Finding Out Just How Little I Know
My blog is called Searching for Stories. In the last few days, I didn’t have to do much searching, but I was treated to a wonderful weekend full of them.
I was fortunate to be selected as a presenter at the California African American Genealogical Society conference in Los Angeles. I’ll admit I accepted the invitation mostly for mercenary reasons. I’m trying to establish my reputation as genealogical speaker and I thought by going to the conference I’d have a chance to make some connections that might provide some speaking opportunities in the future. For some dumb reason, it never occurred to me how much I would learn!
It started pretty early in the day. At the opening of the conference we were treated to the National Anthem – but not the “O Say Can You See” anthem. Instead we heard the beautiful “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Right out of the gate, I learned something new.
The plenary session speaker, Col. Franklin Henderson, USA Ret. spoke about Buffalo Soldiers. I’d heard the term, but I didn’t know much about them. He provided background about these brave men from the 9th and 10th Cavalry. He told stories of many, including Lt. Henry O. Flipper, the first black graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, an up-and-coming young officer who was eventually court marshalled and discharged from the army, but almost 100 years later was posthumously awarded an honorable discharge.
For the first breakout session, Michael N. Henderson, a genealogist and writer from Atlanta, spoke of his ancestor, Gilbert d’Arensbourg, who, along with Gilbert’s mother, Felicite, and sister, Manette, was freed from slavery in 1799, by the woman Michael has discovered is Gilbert’s paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Duclos Deselle. I learned much about Creole history, the settlement of Louisiana and the entire Mississippi River watershed up through Illinois and on into the French areas of Canada.
With these great talks in my head, I was a bit deflated to have to give my own presentations. I mean I’ve already heard “Bagging a Live One” and “Read ‘Em or Weep” dozens of times – I wanted to learn something new! But I hope I was able to share a few new tricks for finding living cousins and researching in newspapers with the people who came to hear me.
What a treat was it when I was finished with my duties to get to hear Paula Madison weave her magic, telling how she traced her grandfather from his temporary adopted home in Jamaica back to China. Paula was a journalist, and can certainly tell a captivating story, bringing so many characters to life. But along the way I learned more history – I had no idea about the large number of Chinese who emigrated to Jamaica in the latter part of the 19th century and the cultural implications that had for future generations. She’s written a book and made a documentary about her journey of discovery. I can’t wait to explore more.
We were entertained Friday night by a troupe of players recreating a 1940’s jazz club, Sweet Lorraine’s featuring among others Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Eartha Kitt and Blanche Calloway. Sharon Graine, a Los Angeles writer, producer, singer (what doesn’t she do?!) created the production. Various iterations of her shows are performed around Los Angeles to keep the legacy of these historic entertainers alive.
Saturday dawned with more “new” history. Our plenary session was hosted by Michael Sanborn of the Banning Museum. He told us about former slave, Harriet Mason, a young girl of about 13 who saved many lives in the Los Angeles harbor after the disaster of the Ada Hancock in 1863. As if the story of Harriet’s bravery weren’t enough, there was so much more to be told of Harriet’s mother, Biddy Mason, a midwife and one of the first African American property owners in Los Angeles, of the Mason’s journey west, and the historic way they gained their freedom. I’ve got lots of research to do in newspapers, now, just to satisfy my own curiosity about Biddy and Harriet and the players in the tales. I’m a California native, but once again must come face to face with how much I don’t know about the state’s history.
Elyse Hill, a genealogist from the Atlanta area presented “Breaking Through the 1870 Brick Wall.” For those of you who have not done research on formerly enslaved people, the earliest census where they are mentioned by name is 1870 – prior to that they are listed by gender and age on the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules. It’s a difficult challenge to track those names found in 1870 back in time to determine their ancestry. I was interested to hear the talk because I’m coming at it from the opposite direction. I have slave-owning ancestors in my family. It’s something I struggle with, but it is part of our nation’s history and affects where we are and who we are today. I have documents in my family including wills and estate inventories and birth and death records that mention slaves. I am feeling a call to find some way to research those documents, to come forward from the 1850 and 1860 census and the 1857 and 1862 estate papers and find some of those newly-freed people. I think Elyse and I are knocking on different sides of the same door, and she encouraged me to open it and share what I find, both as a researcher and an educator. It may help some other researcher coming from the other side. As my research progresses I will try to post about it in my blog.
I got to hear another Michael Henderson lecture, “Black Women, White Men: Embracing the Forbidden Fruit of Genealogy.” He traced his ancestry back to a Revolutionary War patriot from the Battle of Baton Rouge. Um… did any of you know about that part of the revolution? Again, I’ve discovered some gaps in my knowledge of American history – it wasn’t just New Englanders and Pennsylvanians who secured our country’s independence. I’ve certainly got my work cut out to shore up the holes in my knowledge base. But just as Elyse had done, Michael reinforced my desire to embrace and understand who my family was – what they did right, what they did wrong, and what those lessons can teach me about being the best person I can be.
I want to thank CAAGS for the great conference they put on, and for inviting me to participate. I hope in my own small way I added something to the mix. I say that my genealogy is all about searching for the stories, and I came home with a whole bagful of ‘em! Thank you. If you have a chance to go to a conference, especially one outside your regular bailiwick, take it! I guarantee you’ll leave a better and more knowledgeable participant.
My post-conference wrap-up wouldn’t be complete without a shout-out to my partner in crime, Janice Lovelace. Though she is a local Seattle genealogist and speaker, I hadn’t met her until I opened the door to the hotel room we shared in LA. I had a great time getting to know her, to learn some history from her, and I look forward to more good times with my new colleague.
 For more information see - http://www.buffalosoldier.net/HenryO.Flipper2.htm and http://www.buffalosoldier.net/
 Here’s a link to a video of one of our cast, Suzanne Nichols, as Miss Kitty. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MiosYyrJ0Ho
 http://www.thebanningmuseum.org/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Ada_Hancock, http://www.publicartinla.com/Downtown/Broadway/Biddy_Mason/ruddick_Biddy_Mason.htm,
 The PBS series, “History Detectives” did a segment on a document Michael used to discover this part of his lineage. Here’s the link http://www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/video/1575582583/
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Mary Kircher Roddy is a genealogist, writer and lecturer, always looking for the story. Her blog is a combination of the stories she has found and the tools she used to find them.