What to Ask: African-American Family History Interview Tips

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

Ready to learn more about tracing African-American ancestry? Angela Walton-Raji instructs the African-American Genealogy Research Essentials downloadable video class. Purchase it with this link and use coupon code GEMS17 for 10% off, valid through 12/31/17.

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

The Power and Preservation of Oral History

tribal quest oral historyHow 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?

More Oral History Gems

ancestors have so much to say oral historyRecord and Share Oral History with Free MyHeritage App

Easy Family History Writing Project: Publish a Q&A (Oral History)

Premium Podcast 134: Lisa’s Tips for Recording Oral History Interviews on Your Mobile Device (Genealogy Gems Premium website subscription required)

Dave Isay Keynoting RootsTech 2016: Catch Him There–or HERE!

rootstech 2016 dave isay TED talkStoryCorps founder Dave Isay will keynote at RootsTech 2016. Can’t catch him there? Watch his inspiring TED talk about the stories of our lives. It will make you want to go interview someone!

I’m looking forward to hearing Dave Isay at RootsTech 2016! An award-winning radio producer, MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and TED prize winner, and the founder of StoryCorps, Dave has spent his life capturing other people’s stories. He’s so passionate about it–and he’ll be sharing that passion as a RootsTech keynoter on Friday, February 5.

Dave’s TED talk on gathering people’s stories is amazing and I’m not the only one who thinks so. It’s had over 1.1 million views so far. If you’re going to be at RootsTech 2016, don’t miss his talk. If you’re not (or if you want a sneak peak of his awesomeness), watch his TED talk below:

“Every life matters equally and infinitely,” Dave says. Inviting someone to talk about his or her life “may just turn out to be one of the most important moments in that person’s life, and in yours.” We do this when we record loved ones’ life stories. We honor their feelings, experiences and opinions by asking about them and preserving them. Sometimes we share personal moments of understanding, forgiveness or revelation. As Dave says, “Amazing conversations happen.”

Why not make it a goal to capture a loved  one’s story in an interview in 2016? Better yet, why not do it soon, in celebration of Valentine’s Day? It’s a gift of love that builds your relationship with whomever you interview. And when you’re done, you’ll have documented more family history. What could be better?

We {Heart} These Ways to Capture a Loved One’s Oral History

Use the StoryCorps App (StoryCorps being the story-archiving program founded by Dave Isay)

Transcribe a Q&A with a Loved One: Write Your Family History

How to Reconstruct Childhood Memories

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Easy Project to Write Your Family History: Publish a Q&A

Family history writing project family history interview write your family historyThis 3-step project will help you capture a relative’s life story in plenty of time for the holidays!

Reconstructing the life stories of our ancestors can sometimes feel like squeezing water from a stone. By comparison, gathering the life stories of the living can be like turning on a tap. All you have to do is direct and catch the flow.

Turn your family history interviews into a beautiful book–just in time for holiday sharing–with this three-step project. Simplify it or doll it up, depending on your time, talents and what you have to work with. Just do it! Write your family history! Here’s the basic outline:

1. Record an interview. Invite a relative to chat with you about his or her life stories. Decide together what the relative WANTS to talk about: childhood memories? Stories about a certain loved one or a particular time period? A little of everything? Consider using a list of life story questions or memory prompts like those you can find in my book, My Life & Times: A Guided Journal for Collecting Your Stories.

Before you begin, be clear that your goal is to write these stories up for the family. Meet in person, over the phone or by Skype (click here to learn how to record a Skype conversation). With permission, record the conversation. Ask plenty of follow-up questions, but otherwise keep your own comments to a minimum. For more interviewing tips, listen to this free Family History Made Easy podcast episode.

2. Transcribe the interview. After you’ve finished your chat, go back and type up the interview. Give yourself plenty of time: this takes longer than you think. Consider asking a fast-typing relative to help or hire a transcription service (here’s one option). Type things just as you hear them, incomplete sentences and all. Don’t include anything your loved one wants to keep “off the record.”

3. Print the transcript. Save an unedited copy of the typescript in your permanent files. Edit it a little to make it “reader-friendly” if you want to. Print it out. Add any extras, like family tree charts or copies of photos. Bind it however you prefer. (Genealogy Gems Premium website members can check out Lisa’s 3-part Premium podcast series on self-publishing: episodes 52-54). Share copies with loved ones: they make great holiday gifts.

write your family history riser sample pageHere’s a page from a sample project I did. It’s a simple stapled book, printed in landscape (sideways) format on regular-sized paper. I left the narrative in the format of a simple Q&A, just like it was spoken. I did edit slightly for clarity and flow. My questions are in italics and the speakers are identified (I was interviewing a husband and wife together). I added a few photos.

I shared copies of this book with every family member as holiday gifts a few years ago. Now everyone has a special legacy gift featuring this couple: their children, their grandchildren and even their great-grandchildren.

coupon code writers workshop fall 2015 write your family historyNow is the time for you to write a portion of your family history, and I’m here to help and support you. I will be conducting a fun and productive one-week workshop called the Genealogist’s Essential Writing Workshop at Family Tree University starting October 19. Genealogy Gems has made a very special discount arrangement just for YOU–our gems: $10 off the class with our exclusive coupon code GEMSWRITING. You can do this and I’m here to help!

Additional Family History Writing Resources from Genealogy Gems

How to Reconstruct Early Childhood Memories and Stories

Tell Your Ancestor’s Story with Social History

How to Save Videos in Evernote (like family history interviews)

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