One of the first things we’re instructed when we begin our genealogy journey is to interview our elders.
This is by far one of the most important things for us do.
Our family members can provide information we may never find in documents. It has always been ironic to me that the time when most people are interested in their history is generally when they are older and their elders have passed away.
Ask Questions Now and Assess
I advocate to everyone that even if you have zero interest in your roots, please ask the important questions to your family members NOW.
Although you have no interest, maybe your children will. Maybe you will later on, when all the people you need to talk to are gone.
However, we also need to understand that oral history has to be assessed in the same way we assess information from other sources. It is another piece of evidence.
Everything Cousin Bebe or Uncle George says may or may not be accurate and there are many reasons for this. As we age, our memory can fade. As my mamacita Carole likes to say, “we have trouble with data retrieval.” LOL
Stories passed down over generations can change in detail such that by the time we hear them, they bear little resemblance to the original tale.
As humans, we can have valid reasons for “glossing over” or omitting details considered hurtful or shameful at the time.
Divorces, “outside” children, children born out of wedlock, bias, embarrassment, indigent circumstances, interracial liasons, abandonment and criminal behavior are just some of the kinds of issues that occur at some time in many families.
Not Just an “Interview”
Oral history is not just formal interviews with family members, but also information your parents or other family told you over time. Letters. Phone conversations.
Things you “know” because your family has told you so.
So the first step is to write the story down. Write who told you and when. Attempt to ascertain where the story originated, and whether or not that person had firsthand knowledge of the event.
Is your mother telling you something that her great-aunt told her when she was a little girl? Write that down.
From page 157 of the book “Evidence Explained” we learn a crucial point about oral history:
Oral history is a resource that is at once important yet questionable. It’s credibility rests upon the reliability of the channel through which the information has been conveyed and the veracity of the original source.
How to Verify
Next, you want to do what you can to verify the information. Some of that will be as easy as ordering vital records to prove/disprove births, deaths or marriages.
You might consult census and probate records about birth and death dates.
Some stories are not as easy to verify. Many African-American families have stories about a slaveowner who fathered children with an enslaved woman.
DNA is now a powerful tool that we can use along with more traditional sources to prove even those connections.
My friend Jonnie Brown is a great example of that. Her grandfather told his children that his father was a white man.
DNA was able to confirm the truth of her family’s oral history. Her white great-grandfather, a Confederate soldier, was identified.
Though it was a common practice, finding that in written documents is rare. (My friend Aaron was one of the lucky ones)
There are many reasons for inaccurate oral history. Here are a few examples of oral history in my family and my attempts at verification:
- One 92-year old elder shared that his aunt, Idella Prather (shown in all her glory in the photo heading this post) “worked for a Senator in Washington, D.C. His name was Watts.”
Verification: This elder almost got it right. In the 1930 census, I found Idella and her husband George working as servants in the D.C. household of Congressman Henry Watson.
- My maternal grandmother told me: “My daddy had one half-sister I remember. Her name was Mary Neal. She was very fair, almost white, and had long, straight hair like an Indian.”
Verification: In the 1940 census, I found the elusive Mary Neal, and unraveled her family history. She was indeed a half sister to my great-grandfather. With multiple marriages, she would have been hard to find without my grandmother’s information.Joyously I met her descendants last year, who confirmed that she indeed looked exactly as my grandmother remembered.
Verification: The interview above is a good example of something that happens frequently with oral history. There are statements that are accurate and some that are inaccurate.
So many free blacks lived in this small area that it was called Freetown. Richard Waters did free a large number of his slaves beginning in the late 1700s.
He inherited his land and his slaves. But he was not Scottish; his family was from Virginia and before then, from England.
Richard Waters was not a missionary, but he was a prominent Quaker, and was probably led by those religious beliefs to free his slaves.
Though he freed many slaves, there were other whites in the area who did the same under the influence of the Methodist church.
And there was indeed an African-American postmaster, Emory Graham Waters, who was a great source of pride to everyone in this community.
- Several people I’d interviewed over the years who grew up in Hardin County, TN, spoke of a racial disturbance that occurred early in the century. They spoke of the black community arming themselves and fighting back against a white mob. But no one remembered exactly what the incident was.
Verification: I’d tried searching the local newspaper and consulting with local historians. It wasn’t until the Tennessee State Archives posted a map from a court record to their blog earlier this year.That led to me finally discovering the case of a young black man who, in 1916, shot and killed a young white man (James Young) in a dispute over a woman. The young man, Lennie Kendall hid out for about a week before being caught.
I read the details and the timeline, I knew I’d finally found the story I’d been searching for for almost 20 years.
A story I’d heard from so many elders. I ordered copies of the entire court case (I won’t tell you how much that cost;) and thankfully, it was all typewritten.
The racial caste system of the times was in full swing. It’s clear from the files that the white community disapproved of James Young’s relationship with a black woman. That is largely why Lennie Kendall was let off pretty lightly given the times.
Here are two newspaper articles (1 week apart) from the episode:
I have seen researchers hold firm to oral history when the evidence points in another direction or disproves the oral history entirely.
We need to be aware of these biases and fight that impulse.
Sometimes the story is so fantastical that we really want to believe it, but we shouldn’t let that desire drive our research.
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.