Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

In Search of My Great, Great Grandparents: Mapping Seven Generations of Family History

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

In Search of My Great, Great Grandparents: Mapping Seven Generations of Family History

Article excerpt

In Search of My Great, Great Grandparents: Mapping Seven Generations of Family History1

African Americans in the present-day United States are overwhelmingly an urban populace, but this is a relatively recent development. Historically, most blacks have lived in rural areas in both the South and the North. Although the rural plantation lives of black Americans - particularly during slavery - have been richly documented by academicians, their lives on small farms in the South have commanded much less attention, and African Americans' agrarian experiences in the North have prompted even less scholarly study.2 Yet many black Americans, like many of their white compatriots, have been influenced by their agrarian roots. Although these roots are difficult to trace, they must be recovered in order to reveal yet another aspect of the rich, diverse African American heritage.

This article chronicles my quest to recover my family history in the rural America of both the North and the South.3 Born Shirley Jean Motley on January 29, 1946, 1 am the third of the seven children of John Henry Motley Sr. and Cora Lee Jones [Motley]. My research into Motley family history begins in rural Mounds, Illinois in the extreme southern part of the state, and proceeds into the farmlands of Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi. It reaches more than 160 years into the past, back into the 1830s, and it covers seven generations of family history.

The Motleys are a family of storytellers. And our stories provided the starting point for studying our family history. I have shared oral history tales with five generations, including my grandparents, parents, siblings, my daughter, and now my grandchildren. Other information has been gleaned from photographs and primary data from state archives, county and local records, slave owners' records, manuscript censuses, as well as newspapers, school records, and other local history data from areas in which family members have lived.

When I think of family oral history, inevitably I think of Krystle and Kraig Monroe, my grandchildren. "Grandma, tell us a story," Krystle and Kraig have urged me since they were four or five years old. I readily oblige, happy that my granddaughter and grandson enjoy tales of family history just as I did when I was their ages. Krystle and Kraig, now fourteen and thirteen, respectively, gather close to me as we prepare for our bedtime ritual of storytelling. They remind me of their favorite stories:

"Tell us about when you were little."

"Yeah, about when you did something bad and got into trouble."

"Tell us about when Mom picked all the lady's flowers."

"And you got mad!"

"Tell us about when Vanessa said the bad word. You know!"

"Tell us about when we were little and did something funny."

"Tell us about anyone we know."

Their words remind me of my own and my siblings' entreaties to our parents during the 1950s to tell stories about their childhoods. Themes of adventure and the struggle for survival permeated these tales. In present-day parlance, we would say that they showed "agency" or "voice," but at that time we did not use those terms. I probably would have described these family history stories as revealing difficult, but interesting lives, which showed that people managed to succeed despite many obstacles. Strong black families and supportive African American communities are themes which suffused many of these recollections.4 This family and community network helped to insulate black children from many of the harsher aspects of the Jim Crow system which was also a part of our lives. Yet racism still managed to intrude. The separate schools; the political dominance of whites; the unequal distribution of wealth which favored whites; and many other aspects of life were constant reminders of white hegemony. But blacks still managed to maintain their dignity and exercise options, especially within their own families and communities. …

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