Apr 17, 2011 - Sentimental Sunday    4 Comments

Sentimental Sunday: Remembering Aunt Pearl

Five days before Christmas 2010, I received some news that broke my heart. My great-aunt Pearl had passed away in Panama. Aunt Pearl, also known as Tía Perla, had been a part of my life since I was in elementary school, when she visited my paternal grandmother in New York for the first time. My grandmother Sylvia was her older sister and stepped in to raise Aunt Pearl after their mother died around 1928.

Since the early ’80s, Aunt Pearl would visit my family in Brooklyn every summer, and we always looked forward to her arrival. Not only was she sweet and kind, with a great sense of humor, she was also a marvelous cook. Any meal Aunt Pearl whipped up was amazing.  She introduced my palate to new, delicious experiences, like duck; iguana; lights (lung); and beet juice with milk–to name a few examples.

Born in Panama, Aunt Pearl’s first language was Spanish. But she diligently taught herself English after she retired. Aunt Pearl’s favorite activities included taking care of her parakeets Tito and Tita, solving word search and jigsaw puzzles, cooking, and going to church.  She also loved listening to music–from mariachi bands to reggae. Aunt Pearl would’ve turned 89 this month. She was such a vivacious lady, that I believed we’d be celebrating her 100th birthday in the future.

I am ever grateful that I thought to record Aunt Pearl preparing her famous meals last summer. I’ve watched the footage numerous times since her passing, and it uplifts me. This summer will be difficult to enjoy without her presence. I am not looking forward to it. But I am thankful for all the wonderful memories and laughs and hugs.

Apr 3, 2011 - Brick Walls    3 Comments

The Name Game

You have four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, 16 great-great-grandparents, 32 great-great-great-grandparents…the list goes on and on with each generation. Think of all the people you descend from. Doesn’t it boggle the mind?

Anderson, Bing, Brown, Bryan, Chisholm, Crockett, Dungee, Eunice, Johnson, Kelley, Martin, Mundell, Nicholas, Wall and Williams. These are just the known surnames of my direct ancestors from the South and from Jamaica. There are countless names that I don’t know. I’m especially interested in finding missing maiden names 0f many of my female ancestors.

Currently, I’m trying to pinpoint the maiden name of my great-grandfather’s grandmother, Mrs. Eliza Johnson.  She shows up on death certificates and marriage records of her offspring, but only by her first name or married name thus far.

The one tidbit passed down from my great-grandfather, who died four years before I was born, was that Eliza looked Native American. But we don’t have any ancestral data on her to back that up. In 2009, I acquired a photograph of Eliza via a distant cousin I found through Myfamily.com. The photo (below) shows Eliza in the early 1900s with one of her grandsons. This was a wonderful find because it’s the only photo of a great-great-great-grandparent that I have.

Eliza was born circa 1830 in Virginia.  I’ve tracked her up to age 90 in Virginia, living with her eldest daughter. Eliza doesn’t show up in the 1930 census, so I suspect that she died before 1930.  So far, no death certificate has materialized in Virginia.

According to the 1900 census, Eliza married her husband Jacob around 1859. This spring, I’ll explore if their union was registered with the Nelson County, Va., Freedmen’s Bureau. That will require a trip to the National Archives.

In the 1870 census, Eliza, Jacob (head of household), and their children resided with a man named Burwell Massie, who was born in 1799. Could this be Eliza’s father? This is one of those times when I really wish the 1870 census listed familial relationships.

I have a few more avenues to explore:  Social Security applications of her children, if they exist, might reveal her maiden name.

Or, perhaps a death certificate exists in Maryland. I wonder if Eliza relocated with her daughter to a new state. The daughter with whom Eliza lived in 1920 is living alone by 1930 in Montgomery County, Md.

Patience is key. In time, Eliza’s roots may not be elusive anymore, and I just might be able to add a new surname to my list.

Mar 17, 2011 - Brick Walls    7 Comments

The Mystery of Minnie, Part II: A 91-year-old article surfaces

I got an e-mail over the past weekend that made me high-five my computer screen…the news I’d been hoping for! There IS an article about my great-grandmother’s death.

Three weeks ago, I put out some feelers to see if anyone would be able to do a newspaper lookup for me in West Virginia. I had narrowed down a couple of Huntington, W.V., newspapers that might have printed an obituary or article on the accident in 1919. (A big thanks to Bill Tucker who answered my lookup request that I posted on the Cabell County message board on Ancestry.com.) As I mentioned previously, there is no death certificate on record for Minnie Johnson. I had an approximate time frame for her death because a Virginia researcher had found out (from a funeral home) that Minnie’s body was sent to Virginia on Nov. 22, 1919, for burial.

The article about the tragedy was printed on Nov. 21, 1919. The oral tradition in my family holds true: Minnie was tending to a relative’s hair and her dress did catch fire. But this article provides what a death certificate never could–the details of that night.

Minnie was making a midnight supper at home on an open gas stove. She had been cutting her nephew’s hair. When she turned to go into the kitchen, her dress caught fire. Hearing her screams, neighbors rushed to help put out the flames. Minnie was examined by two doctors, who made a grim prognosis after seeing the extent of her injuries. My great-grandmother died within three hours.

(Click image on left to enlarge article.)

Dr. Martin, mentioned in this article, is the doctor who delivered Minnie’s baby in the previous month. His name appears on my grandmother’s birth certificate. Another clue from my grandmother’s birth certificate is the occupation of her father. At that time, he was a delivery clerk. Now I know from this article that my great-grandfather worked for The Imperial Drug Co.

Honestly, it’s so surreal to look at this article and see answers to my questions. When I first saw it, I got chills. After all these decades of mystery, I still can’t believe I have something to verify Minnie’s death. It’s given a bit of closure to me and my family, who didn’t know the circumstances of our ancestor’s death for so long.

But this is not a closed chapter. There are more things I’d like to know–is there a baptism record for my grandmother in Huntington? Where on 3 1/2 Alley did the Johnsons reside? I hope that I can pinpoint at least a general location so that I can visit their old neighborhood.

Mar 7, 2011 - Matrilineal Monday    5 Comments

Matrilineal Monday: Cohabitation Records

Back in 2007, I got married in the Brooklyn church that my parents were married in 46 years earlier. Surrounded by loved ones and friends, it was a very momentous day. When I think about my ancestors right after the Civil War, newly emancipated and facing an uncertain future, I imagine that an opportunity to legitimize their union must’ve been just as momentous.

During Reconstruction, the U.S. government established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (also known as the Freedmen’s Bureau) to help formerly enslaved persons throughout the South legalize marital relationships, find work, set up schools, reunite with lost relatives, etc. 

My great-great-great grandparents Squire Martin and his wife Lucinda Nicholas are listed in the Augusta County, Va., Cohabitation Records of the Freedmen’s Bureau, where they registered their union and the names of their five children on June 15, 1866. The children’s ages ranged from 1 to 15. At that time, according to the document, Squire was working in “Iron Works” in Waynesboro, Va. After studying census and birth records, I learned that they’d had a total of eight offspring by 1872. One was my grandmother’s maternal grandmother, Alice. Another was Cassius (who I mentioned in a previous post about my Pennsylvania coal-mining kinfolk).

From The Valley of the Shadow (part of the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia):

The Cohabitation Records, officially titled, “Register of Colored Persons, Augusta County, State of Virginia, Cohabiting Together as Husband and Wife,” are a record of free African American families living in Augusta County immediately after the end of the Civil War. The records were created by the Freedmen’s Bureau in an effort to document the marriages of formerly enslaved men and women that were legally recognized by an act of the Virginia Assembly in February 1866.

There are 896 couples listed in the register, paired with lists of the children (and their ages) the couple had together. The most important record in the register was that of a marriage between two freedpeople, who had often entered into marriage during slavery and therefore had lacked the legal recognition and protection of the state. The register also lists when the couple reported their marriage to the Freedmen’s Bureau for inclusion in the register, their ages at the time of registration, birthplace of both husband and wife, their current residence, and the occupation of the husband. Additional comments were occasionally added by the Bureau agents who recorded the couple’s information.

The Freedmen’s Bureau agents in Augusta County registered these marriages from May 1865 until September 1866. These records were apparently copied and forwarded to state officials, while the original was kept on file at the Augusta County courthouse, where it remains today.

For more information on Cohabitation Records, go to:  https://wiki.familysearch.org/en/Cohabitation_Records 
and http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1973/fall/freedmens-marriage-registers.html.

Feb 23, 2011 - Brick Walls    3 Comments

The Mystery of Minnie: A Brick Wall for the Ages

The face that you see above is the sole image that my maternal grandmother had of her mother, Minnie. And as far as any other tangible proof that she had of her mother’s existence, there was just Minnie’s name on my grandmother’s birth certificate.

Unfortunately, there was little talk of Minnie as my grandmother grew up. Probably because my great-grandfather found the topic too painful to discuss.

While watching the episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” with Rosie O’Donnell, I was intrigued by one of Rosie’s quests–to find out about her great-grandfather’s first wife, Anna Murtagh, who died in 1881 from injuries sustained in a kerosene lamp explosion. Anna left behind a baby girl.

That tragedy made me think of my great-grandmother Minnie, who suffered a similar fate in 1919.

The story goes that she was tending to a younger relative’s hair, when her dress caught on fire. She ran outside and was enveloped by flames, and died soon after. My grandmother was going on two months when she lost her mother.

I am haunted by Minnie’s story. She was only about 24 years old, and had just married and started a family…and a new life in Huntington, West Virginia, after moving with her husband from Virginia. Her short life gave us her wonderful daughter, but she never got to see her baby grow up. And my grandmother never got to know her mother.

By the 1920 census, my widowed great-grandfather and his baby girl had moved to Staunton, Va., to briefly live with his brother and sister-in-law.

It has been quite frustrating because my family has not been able to acquire a death certificate from West Virginia for Minnie. This could be due to a 1921 fire in West Virginia that destroyed many records. Or maybe in the midst of this tragedy, no death certificate was ever filed. We even tried Virginia to no avail.

When I got into genealogy, two decades after my grandmother’s death, I found the record of her parents’ marriage, and I found Minnie listed in the census—in 1900 and 1910. Thanks to an industrious researcher in Virginia, we learned that Minnie’s body was sent on a train back to her birthplace of Augusta County, Va., on Nov. 22, 1919, where she was to be buried in the family cemetery. (We were informed that the church cemetery still exists, but tombstones for my ancestors’ graves do not. The last ancestor buried in the family plot, based on information gleaned from death certificates, was Minnie’s brother in 1950.) I wish I could have shared these findings with my grandmother.

So many questions remain unanswered: Where did this family reside in Huntington? Could it be that Minnie died in another state? What exactly happened on the day of the fire? Did she go to the hospital, or did a doctor make a house call? How long did she suffer? When did she die? Was this incident reported in a newspaper? This year, I must get another piece to this puzzle.

It is my hope that I can track down an obituary for Minnie and find a baptism record for my grandmother. Stay tuned.

Feb 15, 2011 - Wisdom Wednesday    2 Comments

Wisdom Wednesday: Reflections of the elders

While perusing old newspaper articles, I found two that are about in-laws of my Fayette County, Pa., branch. Both stories are centered on elderly women and their takes on life.

I love when people talk about the past as they personally experienced it.

A 1953 article from The Daily Courier talks about Sarah Roberts Jackson, the mother-in-law of Cassius Martin. At the time of her interview she was 98 years old and able to discuss life after the Civil War. She also spoke about her mother, who had been a cook for Pres. Woodrow Wilson’s parents.  (see article below)

Sarah’s words of wisdom: “…So many people pray as though they’re dictating a letter. They don’t know how to pray. You don’t dictate to God.”

“The love of money is the root of all evil. It has ruined England, brought on trouble, despair, and death in other parts of the world. Until people change there won’t be a minute’s peace in this troubled world.”


A 1971 article from the Morning Herald – Evening Standard is about Carrie Warmack, age 100. The mother of 13 children, she was William Henry Martin’s sister-in-law. She mentioned what her childhood was like in a diverse coal mining town. (see article below)

Carrie’s words of wisdom about juvenile delinquency: “The parents are responsible for all our troubles. Mostly because they are never home.”

Feb 12, 2011 - History    No Comments

The Civilian Conservation Corps

As a way to help provide jobs and conserve America’s public lands and natural resources, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed in his New Deal, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). This public work relief program (from 1933 to 1945) gave single men ages 18 to 25 employment as laborers–paving roads, planting trees, constructing buildings, etc. We owe the existence of many of our state parks to the sweat of the men of the CCC.

Growing up, I had heard of my maternal grandfather’s affiliation with the CCC. But my family didn’t know the specifics. I discovered a couple of years ago that the National Archives has an office in St. Louis, Mo., called the National Personnel Records Center, which houses military records of discharged vets and work records related to federal relief agencies, including the CCC, the Civil Works Administration (CWA), Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), National Youth Administration (NYA) and Works Progress Administration (WPA). All one has to do is send in a written request to find out if records exist for the individual you’re researching.

A request for CCC records should include the following information* (proof of my grandfather’s death had to accompany the request):
*Note: I’ve bolded the only questions that could be answered about my grandfather. Even with the limited information provided, they were able to find his file.

  1. Name used at the time of the claimed service (provide exact spelling and include the middle name if known)
  2. Date of Birth
  3. Home address (city and state) at time of the claimed service
  4. Parents’ names
  5. Dates of service (day, month & year)
  6. CCC Company numbers
  7. Location of employing office (city & state)
  8. Title(s) of position(s) held (if known)
  9. Rate of pay (if known)
  10. Name and location of school
  11. Name and location of sponsoring agency and bureau (if the claimed service was on a project sponsored by a Federal agency)

CCC enrollees went through several weeks of conditioning, which would include manual labor and exercise. In 1935, when he was 19, my grandfather went to Camp Dix in New Jersey for his training. The first project he was on was in Blauvelt, N.Y., doing road construction at Palisades Interstate Park. He was part of Company 1251. A few months later, he was one of the group of black CCC workers in Elmira, N.Y.  (part of Company 1251-c–the ‘c’ stood for colored. In July 1935, complete segregation was ordered among the camps.). This group worked on Newton Battlefield State Park.

I read in a 2007 article from The Preservationist, a publication of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, that Elmira’s Star-Gazette newspaper reported how events unfolded back in August 1935 with the arrival of the black CCC workers in Elmira, and how they were received by white residents.

If you know your ancestor’s company, contact the National Archives to see what type of CCC information exists.  I was delighted to learn that there’s quite a bit of information that I can order on 1251-c: project reports, inspection reports…even a sample menu for the camp.

One of my projects for this summer is to go to Elmira and read through those old Star-Gazette articles to get a sense of the time, and visit Newton Battlefield State Park. It was reported last year that the park was among dozens in danger of closing due to budget cuts. I’ll be sure to write about my discoveries, as well as the NARA records on 1251-c.

For more information on the Civilian Conservation Corps, watch PBS’ 2009 American Experience special on the CCC here.

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