Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Rest of the Story

There is always a “Rest of the Story.” That’s a thought that might have been popularized by radio announcer Paul Harvey in his weekday program of that name. But I’ve found it true in my own genealogical pursuits. There always seem to be unexpected twists as the ancestral story unfolds.

If you’ve been a constant companion at A Family Tapestry since the season in which I unraveled the story of my father-in-law, World War II Navy recruit—and later Air Force veteran—Frank Stevens, you may remember the point at which I felt the need to share the rest of his story. It was not a comfortable moment, but having read all those letters home from his various posts in the Pacific, Europe and Asia, it helped me see a different man than the one whose legacy presented itself at the time I met the family, years after his passing.

Now that I’m working on my own maternal line, I am sharing discoveries about a family whose roots reach far back into the Southern fabric of our nation—and even before that, into colonial Virginia. My grandmother was indeed a Southern Lady. I always knew that.

I also knew her heritage had been thoroughly researched—all the many lines of her history, from the paternal McClellan side with its Charles, Tyson and Townsend offshoots, to the maternal Broyles side which has led us to the numerous Taliaferros we’ve lately been discussing.

Even though I’ve been doing genealogical research for decades, exploring my mother’s lines has been a late add to my endeavors. There’s a reason for that. First, of course, I already knew I could easily locate several published genealogies of these various surnames, with documentation in some cases reaching back into the 1600s. What could I add to such a body of knowledge? I’m more into genealogy for the “hunt” than for the pedigree, anyhow, and there didn’t seem to be any new ground to cover. I prefer a potentially conquest-rich environment for my research challenges.

However, there is also a second reason I’ve shied away from digging in to these roots. Southern roots come with baggage. And this born-and-bred Northerner shrinks in horror at the thought of what lies intertwined with those refined Southern roots. When one’s personal life experience clashes with that of one’s heritage, it lends a sense of instability to that inner being. And I’m frankly uncomfortable with that.

To say, “Oh how nice,” or “Oh, how lovely” to the delicious life circumstances that graced these ancestors’ good fortune is to ignore the backs of those upon whom those delicacies were borne. But what is to be done about that? As much as it is in my DNA, it is not within my power to revert back through the centuries to make that all go away.

This is a quandary that has been addressed by other researchers as they explore their Southern heritage. I remember author and fellow genealogy blogger, Mariann Regan, discuss what she calls the “psychological briar patch” of subconscious influences upon her slave-holding ancestors. I can’t help but wonder if some of my own ancestors succumbed to similar forces, as I recall the romanticized stories of the Old South passed along through that family to my grandmother.

But what to do about that heritage now? Having been raised in a large metropolitan area in which people from all nations gathered—and now, living quite comfortably in a city on the opposite coast in which my own racial heritage is decidedly in the minority—it seems so foreign to hold the type of attitudes and presumptions that surely were widespread among those of my ancestors’ class, two centuries ago. It’s not as if it’s my obligation to make right what was wrong hundreds of years in the past.

And yet, there are friends of mine who would like to know what their roots are, too. While the research brick walls I struggle with are laced with the anti-Catholic prejudice of subordinated Ireland, or the immigrant silence of forebears who were so embarrassed about their Polish roots that they lied about their origin in their newfound homeland, these friends struggle with what some have called the 1870 brick wall: listed with the dignity of their own freedom through that census, they became cloaked with the invisibility of surname-less slavery by the time of their documentation in that earlier census.

I like the approach Mariann Regan took in responding to her own angst over that position. In addition to writing a book that explores both her thoughts and her research discoveries—Into the Briar Patch: A Family Memoir—she also blogged about the documents she found. Post after post on her blog, she photographed and transcribed records of her slave-holder ancestors—a difficult admission, to be sure, but hopefully a trail from which others can find a connection with their own roots.

It’s been a while since Mariann has posted to her blog, though the material is still there for others’ benefit. Yesterday, though, I found another thoughtful response to the issue of helping researchers connect with their slave ancestors, thanks to a post by True Lewis at NoTes To MySeLf. She directed her readers to a Slave Name Roll Project coordinated by Schalene Dagutis at another blog, Tangled Roots and Trees. Anyone who has a “roll” of slave names on their blog, gleaned from documents, can submit a link to Schalene for inclusion on her Slave Name Roll Project.

In one way, this is not a project for which I would raise my hand, wildly waving it and chanting, “Oh, pick me, pick me!” Somehow, from a perspective like mine, I can’t help but see this as more of a hall of shame. But it is what it is—or, more precisely, it was what it was—and something to get beyond, if we are to help others progress in their own genealogical research.

Though I’ll wince at the addition of each name to the list I’ll compile, in memory of the life it represented, I’ll still know that the good is in the passing along of the information. I hope, if you are in the same uncomfortable position I’m in, you will consider joining the project as well.

Above: "King Cotton," panoramic photograph by J. C. Coovert of Memphis, Tennessee, circa 1907; courtesy United States Library of Congress; in the public domain.


  1. I have no idea if any of my ancesters ever had slaves, they were so poor it is unlikely but perhaps a few had a small number. If any of them did, it is more probable that they were "indentured" - which, I suupose, has less "stigma".

    1. I can certainly understand why there would be less of an onus on indentured servitude: at least those people had "out" dates. Slavery was a life sentence.

      You've encapsulated another thought that is turning out to be inspiration for tomorrow's post, Iggy: the idea of poor ancestors not having much of a story to tell. While I certainly don't think having slaves would be something to make an ancestor's story more interesting, I get the sense, from comments, that there are no stories to find, when it comes to researching common everyday people.

      Even then, though, I'm discovering otherwise. I'm of the firm belief that everyone has a story--it's just in the finding of it that we are challenged.

  2. Thanks for the reminder. I had been meaning to get a post together for the project, so I did finally.

    1. That's great, Wendy. This is truly a crowdsourced effort, and I hope the idea takes off.

  3. Everyone has a story. I am certain that some of my husbands relatives ended up in the south...IF i were to do a search for relatives in all those ? branches who knows what I would find. I think you are right when you say "It is what is is" and we cannot change history:)

    1. I think history is one long string of people looking back four or five generations and saying, "What were they thinking?!" Likely, some of the things we do now that are so commonly accepted will be looked back upon with amazement, too. Still, from this vantage point, it's hard to look back and know I was part of a family that was a part of slavery. Attitudes definitely change over time--hopefully, for the better.


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