I ♥ NY, Sorta

Oh, New York. I want to love you. I do. But those mountains of paper make it hard, not to mention the records you won’t even let me see. Thank goodness for all those hard-working people who are trying to bridge the gap between us.

Today’s happy discovery is AmericanAncestors – New York Resources. AmericanAncestors is the reincarnation of the old New England Genealogical Historic Society web site, which – hello, has the words NEW ENGLAND in it – and therefore doesn’t seem very New Yorkish. Don’t be fooled.

My current research includes the SNECKNER family, many of whom were bakers and master confectioners in NYC from about 1830 to 1900. They owned storefronts. Put ads in papers. Published recipes. Lived in the same spot generation after generation. And they were pretty easy to find through ProQuest’s digitized New York Times archives, city directories, and census records. But AA-NYR had even more juicy goodness, and thanks to their attention to smaller newspapers and transcribed announcements, I was able to fill in a few blank dates and find some remarkable personal news coverage.

Thanks, AmericanAncestors!

Thanks, Virginia!

New Year’s Day, 1863 dawned with surprisingly cold skies. The weeks before had felt more like early summer, but the sudden cold snap reminded the people of Virginia that it was, indeed, the Christmas season.  History would later call this a special day, the day President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and freed the slaves of the Civil War south.* But it made no difference to Elizabeth. For one thing, like a third of the black people who lived on the Eastern Shore, she was already free. And even if she weren’t free, the Eastern Shore was an exception, decreed in the document to be left “precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.”

Photo courtesy of Eastern Shore Public Library

So begins the project I just finished. African American genealogy is new to me, and I tiptoed into it the way you might wade into a muddy swamp. I knew the tangled vines and quicksand were there – I just couldn’t see them. But this project was for a friend, so I really wanted to do it despite the challenges.

When I began this project I assumed I would hit a wall in records before 1865, the year the Civil War ended. I knew that slaves weren’t enumerated by name in census records and that birth, marriage and death records would be almost non-existent.

How lucky, then, that this family turned out to be part of a free black community in Accomack County, Virginia. There they were, in census records beginning in 1800. And – joy! – a tiny handful of vital records had survived. It was enough to get started, and I turned to my usual favorite research sites.

Hah.

There were no cemetery records – unmarked graves were the norm for people of color. There were no church records or newspaper accounts, no city directories, and no military anything. So I put on my beginner’s mind and started fresh. What did I want to know? Who could help me?

Three resources were profoundly helpful to me. So helpful, in fact, that they’ve inspired me to start my own little “Gratitude Grants” program. Beginning with this project, I will donate a percentage of my project fees to a non-profit organization (or two – or three!) that was crucial to my research.

  • Accomac Roots** is clearly a labor of love, an effort to uncover and preserve the heritage of the black families living in Accomack County. Their work was a solid stepping stone for me in understanding the local culture of the time, not to mention the family lines.
  • Library of Virginia has preserved many unusual records, including deeds of manumission (the documents used to free slaves) and early census records of free blacks. Using interlibrary loan from my own beloved public library I was able to access all of this information for practically nothing.
  • Eastern Shore Public Library. Because the family I was researching had very common first names and very few records, it was incredibly useful to research the white families they were living near or working for. The ESPL’s Miles Files helped me untangle the families, wills, and land records that indicated where and how my research subjects were living.

To Accomac Roots, The Library of Virginia, and Eastern Shore Public Library – thank you! The check is in the mail.

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* Today we imagine this momentous event happening with speeches, banners, balconies, and cheering crowds. In fact, it was just a single sheet of paper, signed without ceremony in front of a handful of people, then sent to the Department of State to be sealed and deposited in the government archives. http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/emancipation.htm

** Don’t get hung up on the spelling. Accomac is a town in Accomack County, which adopted the “k” in later years just to confuse genealogists.

If you could “tag” Maurice Sendak’s childhood, you’d use works like Brooklyn. Immigrants. Poland. Russian. Jewish. Poor. Holocaust. Sickly. Most sources say his father was a dressmaker, such a quaint and old-worldly occupation. In fact, he was a machine operator in a Brooklyn hemstitching factory, working long hours for not much money. His mother was distracted and worried about the extended family she had left behind, many of whom were caught in Hitler’s net. As for Maurice, called “Murray” by his family, he was the youngest of three children and sickly.

“It was a really unkempt, unruly small apartment with three children, a father who worked so hard, and a mother who was … had problems, mentally and emotionally. And we didn’t know that your mommy is supposed to be perfect, she should be there for you, love you, kiss you. But I was not Max. I did not have the courage that Max had, and I didn’t have the mother that Max had.” (from an interview with PBS Now)

Most of us tell our family stories in nice safe places: around the dinner table, at a sweet little campfire, or in my case the car. But how lucky we are that Maurice Sendak told his family stories through bewildering, unlikely, and sometimes dark children’s books – even though it wasn’t “right.”

“What is a children’s book? Primarily it is to be healthy and funny and clever and upbeat and not show the little tattered edges of what life was like. But I remember what life was like. And I didn’t know what else to write about.”

What are your wild stories? What fears and hurts and angers can’t be contained in the safety of a tidy little space?

RIP, Maurice Sendak,  King of All Wild Things, and thank you.

It seems we “girls” are forever trying to be thinner, fatter, lighter, darker, anything but what we naturally are. But the ways we torture ourselves have certainly changed. These machines were popular in the 1930s and -40s. I admit I kinda wish they really worked – this is the type of exercise I could commit to!

“Just the facts” is a great start to your family history. But it’s really just the skeleton. A good story puts meat on the bones and brings your family history to life. Today’s writing tip:

Show, don’t tell.

One easy way to do this is to imagine your story as if it were a scene in a movie. Close your eyes and think about what’s happening. What is the main person thinking? Feeling? Experiencing? Consider these examples:

Good:

On December 21, 1862, the 31st Iowa Regiment set sail on the steamer “City of Louisiana.” On December 25 they reached Chickasaw Bayou, which led to bluffs at the edge of Vicksburg. The Confederates were using the bluffs to defend the city, and the Union men’s goal was to rout them.

Better:

On December 21, 1862, the 31st Iowa Regiment set sail on the steamer “City of Louisiana.” The boat was well-suited for handling up to 900 passengers, but with 1300 soldiers in the regiment, conditions were crowded. At night, the men were forced to sleep on the open decks in rainy weather. During the day they conducted target practice.

On December 25 they reached Chickasaw Bayou, near the bluffs of Vicksburg. The Confederates were using the bluffs to defend the city, and the Union men’s goal was to rout them.

Even Better:

It was sunset when John Brigham stepped aboard the steamship “City of Louisiana.” At 40, he was older than most of the other soldiers he served with, and his thoughts must have been with his wife and the four young children who would celebrate Christmas without him.

Jostling through the crowd, he staked out a sleeping spot on the deck. Like the other men, John had been issued a blanket with his uniform, and although it was thin it was better than nothing. For three nights he slept in the open, pulling the blanket over his face to keep the cold rain away. During the day he joined his compatriots in target practice, shooting at the geese flying along the river and getting used to his rifle.

On Christmas Day 1862 the steamer reached a deserted plantation, and the men debarked quietly. Everything was wet. It had been a rainy winter, with broken river banks and flood waters that seeped slowly into the countryside. John marched as best he could into the safety of the forest, swampy with black muck and dense undergrowth. Spanish moss hung overhead in a thick draping canopy that kept the woods dark, even in the day. This was Chickasaw Bayou, which bordered the bluffs edging the city of Vicksburg. The Confederates were using the bluffs to defend the city, and the Union men’s goal was to rout them.

You could go even further without veering into fiction. Reading newspapers and diaries of the time can give you great details about weather, food, and atmosphere that aren’t reflected in the bare bones of names, dates, and places. read as much as you can, jot down a few notes, then close your eyes and watch the movie unfold.

If you have good examples of storytelling, please link to them in the comments – I’m always on the lookout for great stories!

It’s not enough to gather other people’s stories. You need to tell your own, too. Today’s prompt:

What was your grandmother’s house like?

Tell us what it looked like, but don’t forget your other senses as well. What did it smell like? What sounds did you hear there – the songs she sang, the music that played on the radio, children in the school yard next door? What kinds of food did you eat there? And what did you feel? Was her skin soft like well-worn leather? Were her blankets soft or coarse? Leave your story in the comments below, or blog about it and link back so we can read along.

Oil StoveMy grandmother lived in a tiny wooden duplex in Mechanic Falls, Maine. On the one side was her sister, living in a big white house next to the duplex. On the other, separated from the back yard by a chain link fence, was the red brick elementary school where I went to kindergarten. That was decades ago, but I still dream about that house – the main floor, where pretty much everything was, including her bedroom. And the mysterious upstairs where we were never allowed to go, full of my mother’s childhood things and ominous in its dust and silence. In my dreams I try to climb the white-washed wooden stairs, but never complete the journey, held back by my own pounding heart.

The kitchen was in the back, dominated by a hulking black cast iron stove with iron plates for burners that you could lift out with a poker. She didn’t use it often – she wasn’t much for cooking. But she often made us a snack of “oil stove toast” – buttered bread laid flat on the hot burners until it was limp and hot. I’ve never seen a stove like that before or since, or eaten oil stove toast since I was a child – but I can still smell the hot iron, and even taste it, the way a cast iron skillet leaves its seasoned flavor on the food that cooks in it.

Superhero Fantasies

Born during the Great Depression and in the shadow of World War II, is it any wonder Superman was so popular? (Source: Seattle Daily Times; March 5, 1940; p1)

Imagine a quarter of a million American teenagers living on the road, fleeing abuse, forced to drop out of schools that had closed, or just trying to find work to help their families. This was the situation during the Great Depression, when two teenage boys created “The Man of Steel.” Is it any wonder Superman became an overnight phenomenon?

In 1940, Superman was beginning to appear in newspaper comic strips across the country. It’s easy for me to imagine my grandfather at the breakfast table, 35 years old and the father of four children, reading the comics and wishing for a real-life superhero. He and his wife worked for the Volunteers of America, trying to make life better for the down and out while they themselves struggled. On the day the 1940 US Census was taken, Superman was laying a trap for thugs who were loaning money to poor people, enticing them to gamble it away, then making them repay it at huge interest rates. It was a complicated story line – Superman hadn’t yet become the Biff! Boom! Pow! type. But a mythical superhero, stronger than any evil, must have been a welcome fantasy for desperate people living with hunger, poverty, and the growing menace in Germany.

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