Wednesday, September 1, 2010

When it Comes to Family History, Don't Wait Until it's Too Late to Seek Out Elders

Last week, I wrote a post on the old Green Book for black travelers during the Jim Crow era, and I wrote that I intended to talk to some of my older relatives about some of the places listed in my hometown (Hampton, VA). Well, I had a chance to talk with my grandmother (87), great aunt (89) and great uncle (91) about the places, and it was fun to see them nod their heads in acknowledgement.

My great uncle, who grew up in the Phoebus section of Hampton, was most familiar with the places in Phoebus, but he was also aware of place names in Hampton as well (Hampton was a part of Elizabeth City County before incorporation in 1952). I was told that one of his cousins had some tie to the old Horton's Hotel and Restaurant, the only black owned hotel in Phoebus (he couldn't remember if his cousin married Horton or not). My great uncle also remembered the old Club 400 at Bay Shore, the popular black beach at Buckroe Beach. There were no listings for my grandmother and great aunt's North Carolina hometown.

The conversation moved toward a general discussion of living under a Jim Crow system. I was particularly interested in my great uncle's story of his times in the UK and France during WWII. He said that he felt whole for the first time in his life during his time there, and that he was reluctant to return to the U.S. at the close of the war. Apparently, his older brother felt the same way (that great uncle was in France). I never had a chance to ask my grandfather about any of this; he left Hampton Institute and he was sent to the Pacific theater of war, though I think he only got as far as Hawaii.

I also had an opportunity to ask for the names of my great grandparents, and other great aunts and uncles and cousins (all on my mother's side of the family). It was cool to learn that one of my relatives was a local surgeon, who had to be hidden from white patients in order to do his work. Another relative was the first black member of the Hampton school board. I wanted to have a record of those names for the rest of us to have. So my plan, when I got home, was to organize this information and decide what to do.

Unfortunately, as I checked my e-mail messages, there was a note from my father letting me know that his mother had lost her battle with colon cancer. Without question, my joy from those earlier conversations about my mother's family's past left me. All I could think of is that I had not had an opportunity to have that type of discussion with my grandmother regarding my Dad's side of the family. So, I am off to Pennsylvania to attend her funeral. But I've also decided to seek out my oldest remaining great aunt up there, and ask her similar questions that I asked my Virginia relatives.

I think it's sad that too many of us only become interested in our family history when someone passes away. If you want to know your family's history, then I strongly encourage anyone who reads this blog not to wait to talk with those family elders. Seek them out. You may be amazed by the stories you hear.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The feelings people are left with are more genuine than any recounting.

Keep asking those questions.

Funerals are an opportunity to speak with many at once.

Pack extra hugs.