Getting Started in African American Genealogy
How I got started
I am often asked by many persons how I got started in researching my family history.
The answer is simple, I have always wanted to know things about my family. Perhaps
because my own immediate family was a small one. Perhaps because I was just naturally
curious. But I know that most of my interest in knowning my history came from
the influence of 3 women in my life. It is those three women who still guide me
as their words said to me became my guiding source.
I grew up in Ft. Smith around three very special women my mother, my grandmother, and
my great grandmother. Interestingly, each was either a mother-in-law or daughter-in-law to the
next. My mother often shared with me details of her own life, having been raised by her own
grandmother. My mother's mother Lilly died in the Tuberculosis epidemic that gripped the country
while my mother was still an infant. Subsequently, she was raised by a grandmother
and an aunt. They provided the guidance and love and direction upon which my mother,
Pauline's foundation was built.
As a result, my mother's love of older people, and her profound respect for the wisdom of
elders was easily transferred to me early on. She often told me the stories of her grandmother
Harriet, my gr. grandmother whose face I would never see, yet who touched me nevertheless. Grandma
Harriet Young, told my mother as a girl, the stories of her own life as a slave in Mississippi, and she spoke often
of the night in 1864, that her brother, and father, left never to be seen again. My mother
imagined, as did I that they had been sold from the family. It was later through my
own genealogical pursuits that I would learn that gr. grandmother Harriet's brother John,
and her father Berry were not sold at all, but in reality when the opportunity came, they
left to fight for their own freedom. They had joined the Civil War as black Union soldiers
fighting for their own freedom! Fortunately, because my mother Pauline listened to her
Grandma Harriet, that story survived to be told to me. I listened long enough to find out the
reality of what had happened, and was fortunate to have obtained Civil War documents on
this family, from Washington.
My mother's compassion and love for the elderly was showered upon my other special guardians
from my childhood---my grandmother Ellen Bass Walton, and my great grandmother Sallie Walton
were those two special women.
Grandma, my father's mother, lived in the house that many Ft. Smithians will
recall on the corner of 12th & T Streets. Within close proximity to the "Junction"
her house was a stopping place for many of her generation on their way to IGA. As a child
I spent many hours in that house in her presence. I thrived in the atmosphere
of her friends, Mrs. Arizona Folks, Mrs. Callie King, Mrs. Sanders, Mrs. Oliver, and Mrs.
Isabel Dodson, all of whom were women of great dignity and wisdom. I listened to them as they spoke of
their lives, and those of their children. They would often share with each other pieces
of their lives as young women, and I marveled as these beautiful women of varying shades of brown as
they would share their stories with each other. I was always nearby, playing, they thought. In reality,
I was listening! I was captivated with wonder as I imagined those old ladies as young women with parents
and siblings and suitors who came courting them. I heard their stories and was enthralled.
My third source of inspiration came from she whom I consider the grandest of the ladies, my
great grandmother, Sallie Walton. "Nannie", as my brother and I called her, was the mysterious
wrinkled brown lady in the back of Grandma's house, who made me delicious sassafrass tea, who dipped
snuff----like all of them did--and who occasionally smoked her own pipe, too. She would make me
"taters" when I asked, and when no one else knew, let me sip some coffee from a saucer they way she did it
to "cool it off a little". Interestingly, it was her bed that I would fall asleep in everyday for my
afternoon nap. After a day of play, when I was tired, it was she who sang me to sleep, and who
would whisper long forgotten tales from Indian Territory to me, some occasionally in Choctaw.
Nannie, grew the most beautiful flowers that I am still seeking to this day, and had a spectacular garden
in the back of the house on 12th street. It was also from Nannie that I developed my love of quilts.
When the mood would hit her, Nannie would move all the furniture around her bedroom aside, and set
up the wooden "horses". When those wooden pieces came out it meant one thing---it was quilting time!!
It was during those quilting times, when Mrs. Maggie Warren, Mrs. Dodoson from 14th street,
Mrs. King and Mizz Zonie (actually Mrs. Folks) and occasionally Miz Edna (Ransom)
would come over and join the circle and these women would produce the wonderful quilts that emerged from that house.
When I got in the way, Nannie called me aside and said, "here, I have a play pretty for
you." This would be a beautiful patch of fabric, pieced together to fit into a quilt pattern.
The "play pretty" would always enthrall me, and I would content myself studying the design of the patch
and the wonderful play on the eyes that the geometric design would give me. As they made quilts
more chapters of their lives would unfold, and I sat never too far away, listening and marvelling while
they spoke of years, and people of another era.
As the years passed, the old faces passed into eternity, and I grew into adulthood,
I carried my memories and fond feelings of those days with me. In 1975, while my grandmother
was still living, I decided, on a whim, to "interview" her about her life, and her
childhood. I wanted to know the names of her sisters and brothers, and to learn as much
as I could about her life. She answered my questions and thankfully, I was able
to capture a few treasured memories of her life in the late 19th century in Southwestern
My gr. grandmother Nannie had died in the early 60's taking with her the mysteries of her life
in the Choctaw Nation. It would be years later that I would later learn that this gentle
woman with the wonderful herbs and flowers, had been born a slave, in the Choctaw Nation. It would
later be her family history that would become the catalyst for my writing my first book,
"Black Indian Genealogy Research."
These three women inspired me, taught me value of the old, in people, in pictures, in stories
and all of them were my motivation in beginning to explore my own genealogy.
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An Online Guide for Beginning African American Genealogy
The Night the Stars Fell
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