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"Collecting Family History": article draft by Roosevelt Fitzgerald




1988 (year approximate) to 1989 (year approximate)


From the Roosevelt Fitzgerald Professional Papers (MS-01082) -- Drafts for the Las Vegas Sentinel Voice file. On Black families in the United States and family reunions.

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man001056. Roosevelt Fitzgerald Professional Papers, 1890-1996. MS-01082. Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.


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Many times we do not recognize that we are veritable repositories of answers. This is so because often the questions necessary to bring those answers to life are not asked. During the summer of 1988, I had an answer brought to life by the question; “What can we do, during this reunion, to put together a written history of our family?" My opportunity came about through a series of interconnected events which had been initiated five months earlier.
Sometime during early April, I received a long-distance phone call from a former student. After some foretalk, I learned the purpose of her call. For as long as she could remember, her family had held yearly reunions. From a home base in Louisiana, those reunions were held alternately there and in Texas and California. The reason for this is that the family is quite large--over four-hundred known members--and five generations.
That family, as it exists today, can trace its ancestry back to ante-bellum Louisiana. The family had long engaged in reunions but not on the scale that it became in the late 1970s. Genealogical studies received a giant shot in the arm in 1978 with the airing of Alex Haley's "Roots." One factor which aided the phenomenon was the obvious difficulties such a task had presented him. Haley, a descendent of slaves, managed, through perseverance, to trace his ancestry back to an origin in Africa. While the subject family's voyage has not ventured that far, their objective has been substantially different. Their hope is to maintain an extended family relationship. Following the close of the Civil War and on into the years of Reconstruction, many of the family members migrated westward where different branches developed. Wherever they resided, however, Ville
Platte, Louisiana would always remain home.
In all of the years that the reunions had been held, my student had found, in conversations with other family members, that while each would have a duration of several days and each day would be filled with activities, there had never been a keynote speaker.
Having taken courses with me and learning, formally, of the history and culture of black people and developing a personal interest in the subject, she was convinced that having a speaker address the topic of "The Black Family in the United States" would be not only informative but also revealing for her family. A good part of her incentive was the great number of shows which had aired on national television in the proceeding year on the subject of the breakup of the black family in the United States. Additionally, she knew that I was a Mississippian and had grown up in a town not too distant from Ville Platte and, based on conversations we had had while she was a student, that I had had a variety of experiences in that region which would enable me to better relate to and empathize with many of her family members.
As a junior member--fourth generatipn--she encountered some resistance from senior family members who served on the reunion committee of which she was a member. After quite a long conversation, I not only agreed to participate but also at no cost to the family. This was to be a new experience for me and I became convinced that I would share in whatever benefits might be derived from my being there.
Some two weeks later I learned that the committee decided to go along with her recommendation and to provide housing for me for the duration of the reunion. Over the next several weeks she and I spoke on the phone many times and I learned as much of the family as I could. I realized that the
burden of my being accepted by the family was dependent entirely upon me. As I discovered more and more about the family I found that there was much that we had in common. Having spent a good portion of my childhood and teen years in the company of one of my grandfathers, who. had been born a slave and, as far as we could estimate, was about 96 years old when he died in 1954, I was. certain that I would be able to readily identify with the elderly members of the family in spite of the fact that there would be as much as a 50-60 years difference in age.
When the reunion week finally arrived, I was prepared to deliver a keynote address which would have to do not only with the general topic, "The Black Family In The United States" but, more than that, I would be able to talk about the subject family itself. When I was introduced, it was clear that the overwhelming number of those present were not all that interested in hearing what I, an outsider, had to say. However, as I related some of the twice-told tales of their family's hi story.which they had not previously thought of as being important and showed their historical relevance, their interest in what I had to say grew. It was out of the keynote address that their interest in particularizing and collecting their own history grew. Assisting them in accomplishing that had not been something which. I had planned to do when I first agreed to deliver the keynote address.
I was called upon to decide whether or not I had the expertise to assist them in that endeavor. My brain hurredily formulated what I hoped would be a workable plan for at least getting them started. Having, had no real formal training in carrying out such a task, I relied upon my own experiences, things I had learned by trial and error along the way and their own growing, though tentative, desire to put together a formal family history.
A workshop was organized for a later time during the reunion and I secured a supply of pencils and paper. The duration of the workshop was four hours. The first hour required independent work which was to be done by each individual, without any input from spouses or children or siblings, in the privacy of their own rooms. Even though in most instances rooms were not individually occupied, there was to be no communication having to do with the task at hand taking place.
While the instructions for this portion of the workshop were given, a roster was circulated which required four pieces of information; name, place of birth, date of birth, and places where resided during lifetime. Once this information was collected, I placed each member of the family into one of four groups based on age. The first group was comprised of all those under the age of twenty-five. The second group was those twenty-sis to fifty. The third group was fifty-one to seventy- five and the fourth group was all those above seventy-six. Each was instructed to write and rate numerically, those events of the family history that they had either been involved in or heard about that they considered to be important. Each was given a single sheet of paper to write on. Ommitting those who were very young, there would be 350+ separate page entries once the activity was completed. In order to involved those who were pre-teenage, they were assigned to assist those who either could not write or whose vision would not permit them to do so.
The family's founders had had nine sons and five daughters. Each had married and had children, grandchildren, many great-grandchildren, and occasionally great-great-grandchildren and beyond. The nine sons had started nine branches of the family. The five daughters, as they married, remained a part of the family but their children were more absorbed or incorporated into their husbands' families than in their own. Their's
is a different story. The subject family, however, recognizes only nine actual branches of the family and the others are, in their perception, sub-branches.
Upon gathering as a group for the second phase of the workshop, and walking among and intermingling with, the group, the comment I heard most often was that the one page given each family member had not been sufficient for listing all of the items they each felt to be import. The overwhelming majority had written on both sides of the sheet.
I had taken the responsibility for rearranging the large meeting room. On large placards, I had identified nine distinct areas, in much the same way that a political convention floor might appear, and after some rearranging, we were able to get the nine primary branches in different areas. Within each of the nine branches I alternately allowed one member, beginning with the most senior group and successively through the most junior, to present to the family at large, those items each considered important. Obviously, due to time limitations,.not everyone was allowed to make a presentation. We did manage a representative cross-section of each of the nine branches and each of the age groups therein. At the conclusion of the presentations there was ample time for open dialogue having to do with what had been reported.
I was convinced that each person would serve as editor/proof-1istener/ validator for all of the others. Additionally, items which might have been forgotten by some or dismissed as unimportant by others would cause each to remember or reconsider.
My role as facilitator and professional listener was to, as I saw it, assimilate, condense and formulate an overall outline of the history of the family. With the addition of the dialogue, I was able to discern
that there were certain threads of information which permeated all nine branches of the family. Within the individual groups, there were also threads which ran consistent along with certain unique elements found only within the particular group. It seemed to me that as far as determining a shape for the volume which would ultimately be the end result of all efforts, that there would be one quite large chapter on the family and nine smaller chapters for each branch of the family and a chapter which would serve as "the never-ending story" chapter.
Following this, each family member was given two new sheets of paper and instructed to write a clean copy of that which they had on the original sheet without any major editing based on the dialogue which had taken place during the open seminar. They were to include, at the top of the page, their full name and a statement, to the effect, that; "the information recorded was as accurate recollection of those events as they could generate."
Upon completion, all were collected and maintained within the proper family branch. Combined, there were 517 pages of raw data, fully documented and ready to simmer. Before the workshop came to a close, each was asked, upon their return home, to search out any and all family photos and write identities on the back. Additionally, any other written documents or artifacts were to be identified and dated. The family members were instructed to inform the reunion committee of any real "jewels" which they might find.
The 1989 reunion will involve an appraisal of those other artifacts and a determination as to which would be more suitable for inclusion in the family history. Also, during the 1989 reunion, time will be set aside during the formal meeting for "storytelling." No activity is to take place with any of the data collected at the 1988 reunion. The priority, at this time, is collecting data due to the age of some of the members of the family.
Perhaps by 1990 or 1991 a family history, published might be possible. My preference is 1990. If it can be considering that the family began the year the Civil War suggest the title: "The Family: A Century and a Quarter
by a vanity press done by then, and ended, I might of Defying tbe Odds."