I cannot begin to tell you how much I get on my mother’s nerves, asking her questions about our family. At times, I am sure, it must feel as if I am asking her the same questions over and over again. What I have learned is that, how I ask questions matter in what my mother actually remembers. That’s how memory works, and so I ask often and in different ways.
As important as documentation is to our research, so are the verbal conversations we have with our family members. The two work together. We need to understand that memory is not always reliable and neither are the documents that we use in our research.
As far as documentation is concerned, when considering the U.S. Census Records, for example, the person recording your family’s information could have made mistakes, answered questions based on their own judgment, misunderstood the information being conveyed, along with many other possibilities. This is what explains how our family members may be “B” (Black) in one record and “Mu” (Mulatto) in another. Too often, recorders simply observed a person and made a judgment call on their race or any other category.
Equally as important to this scenario is the person being interviewed for the Census record. Too often, the person answering the door was interviewed even though they may not have known all of the answers to the questions being asked. They also could have been skeptical of the interviewer and chose not to respond truthfully to protect themselves or their family. To be honest, black folks were not always trusting of random people showing up to their doors asking them questions about their lives, especially when those random people were white. They could have had a perfectly good reason for not telling the truth in an America that forced them to confront racial injustice on a daily basis.
These are just a few reasons why it becomes important for family researchers to balance family stories with the documentation we use in our research.
Using Verbal History with Documentation
The following experience I had with my family research exemplifies why it is important to examine both the oral history and the documentation together.
So, my mother always talks about my grandmother’s “Aunt Julia,” who my grandmother was very close to. I have several pictures of my grandmother and Aunt Julia that my grandmother had in her photo album. The two look alike, in fact. My mother informed me that Aunt Julia was my great grandmother, Effie’s sister. After poring over census records, I could not find Julia Adams anywhere.
After searching for Aunt Julia for years, I declared that Julia Adams may not have been the daughter of my great-great grand parents John Quincy Adams (not the president) and Rachel Adams. This was a conundrum to me, and I could not figure out how they were related. They did share the same last name and lived in the same area, so maybe they were related in a way that was different from what we originally anticipated. Perhaps they were just cousins.
Once, while talking to my mom, I said, “Maybe Aunt Julia was a ‘play aunt’ or maybe they weren’t really related at all.” My mother proceeded to roll her eyes at me and look at my research in skepticism. She responded, “I don’t care what that paper says, mama called Julia her aunt and I believe that’s who she is! Besides, she and mama looked just alike.” Because my mother was so adamant, I decided to consider other possibilities.
Our work oftentimes requires us to think creatively to discover the answers to questions that are now buried with our ancestors, so I tried another approach: I created another tree that I labeled, “experimental” and I made it private, so others could not see what I was working on (Note: I only make public, trees that I feel pretty confident about because I don’t want to contribute to a body of false information, especially regarding my own family). I then started a tree with Julia Adams as my primary person of research. Although I couldn’t confirm that Julia and Effie were sisters, we knew they had the same last name.
What I discovered is a census record that indicated Rachel as Aunt Julia’s mother, but to my surprise, John Quincy Adams was not her father. Another “Adams” was, though. His name was Arcenous James Adams (or, James Arcenous Adams in some records). I am still searching for a divorce record for Rachel and John, but I believe I found him in another census record, married to another woman. They both seemed to have moved on and had children by their new partners.
My great grandmother, Effie, was the only child that John and Rachel Adams had together, but they both went on to have other children. Rachel gave birth to Julia around 1893 with Arcenous Adams, according to the 1910 Census record. What this lesson taught me is that oral narratives are as important to understanding the overall picture of our family’s lives as the documentation. We need them to validate each other, and too often, we are only going to have one or the other to rely on. But, when we have them both, we must not be so rigid that we are unwilling to use both to make sense of the whole.
Updated last paragraph on 8/20/18 at 11:26pm to make clear that Effie and Julia were indeed sisters, making her my grandmother’s aunt.