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 expert Angela 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
More African American Genealogy Gems
A Slave Birth Record is among the Touching Heirlooms in This Exhibit
The Colored Farmer’s Alliance: Learning the History Behind their Stories
Finding Your Free People of Color
Most of us don’t recall our early years well. How can we tell our life’s story if we don’t remember the first chapter?
I’ve learned to use whatever scraps the past gives me. That’s what I did in a scrapbook I put together a few years ago that reconstructs my early childhood. I realized when looking through this album that I actually cobbled together the past from four different sources, only one of which was my own memory:
1. The family slide collection. I grew up in the 1970s, when slide photography was all the rage (at least with my dad). Several years ago, I scanned all the slides. My digital copies of the slides became the main narrative for the album.
2. My parents’ memories, captured in an oral history interview. One day, I got both my parents on the phone at the same time. I asked them to look through their CD of the family slides as I looked through my copy. As we looked at each picture–even the not-so-great ones–I asked what memories surfaced. Different things came to mind for each of them, which was fantastic. They captioned the photos for me, filling in the stories behind the pictures.
3. My baby book. My parents already had my 11-month old brother by the time I came along. So Mom didn’t have a lot of time to write much down. But there are a few gems in my baby book: my mom’s memories and memorabilia from when I was born. These filled in more gaps in my childhood story.
4. My own vague childhood memories. All these pictures and memories jogged loose fragments of my own memories. They are still fragmented; some don’t make much sense or tell a whole story. But taken together with everything else, they help reconstruct my childhood enough that I have a much better sense of it now.
The family historian in me made sure I identified the source of each story in the album. My parents’ memories are tagged as such, as are excerpts from my baby book. I typed up my own memories and put them in my own voice.
Who is living who knows something about your childhood? Parents? Step-parents? Grandparents? Aunts or uncles? Friends of the family? What family artifacts or albums may be in the attic, basement or on a shelf? Ask them to help give you back your own past!
Family History for Kids Starts WITH the Kids
Our free Family History Made Easy podcast offers great episodes on topics related to this post: Lisa covers finding family history at home; interviewing skills, and how to contact long-lost relatives (episodes 13 and 14).
Genealogy Gems Premium members can listen to Premium podcast episode 116, which has an interview with Laura Hedgecock, author of Memories of Me: A Complete Guide to Telling and Sharing the Stories of Your Life. (Click here to learn more about Premium membership.)
Looking for something fun to read this holiday season? Whether you need reading material for holiday travels or just want to curl up under a blanket at home, here are two great titles I love. I shared these with Lisa in the December episode of the Genealogy Gems podcast–click here to hear our discussion and excerpts!
Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History
by Helene Stapinski is one of my favorite published family histories. The author recounts her family’s upbringing in the context of the notoriously corrupt culture of Jersey City, New Jersey, U.S.A. It’s a page-turner, from the jaw-dropping opening sentence to the author’s final musings about how her own life reflects hand-me-down criminal tendencies. Some of the stories are snickeringly funny and some are sad, and the author keeps just the right distance from the drama. She’s close enough to sympathize with people who are trying to make their way within a culture that rewards dishonesty, greed and violence, yet can laugh at ironies like trying to learn about her grandfather’s petty thefts–when he’s stolen the very newspaper pages about his misdeeds from the library.
Homemade Biography: How to Collect, Record, and Tell the Life Story of Someone You Love
This is more than “just” a how-to book for family historians—it’s a story of its own. I re-read it every time I want to be freshly inspired to pursue the stories of my family. New York Times best-selling author and journalist Tom Zoellner weaves stories of his own into fabulous, hard-won advice on interviewing people. He shares insider tips on how to get the best stories out of those we talk to. There’s even a helpful chapter on how to work with the memories of those who have Alzheimer’s!
Tune in next month to learn our next featured book for the first quarter of 2015. Learn more about other books we’ve recommended at the Genealogy Gems Book Club page.
I gave a presentation at RootsTech on using YouTube for family history. I got tons of excited feedback from people who didn’t realize a) how much internet users rely on YouTube as a source of information and b) how creatively we can share our family history there.
Katelyn Guderian, a reporter with the Deseret News (Utah), sent me an email afterward: “I genuinely enjoyed your presentation and the suggestions you offered. YouTube can seem overwhelming to users who aren’t familiar with how it works, and I think you did a nice job at making it seem manageable.” Even better, she shared a lot of my comments on using YouTube in this news article. Here are my 6 tips for using YouTube for family history as she shared them in her article:
1. Identify your target audience: Who are you trying to reach? What do they specifically want to know?
2. Create usable content: Create videos that answer questions and bring insight to families.
3. Be authentic: Don’t try to be someone you aren’t. Let your personality guide your posts, and people who like it will keep coming back.
4. Keep it short: Limit most videos to 3–5 minutes, with the longest posts being around 10. Leave your audience wanting more.
5. Keep it simple: Make your content direct and easy to understand. Leave your audience with a call to action.
6. Use proper lighting: If you are filming a new video, make sure to have light on your face to eliminate shadows. Audiences won’t watch something they can’t see. Try not to combine natural light with artificial light while on camera.
Thanks for the coverage and the positive comments, Katelyn!
Everyone can learn more about using YouTube for family history in a full chapter dedicated to the topic in my book, The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, fully revised and updated for 2015. There’s an entire chapter on YouTube, not just on using it to share your family history, but on researching your family history. Yep, that’s right–it’s possible to find some real gems on your family on YouTube, like historical video footage that tells you their story and may even include your relative.
YouTube for Family History! More Genealogy Gems for Making and Sharing Your Own Videos Online
Bring Your Family History to the Big Screen: How to Use Chromecast
How to Make a Family History Video
InstaGrandma: How One Woman is Leaving Her Legacy Online