To Be an Instrument for Their Voices: Finding, Writing and Sharing Family Histories; A Case Study of One Woman's Search for Family Identity

By Seals, Barbara A. | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 31, 2001 | Go to article overview
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To Be an Instrument for Their Voices: Finding, Writing and Sharing Family Histories; A Case Study of One Woman's Search for Family Identity


Seals, Barbara A., Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


To Be An Instrument for their Voices: Finding, Writing and Sharing Family Histories; A case study of one woman's search for family identity

INTRODUCTION

My name is Barbara Seals Nevergold. I am the daughter of Rev. Willie B. Seals and Clara Ellis Seals;

- Granddaughter of Irene Lair and Guisseppe Nasello, Emma Williams Ellis and Augustus Ellis;

- Great granddaughter of Seab Lair and Ella Bucknet Lair, ? Nasello, George Williams and Dinah Bailey Williams, Clem Ellis and Betsey Lewis Ellis;

- Great great granddaughter of Mathew Lair and Julia Jackson Lair, ? Nasello; George Hilt and Belle ? Hilt, ? Bailey, James Ellis and Sylvia Hopkins Ellis, and Robert Lewis and Parthenia ? Lewis, and Samuel Buckner and Jane Harris Buckner.

This paper is about family, or more accurately, about the search for family from generation to generation, and about giving voice to the power of family in shaping and influencing the lives of its individual members. This paper will look at my personal development as a family historian, examining the events which formed the motivation to begin the research into the history of my family; lessons learned along the way; development of the skills, knowledge and comprehension of historical research methodology, sources and documentation used in the process; examples of family history resources that have expanded access to primary and secondary sources; and examples of products compiled by this writer to share history with others.

The quest to identify the origins of family and, ultimately self, is rooted in oral traditions and also in written documents as old as the Biblical texts that trace the family trees of mankind (Genesis 5: 1-32) and Jesus (Matthew 1: 1-16). Yet, family history research is not confined to the genealogical activity of simply tracing the family lineage (Carmack, 1998). Family history looks at the family as a whole. It places the family into an historical perspective to further understand how the events and forces of the time influenced, shaped or otherwise impacted the family's development (Carmack, 1998). The complexity of this field of study is underscored by Williams (1976) who proposed that family history combines the studies of" biography, geography, sociology, law, medicine and, linguistics, to name a few." (P. 11).

I am not an historian, by formal training. Like most African Americans in my age cohort, I learned African American history within the narrow context of our collective history of slavery and emancipation. My teachers also added a sprinkling of biographies of "exceptional" Negroes such as George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington, Dr. Ralph Bunche and Dr. Mary McCloud Bethune to augment this curriculum. Like so many others, black and white Americans, the publication and subsequent television serialization of Alex Haley's Roots (1976) sensitized me to the possibility that African Americans could trace their families back to their slave and African ancestors. Roots also put a face to individual black family units by demonstrating that we were not a monolithic group identified by only one story, that of slavery. Our family sagas illustrate the diversity that exists among African Americans and the uniqueness that can be found within our families.

My own personal journey for family identity began only a short time ago. In 1997, I joined an estimated 20 million Americans (Carmack, 1998), who are involved in activities to find, claim and disseminate the histories of their families. While the vast majority of family historians do not start out to establish a career in the study of history, I believe that most of us share common goals, interests and passions with individuals who define themselves, by training and profession, as historians. Like historians, we pose questions about the past and conduct research that seeks to document, confirm and illuminate historical truths and lessons. In turn, our findings can have a profound impact on our understanding of our lives and the forces that have shaped and influenced our development.

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