Sep 28, 2013 - Brick Walls, History, How-To's    No Comments

Revisiting a Civil War Question

If a research fairy granted you a wish, what would you request?

Like many researchers, I have various angles that I’m currently pursuing on different branches. I don’t see these as tasks. I’m excited about the quest.

But, I’m also no stranger to being in a holding pattern with a few ancestors. After reviewing a number of documents that end up providing few to zero leads, sometimes you do want a magic wand.

So, when I recently saw a post in my Facebook news feed from asking for questions that readers might have regarding their genealogical stumbling blocks, I immediately thought of an American ancestor of mine named Squire Martin. How could I find out once and for all if he served in the Civil War?

Squire was born circa 1830 in Virginia. But his distinguished-sounding name was not uncommon. I have wanted to learn if my Squire was the one listed among thousands of inscribed names on the The African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C. There was no oral history in my family that he had ever served. But it wasn’t impossible. I checked Civil War muster rolls, but the information I read about a Virginia-born Squire Martin who had enlisted was too vague. I also consulted the United States Colored Troops Institute for Local History and Family Research. One suggestion was to check pension records. Alas, my Squire wasn’t among the names in the database.

I took a chance and sent off my inquiry to The Root and was thrilled to learn that my question would be answered.

The best part about this assistance is that it comes from Harvard scholar and documentarian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and the New England Historic Genealogical Society, via Gates’ weekly genealogical advice column on The Root, Tracing Your Roots. Curious about whether I now have some new discoveries from the experts to get me closer to my answer? Click here.

And if you have any brick walls or burning questions, see below. You might luck into some free advice, too.


We are looking for Tracing Your Roots questions!

-Have you had DNA testing done to determine your ethnic ancestry, and have questions about the results?

-Have you hit a dead end in tracing your roots before the 1870 Census, and wonder what to do next?

-Do you wonder if a family legend about your ancestors could be true and want to know how to research it?

-Do you need advice for using genealogy records to trace your ancestry?

Send your questions to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at!

Mar 17, 2012 - The 1940s    No Comments

Here’s lookin’ at a movie classic

Trailer screenshot via Wikimedia Commons

“Casablanca,” Hollywood’s quintessential 1940s love story, celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. If you’ve never stepped into Rick’s Café Américain, now’s your chance to enjoy it on the big screen, during the Turner Classic Movies Presents Casablanca 70th Anniversary Event.

The film will be shown today, in its original aspect ratio, around the country in select theaters. (Tickets can be purchased online. Check for available showtimes.)

Cool links: Original “Casablanca” trailer and New York Times “Casablanca” review from 1942.

Did you know that there was a 1983 TV show called “Casablanca”? It was set before the events of the movie, and lasted one season.

Mar 11, 2012 - The 1940s    4 Comments

The Westinghouse Time Capsule: A Gift to 6939 A.D.

When I try to wrap my mind around what life will be like in the 70th century, my mind goes to what Hollywood has shown us of the future–a lawless, seedy, post-apocalyptic earth with bonfires, scarce resources and turf wars; intergalactic conflicts with aliens; a world devoid of individuality and freedom of expression; or a planet of advanced, humanoid beings. Even with all the vitamins in the world, I won’t be able to witness what happens that far into the future. And that is disappointing, because I would love to see the breaking news story of the Westinghouse time capsule recovery.

The 1939-40 New York World’s Fair featured the first modern time capsule, developed by Westinghouse, which was buried with the hopes of being excavated 5,000 years later. See this explanatory clip from “The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair.” (The 55-minute promotional film from 1939 was produced by Westinghouse.)

Made of Cupaloy, a durable copper alloy, the 90-inch-long, 800-pound time capsule has an inner crypt with a diameter of 6.5 inches. Inside is an assortment of 100+ artifacts, including a Bible, seeds for food crops, and the U.S. Constitution.

On Sept. 23, 1940, the time capsule (which had been placed inside a 50-foot well in Fresh Meadows, N.Y.,  two years before during the autumnal equinox) was sealed for posterity. How exactly will the time capsule be found when the time comes? A Book of Record was distributed to institutions around the world (libraries, museums, etc.) that includes specific instructions on how to locate the time capsule, and an explanation of its contents. This guide is a great historical read. (A key to speaking English, in case it is a lost language, is also included in the book.) Interesting to note: The 1964-65 New York World’s Fair had a second Westinghouse time capsule, which was buried near its predecessor. Time Capsule II is to be opened the same year as Time Capsule I.)

Fortunately, we won’t have to wait that long to see the 1940 U.S. Census, which is kind of like a time capsule itself. Get involved with the 1940 Census Project; by becoming an indexing volunteer, your help will facilitate research of this rich resource.

Photo credits: top (l to r):  See-through of Cupaloy, by Westinghouse, (The story of the Westinghouse Time Capsule) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons; “Scientists Seal ‘Time Capsule,’” Associated Press. (9-24-40), p. 12, The Titusville Herald.
bottom (l to r):  Time capsule frontispiece, by [Westinghouse electric corporation]; Frederic W. Goudy Collection (Library of Congress) DLC [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; 1939 Time Capsule Cupaloy, by Westinghouse (The story of the Westinghouse Time Capsule) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

(As part of the ambassador program this blog post enters me into a drawing for a $50 Amazon gift card.)

Mar 10, 2012 - The 1940s    No Comments

Morsels from 1940

Heidelberg Hofbrau restaurant ad, Wisconsin State Journal, pg. 12 (11-30-40)

What’s the dish on 1940? (Yes, I’ve got food on the brain at the moment.) Thanks to the New York Public Library’s vast historical menu collection, we can enjoy reading menus dating back to the 1840s!  The institution has enlisted the help of the public to transcribe menus online, which will make searching for specific dishes, prices, etc., easier in the future. This week, I came across a few delectable 1940 menus from a variety of eateries, including the United States Senate Office Building Restaurant and the Ice Terrace in the Hotel New Yorker. Imagine a grilled cheese sandwich for 20 cents, or a glass of imported champagne for 85 cents!

Now, we’re 22 days away from the release of the 1940 U.S. Census. Don’t forget to jitterbug on over to the 1940 U.S. Census Project  for more information.

Cardinal Hotel restaurant bar ad, Wisconsin State Journal, pg. 12 (11-30-40)

Mar 7, 2012 - News    No Comments

Counting Down to the Release of the 1940 Census, Part III

Just 26 more days to go!  I’ve created a cheer: 4-2-we-love-you! (It still needs some work.)

On Feb. 21, and the National Archives announced the website that is going to host the
1940 U.S. Census, the only site that will have all of the census images on April 2:

Check out the following link for additional info, and to watch an informative video:

This week, I signed up to be a 1940 Blog Ambassador, which means I’ll be writing a bit more about the ’40s and the 1940 U.S. census.

If you want to join the 1940 Blog Ambassador Program, sign up here:

Dec 8, 2011 - Those Places Thursday    2 Comments

Those Places Thursday: From Whence They Came

Cities, towns, neighborhoods…the old stomping grounds of our ancestors hold a wealth of information. Learning about the history of these places is both enlightening and fascinating.

I first discovered Arcadia Publishing about 10 years ago when my father received a copy of “Caribbean Americans in New York City 1895-1975.” Arcadia’s extensive Images of America collection explores different areas and cultures across the United States.
Pictured here are some titles that resonated with me because of my roots.  (Dozens of titles are also in Ebook format.) There are wonderful old photos and stories throughout the pages. What’s also great is that you can send in proposals for new book ideas. Currently, Arcadia is looking for photographic history projects. (See below.)

From the company’s website:
Arcadia accepts submissions year-round. Our editors seek proposals on local history topics and are able to provide authors with detailed information about our publishing program as well as book proposal submission guidelines. Our current portfolio of series is shown below. Due to the great demand for titles on local and regional history, we are currently searching for authors to work with us on new photographic history projects. Please contact one of our regional publishing teams if you are interested in submitting a proposal.

(This is not a sponsored post.)

Nov 19, 2011 - News    No Comments

Counting Down to the Release of the 1940 Census, Part II

Several months ago, when I blogged about the upcoming release of the 1940 census, the release date was more than a year away. Now, as of this posting, we’re looking at 134 days to go!

I’ve been anxiously awaiting access to the 1940 census ever since I got bitten by the genealogy bug more than 10 years ago. I can’t wait to find out where some relatives migrated to after the Great Depression and how many relatives were able to attend school. I am also excited about seeing my maternal grandparents recorded as adults for the first time on a census.

Here’s why you should be excited, too! On Thursday, it was announced that and the National Archives have partnered to offer FREE digital access to the 1940 census starting April 2, 2012, at 9 a.m. EST. (Website’s name and URL to be announced.)

Here’s the catch, though. The 1940 census hasn’t been indexed by name yet, so you’ll have to find out some important geographical details before you dive in to those 3.8 million scanned images. According to the press release, “researchers will be able to search the 1940 Census by address, Enumeration District (ED), and geographic location. Researchers will be able to browse images by ED number directly, or use address or geographic information to locate the appropriate census schedule.”

Don’t let that discourage you. If you’re just starting out in your research, take advantage of holiday gatherings over the next couple of months to ask elders and kinfolk about names, birth dates, birthplaces, and addresses from the past. Make sure you put the information in a safe place for future reference, as it will be of great help when you begin your census searching. Visit for a blank 1940 federal census form, updates and more.

p.s. The National Archives’ YouTube site has four short films about the 1940 census, which were used to train enumerators. Don’t you just love historical footage?

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.

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, 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 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, 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 for help.

4. Check if your public library or university has the library edition of, 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 28, 2011 - How-To's    3 Comments

Searching for Your Roots

Tomorrow is the 34th anniversary of the finale of Roots, the 12-hour miniseries based on Alex Haley’s Pulitzer-prize winning book of the same name. According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago, Roots “scored higher ratings than any previous entertainment program in history,” with millions of U.S. households captivated by Haley’s story of the African-American experience.

I can remember being small, sitting in front of the television with my family as they tuned in to the historic program. At 1 1/2 years old, I was too young to comprehend its significance, but as kids often imitate what they see, I recall going down to the basement of our Brooklyn home to get my blue, plastic toy penguin. I wanted to re-create a scene that felt magical to me—the only one that stayed with me for years before I revisited the miniseries with an adult perspective. I held that toy above my head, just as Kunta Kinte held his infant Kizzy to the sky, and proclaimed, “Blue baby, blue.” In toddler-speak, that meant, “Behold, the only thing greater than yourself.” But naturally, eloquence escaped me at the time.

I wasn’t the only individual touched by Roots. It helped to awaken a consciousness in many black people, who began to want even more knowledge about their ties to the African continent. However, one’s specific African origins were hard to pinpoint, due to the harsh realities of slavery and the erasure of culture and heritage of the enslaved Africans who came against their will to new lands.

Today, that mystery is no more. Many companies provide DNA testing kits, which allow an individual to match his or her genetic makeup against databases of various races and ethnicities. One such company, African Ancestry was featured in 2006 on PBS’ African American Lives, hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (African American Lives 2 aired in 2008).

Using this company’s services, cheek swabs from my father gave the clues to the DNA of the paternal line from which he descends. (A brother, uncle, or male cousin would’ve provided the same results).

In about six weeks, African Ancestry sent a package with in-depth data on various ethnic groups of Africa, a certificate, etc. The enclosed letter announced:

It is with pleasure that I report that our PatriClanTM analysis successfully identified your paternal genetic ancestry. The Y chromosome DNA that we determined from your sample shares ancestry with people living in two countries today: the Igbo people in Nigeria and the Mbundu people in Angola. While these groups may differ socially and culturally, there are people within them who share a common genetic ancestry.

Generations back in Jamaica, family lore spoke of an Ashanti princess in our lineage, but the DNA results did not mention Ghana. It doesn’t mean that we should rule out that oral tradition, however. I wonder if an Ashanti ancestry could’ve possibly been reflected in a matrilineal analysis.

For my own maternal line, my aunt sent in her cheek swabs to African Ancestry, and the results were the Kru people of Liberia, and the Mende people of Sierra Leone.

It is a wonderful thing to have this knowledge now. For those of you curious about other parts of your genetic makeup, here are some ideas you could explore: DNA Test:


DNA Tribes Genetic Ancestry Analysis:

“My fondest hope is that Roots may start black, white, brown, red, and yellow people digging back for their own roots,” Haley said in an interview printed in the January 1977 issue of Playboy. Haley, who died in 1992, would be thrilled that his dream has been realized.

Feb 12, 2011 - History    No Comments

The Civilian Conservation Corps

As a way to help provide jobs and conserve America’s public lands and natural resources, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed in his New Deal, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). This public work relief program (from 1933 to 1945) gave single men ages 18 to 25 employment as laborers–paving roads, planting trees, constructing buildings, etc. We owe the existence of many of our state parks to the sweat of the men of the CCC.

Growing up, I had heard of my maternal grandfather’s affiliation with the CCC. But my family didn’t know the specifics. I discovered a couple of years ago that the National Archives has an office in St. Louis, Mo., called the National Personnel Records Center, which houses military records of discharged vets and work records related to federal relief agencies, including the CCC, the Civil Works Administration (CWA), Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), National Youth Administration (NYA) and Works Progress Administration (WPA). All one has to do is send in a written request to find out if records exist for the individual you’re researching.

A request for CCC records should include the following information* (proof of my grandfather’s death had to accompany the request):
*Note: I’ve bolded the only questions that could be answered about my grandfather. Even with the limited information provided, they were able to find his file.

  1. Name used at the time of the claimed service (provide exact spelling and include the middle name if known)
  2. Date of Birth
  3. Home address (city and state) at time of the claimed service
  4. Parents’ names
  5. Dates of service (day, month & year)
  6. CCC Company numbers
  7. Location of employing office (city & state)
  8. Title(s) of position(s) held (if known)
  9. Rate of pay (if known)
  10. Name and location of school
  11. Name and location of sponsoring agency and bureau (if the claimed service was on a project sponsored by a Federal agency)

CCC enrollees went through several weeks of conditioning, which would include manual labor and exercise. In 1935, when he was 19, my grandfather went to Camp Dix in New Jersey for his training. The first project he was on was in Blauvelt, N.Y., doing road construction at Palisades Interstate Park. He was part of Company 1251. A few months later, he was one of the group of black CCC workers in Elmira, N.Y.  (part of Company 1251-c–the ‘c’ stood for colored. In July 1935, complete segregation was ordered among the camps.). This group worked on Newton Battlefield State Park.

I read in a 2007 article from The Preservationist, a publication of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, that Elmira’s Star-Gazette newspaper reported how events unfolded back in August 1935 with the arrival of the black CCC workers in Elmira, and how they were received by white residents.

If you know your ancestor’s company, contact the National Archives to see what type of CCC information exists.  I was delighted to learn that there’s quite a bit of information that I can order on 1251-c: project reports, inspection reports…even a sample menu for the camp.

One of my projects for this summer is to go to Elmira and read through those old Star-Gazette articles to get a sense of the time, and visit Newton Battlefield State Park. It was reported last year that the park was among dozens in danger of closing due to budget cuts. I’ll be sure to write about my discoveries, as well as the NARA records on 1251-c.

For more information on the Civilian Conservation Corps, watch PBS’ 2009 American Experience special on the CCC here.

Feb 3, 2011 - Thankful Thursday    2 Comments

Thankful Thursday: The Coal Mining Branch

The brick wall is a seriously frustrating piece of architecture. I have a few that I’m presently trying to chisel away. But there’s one that got tumbled by an awesome researcher a few years ago. I would like to thank Laten Bechtel for the magnificent lead she gave us.

A branch of my family tree from Augusta, Va., seemed to vanish after the 1880 census. I wasn’t able to locate my great-great-grandmother Alice’s siblings. I couldn’t track her sisters definitively (since I didn’t know if they had married), and her brothers didn’t show up anywhere…or that’s what I thought.

After getting Laten’s help, we discovered that one of those siblings, Cassius (aka Cass/Cassie), relocated to Fayette County, Pa., in the late 1890s and worked in the coal mining industry. Many blacks came to work in the coal mines due to the labor shortage or to break strikes.  Cassius had a wife, Mary, and two children, Hobart and Sarah Virginia. We were able to acquire Cassius’ Pennsylvania marriage record from 1899 to Mary, which confirmed his identity. We also discovered that his nephew William Henry left Virginia for the Pennsylvania coal mines, too, working as a fireman*. William got married to a Frances. The men worked for the Eberly Coke and Coal Co., and the Frick Coal Co. 

But it gets better! Thanks to Ruth Sprowls, a researcher from Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness, she found Cassius’ 1938 obituary in the Daily Courier newspaper from Connellsville, Pa.

That whet my appetite for more old articles. When I saw that had issues for the Daily Courier and other Connellsville-area newspapers, I had to subscribe.

I hit the information mother lode on this coal mining family! I found obits for Mary, William and Frances, and their relatives. In addition, I learned that Cassius and his wife were active members of Mount Zion Baptist Church, based on articles mentioning church activities. There are even mentions of their children, like the 1918 listing below of males who registered during the WWI draft. Hobart shows up in the third column (and I made sure to check out his draft registration card on

Sarah’s name appears in a 1918 listing of all the eighth graders who passed their high school entrance exam, and in articles on the reunions of Dunbar Township High School’s Class of 1922, where she is listed among the memorialized classmates. So far, I haven’t been able to track down a yearbook.

As luck would have it, in turning up all this great information, I hit a new brick wall. My next mystery to crack in this specific branch is: WHO IS THE GRANDSON OF CASSIUS AND MARY? He is named in Mary’s 1963 obituary, living in Chicago. I don’t know if Sarah is his mother — or if he’s Hobart’s son. I also don’t know when or where this grandson was born. I’m hoping that he turns up in the 1940 census. It would be amazing if I could find him living today.

*Here is some fascinating background information that I got from Pamela Seighman, former curator at the Coal and Coke Heritage Center in Uniontown, Pa. I provided her with details about William Henry’s job and employer that I got from his WWI draft card.

A fireman worked in the boiler house where coal was transformed into steam used to produce electricity in the power house. That means [William Henry] didn’t work underground, rather he worked above ground at the mine site. The boiler house was usually a brick building that housed steam engines that powered the steel hoisting cable attached to the cages or elevators that took men, horses and supplies underground and brought the coal wagons to the surface. The steam was also used to operate motors used throughout the mine complex.The steam was produced from boilers fueled by coal that was mined at the site. William Henry’s job was to shovel coal into the boilers, a job known as a fireman. As you can imagine, it was a hard, dirty and laborious job. He’s listed as being employed at Continental #3/Newcomer, located in Georges Twp, Fayette County and owned by H.C. Frick Coke Company. This was a very large mine complex, in 1917, Continental #3/Newcomer employed 117 men working inside the mine, (and probably another 100 or so working outside) and produced 223,594 tons of coal (5,283 of that was used for steam and heat production). They mined the Pittsburgh vein, almost 8 ft. in thickness and known as the richest coking coal in the world. There were 330 coke ovens also at the mine site.

A few interesting websites to check out are the Coal and Coke Heritage Center (CCHC),  the African American Coal Mining Information Center, and this Fayette County, Pennsylvania coal mine index.
Feb 1, 2011 - News    1 Comment

Tuning in to Family History

This Friday is the season premiere of NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” The show began last March and features celebrities finding out about their roots with the help of experts and If you missed season one, is streaming all seven episodes until Saturday (featuring Sarah Jessica Parker, Emmitt Smith, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Broderick, Brooke Shields, Susan Sarandon, and Spike Lee).

I can’t get enough of the emotions and the goosebumps, vicariously enjoying the revelations of each person’s episode. I applaud executive producer Lisa Kudrow, et. al., for promoting the benefits and marvels of genealogy. This season of “WDYTYA?” will feature Vanessa Williams, Ashley Judd, Kim Cattrall, Gwyneth Paltrow, Rosie O’Donnell, Tim McGraw, Lionel Richie, and Steve Buscemi.

Here are some other genealogy-related TV programs that you should add to your must-see list.

This four-part documentary, hosted by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., explores the family histories of Oprah Winfrey, Chris Tucker, Quincy Jones, Dr. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Dr. Mae Jemison, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Dr. Ben Carson, and Whoopi Goldberg.

Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. hosts this next four-part documentary, which features Linda Johnson Rice, Don Cheadle, Chris Rock, Tom Joyner, Peter Gomes, Maya Angelou, Morgan Freeman, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Tina Turner, Kathleen Henderson, and Bliss Broyard.

Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s most recent genealogical program explored Americans of  diverse backgrounds: Elizabeth Alexander, Mario Batali, Stephen Colbert, Louise Erdrich, Malcolm Gladwell, Eva Longoria, Yo-Yo Ma, Queen Noor, Mike Nichols, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Meryl Streep, and Kristi Yamaguchi.

Journalist David Wilson (managing editor and founder of traces his roots back to the North Carolina plantation where his ancestors were enslaved and meets a man who descends from the family who had owned Wilson’s relatives. In addition, he makes an emotional visit to Ghana after DNA testing  reveals his genetic origins.

Feb 4, 2011 - News    1 Comment

Counting Down to the Release of the 1940 Census

Today, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)  tweeted that Elvis Presley, who was born in 1935, can be found in the 1940 census.

That only got me all shook up again for next year’s big reveal, the release of the 1940 census on April 2. The NARA website features a helpful counter to track the release date, and census research tips.

Studying an old census is like looking at a snapshot of a family unit at a certain moment in time.  And that annoying 72-year privacy law regarding the public inspection of personal census data requires patience, especially for a researcher with nothing but good, genealogical intentions.

Think about it: The family historian will have to wait until 2082 to catch you listed on the 2010 census, which is only 18 years away from the year 2100.

Since 1790, every census has offered different information over the decades. The 1940 census is no different. I am most looking forward to the responses to questions about a person’s income, residence in 1935, highest grade of school completed, and Social Security.

Feb 8, 2011 - Tech Tuesday    No Comments

Tech Tuesday: The Flip-Pal

Back in December, I learned of a mobile scanning device known as the Flip-Pal–thanks to Cyndi’s List!  

I wanted the ease and convenience of being able to scan at a moment’s notice, especially when visiting relatives with old photos who might be leery of letting their treasured pictures leave their homes.

I was lucky to get a Flip-Pal as a Christmas gift, and it has been a great help in making the scanning process less tedious and more seamless.

(Check out this demo video. Or follow on Facebook.)

What I love about this portable gadget is that it’ll scan those photos that are too delicate, or stuck, to pull out of an album.

Another great feature is that you can scan a large (greater than 4×6) item, in parts, then “stitch” all the separate images together on your computer.

Flip-Pal, I celebrate you.

Feb 10, 2011 - Follow Friday    No Comments

Follow Friday: Virginia Genealogy Records Requests

How I wish I could pick up and go whenever there’s a genealogical record I want to look for Down South. As I’ve previously mentioned, I have roots in South Carolina, Georgia and Virginia. With no teleportation device, I manage. In fact, I’ve been using the next best thing for one state: Virginia Genealogy Records Requests, which is run by Beth Bond.

Over the past three years, Beth’s help has been invaluable in finding old marriage and death records from the Library of Virginia that pertain to my ancestors. Her services are prompt, affordable and professional. In addition, Beth goes the extra mile by keeping you in the loop via e-mail during her record searching, in case there’s a detail you overlooked providing (to narrow down the name(s) you are seeking). If any documents are found, they are photocopied and mailed to you.

Beth will search for the following records, according to her website:

Va. death certificates, 1912-1939

Marriage records, 1853-1935

Va. obits, 1900-2010

Richmond death certificates, 1870-1912

Richmond & Norfolk interment cards

Virginia old birth records, 1853-1896 (there is an index, not all births reported)

Virginia old death records, 1853-1896 (no completed index yet, only about half of these deaths were reported)

Virginia census records, 1810-1930

Marriage notices & obits which are listed in the Henley database on LVA’s website


Feel free to contact Beth at, or check out Virginia Genealogy Records Searches’ Facebook page.


Mar 7, 2011 - Matrilineal Monday    5 Comments

Matrilineal Monday: Cohabitation Records

Back in 2007, I got married in the Brooklyn church that my parents were married in 46 years earlier. Surrounded by loved ones and friends, it was a very momentous day. When I think about my ancestors right after the Civil War, newly emancipated and facing an uncertain future, I imagine that an opportunity to legitimize their union must’ve been just as momentous.

During Reconstruction, the U.S. government established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (also known as the Freedmen’s Bureau) to help formerly enslaved persons throughout the South legalize marital relationships, find work, set up schools, reunite with lost relatives, etc. 

My great-great-great grandparents Squire Martin and his wife Lucinda Nicholas are listed in the Augusta County, Va., Cohabitation Records of the Freedmen’s Bureau, where they registered their union and the names of their five children on June 15, 1866. The children’s ages ranged from 1 to 15. At that time, according to the document, Squire was working in “Iron Works” in Waynesboro, Va. After studying census and birth records, I learned that they’d had a total of eight offspring by 1872. One was my grandmother’s maternal grandmother, Alice. Another was Cassius (who I mentioned in a previous post about my Pennsylvania coal-mining kinfolk).

From The Valley of the Shadow (part of the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia):

The Cohabitation Records, officially titled, “Register of Colored Persons, Augusta County, State of Virginia, Cohabiting Together as Husband and Wife,” are a record of free African American families living in Augusta County immediately after the end of the Civil War. The records were created by the Freedmen’s Bureau in an effort to document the marriages of formerly enslaved men and women that were legally recognized by an act of the Virginia Assembly in February 1866.

There are 896 couples listed in the register, paired with lists of the children (and their ages) the couple had together. The most important record in the register was that of a marriage between two freedpeople, who had often entered into marriage during slavery and therefore had lacked the legal recognition and protection of the state. The register also lists when the couple reported their marriage to the Freedmen’s Bureau for inclusion in the register, their ages at the time of registration, birthplace of both husband and wife, their current residence, and the occupation of the husband. Additional comments were occasionally added by the Bureau agents who recorded the couple’s information.

The Freedmen’s Bureau agents in Augusta County registered these marriages from May 1865 until September 1866. These records were apparently copied and forwarded to state officials, while the original was kept on file at the Augusta County courthouse, where it remains today.

For more information on Cohabitation Records, go to: 

Feb 15, 2011 - Wisdom Wednesday    2 Comments

Wisdom Wednesday: Reflections of the elders

While perusing old newspaper articles, I found two that are about in-laws of my Fayette County, Pa., branch. Both stories are centered on elderly women and their takes on life.

I love when people talk about the past as they personally experienced it.

A 1953 article from The Daily Courier talks about Sarah Roberts Jackson, the mother-in-law of Cassius Martin. At the time of her interview she was 98 years old and able to discuss life after the Civil War. She also spoke about her mother, who had been a cook for Pres. Woodrow Wilson’s parents.  (see article below)

Sarah’s words of wisdom: “…So many people pray as though they’re dictating a letter. They don’t know how to pray. You don’t dictate to God.”

“The love of money is the root of all evil. It has ruined England, brought on trouble, despair, and death in other parts of the world. Until people change there won’t be a minute’s peace in this troubled world.”

A 1971 article from the Morning Herald – Evening Standard is about Carrie Warmack, age 100. The mother of 13 children, she was William Henry Martin’s sister-in-law. She mentioned what her childhood was like in a diverse coal mining town. (see article below)

Carrie’s words of wisdom about juvenile delinquency: “The parents are responsible for all our troubles. Mostly because they are never home.”

Feb 23, 2011 - Brick Walls    3 Comments

The Mystery of Minnie: A Brick Wall for the Ages

The face that you see above is the sole image that my maternal grandmother had of her mother, Minnie. And as far as any other tangible proof that she had of her mother’s existence, there was just Minnie’s name on my grandmother’s birth certificate.

Unfortunately, there was little talk of Minnie as my grandmother grew up. Probably because my great-grandfather found the topic too painful to discuss.

While watching the episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” with Rosie O’Donnell, I was intrigued by one of Rosie’s quests–to find out about her great-grandfather’s first wife, Anna Murtagh, who died in 1881 from injuries sustained in a kerosene lamp explosion. Anna left behind a baby girl.

That tragedy made me think of my great-grandmother Minnie, who suffered a similar fate in 1919.

The story goes that she was tending to a younger relative’s hair, when her dress caught on fire. She ran outside and was enveloped by flames, and died soon after. My grandmother was going on two months when she lost her mother.

I am haunted by Minnie’s story. She was only about 24 years old, and had just married and started a family…and a new life in Huntington, West Virginia, after moving with her husband from Virginia. Her short life gave us her wonderful daughter, but she never got to see her baby grow up. And my grandmother never got to know her mother.

By the 1920 census, my widowed great-grandfather and his baby girl had moved to Staunton, Va., to briefly live with his brother and sister-in-law.

It has been quite frustrating because my family has not been able to acquire a death certificate from West Virginia for Minnie. This could be due to a 1921 fire in West Virginia that destroyed many records. Or maybe in the midst of this tragedy, no death certificate was ever filed. We even tried Virginia to no avail.

When I got into genealogy, two decades after my grandmother’s death, I found the record of her parents’ marriage, and I found Minnie listed in the census—in 1900 and 1910. Thanks to an industrious researcher in Virginia, we learned that Minnie’s body was sent on a train back to her birthplace of Augusta County, Va., on Nov. 22, 1919, where she was to be buried in the family cemetery. (We were informed that the church cemetery still exists, but tombstones for my ancestors’ graves do not. The last ancestor buried in the family plot, based on information gleaned from death certificates, was Minnie’s brother in 1950.) I wish I could have shared these findings with my grandmother.

So many questions remain unanswered: Where did this family reside in Huntington? Could it be that Minnie died in another state? What exactly happened on the day of the fire? Did she go to the hospital, or did a doctor make a house call? How long did she suffer? When did she die? Was this incident reported in a newspaper? This year, I must get another piece to this puzzle.

It is my hope that I can track down an obituary for Minnie and find a baptism record for my grandmother. Stay tuned.

Mar 17, 2011 - Brick Walls    7 Comments

The Mystery of Minnie, Part II: A 91-year-old article surfaces

I got an e-mail over the past weekend that made me high-five my computer screen…the news I’d been hoping for! There IS an article about my great-grandmother’s death.

Three weeks ago, I put out some feelers to see if anyone would be able to do a newspaper lookup for me in West Virginia. I had narrowed down a couple of Huntington, W.V., newspapers that might have printed an obituary or article on the accident in 1919. (A big thanks to Bill Tucker who answered my lookup request that I posted on the Cabell County message board on As I mentioned previously, there is no death certificate on record for Minnie Johnson. I had an approximate time frame for her death because a Virginia researcher had found out (from a funeral home) that Minnie’s body was sent to Virginia on Nov. 22, 1919, for burial.

The article about the tragedy was printed on Nov. 21, 1919. The oral tradition in my family holds true: Minnie was tending to a relative’s hair and her dress did catch fire. But this article provides what a death certificate never could–the details of that night.

Minnie was making a midnight supper at home on an open gas stove. She had been cutting her nephew’s hair. When she turned to go into the kitchen, her dress caught fire. Hearing her screams, neighbors rushed to help put out the flames. Minnie was examined by two doctors, who made a grim prognosis after seeing the extent of her injuries. My great-grandmother died within three hours.

(Click image on left to enlarge article.)

Dr. Martin, mentioned in this article, is the doctor who delivered Minnie’s baby in the previous month. His name appears on my grandmother’s birth certificate. Another clue from my grandmother’s birth certificate is the occupation of her father. At that time, he was a delivery clerk. Now I know from this article that my great-grandfather worked for The Imperial Drug Co.

Honestly, it’s so surreal to look at this article and see answers to my questions. When I first saw it, I got chills. After all these decades of mystery, I still can’t believe I have something to verify Minnie’s death. It’s given a bit of closure to me and my family, who didn’t know the circumstances of our ancestor’s death for so long.

But this is not a closed chapter. There are more things I’d like to know–is there a baptism record for my grandmother in Huntington? Where on 3 1/2 Alley did the Johnsons reside? I hope that I can pinpoint at least a general location so that I can visit their old neighborhood.

Apr 3, 2011 - Brick Walls    3 Comments

The Name Game

You have four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, 16 great-great-grandparents, 32 great-great-great-grandparents…the list goes on and on with each generation. Think of all the people you descend from. Doesn’t it boggle the mind?

Anderson, Bing, Brown, Bryan, Chisholm, Crockett, Dungee, Eunice, Johnson, Kelley, Martin, Mundell, Nicholas, Wall and Williams. These are just the known surnames of my direct ancestors from the South and from Jamaica. There are countless names that I don’t know. I’m especially interested in finding missing maiden names 0f many of my female ancestors.

Currently, I’m trying to pinpoint the maiden name of my great-grandfather’s grandmother, Mrs. Eliza Johnson.  She shows up on death certificates and marriage records of her offspring, but only by her first name or married name thus far.

The one tidbit passed down from my great-grandfather, who died four years before I was born, was that Eliza looked Native American. But we don’t have any ancestral data on her to back that up. In 2009, I acquired a photograph of Eliza via a distant cousin I found through The photo (below) shows Eliza in the early 1900s with one of her grandsons. This was a wonderful find because it’s the only photo of a great-great-great-grandparent that I have.

Eliza was born circa 1830 in Virginia.  I’ve tracked her up to age 90 in Virginia, living with her eldest daughter. Eliza doesn’t show up in the 1930 census, so I suspect that she died before 1930.  So far, no death certificate has materialized in Virginia.

According to the 1900 census, Eliza married her husband Jacob around 1859. This spring, I’ll explore if their union was registered with the Nelson County, Va., Freedmen’s Bureau. That will require a trip to the National Archives.

In the 1870 census, Eliza, Jacob (head of household), and their children resided with a man named Burwell Massie, who was born in 1799. Could this be Eliza’s father? This is one of those times when I really wish the 1870 census listed familial relationships.

I have a few more avenues to explore:  Social Security applications of her children, if they exist, might reveal her maiden name.

Or, perhaps a death certificate exists in Maryland. I wonder if Eliza relocated with her daughter to a new state. The daughter with whom Eliza lived in 1920 is living alone by 1930 in Montgomery County, Md.

Patience is key. In time, Eliza’s roots may not be elusive anymore, and I just might be able to add a new surname to my list.

Apr 17, 2011 - Sentimental Sunday    4 Comments

Sentimental Sunday: Remembering Aunt Pearl

Five days before Christmas 2010, I received some news that broke my heart. My great-aunt Pearl had passed away in Panama. Aunt Pearl, also known as Tía Perla, had been a part of my life since I was in elementary school, when she visited my paternal grandmother in New York for the first time. My grandmother Sylvia was her older sister and stepped in to raise Aunt Pearl after their mother died around 1928.

Since the early ’80s, Aunt Pearl would visit my family in Brooklyn every summer, and we always looked forward to her arrival. Not only was she sweet and kind, with a great sense of humor, she was also a marvelous cook. Any meal Aunt Pearl whipped up was amazing.  She introduced my palate to new, delicious experiences, like duck; iguana; lights (lung); and beet juice with milk–to name a few examples.

Born in Panama, Aunt Pearl’s first language was Spanish. But she diligently taught herself English after she retired. Aunt Pearl’s favorite activities included taking care of her parakeets Tito and Tita, solving word search and jigsaw puzzles, cooking, and going to church.  She also loved listening to music–from mariachi bands to reggae. Aunt Pearl would’ve turned 89 this month. She was such a vivacious lady, that I believed we’d be celebrating her 100th birthday in the future.

I am ever grateful that I thought to record Aunt Pearl preparing her famous meals last summer. I’ve watched the footage numerous times since her passing, and it uplifts me. This summer will be difficult to enjoy without her presence. I am not looking forward to it. But I am thankful for all the wonderful memories and laughs and hugs.