"Ancestors never die until there is no one to call their names." ~ An African Proverb
I am a freelance writer, blogger and journalist based in Milwaukee, WI. I love genealogy, and have been researching my ancestry for myself and others for the past 20 years. I love to help when I can, so please feel free to email me. Also, follow me on social media! Thanks for visiting!
I’ve been neglecting you, and my ancestors have been letting me know it. I decided that I need to refocus my energy on this blog. Not just sharing research, but sharing stories that bring my ancestors back to life. So I’ll tell you what inspired me to make this change:
Anyone that rides with me knows that I never take off right away at the light. A few weeks ago I was coming up to a red light and it suddenly turned green. Something kept telling me “don’t speed up, go slow”, and I never pressed on the gas. It was almost like I could feel something pulling me back. By the time I got to the intersection someone came barreling through the red light, just missing us. Had I taken off at regular speed I’m positive that my passenger and I would have been seriously injured, or killed. I had no idea why I had such a strong urge to slow down, but I later learned it was the anniversary of my grandfather Raymond Neal’s passing. Now I understand it was his presence I felt, and I have to holla back I hear you Pop! (and was it coincidence that his favorite singer, Nancy Wilson, passed later on that day?)
So I challenge everyone who reads this to acknowledge those whispers, and the hairs that raise on the back of your neck. That’s your ancestors pleading with you to remember them, and call their name.
I can’t say enough about the kindness of strangers. I use the Findagrave.com website quite often to search for ancestors. If I’m lucky there may be a picture, a biography or at the least a link to other relatives in that cemetery.
In this instance, I was looking for my Aldridge family that I found in the Rusk Cemetery in Boley, Okfuskee County, Oklahoma. I requested photos from a local volunteer and I waited. In the meantime, I did more digging and found I had another ancestor there: my 3rd great-grandmother, Susie (Crenshaw) Holbert. So I emailed my wonderful volunteer, Angela Dionne, to ask if she could look for Susie’s final resting place as well. I had no idea of the wealth of information I would soon find out about my ancestor, and the history lesson to come.
Angela explained that Okfuskee County had a lot of black cemeteries that have not been documented. Apparently, there was someone who took the time to add lists but not pictures, so they were in the process of trying to photograph as much of the cemetery as possible. Problem was a lot of the graves only have a rock, or a headstone that is no longer readable. I kept my fingers crossed, but I wouldn’t hear back from Angela for a while.
Then one day out of the blue, I get this in my email:
As you could guess I was ecstatic enough to have a picture of her headstone and a likely date of death. But if you look closer, you can see there is a symbol and inscriptions above Susie’s name. I emailed Angela again to thank her for the picture and to ask her if she knew anything about the symbols. She said she would go back to the cemetery and take another picture of the headstone to see if she could get more detail. So I have to wait again, but I am so grateful to Angela for making another trip in the Oklahoma summer heat!
While I waited, I tried to make the picture as big as possible. In the center it looked like some sort of Masonic symbol, but I couldn’t make it out clearly. I searched for anything that looked similar on Google images, then one day I found something that looked familiar:
There were similar markings, and there is more detail at the bottom of the stone. I learned that it is not a Masonic symbol, but the marker of the Mosaic Templars of America, an organization founded by two former slaves in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1882. But how did my grandmother end up with this marker in Oklahoma? Stay tuned to Part 2 to learn more about my incredible discovery!
When I first began searching for my family’s owner I was focused on Thales Neal’s family. However, I was frustrated when I couldn’t find any documents related to Thales or his father John Mayfield that proved they were my family’s owners. What I realized is that I needed to widen my scope when researching this family, not just focusing on the last one before slavery ended. I believe my ancestors sent a sign that I was looking in the wrong direction.
I subscribe to a few different forums on African American genealogy on Facebook. One day I happened to open my page and it automatically opened to the “Our Black Ancestry” forum. There was a post from a woman who had just started researching her African ancestry after discovering her 3rd great grandfather was a free person of color. She had been working with a lot of probate records and wanted to know if there was a place to record the names of slaves that she was finding among the records. I wanted to respond to thank her because I know how valuable that information is to those researching African ancestry, and there are quite a few that I have encountered who were not so friendly and forthcoming. As I scrolled through the many other responses and questions under her post I stopped dead at the last one that read “Yesterday I was researching my Neal side in Franklin County, GA and came across probate that had like 10 or 15 slaves names listed.” I couldn’t compose myself quickly enough to form a reply because I knew that was MY family she was talking about!
We exchanged information back and forth just to make sure, and she gave me a copy of the estate file that she had been looking in. It was for William Neal, who died in Franklin County in 1835. On the jacket of the file is a list of negroes: Terrell, Mahely (1844), Berry (12), Silvy (1842), Nancy (50), Reuben (28), Patience (27), Mary (19), Gabriel (12), Queen (8), Lewis (6), Sarah.
In honor of my 3rd great grandfather, Gabriel Neal, a former slave who is listed in the Banks County, Georgia 1867 Return of Registered Voters. For you, and all of my ancestors who couldn’t, I will honor your sacrifice by making sure our voice is heard.
I have been to many local genealogy conventions, but I have never been to one expected to bring in crowds of thousands from all across the globe. That’s why I am super excited to be one of many social media ambassadors at this year’s FGS conference, sharing my experience as a national conference “newbie”. In this regard, my perspective may be slightly different from the others, so my first post in this series will reflect what this year’s theme means to someone like me.
Genealogists understand each other: they don’t think I’m strange because I collect death certificates and obituaries, or judge me because I hangout in courthouses and cemeteries in my spare time. Joining my local genealogical society gave me the chance to Connect with other researchers. I have the opportunity to bounce ideas off of others and share my success stories. I can only imagine what I can do with like minds from all over the world! It is such a pleasure to converse with others who share your interests, and I am looking forward to making many new friends, as well as finally meeting some in person.
One benefit of forming these alliances within the genealogical community means I don’t always have to sit in dusty courthouses looking for records, or scroll microfiche for hours in the library. There are wonderful volunteers who digitize and transcribe records, and today there are many new databases being released every week. At the conference, I can Exploreall of the new technology and learn how to best incorporate it into my own research. I have learned how to use my time more efficiently, and it helps me stay organized. Plus, I can spare my embarrassment when I scream out loud from finding that long, lost ancestor!
I have to admit that even in the midst of all my excitement, the most important part of attending the conference is to help me stay motivated. I have been researching and documenting my family history for more than 20 years, and there are times when I really feel the burnout. My eyes have gone tired from trying to decipher old handwriting, my brain is tired from trying to make sense of records that just don’t seem to match up with anything. I am going to use this event as a way to Refresh my way of thinking, gain a new outlook on my research, and come back home to share what I have learned with others. So considering all the knowledge I will gain, and connections I can make, this is truly an opportunity I can’t afford to miss!
As I am working on this month’s post for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I received wonderful and unexpected news from a friend and fellow genealogy blogger. Denise Muhammad, author of They Came From Virginia, nominated me for the One Lovely Blog Award. I visit Denise’s blog often, her style of writing is engaging and her stories always inspire me to go back and check a few more sources for my own research. Best of all, she shares some fantastic pictures with her posts!
Here are the rules for this award:
Thank the person who nominated you and link to that blog
Share Seven things about yourself
Nominate 15 bloggers you admire (or as many as you can think of!)
Contact your bloggers to let them know that you’ve tagged them for the One Lovely Blog Award
Seven Things About Me:
1. I was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin but I have lived in California, Texas and Illinois
2. I have been researching my family roots for more than 20 years
3. Besides being a genealogist, I work as a freelance writer and journalist
4. When I have free time, I enjoying reading and crossword puzzles
5. I volunteer as a breast cancer advocate, and have lobbied in Washington D.C.
6. I studied classical ballet and modern dance for 15 years
7. I play the piano, but I had to play the oboe in band (imagine that!)
It was difficult to choose, there are so many great blogs out there. Here are 15 Bloggers that I Admire:
For those on my list, if you have already been nominated I’m pretty certain that you don’t have to nominate a group. This list could be much longer, as I had a hard time narrowing it down to 15. There are so many bloggers that I follow that inspire me, and I hope that they will continue sharing their stories with us in the future.
I will be contacting the 15 bloggers on my list, unless they see this post and contact me first. Thanks again to Denise for the nomination. I feel very proud to be included in your list of lovely blogs!
I have always been a strong proponent for knowing your family health history. Genealogists should be aware of the advantage of using genetics to not only make a familial connection, but also uncover possible links to hereditary diseases and ailments. Consequently, my focus for September is National Sickle Cell Awareness Month because of my own health history. As a carrier of the trait, which is usually asymptomatic, I was one of the few that had milder symptoms of the disease. As a child I remember suffering painful episodes that were attributed to “growing pains”. Only now do I realize that these were not in my head, and I have had bouts of anemia through my adult life. Although there are very few who know about the disease, there are approximately 100,000 people suffering with the condition in the United States alone.
What is Sickle Cell Disease?
Sickle cell disease (SCD) is a genetically inherited blood disorder. There are several different forms of SCD, and the most common and usually the most severe form is sickle cell anemia.
Normal red blood cells are round like doughnuts, and they move through small blood tubes in the body to deliver oxygen. (fig.1)
Sickle red blood cells become hard, sticky and shaped like sickles used to cut wheat. (fig.2)
When these hard and pointed red cells go through the small blood tube, they clog the flow and break apart. This can cause pain, damage and a low blood count, or anemia. (fig.3) (Proudford, 2014, para. 2)
My father was aware that he carried the sickle cell trait, and he was adamant that I be tested for it as an infant. I knew since I was younger what that meant, but by the time I was old enough to have children of my own I forgot about the potential to pass the disease to my own children. “The sickle cell gene is passed from generation to generation in a pattern of inheritance called autosomal recessive inheritance. This means that both the mother and the father must pass on the defective form of the gene for a child to be affected” (Causes, 2014). That being said, my father had to inherit the trait from one of his parents, and so on. I happen to know that it was my paternal grandmother, so it was passed to her from one of her parents, but I don’t know which one. In a case where I was uncertain of parentage the condition would be able to help me narrow down my list. Unfortunately, many of the death certificates that I research do not list sickle cell as a contributing factor as a cause of death, and in the example of my paternal family, many of them died from heart disease. I wonder if I would be able to determine if death was a result of end organ disease and undiagnosed SCD or a predisposition to heart disease?
There are many clues in my genealogical research that force me to pay attention to my own health, specifically when I see the diseases and conditions my ancestors suffered from. The study of genetic genealogy allows me to take my research one step beyond what I see in records. However, the standard DNA tests that are available today for genealogy do not test the markers that show genetic diseases. I believe it is just as important for genealogists to leave a legacy of medical information for their descendants because knowing this history can save their life. Therefore, in my own family pedigree charts I always include the cause of death along with other vital information, which also makes it easier for me to create a chart to show patterns of ailments and diseases. There are also web-based tools for those who feel comfortable storing this information online. The Surgeon General’s Family History Initiative was created to encourage all American families to learn more about their family health history. “My Family Health Portrait Tool” can be found online at https://familyhistory.hhs.gov/fhh-web/home.action.
Today, not only do we understand that such uncommon diseases as sickle cell are hereditary, but that even common ailments such as diabetes, many cancers, and heart disease may also have a genetic link. Making a pedigree chart, taking the simple blood tests, and registering for the marrow donor lists can make a difference in your own family health history, as well as those who are affected with similar conditions. It could mean alleviating unnecessary pain and suffering, or possibly life and death.
Next month I will continue in the series of genetic genealogy for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. “Currently the National Institutes of Health (NIH), through its Human Genome Project, is mapping the 100,000 genes in the human cell. We now know, for instance, that a woman with a certain damaged gene, BRCA1, has a 90% chance of getting breast cancer during her lifetime. If a search through your family tree shows a high incidence of breast cancer, then this gene may be lurking in your pedigree” (NGS, para. 7, 2013).
Read more specifics about sickle cell disease at http://www.examiner.com/article/national-sickle-cell-disease-awareness-month
I have been researching my family history for many years, yet the slave owners of my maternal Neal family line seem to be the most elusive. I followed the suggested tips to locate them: searching for other than the “Neal” surname, searching military records, Freedman’s Savings and Trust records, and searching nearby families on corresponding 1870 census records. In this series of posts titled “Slave Owner Research” I will look for clues using the methods above, follow clues in estate documents, investigate alternate surname possibilities, and finally reach out to slave owners families to collaborate and share information.
My first tip when I began looking for slave owners was to search the 1870 census for 10 pages forward and backward from my known family. I didn’t find any Neal families that matched the age and genders even remotely close. That could mean they moved to a different county after emancipation, they were owned by a different surname, etc. However, one document that I found early on was sticking out to me. I knew my 3rd great grandfather Gabriel Neal was listed on the 1867 Return of Registered Voters in Banks County, Georgia. I found a man named Thales Neal who was listed in the exact same militia district, and had been living there for the same amount of time.
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The 1860 Slave Schedule showed that he owned about 27 slaves; only a few matching the ages of my ancestors on the 1870 census. When I started researching this family even more closely I found out that Thales’ middle name was Major after his grandfather, and Thales’ father was John Mayfield Neal. They married into families of Crawfords and Littles. I would later discover the custom of taking the mother’s maiden name as the middle name.
In my own family I found similar names of Major, Mayfield and Crawford. I thought they were unusual names and I had not found any other relatives they could have been named after. Aside from being geographically close and having some possible matches in age on slave records, I had no valid source to prove that Thales Neal was the slave owner. However, whenever I found new information on Thales Major or John Mayfield Neal I felt that tingle that meant I was on the right path.
I ran into a few road blocks along the way. I searched everywhere for a will or papers for Thales Neal. He is listed on the Muster-In Roll of the Confederate 4th Cavalry (State Guards) on August 15, 1863. There he participated in Sherman’s famous March to the Sea, and was wounded during the skirmish at Griswoldville in late November 1864. He would succumb to his injuries approximately two weeks later.
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I finally located a will that was probated in February 1865, and in it he states “…I will and bequeath unto my beloved son John Nathaniel F Neal three negroes to wit Lucy Ann and her two children Floyd and Harriet. I will and bequeath to my beloved wife Therisa Neal a negro woman Mary known as the one given her by her father and all her increase…” What happened to the remaining slaves between 1860 and 1863, and why were these two women the only slaves mentioned in the will?
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I went back over the will and re-read the line that says “Mary known as the one given her by her father and all her increase”. Thales’ wife Therisa was given a slave named Mary by her father. Therisa’s maiden name was Holley, and all of a sudden I remember that my great grand aunt Clara Allen’s husband Judge was the son of Floyd Neal and Mary Holley! Could this possibly be the same Mary mentioned in Thales’ will? And could Floyd be the son of Lucy Ann mentioned in the will?
As of this point I cannot find a death date for Floyd or Mary to order death certificates, and when I do I am hoping that they will provide the answers to these questions. In my next post I will search through Freedman’s Bank records, alternate slave owner surnames and connections through death certificates.
The 99th Pursuit Squadron, later dubbed the Tuskegee Airmen, was activated in March of 1941. In honor of this important anniversary I was drawn back to my own research and I found a possible connection to the prestigious airmen in my paternal Holbert line. Of course, with every new discovery there are always more mysteries that come along to challenge your findings.
Much of my research of the Holbert family reveals a long line of educators, and that tradition continued in the line of my 2nd great grand uncle, Benjamin D. Holbert. On the census records from 1870 and 1880 he is listed as the son of Franklin and Susan Holbert, living in Cherokee, Texas. In 1890 I found a city directory from Waco, Texas that lists a Benjamin D. Holbert as a colored teacher. The only record I found for anyone matching his birth date in 1900 was in the U.S. Jail in Muscogee, Oklahoma, Indian Territory. It states he was born in Texas and both of his parents were born in Alabama, which matches my uncle, but it lists his occupation as “physician”. This census also states Benjamin has been married for 13 years. Although I don’t find any more records for him after 1900, there is a marriage record for a B.D. Halbert and Annie Marie Estell in nearby Mclennan, Texas dated December 29, 1886 (14 years from that 1900 census). Coincidence?
Ann Marie Estell was born in Waco, Texas around 1868. I do not find her on a 1900 census, but I do have a city directory from as early as 1902 that puts her in Waco, Texas. In 1910 she is living in Hill County, Texas with four children: Annie, Benjamin Jr, Jessie and Ruth. All of the children’s death certificates confirm their father’s name as B.D. Holbert.
The only son, Benjamin Jr., is living with his wife, Sarah, on the 1928 city directory in Dallas, Texas. He is using the initials B.D. Holbert from this point forward. However, on the 1930 census he is now living in Seminole, Oklahoma. He is widowed and is boarding in the household of William and Emma Simmons. His current age, age at first marriage, and his occupation of public school teacher match my ancestor’s information. On the 1940 census he is still in Seminole, Oklahoma but is now married again and a principal in the public schools. Was that an error to list him as widower on the last census? If so, why was he living apart from his family?
Sarah Cummings Holbert is still living in Dallas, Texas with her two children, Bertrand and Kenneth, on the 1930 census. She also states that she is widowed. According to her death certificate she had remarried and was now Sarah Sears. I have not yet been able to find her or her children on the 1940 census, but I do know that she was also a public school teacher.
It is Benjamin and Sarah’s son Bertrand Holbert who was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen Class 45A Single Engine Pursuit Pilots. I don’t have the proof I would need to make this a positive match even though there are relatives who have listed them in their family tree. I have so many ancestors named Benjamin, B.D., and Annie to keep them all straight. I need to order the death certificates of all the names that I don’t have already, and hopefully they will clear up some of the confusion.
Tuskegee Airmen Class 45A Single Engine Pursuit Pilots
That would be my cousin Bertrand Holbert, 2nd row, last one on the right.
Photo retrieved from http://www.military.com/Content/MoreContent1/?file=BH_Tuskegee
I had a discussion with other African American genealogists about using Ancestry family trees. My opinion was that I hoped that more subscribers would make their trees public instead of private. The connections that I’ve made from researching public trees has been invaluable, and one in particular stands out in my mind. My final tribute during Black History Month is a salute to my first cousin Robert Lee Neal (1917-1987).
My grandfather’s sister told me many stories about their father Roy Neal, and even though I have no pictures of him I wanted to find any of his nine sisters and brothers. While researching the family trees on Ancestry I happened to find a connection with one of the brothers, William Neal. This was a rare occasion because most of the trees are private and don’t allow me to make sure I have a positive match. I emailed the owner and he wrote back explaining that indeed, his great uncle was the same William Neal! I was so excited to share information with him that we emailed back and forth for days, sending pictures and sharing more stories of the other side of our families. I could never find such personal information from a book or online, so to me it was more valuable than any other resource.
It was in this exchange that I found one of William Neal’s sons Robert Lee Neal. Although I learned that all of William’s sons were creative, intelligent and witty, I was drawn to Robert’s artwork and the dedication to his craft. I found magazine articles from when he was a child entering art contests, and continued through his adult years studying under famous WPA artists. Here’s an excerpt from one of the newspapers:
Another local artist who worked with one of the WPA’s most famous artists and a well-known African American Dayton painter. Neal did not live in Dayton when he was involved with the WPA. A native of Atlanta, he started painting under the guidance of the famous African American muralist Hale Woodruff. “He began his studies when he was 15, and his lessons cost 50 cents a day,” said Neal’s widow, Alberta Smith Neal. “When he was about 18, Mr. Woodruff wanted him to enter a big show, but Bob didn’t have the right clothes and couldn’t afford to attend the opening. Mr. Woodruff rented him a limousine and a tuxedo so he could go, and Bob ended up taking first place in the show-his painting was judge to be better than his teacher’s (Woodruff)”.
Neal moved to Dayton in the early 1940’s, after the WPA program had ended, but many local artists recall his stories of Woodruff and his own work with the WPA murals. “Bob was Woodruff’s understudy for the Amistad murals at Talledega College in Alabama,” said Michael Sampson, local artist and coordinator for public communication at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center at Wilberforce University. The murals were painted in 1939, just before Neal came to Dayton, and Sampson has a copy of a letter written by Woodruff to his biographers that clearly establishes that “Bob actually did the cartoons (under drawings) for the murals, and he posed for all the hand drawings and some of the figures done in the mural.” Photographs of the mural series, titled The Mutiny Aboard the Amistad 1839, were on display in the DAI exhibition, and those who knew Neal could recognize his long expressive hands on the men in the paintings; in addition, many of the figures- and even some of the faces- share the same features of Neal’s self-portraits.
In Dayton, Neal continued to paint, and some recall his mural that decorated the Lakeside Grill (now the Crescendo) on Germantown St. The club is still operating, but the mural has been painted over. None of the local WPA artists in this article are with us today, and unfortunately, neither is most of their WPA work. Undoubtedly, not all of the work produced under the auspices of the WPA could be labeled as “great”, but the WPA and the art that it spawned is part of America’s –and Dayton’s- history, and its goal to integrate art into daily life played an important role in our public art legacy. It is ironic that, in just half a century, so much work that was intended to preserve local heritage has been destroyed and forgotten by the “future generations” which it was intended to inspire. Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from such devastation is that it is imperative to preserve and document public art. After all, it is our public art that, in part, documents and preserves our times, our history, and our heritage.