Jan 26, 2011 - How-To's    No Comments

Getting Started on Your Family Tree

I have come across many individuals, of various backgrounds and ethnicities, with interesting family stories and a desire to dig deeper. Or, they might not have much to go on, but really want to start somewhere in their research. The process isn’t as daunting as one might think.

There’s more to genealogy than old photographs. The paper trail is out there: birth and death records, census records, military records, marriage records, obituaries, ship manifests, wills, deeds, etc. Every one of us, living or deceased, has a place in the annals of history.  And speaking of history, when you think about your own family in relation to Reconstruction…the Great Migration…the Great Depression…try placing an ancestor or a living relative in those contexts, and think about how he or she might have been impacted by a major era or event. Thinking in this way enriches the research experience, and helps to generate different angles to explore.

My aunt and I recently discussed our research processes with genealogist Antoinette Harrell, the host of “Nurturing Our Roots,” a weekly Internet radio show devoted to discovering and preserving family history.

There’s no time like the present to embark on your quest.  Here are some tips to get you off and running without spending money right away:

1. If you have any elders in the family, sit down and have a chat with them. Come with pre-planned questions and inquire about the past–names, locations, births, deaths, etc. And, of course, get anecdotes! Go through old photo albums with them also. It would behoove you to bring some type of device to record the conversation for posterity.

2. Take the family names you have and start looking to see what’s out there. Try https://www.familysearch.org/, run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to find an online database or census listing, or a local FamilySearch Center where you can go in person to view old records.

3. County courthouses, historical societies, genealogical organizations, and offices of vital records are great resources. Start your list of relevant addresses and phone numbers of these places so that you have options in the future when you decide to order documentation. Go to http://www.cyndislist.com/ for help.

4. Check if your public library or university has the library edition of Ancestry.com, which is accessible (and free) for in-library use at many sites.

5. Have fun, and let me know how your research is going!

Jan 24, 2011 - Headliners    18 Comments

Great granduncle Bubba Gaines, the tap dancer

Back in 1998, I briefly fulfilled a dream of taking tap dance lessons. I found a small studio in Brooklyn, got a pair of black patent leather Mary Janes with taps, and learned to “shuffle, ball, change” across the floor. Much to my disappointment, though, I wasn’t a natural. I wanted to move like Gregory Hines, and the many great hoofers who preceded him. Little did I know that I was actually related to one of those greats–Leslie “Bubba” Gaines.

A few years ago, in a conversation that my aunt had with a rediscovered cousin, it was learned that there was more to the name Leslie Gaines, which was all that we had. He said, “You’ve heard of Bubba, right?”

I went straight to Google. The first hit was Leslie “Bubba” Gaines’ 1997 obituary from The New York Times.

As the story goes, Bubba’s dancing talent was discovered by Bill Robinson, Mr. Bojangles himself, on the streets of Harlem. Born in Georgia, Bubba was a son of my great-great-grandmother Annie.

Bubba was an amateur boxer in his younger days. From that experience, he developed his famous jump-rope tap dance routine. His protégée, Deborah Mitchell, has a tap dance company in New Jersey and has performed the routine as a tribute to her mentor. (Check out this New York Times article from May 2010 to learn about the New Jersey Tap Dance Ensemble.)

As part of the tap dance group The Three Dukes, Bubba performed around the world early on in his career. He served in WWII, and mentioned in a New York Magazine article from 1979 that he had earned five battle stars. In addition, Bubba was an emcee and a performer with the U.S.O. for two decades. When he got older, he was a member of the Copasetics, which was composed of celebrated, veteran tap pros.

I regret that I didn’ t know Bubba existed until it was too late to meet him. With both of us residing in New York, perhaps I could’ve gone to see him perform. And, oh, the stories he must’ve had! Fortunately, there are many writings about Bubba Gaines so that I can get a sense of his personality.

Among many things, he was an “athletic virtuoso” (New York Magazine, 3/15/82) and a “delightful conversationalist” (Tap Dance: A Beginner’s Guide, 1983).

Here’s a short clip of Bubba performing with members of the Copasetics, Honi Coles and Charles (Cookie) Cook. Bubba is on the far right. They are demonstrating an old tap routine called “The B.S. Chorus.” B.S. Chorus performed by Cookie , Coles and Gaines in 1974

(Top photo courtesy of Jeanne Collins. All other photos courtesy of the American Tap Dance Federation, www.atdf.org) From top to bottom: The Three Dukes (Bubba Gaines, far right); Bubba Gaines in the 1977 documentary “Great Feats of Feet”; Bubba (far left) and The Copasetics in rehearsal, New Paltz, N.Y.; The Copasetics in performance.


Jan 24, 2011 - Greeting    4 Comments

Welcome to Totally Related

Genealogy is an amazing and rewarding experience. For me, it’s like time travel. My roots on my maternal side are mainly in Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina. On my paternal side, it’s Jamaica and Panama. For the past 10 years, I’ve been diligently climbing up the family tree, with the help of griots like my aunt, father and cousin. Some branches are a little harder to reach than others, and some have so many leaves that I’ve lost count. Some months, I’m hot on a paper trail, while other times my clues have run cold. But that’s all part of the journey.  The joy of discovery–whether it be a photograph, a document or an anecdote–makes the ancestors really come to life. This blog is all about sharing past and future “Eureka” moments in my search for those who came before me.

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