A Square Deal and a Fair Chance for Genealogists

By Klure, Laura L. | American Visions, December-January 1996 | Go to article overview

A Square Deal and a Fair Chance for Genealogists


Klure, Laura L., American Visions


"We would like for President Roosevelt and his Secretary of War to explain why Major Charles Young of the Ninth Cavalry is detached from his regiment and sent to some foreign country. It seems that it is a plot on the part of officers of the army to keep this man in exile for the reason that he is the only high commissioned colored officer in the service and the only one of three colored ones now in service who is a graduate of West Point Academy." [The Colored Citizen, March 1906]

Bare records contained in public documents may verify when ancestors were born and when they died. Colonial and Civil War-era white newspapers may provide additional clues to the black genealogist. But 19th- and 20th-century black newspapers describe how people lived. Our ancestors are more than names, dates and addresses, and the black press can be relied upon to tell us more about them, by going into great detail about their daily five -- church, service club and social club activities, parties, dances, picnics, recitals and personal and business achievements.

Such details have meaning for Delora Allen of Riverside, Calif., who has been researching her genealogy for more than 20 years. She had obtained many facts from public records in Kentucky, Georgia, Illinois and Iowa but had been able to find only a few pertinent ] newspaper articles. However, The Colored Citizen, published in Redlands, Calif., in 1905 and 1906, contains at least five separate references to one of her grandfathers, S.S. Hopkins, and mention of several other relatives.

Papers from one community can even help in tracking down relatives from other states. Examples of such personal news items abound in The Colored Citizen, such as this excerpt from November, 1905: "Rev. J.W. Wiggins of Louisiana paid our city a two days, visit, during which time he preached two able sermons for Rev. Holmes." When tracing a family's history, even the little things -- the description of a sermon or a one-word assessment of someone's character -- are important. "Mrs. Nannie Gordon, accompanied with six children from Edgewood, Ga., arrived here yesterday morning on an early train. She was met by her kind-hearted brother-in-laws, Chas. Gordon, Henry Gordon, and H. H. Gordon."

The Colored Citizen reported in charming detail aspects of life in Redlands, Riverside and other California communities. Through its articles about events and its discussions of issues, readers gain a much more lively, meaningful portrayal of their relatives than can be gleaned from other records. The Citizen reveals attitudes as well as facts. Racism, suffrage, lynching, education, alcoholism and the lingering effects of slavery were among the paper's serious topics. Local viewpoints about the activities of Booker T. Washington and other famous people were discussed, as were such prominent institutions as Howard University, and noteworthy events across the states. In addition to the articles, advertisements in black publications give clues about black-owned businesses and about economic conditions.

The fruitful endeavors of black communities chronicled in Be Colored Citizen (just discovered in 1995) and other 20th-century papers can be heartening reading.

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