As a student of family history, I’ve learned that “old white guys” like me generally know next to nothing about African American ancestry. This isn’t to say that we can’t follow a census record, collect a newspaper clipping, or attempt to extrapolate the identities behind the well-hidden faces in the 1850 Slave Schedules. But let’s face it: that’s about where it stops. White researchers often fail to grasp a true understanding of the Black American experience (or of any people of color). In terms of genealogical research, this becomes especially relevant with the addition of oral histories and the role they play in uncovering historical truth.
The importance of oral histories and the truths they contain became very clear to me recently, when I was asked to delve into a friend and co-worker’s very unknown family tree. My co-worker (we’ll call her Colette for privacy’s sake) is of mixed race, and knew little abouther ancestry on any side. She made it clear to me, however, that she wasn’t really all that curious about her white ancestry. Rather, Colette wanted me to focus on her enslaved ancestors and find any possible connections to free persons of color. Enter one Old White Guy trying to figure things out. Continue reading Truth in Oral Histories→
African Founders , a recent publication by David Hackett Fischer, discusses Anthony Jansen van Salee (1607-1676), known as the “Black Mohammedan.” His mother was of African origin, and his father was Jan Jansen van Haarlem, known as Reis Mourad the Younger, a highly successful Dutch pirate in Algeria and Morocco. Anthony and his brother or half-brother, Abram Jansen van Salee (d. 1659), were early settlers in New Amsterdam, now New York City. Their surname “Van Salee” refers to their origin in the Republic of Salé in modern Morocco. Anthony had considerable landholdings in Manhattan and later, after some disputes with other Dutch settlers, in Brooklyn near Coney Island. Abram lived in Brooklyn as well. Anthony’s descendants largely married into other Dutch families of the area, while Abram’s descendants largely married other people of African descent. Continue reading Van Salee Descendants→
On 24 July 2022, the National Baseball Hall of Fame celebrated the induction of the newest class headlined by Boston Red Sox great David Ortiz. In honor of one of baseball’s more cherished events, we will be looking back at the family history of one of the sport’s greatest players, who broke ground and paved the way for so many who came after him, Jackie Robinson.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born in the small town of Cairo in Grady County, Georgia on 31 January 1919 to Jerry and Mallie (McGriff) Robinson; he was the youngest of the couple’s five children. Continue reading Hall of Famer→
History was made on Thursday, 7 April 2022, when the Senate confirmed Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as the 116th associate justice of the Supreme Court. She will be the first Black woman and the first public defender to serve on the court. Several months later, on Thursday, 30 June 2022, Judge Jackson took the oath as the newest associate justice on the Supreme Court.Continue reading “The dream and the hope”→
A genealogist’s mind can wander infinitely. The inspiration for this post was recent news stories regarding text messages from the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas; an odd place to start for sure. Where did I go from there?
I’ve gotten a handful of messages recently asking if I have any relationship to U.S. District Judge Julianna Michelle Childs, who is among those President Joe Biden is considering for nomination to the United States Supreme Court. I’ll point out first that her surname is Childs and not Child, but I noted recently how adding an s to my surname was not entirely uncommon. Are we related? Probably not, but I traced her African American Childs/Chiles ancestry nonetheless! Continue reading Ancestors of J. Michelle Childs→
“May you live in interesting times” is supposed to be a curse – it’s certainly an exhausting way to go through life. As 2021 rolls over to 2022, here is a look back at 2021 in Vita Brevis:
In January, Ann Lawthers urged genealogists visiting cemeteries to apply some of the insights garnered from their research, in this case about how the changing cultural norms around death translated into stone: Continue reading 2021: the year in review→
New England Congregational church minute books from the nineteenth century abound in routine facts: admissions, dismissals, committee reports and the like that do not make for compelling reading. Ivy Dixon, historian of the Pittsford Congregational Church, found this remarkable episode appearing intermittently from 1842 to 1850. Long forgotten, this story of one expatriate church member has undercurrents that still haunt us today.
Hannah Weed Hitchcock (1815–1898), daughter of John Hitchcock (1760–1836) and his second wife Lucy Ripley, later Manley (1789–1865), became a member of the church in 1834. Hannah’s father served as a soldier in the American Revolution. She was named for John Hitchcock’s first wife, Hannah, who died in 1814, having given birth to nine babies, all of whom died in infancy! Hitchcock’s second family had exceptional educations for the times: sons William graduated from Andover Theological Seminary, and John Hitchcock, dead at 25, attended Middlebury College but left for a stint in Alabama to improve his health. Continue reading A slave in Vermont→
Continuing with the ancestry of actor Billy Porter, the story of note I found in the actor’s maternal ancestry was more immediate and quite tragic. Porter’s mother Cloerinda Jean (Johnson) (Porter) Ford was the daughter of James and Martha (Richardson) Johnson, and granddaughter of Thomas H. and Mary (Hines) Richardson. Thomas H. Richardson (1889-1923), a native of Cumberland County, Virginia, moved to Pittsburgh by 1910. Thomas and Mary had three children, and Thomas worked as a packer in a steel mill and as a plasterer. Thomas died young, at thirty-three, on 26 May 1923. However, the cause of death on his death certificate prompted me look at his life further – “Shock Hemorrhage following Gun Shot Wound Through right Breast.” Continue reading Ancestors of Billy Porter: Part Two→
One of my favorite shows of the last few years has been the FX Original Pose, chronicling the lives of LGBTQ people of color in the ballroom culture of New York City during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and ’90s. With its amazing cast of talented actors, one of my favorite characters was Pray Tell, portrayed by the actor Billy Porter, who is known for his earlier work in Kinky Boots and more recently as the fabulous godmother in a remake of Cinderella. With Pose ending its season earlier this year, and Porter releasing his memoir Unprotected this month, I decided to explore the actor’s ancestry and found two very different stories, certainly representative of the variety of the African American experience over the centuries. Continue reading Ancestors of Billy Porter: Part One→