Family history is black history

Opinion: Arlene Jones

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By Arlene Jones

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In 1880, my great-grandfather and great-grandmother answered the simple questions of the census-taker and forever became a part of history. I cannot overstate the absolute joy I felt when I found their names on that census record. As I sat in the library looking at their names written in black ink on yellowed white paper, all I could think about is there was my DNA. Who I am is due in part to them.

And even though that census didn't ask a lot of in-depth questions of them, I felt a connection. I felt like I was able to garner information about them from what they said and didn't say.

For years my Aunt Vivian had been the keeper of the family tree. She had over 200 years of knowledge regarding the family's history records. Most of that knowledge she wrote down on paper or stored in her head. As a child, she would sit under the porch, hiding in a corner that was perfect for her to listen in on grown folk's conversations. Her nosiness is the reason I now know so much about our family.

Years ago, my Aunt Vivian created our family tree on a typewriter. But as she aged, whenever time permitted her the luxury of family history memory recall, she would jot something down on paper about her great-grandparents. It is because of that information that I now know my family's ancestral name during slavery. It appears that my great-great-grandfather was not a slave. That name may also lead us to the plantation. My great-grandmother was born before the Emancipation Proclamation, but it wouldn't have mattered because her state was one where that document didn't apply.

Aunt Vivian also noted who married whom and what children were born to those unions. My aunt recorded the cause of death of many of those family members. That alone is invaluable information, especially if one has to visit a doctor and speak about the family's medical history.

I have in turn become the new keeper of the family tree. About two years ago, I decided that my next book would be about my great-grandparents. But in order to write their love story, I would have to know more than just the family lore. Now don't get me wrong. My aunt's information about our family is accurate. But I needed to research more so that I could write about that time in a way that brings my great-grandparents to life while still sounding like it was 1880.

A couple of weeks ago, my sister gave me a copy of a letter our aunt had sent her years ago. I had one version of the family tree that I was working with, but I couldn't get the family lore to coincide with what should have been the ages of the people in the story. Then my sister called and told me she had a handwritten letter from Aunt Vivian that she had received over 10 years ago. My sister had taken the letter and stored it away. When I finally got the letter, it made some things clear and others more confusing than ever. All the names and connections looked mumbo jumbo to her. But she was sure that the letter would make sense to me. And it did!

On the paper was the name Eniva. She was my great-grandmother's niece whom she raised as one of her own. Suddenly the light bulb inside my head went off. Bingo! A niece who is old enough to marry makes sense. Now I can focus on writing about my relatives, as opposed to just finding them.

February is Black History Month If you haven't started on your journey to finding your ancestors, they are waiting on you. Give it a try and discover all there is to your family and reaching out to extended family.

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