphant, and the sometimes tragic, story of you.
Save the Whole Writing Personal History Kit and Caboodle
For a limited time, “Story of My Life” can be purchased as a set along with Family Tree Memory Keeper for the price of $19.99
(originally $39.98 – you save $20!). To purchase this family history book bundle, click here.
If you are really serious or ambitious about writing your personal history, you might opt for the super-savings bundle titled Write Your Family History Toolkit featuring:
4. Writing Your Family Memoir Independent Study (PDF Download, $99.99)
5. Copyright Law for Genealogy (Webinar, $49.99)
6. Pain-Free Family History Writing Projects (Video Download, $39.99)
7. Outline Your Family History Writing Projects (Video Download, $8.99)
This mega bundle is normally priced at $255.93, but on sale for $59.99! And as a special treat just for Genealogy Gems readers, you can use coupon code GEMSHISTORY10for an additional 10% off!*
Click this link to get yours today!
How can you preserve a family’s history when it exists only in the memories of tribal storytellers? Visit the tribe and capture its oral history, as MyHeritage is doing with its Tribal Quest initiative.
MyHeritage recently announced a new global initiative to record and preserve the family histories of tribal people living in remote locations around the world.
Their first project is in Namibia. Next they plan to move on to Papua New Guinea. Check it out in this brief video:
MyHeritage is even recruiting volunteers who want to travel to these places and help out. You can learn more at TribalQuest.org.
FamilySearch published an article a few years ago about similar work they’ve done in several African nations. “Most African tribes have a designated ‘storyteller’ who is responsible to memorize the tribe’s oral traditions, including names of ancestors going back six to thirty generations,” it says. “FamilySearch works with chiefs and local volunteers to visit these storytellers and record the information they have been charged to remember in their heads. Sometimes the interview is audio or video recorded.” FamilySearch enters what they learn into a GEDCOM (the universal family tree file format) and put it on FamilySearch.org for others to use.
How far have YOU gone to capture your family’s oral history? Probably not to a remote tribal home! Why not use the resources below to help you with your next oral history project?
Lisa’s interview with Irish genealogy expert Donna Moughty. I do have an Irish line or two that I haven’t started tracking into Ireland. Donna’s encouraging advice have gotten me excited about revisiting those lines. Her specific tips are pointing right toward what I should do and where I should go next with my Irish kin.
Another favorite in this episode is Lisa’s segment on recording oral history interviews with your mobile device. Many of us usually have all we need to record an interview with a relative: a smartphone or tablet, a list of questions and a few minutes to spare. Lisa got me thinking about the conversations I want to record and how easy it will be using the apps she recommends.
With the FamilySearch Memories app, record conversations on your mobile device, automatically upload them to your FamilySearch tree–then save the master audio file to your computer.
The free FamilySearch Memories app helps users capture family memories, photos and even conversations. You can use it to take pictures of history-in-the-making or images of old family photos, documents and artifacts. You can also use it to record audio files, like an oral history interview with a relative, or your own re-telling of classic family stories or jokes. The app is available for iOS and Android users. Click here for a tutorial on how to use the app.
But there’s a catch: the FamilySearch app is built to sync all that content automatically to your tree on FamilySearch.org. For the sake of an extra file backup option and for sharing purposes, this is just fine. It’s definitely nice to be able to tag those files with your relatives’ names from your tree and have the files show up in their individual profiles.
But Lisa is constantly teaching genealogists to keep their master genealogy files of all kinds on their OWN computers, and to back up that computer securely. This includes photos, GEDCOMs tree files, text files, digitized documents–and oral history audio files. That way, you’ve always got a copy and you’re not relying on anyone else to back up your precious files. (Because, bottom line, you’re the one who cares most about them.)
We asked FamilySearch specialists to share with Genealogy Gems how to retrieve audio files from the app or the online tree, so users can have their own copies. Here’s what their project management team had to say:
About the FamilySearch Memories audio file type:
“Audio files that are uploaded from the Family Tree mobile apps, both iOS and Android, are uploaded in the original file format from the device which is called M4A. So the file name would have an extension of .m4a such as: sample.m4a. This is important is so you can: 1) understand what files to look for when you want to copy, download, etc. AND 2) When you want to play the audio file on another computer you may need to know the file type and convert it to MP4. Most audio players and web browsers will play a .m4a file just fine, so for most people it is not an issue, but still good to know. (Click here for a free online file converter.)
How to Download FamilySearch Memories Audio Files from FamilySearch.org:
This applies to users of both iOS and Andriod apps: “When a user is in the FamilySearch mobile apps, you can open the audio file and tap the SHARE icon and it will share a web URL to the audio file. If you open the audio file on a web browser such as Firefox, you can click on the DETAILS icon on the screen and there is a DOWNLOAD option that will let you download the file to your computer. So once the audio has been uploaded to FamilySearch you can download the audio from any web browser by going the the audio file, open, click details and Download.”
How to Download FamilySearch Memories Audio Files from Your Mobile Device:
For iOS users: “The Apple OS system does not currently provide a way to retrieve an audio file on your phone/ipad like a photo. There is not an audio library that you can see or open a folder like for photos.”
For Android users: “The app will save the audio file locally to the device to a folder called FamilySearch. With a utility or app that is a type of ‘File Manager for Android’ (you can download those from the Google Play store), you can navigate to that FamilySearch folder and copy, transfer that file to another computer or share with others, if the app provides a share function.
The name of the file folder and location on the Android device should be as follows or similar based on the manufacture: In the file manager app go to DEVICE than tap on Android/data/org.familysearch.mobile.memories/files/FamilySearch. That is where the audio files are stored.”
Genealogy Gems: your home for learning about the best genealogy apps! Lisa’s book Mobile Genealogy: How to Use Your Tablet and Smartphone for Family History Research will teach you about top apps (most of them FREE) for all those important genealogy tasks we do on the go: note-taking, file storage and management, photos, reading, collaborating and communicating, genealogy website apps and more. You’ll find recommendations for both Apple and Android device users. Why not pick up your copy today?