Artifacts are those items passed down within our families. Pictures and bibles are artifacts.
But military papers, diplomas, letters, awards, and even quilts are also good examples.
I wanted to post some of the wonderful artifacts from my family. Each has expanded my understanding of their lives and communities.
Maybe this post will inspire you to take a look back through what you or other living descendants might have.
The artifacts tell their own stories. We should use them in our written histories alongside the other records that we use.
In many ways these are even more valuable: in most cases, public records or archives won’t have these items. And these are things our ancestors actually touched.
Beatrice Prather Waters
I have a silver necklace my paternal grandmother gave me when I was about 16. It belonged to her mother Beatrice Prather. With it came a note reminding me that it “was pure silver, and don’t be too proud when you wear it.” I treasure both the necklace and the note.
Beatrice was an extremely well-educated black woman (negro or colored in her era to be more accurate) for her time. She was born in Montgomery County, Maryland in 1888.
I have several of Beatrice’s diplomas. The diploma below was from Armstrong Manual Training School in Washington D.C.:
The Armstrong school tells part of the story of black life in Washington D.C. at the turn of the century. The historic building is on the National Register of Historic Places and graduated luminaries like Duke Ellington and Billy Eckstein.
My great-grandmother Beatrice was a teacher. I have a paper she wrote on “Negroes of Interest Born in the State of Maryland”:
Beatrice even wrote her own obituary:
In Tennessee, my maternal grandfather Luther Holt was a proud Union member and leader. I have his lifetime membership card from Local 801 International Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers.
Richard Nixon wrote him a letter congratulating him on his role in a crucial Union vote.
My grandfather was a retired General Motors worker. After retiring, he became more involved with the work of the union. I was excited recently to find a collection of the records of this local union at Wright State University.
I thought about granddaddy during the recent Presidential elections and the debates about collective bargaining. How I miss him.
My granddaddy also was an accomplished carpenter and woodworker. He could build or fix anything. He made treasured hand-carved gifts for his daughters and his only granddaughter at the time (me).
This is a photo of the beautiful sewing box he made for my mom:
My collateral ancestor George Holt had several interesting artifacts that a cousin in Tennessee shared with me. Below is a receipt for paying the poll tax. The poll tax was one of the most pervasive tools in the southern states used to disenfranchise black people:
Here is George’s membership card in the Prince Hall Grand Lodge, popular in the black community (It mistakenly says Georgia instead of George):
There was a receipt for school tuition for his 5 children. Unfortunately, it did not name the school:
George Holt’s records also contained a letter from The Inter-Racial League of Tennessee. Addressed to Prof. Joe Thomas from R.E. Clay, it illustrated the political prowess used to get a new black school in the community in the 1920’s.
R.E. Clay was Robert E. Clay who led the Rosenwald School Fund in Tennessee, which is the very last topic I blogged about:
All of these records speak to a family (the Holts) that was well-educated, landowning and upwardly mobile. That isn’t the case for all my family lines; every one is different.
When I got the idea for this post, I didn’t realize how many terrific artifacts I’ve collected over the years regarding my family.
In the meantime, tell me about what artifacts you’ve found and what did they tell you about your family’s life? What do you treasure?
(if you enjoyed this post, check out Part 2)
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.
Robin, the picture of Beatrice, and the artifacts are AMAZING! What a gift to have that poll tax receipt! Thanks for sharing all of this with us. This is a great post!
This is a historical treasure trove! What a wonderful representation of your family history! That sewing box is such a beautiful family heirloom, your grandfather was such a skilled and talented man!
These artifacts carry so much historical distinction! Also memories of exciting times for unions, and a Grand Lodge, and that infamous poll tax. Beatrice Prather has such clear and beautiful cursive handwriting. And that sewing box your granddaddy made is just a treasure. Thank you for sharing all these with us!
Only one granddaddy survived long enough for me to know. He had a watch on a chain that he would let me open by punching a button. I still have it! He was very kind to me.
These are wonderful treasures indeed!
Finding treasures from my father’s military days has been a fascinating journey for me. He never talked about his military life around me, so it has been nice to find his original enlistment papers, honorable discharge, sharpshooter badge, military money he used while in was stationed in Japan, and so much more! Military Mondays and Treasure Chest Thursdays has given me an opportunity to blog regularly about all the various artifacts I’ve found that have contributed greatly to my genealogy research in so many ways!
You have a lot of great family artifacts. They give so much insight into the family history. I have a letter that was written by my great aunt to her sister. The letter contains a lot of family history and gives great insight into what was going on in their lives.
I have notes that my g grandparents wrote back and forth to each other. They are so sweet, tender and loving. I do not know if they were mailed back and forth or if they were exchanged in church. They did not go to school together. After their marriage they had five children. In the 8th year of their marriage after the birth of their fifth child, she died. He never remarried.