Saturday, December 19, 2015

Made in America, Born in the USA

My great-grandmother Katherine (Shepherd, then Banks) Sharpe spent the last two decades and change of her life living in the Bronx, in New York City. For some of that time, one of my mother’s brothers lived there with her, and one of his clear memories from that time is her telling him the story of where she came from. As the story goes, she was born in...Italy! She was supposed to come over on the Titanic, but her mother stopped her from going at the time, saying she was too young to travel so far by herself.

The RMS Titanic docked in Southampton, England before her 1912 maiden voyage.
Can you imagine having such a spine-tingling near-miss with such a dramatic international tragedy? There’s the glamour of the first-class patrons in their glittering finery in the sparkling dining room, the hardship of the downtrodden masses tucked below board, the horror of the chaos when emergency struck, the frustration of being kept from your goals by those who care most about you, and the relief when you realize that what you thought was carrying your dreams off without you might have carried you, too, to a watery grave.

Front page of the New York American on April 16, 1912.
The only thing is, there’s no proof to support this story!

Every document I have found relating to Katherine’s birth suggests that she was born in the United States. In fact, every document with the exception of one specifies that she was born in Pennsylvania, and one even states that she was born right here in Philadelphia! (The exception is a marriage certificate saying she was born in Salem, NJ, which is where she was raised.)

Top to Bottom: 1905 NJ Census, Katherine's Death Certificate, Her Social Security # Application and Her Son's Birth Certificate. These are a few of the records listing Pennsylvania as her birthplace.
Family stories are a blessing and a curse for family historians – sometimes they open doors to new information, new people, and new aspects of our history, but other times, we are in the unenviable position of disproving things that sometimes folks have a vested interest in believing. (Thankfully, this instance is not that deep.) But even outrageous stories – and I don’t count this one as outrageous actually – can carry a snippet of truth, or lead us to notice things we didn’t notice before.

So, what did the story do for me?

First, it encouraged me to check and see if the story could even possibly true. When I share this story with others, some people want to toss it out immediately because “there were no black people in Italy back then.” Not true! The African Diaspora has been a thing for a very long time. Africans and African-descended people have traveled the world as explorers, sailors, merchants, soldiers, slaves, statesmen (and women), artists and more, for thousands of years. And black folk have been in Italy at least since the days of the Roman Empire. Heck, Shakespeare’s Othello stars a black man in Venice and was written in the early 1600s.

And as for the time frame in relation to Katherine, all the records I currently have say she was born in 1902 or 1903, meaning she would have been about 9 years old – young enough to dream, but not young enough to travel alone – when the Titanic sailed in 1912.

Second, this story encouraged me to think about why my great-grandmother may have told this story (regardless of whether or not she was joking when she told it, which of course is a possibility). One interesting thing I noticed in looking back at her family in the 1910 Census is that the Sheppards are living right next door to an Italian family, the Antenzios! 

1910 U.S. Census showing the Sheppards living next to the Antenzio family, from Italy.
Katherine is 7 years old at the time, and the Antenzios have two children, 3-year-old Mary and 5-year-old Lodovico. Perhaps she played with them and heard stories about Italy from their parents, Mary and Gabriel, then tucked them away in the back of her mind?

Or, maybe her inspiration came later in life. The Bronx has had an active Italian community for decades (look up Arthur Avenue and Morris Park for more information). Maybe she passed by or spent enough time there to appreciate a little something about Italian culture?

Regardless of where this idea came from, and regardless of why she told the story (in all seriousness or in jest), it definitely makes for a fun topic of conversation at family gatherings! And it's also got me super motivated to see if I can get my hands on a copy of her actual birth certificate, be it in Philadelphia, somewhere else in Pennsylvania, in Jersey, or another place entirely!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Katherine Jane Sheppard/Shepherd: A Timeline

Many of my posts here on KINterested so far have touched on the life of my maternal great-grandmother, Katherine Jane Sheppard/ Shepherd (my mother’s father’s mother). However, I haven’t given a full outline of her life yet! This post is meant to correct that. 

I’ll follow this up with a string of other short posts highlighting people, places, events, documents and other tidbits that will add much more context to the story of her life as we remember or have recovered it. As I load these posts on the blog, I’ll link to them here where appropriate, so click back! A timeline is fine and all, but it's the stories and the details that really matter, don't ya think? But here's a start:

1902 or 1903, August 16 or 18: Katherine is born to Samuel and Rose (Allen or Ellis)
Sheppard in Pennsylvania. This despite her telling my uncle in her later years that she had been born in Italy and was supposed to come to America on the Titanic!

1905-1918: Katherine is raised in Salem County, New Jersey, a collection of glass manufacturing
and farming communities in the southern part of the state tucked up against the Salem River and a stone’s throw from the Delaware. Her father Samuel is a farmer and her mom Rose does housework, both in her own home and “out”. The Kilsons - Rose’s presumed sister Bertha, her husband Wayman, and their four children Carl, Samuel, Eleanor and Bertha Elizabeth – live nearby.

1916, July 16: Katherine’s mom Rose passes away. Rose is 7 months pregnant at the
time, and 34 years old. Katherine is about 14.

1918, September 12: Her father Samuel, at the age of 43, registers for the draft for
World War I.

1918, December 24: Katherine moves to Washington, DC and into the home of her aunt Eleanor
(Allen or Ellis) Petite, Eleanor’s husband Oswald and their son Frederick.

1920 – 1940: For at least this time period, Katherine works in various domestic positions in
Washington, DC, as a laundress, a cook, a maid, etc. For most of this time, she is living in Eleanor Petite’s home in Foggy Bottom.

1922, December 29: Katherine gives birth to her son, my grandfather, Louis Shepherd, at Columbia

1927, July 5: Katherine marries a man named Liontly Banks. She is 24 years old, he is 34, and Louis
is almost 5. 

1930: Katherine is again living with Eleanor and Frederick Petite. Eleanor’s husband Oswald had
passed away in 1923. It is unclear what happened to Liontly Banks.

1933, April 4: Katherine’s aunt Eleanor Petite passes away.

1939 or 40: Katherine and Louis move to 152 D Street SE, next door to Louis’ future wife.

Around 1945: Katherine moves to New York City.

1957, August 21: Still in New York, Katherine marries Ivan Lewis Gittens, also known as Ivan
Sharpe, an actor from the British West Indies (now Trinidad and Tobago). They have known each other at least since 1951.

1958, January 29: Husband Ivan passes away.

1967, April 1: Elnora (Cooper) Shepherd, Katherine's son Louis' wife, passes away after battling

1968, May 2: Katherine’s son Louis marries Doris Elizabeth (Reid) Mathis in Washington, DC.

1970, October 14: After a hospital stay of a few weeks, Katherine passes away at the
Bronx Medical Center, leaving behind her son Louis and a host of grandchildren. She is interred the following week at Ferncliffe Cemetery.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Mystery Monday Update 2: Women, Who Art Ye?

This time last week I was planning a series of quick trips down to South Jersey to dig deeper into my Shepherd/Kilson research. These are the families that I am related to through my mother’s father, Louis Shepherd, and my goal was to continue chipping away at the mystery of how exactly his mother, my great-grandmother Katherine Shepherd, was related to the Kilsons. You can read my original Mystery Monday post here and an update here. Long story short, Katherine’s mother was one of three women - Rose Sheppard, Bertha Kilson and Eleanor Petite - who were probably sisters, but there wasn’t much solid evidence of this at the beginning of this journey.

Well, good news! I found another piece of the puzzle! Here is the obituary for Bertha Kilson’s daughter, Eleanor, published in the October 25, 1968 edition of the Salem Standard and Jerseyman:

Note that surviving her are “cousins, Mrs. Catherine Sharpe” – as in, my great-grandmother – “and Louis Sheppard of Washington, DC.”

It’s still not a smoking gun – for me that would be birth records for each woman showing they have at least 1 parent in common – but this is yet another document providing evidence that Eleanor and Catherine had parents who were siblings, and it’s a document produced during the historical period of interest. Eleanor was the last of the Kilsons to pass away, and none of them had any children, so I wonder if it was Katherine herself who provided the information? If so, it’s proverbially “straight from the horse’s mouth,” at least in terms of what she believed to be true about her family. Actually, it wouldn’t be the first time Katherine said that she and Eleanor were cousins: I’ve posted the picture on the right before, but I didn’t post the reverse:


But, I’m still holding out for the birth records before I call this mystery solved!

Rest in Peace, Cousin

My Harris/Johnson/ West Family lost one of its members yesterday. In the interest of privacy, I will not be posting details, but suffice it to say the person we lost was entirely too young and their life was worth more than the way it was taken.

My heart goes out to everyone who feels this loss, most especially his immediate family. You - and he - are in our thoughts.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Photo Friday: Of Pufferfish and People

One of my maternal uncles and his wife recently moved into a new house nearby and, not too long ago, some of us went over to check it out and say welcome to the neighborhood. The previous owners had left quite a few things behind, and as we got the grand tour, one of the items we all stopped to have a conversation about was a mobile hanging on the ceiling in one of the rooms. Its theme seemed to be “marine life,” and the sight of several pufferfish dangling from the piece sparked a memory for my uncle (and several jokes about not eating fugu fish from the rest of us!).

For a time in his teenage years, my uncle lived with his paternal grandmother, my great-grandmother Katherine (Shepherd) Sharpe, in the Bronx in New York City. One of the ways they passed time together was to go fishing, and he remembers on several occasions accidentally catching pufferfish. 

If you’ve never heard of pufferfish (also known as blowfish) before, let me be the first to tell you that you do not want to mess with them! You’re not in much danger from their ability to, as National Geographic puts it, “quickly ingest huge amounts of water (and even air when necessary) to turn themselves into a virtually inedible ball several times their normal size.” Well, unless you try to grab one of the ones with spines. What you are in danger from - particularly if you decide to try and eat one - is the deadly toxin that they carry, tetrodotoxin. According to National Geographic, this toxin is “up to 1,200 times more poisonous than cyanide [and] There is enough toxin in one pufferfish to kill 30 adult humans, AND (emphasis mine) there is no known antidote.”

Why did we joke about fugu fish, then? This is the name for pufferfish in Japan, where it is eaten as daring (and occasionally deadly) delicacy.

Anywho, my uncle remembers sometimes catching these Underwater Orbs of Lethal Legend while out with his grandma. He was NOT ALLOWED TO GET CLOSE TO THEM. As he remembered it, Great-Grandma Katherine would instead step on the fish and very carefully remove the hook, or she would just give the hook up for lost and simply cut the line, letting the fish fall back into the water.

Katherine: 1.  Bloated Ball of Swimming Poison: 0.

In honor of their fishing escapades, and in lieu of photos of the two of them on the water together, I share with you these photos of Katherine out on a fishing trip, date and location unknown.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Wedding Wednesday: Louis and Elnora (Cooper) Shepherd

Today’s post is inspired by the Wedding Wednesday genealogy blog prompt over at Geneabloggers.

Louis And Elnora (Cooper) Shepherd with their oldest two children.
One of my favorite family history nuggets is the fact that my maternal grandfather literally fell in love with the girl next door. (Or maybe it’s my grandmother that fell in love with the boy next door.) Either way, it’s definitely the fact that in a world (or at least a city) full of possibilities and potential mates, these two individuals - a girl from rural Georgia whose family came up during the Great Migration, and a boy who was born and raised in busy DC - ended up as next door neighbors, then husband and wife, and then parents to 5 children, including my mother.

Here they are in the 1940 U.S. Census, my 16-year-old Grandmother Elnora Cooper and my 17-year-old Grandfather Louis Shepherd, living respectively at 154 and 152 D Street SE in DC (images clipped from consecutive pages of the census).

I wish I could have known them both, and learned directly from them what their lives were like, and especially about this exciting time in their teenage years. Who eyed who first? Did they first meet on the front steps outside of their houses, or were they out and about when they ran into each other, and only then discovered they were neighbors? Did he court her, bring her flowers and gifts? Did she make the first move? And when he went missing from his Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Maryland (it happened a few times, according to his personnel record, though he was still discharged honorably) was he coming home to visit both his mother and his sweetie?

Unfortunately my grandmother passed away before I was even a twinkle in my mother’s eye, and my grandfather passed when I was only 2 years old. So, I learn what I can from family, and also from the historical record.

I don’t have any photos from Louis and Elnora’s wedding ceremony, but I do have a copy of their marriage license…both of them. Yes, both! You see, they applied for marriage in 1942, and for some reason, didn’t go through with it.

Bonus: Here’s the announcement of their application in the Washington Post.

But notice at the bottom of the 1942 form, the Reverend B.H. Whiting (of Friendship Baptist Church, in DC) has written “Not married by me,” and the Return portion of the page has not been completed, meaning this marriage was never finalized.

Now here’s another application for these same two folks, Louis and Elnora, submitted in April 1944 and fully completed.

What happened in the year and a half between their first application and their second? Right now I can only make guesses.

  • If you look at the top third of the original license application, you’ll see that Louis was 19 and Elnora was 18. Louis’ mom, Katherine, signed the document to show that she gave parental consent for her minor child to marry. Perhaps one side of the family or the other changed their minds soon after, deciding that they were too young to marry?
  • In September 1942, the world was in the thick of World War II. Pearl Harbor had been bombed in December of 1941, and the U.S. had already conducted 4 rounds of draft registration. Family lore has it that Louis was found unfit for duty because of scoliosis (curvature of the spine) – you can always tell my Grandfather in pictures because his head is slightly cocked to the side and one shoulder is slightly raised. Perhaps he was afraid requirements would be relaxed and that he’d be called to serve, and didn’t want to start a family just in case?
  • Or something else, entirely – who knows? I’ll need to see if any of my grandmother’s cousins can shed any light on this!
In any case, my grandparents were married for just shy of 23 years. The union ended only when Grandma Elnora passed of cancer 28 days before their April 29th anniversary. She left behind 5 children between the ages of 2 and 21. Louis followed many years later – leaving behind his second wife, my Grandma Doris - in 1987. Louis and Elnora’s progeny now includes children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren spread across the United States, including 1 nosy curious granddaughter who wants to know more!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Mystery Monday Update: Women, Who Art Ye?!

It’s after midnight and I just got back from a research trip to DC. I’m sleepy and I want to fall into my bed, but even more than that, I want to share this post with you, because I got A BREAKTHROUGH IN ONE OF MY BRICK WALLS!

Earlier this year I posted a Mystery Monday where I spoke about the possible relationship between three women who orbited my Great-Grandmother Katherine Shepherd: Rose (Allen) Shepherd, Eleanor (Allen/Ellis) Petite and Bertha (Allen) Kilson. Were they related? If so, how? Well, yesterday, I got lucky!

I spent half the day at the Washingtoniana Room of DC’s Martin Luther King Memorial Library, and, thanks to their library subscription, spent time trolling through the searchable online newspapers on ProQuest (a historical newspaper database). Look what I found!

Washington Evening Star - 7 April 1933 - P9, accessed via ProQuest Heritage Newspapers on 3 Dec. 2015.
So, there we have it – Eleanor Petite is specifically listed as being the sister of Bertha Kilson and the aunt of Katherine Banks (my great-grandmother’s married name at the time of Eleanor’s death), from which  we can assume she was Rose’s sister.

And check out what else it says – she is the sister of Bertha Kilson AND George Allen. New family member alert! Who is this guy?

So what are my next steps:

-          continue the search for a Virginia household with Bertha, Rose and Eleanor as sisters (or some combination thereof, especially with parents as speculated in the original post)
-          …and look for George Allen in the same household, or with some combination of these women. (Searching for “George Allen” by himself might prove difficult given how common both of these names are.)
-          continue to prepare to search for their birth records (I’m anticipating a trip to VA in my near future), adding George to the list.

I won’t truly consider this brick wall knocked down until I find birth records confirming they share the same parents, but this is a great step in the right direction!