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!  

Monday, November 16, 2015

Mystery Monday: Are You My (Great-Great Grand) Mother?

Do you remember that children’s book, Are You My Mother? A little birdie hatches from his shell while his mother is away and he goes on a quest to find her, asking each animal (and machine!) he passes if they are his mama. It’s cute, and, of course, it has a happy ending. Well, as I think about my quest to get each of my family lines back to 1870, and as I thought about a good Mystery Monday topic, this book popped into my mind; I’ve got a mystery for which I’m hoping there will be a happy ending. You see, we have this postcard…

When my maternal great-grandmother Katherine passed away in New York, her son, my grandfather, cleaned out her apartment. He brought back to DC at least two things: a small green tacklebox, which he gave to my mother (his oldest daughter) and a small suitcase, which he gave to his oldest son. In the tacklebox were a bunch of papers and a small stack of photos. Most of the items seem to be from or related to my great-grandmother’s life and possible relatives, the Kilsons, in Salem, NJ. But among them was the postcard above, with this written on the back:

We know that according to multiple records Katherine’s mother was named Rose Anne (or Rose Anna or Roseanne or Rosa Anne) Allen.

We’re thinking that “Eleanor” is Eleanor Kilson, one of 4 children born to Bertha (née Allen) and Waymon Kilson in New Jersey. (By the time Katherine passed in 1971, Eleanor had already been gone for 3 years, which may explain why Katherine had some of her things, especially since photos suggest Katherine and Eleanor were close.)

However, it’s possible that the Eleanor referred to here is Eleanor Petite (née Allen), another possible relative, and the one into whose home Katherine moved in Washington, DC around 1918. The question of the connection between these three women – Bertha (Allen) Kilson, Eleanor (Allen) Petite, and Rose Anne (Allen) Kilson – was the subject of a previous Mystery Monday.

In any case, today’s Mystery Monday question is, “Is the picture on this postcard actually our Rose? Is this my Great-Great Grandma?”

To have an image of a family member who was born in the early 1880s – to know for a fact that this was a woman from whom I was descended - would blow my mind.

I think I’m going to have to channel Maureen Taylor, ThePhoto Detective, to see if – at the very least – the clothing and hairstyle are from about the right time period to be Rose, and if the paper and info about the photographer or printer put us in the right period as well.

In the meantime, what do you think? Is there anything else we should look at about this postcard to make an educated guess about the timeframe in which it was taken? Do you have clues about these women and how they might be related?

Share your thoughts below!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Where There's A Will...

Yesterday I came across what, for me, is a really exciting document: My great-great-grandmother Scoatney (Scott) Cooper's will!

Now, the Cooper Family - my mom's maternal grandfather's line - has actually done a great job of keeping family names and relationships alive - they hold a reunion every 2 years, they've been maintaining a family tree probably since before I was born, and there are several family members with an interest in genealogy. (My cousin France Davis - the son of my great-grandfather's sister - even wrote a book that recounts some of the family history, though it's mostly his own autobiography.) In fact, for these very reasons, I've pretty much left this line alone as I do my own research.

But you know us genealogists, sometimes we just type something in the computer to see what comes up! Yesterday, it was both Scoatney Scott Cooper's Certificate of Death and her Last Will and Testament. Now, the first document alone would have been wonderful by itself - it let me know that she passed in 1932, at the age of 71...meaning she was born in 1861! As in, during the Civil War! And it gave me her parents names, which confirmed that a possible 1870 Census record I found for her, is in fact her! (Score 1 for my 1870 ancestor goal!)

To have a copy of her Last Will and Testament, however, is icing on the cake. Like, really amazing icing. Here's why:

1. This is a will written by a BLACK WOMAN in 1924 in the Deep South. We're talking about a person who was born during slavery, and who had lived most of her adult life during a time when African Americans were being lynched with alacrity, their political rights were routinely ignored, and their economic well-being was constantly in jeopardy. And we're talking about a woman living in a country where (white) women had only just won the right to vote a few years earlier. Women's rights were moving forward, but let's be clear that those rights were generally only accessible and afforded to *certain* women.

2. Scoatney had her own property to pass on!

Now, the family already knew she owned property; I knew it, too. As cousin France wrote:

Our house, the house in which I was born, sat on a piece of property originally owned by the Coopers – not purchased by my grandfather, July Cooper, but by his wife, Scoatney, my mother’s mother…. My grandmother was a good manager – so frugal, it would seem, that some called her stingy. It was she, however, who was able to purchase 180 acres of agricultural land in Cooper’s Town as well as a house and lot in Gough…
 But how cool is it to see that in writing in an original legal document? (The house and lot in Gough are mentioned later in the will.) And, it wasn't a small bit of land. The 140 acres mentioned in the image above - that's equivalent to about 140 football fields! Plus, she owned this land outright, at a time when most African Americans on farmland in the south were sharecroppers or tenant farmers, working in a constant cycle of debt accumulation. On top of this, black men and women who did own land were routinely (and often with governmental assistance) being cheated out of and off of it! (In fact, if you look up "black farmers" today, you'll see that contemporary black farmers are STILL trying to get their due.)

3. That said, this document is a testament to the importance of family and of creating and passing down wealth to leave a solid foundation for generations to come. It speaks to a mixture of hard work, planning, perseverance - and probably luck - from which Scoatney's family benefitted. And, if this is an accurate indicator...

...she did this without the benefit of literacy.

Some of this land is still in the family's hands today, and I'm excited that our next family reunion will take place down there! I can't wait to walk the ground, see the family cemetery, and, of course, make a visit to the county courthouse to see what other documents there are to find!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

I'm Focused, Man!

I’ve got my genealogy groove back! I mentioned in a recent post that I had made a major life change, quitting my job to travel and focus on my genealogical research for 6 months to a year. Well, I spent 4 weeks traveling in Europe - to England, France and Italy (York Minster! Croissants! Mt. Vesuvius!) – and I just got back a few days ago from a week in New Orleans (Halloween! Voodoo Fest!).

Anyway, during the time I haven’t been on the road, it’s been difficult to get focused on genealogy. Frankly, I was probably exhausted and just trying to get used to being home again. I think I’ve also been feeling a bit overwhelmed, both by the research I already have but need to review, and also by the limitless possibilities (and thus the need to do something meaningful) for this year off.

But, for some reason, something clicked today. I feel energized again to dive in, and I know what my focus is: documenting all of my direct ancestors back to 1870. This is actually pretty funny to me, because this is a basic step in African American family history research, but not something I consciously think of - I've just been digging as much as a I can, working from one generation to the next. But 1870 is important, because it opens the door to learning about African American ancestors during slavery. The 1870 Census is the first census enumeration where the vast majority of African Americans were named as individuals, because it was the first census taken after the Civil War. Prior to this, most African Americans were enslaved – literally were property – and thus their names weren’t listed. (Of course, if your ancestor was a free person of color, there was a much better chance that they would be enumerated.) If you can find your family in 1870, you have a head start on finding out where your family was during slavery, and the door opens to the next phase of your genealogical research.

I’ve been so focused on pushing each line back as best I could that I wasn’t thinking about a common goal to organize all of my research. Getting each line back to 1870 is that common goal now. (My previous genealogy To Do list still applies, though, and will help me in this endeavor, I think.)

I have a ways to go, despite all the work I’ve already done. 1870 is 145 years ago, and the ancestors we’re speaking about would be my great-great and great-great-great-grandparents. I know who my grandparents are, thankfully! I know who 5 of my 8 great-grandparents are, and can document those pretty well, though I’d like stronger material for a few lines.  Of my 16 great-great-grandparents, I’ve got names for 10 of them, but documentation gets weaker the further back I go. And my great-great-great-grandparents are almost a complete mystery – of 32 people, I have 2 names, possibly 4.

Like I said, work to do! But I’m glad for that sense of direction. So, time to get started! Watch me go to work, y'all.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Genealogical To Do List - September 2015 Edition

Faced with an eternity of spare time on my hands (exaggeration alert!), I realize that I'm going to have to stay focused so that I accomplish my genealogical goals. So, here's what's on my To Do list right now, in no particular order:

  • Digitize my Grandma Doris's 29 photo albums and scrapbooks. Yes, 29. I remember that time when I was young and naive and forgot that there was an entire other box full of albums!! Those were the days...

  • Plan my first research trip to Washington, DC. That's where the Coopers met the Shepherds, where the Shepherds met the Reids, and where both my momma and my granddad were raised.

  • Reach out to my remaining living Grandfather. That thing I said about “no particular order” clearly is not true here. This is a priority.

  • Write up some more of the stories I'm already able to tell and the mysteries I want to solve. Like why my maternal grandparents applied for a marriage license twice, two years apart. Or that my paternal great-grandfather was involved in a coal mining strike and subsequent court case that made it into the newspapers. 

  • Figure out my priorities for Ohio research. And also whose couches I want to sleep on!

  • Review my current research for holes, lingering questions, and mistakes. The Genealogy Do-Over, suggested over at really is a great idea. And while I’ve been pretty darn careful, it never hurts to doublecheck!

  • Set goals for additional research trips. Virginia, that other West Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, New York (again), and New Jersey (again), here I come!

So there you go folks. If I've made no headway a year from now, send the Land Shark after me! (Ding dong...)

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A New Adventure!

I never remember to take a photo of the whole cake!

It’s been a little quiet over here! But I promise it’s been for a good reason. See, I’ve done something a little crazy: at the beginning of August, I announced that I was quitting my job at the end of the month, to start 6 months to a year of chasing my passions, travel and genealogy. (I’m! So! Excited!)

It’s an idea I’d been playing with, dreaming about, and then finally acting on, for over a year. Why not do this now, when I’m young, healthy, single, and have no kids, pets or a mortgage? Why wait until I’m retired to do the things I really want to do? Especially since there’s no guarantee I’ll be healthy then, or even able to retire at all! So, I’m taking some time for myself right now!

Updated, thanks to my (former) colleagues, who are (still) awesome and made sure I got a picture of the WHOLE cake. Thanks y'all!

I’ll be blogging about my travels and other interesting experiences over at A Runs Away, starting with a month-long trip to Europe at the end of this month. And with all the time I’ll now have to do genealogy research, I’ll be adding lots to this blog as well!

Fam, I’m super excited to have this opportunity to learn more about our history and dig deeper into our roots, and to be able to share what I’m learning with you all! If I call you up and ask if I can interview you / look at your photo albums / sleep on your sofa, I hope you’ll say yes! Stay tuned :)

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Genealogical Serendipity: Marriage in the Morning

I absolutely believe in genealogical serendipity. Every now and then, that thing you’ve been looking for, that record you wanted, or maybe even something that hadn’t even crossed your mind in a while – it’ll just pop up in front of you! I think it’s because – and I truly believe this – our ancestors want to be found.

Well this morning, I woke up and, like I do every day, started tooling around on the interwebs, visiting some of my favorite sites. At least once a week, I check out Dick Eastman’s super useful blog, Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter, for the news, notes and updates he is always posting. So today, as I’m scrolling through, I come across an announcement about the newest updates to’s collections. Top of the list: Alabama County Marriages 1809 – 1950.

Well, hey, I know my paternal roots are in Alabama, let me just go check this out. Cool, calm, and collected. Used to being disappointed.

Get to their website, type in the name of the man I believe is my Dad’s maternal great-grandfather, Solomon Harris, and hit Search.

Voi – frickin la! Top 2 results (out of 484): Solomon Harris’s marriage to my great-great-grandmother Ardenia Jackson (alternately listed elsewhere as Ardelia, Adelia, Adenia, etc.) in Montgomery, Alabama!!

[Me→Dad→Grandma→Beatrice (Harris) Johnson/West→Ardenia (Jackson) & Solomon Harris], accessed 9 Aug 2015

The actual images of the records are not online yet, but basic details have been transcribed, so here’s what I’ve now been given:

"Alabama, County Marriages, 1809-1950," database with images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 9 August 2015), Solomon Harris and Adelia Jackson, 03 Dec 1914; citing Montgomery, Alabama, United States, county courthouses, Alabama; FHL microfilm .

And if I get super impatient and don’t want to wait for them to eventually load the original scanned documents, I now know the microfilm information in case I want to order it directly.

This is great: I have more confirmation that they were living in Montgomery, AL in the 19teens, I have another confirmation of Ardenia's surname, and pretty solid proof (though I need to see the hard copy to be fully sure) that they were actually married -  oh, look, a date! And frankly, it's great to have another record about Solomon - he's been difficult to find! 

My genealogy coup for the day, and it happened before 10am! Time to update my database…

Monday, July 20, 2015

“Only Thing Can Find To Do:” Louis Shepherd and the CCC, Part 2

WPA Poster, ca. 1936-1941 (WPA Poster Collection, Library of Congress)

In my last post, I wrote about my maternal grandfather, Louis Shepherd, and what little I knew about his time in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). My next step was to send away for his Individual Record, held by the National Archives and Records Administration. Well, guess what came in the mail last week??

Yes, indeed - fourteen pages of information, though honestly a fair bit of it was redundant. However, there were some gems of information. In between his actual Individual Record (8 pages), Certificate of Selection (2 pages), and Enrollee Cumulative Record (4 pages), I learned that he:

-          was a beanpole of a 17-year--old, at 6 feet 3 inches and 160 lbs
-          was in good health – 20/20 eyesight, no asthma, no convulsions and - thankfully - no “fits”
-          got his auto mechanic training at Phelps Vocational junior high school (one of his sons also attended this school, in later years)
-          dropped out of school to seek employment

And it’s this last point I want to focus on for the rest of this post. Remember from the previous post that the CCC was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a way to provide gainful employment to some of those hardest hit by the Great Depression: young men. 

Nine African American men in CCC employment. ( Public Domain: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

So let’s explore what Granddad’s situation was in 1940.

A snippet of the 1940 Census for Washington, DC showing Louis Shepherd and his mom Katherine
(née Shepherd) Banks as lodgers.

  • He and his mom Katherine are living in a boarding house at 152 D Street, SE, in Washington, DC. (Does this address sound familiar, Cooper/Shepherd family? There was a cute girl next door – I know her as Grandma Elnora!)
  • Including this boarding house, Katherine has at least 4 different addresses between 1932 and 1940.
  • Katherine is listed as a domestic, servant, cook, laundress or maid in every document that lists her occupation from 1920 on.
The Colonial Hotel, in Washington DC. According to a 1939 City Directory, Katherine worked here as a maid that year. (National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress)

  • According to the 1940 Census, Katherine is working as a maid in a hotel. In the previous year, she earned a total of $744 over 52 weeks of work. In today’s dollars that’s equal to about $12,636. For an entire year.
  • Katherine is either separated, divorced or widowed in 1940, and has been since at least 1930.

All of this suggests that their financial situation was, if not dire, then not on completely solid ground, especially given the backdrop of the Great Depression. It’s no wonder that Louis would want to help out, especially if he already had his eye on that girl next door and wanted to prove his worth!

According to the new paperwork, Louis at one point worked odd jobs after school and even served as a newspaper boy - what I would give for a picture of that!! But clearly that wasn’t enough, because as his record shows, Granddad dropped out of school to seek employment. Imagine the competition - hundreds of thousands of men and women looking for work, everyone's situation worse than the last. He ended up with the CCC because, according to his file, it’s the “only thing can find to do.”

As a CCC enrollee, Granddad Louis earned $22 a month, worth about $365 today. To put that in context, according to this website, you could get a jumbo loaf of bread for about 5 cents, a gallon of gas for 11 cents, and a Cadillac La Salle for $1,240.

For the first few months, Louis sent all of his earnings home to his mom. When the new year began, he began setting aside $7 per month in his CCC savings account, but all the rest continued to be sent to my Great-Grandma Katherine. After his first term was up, in April of 1941, Louis was apparently still having trouble finding work, because he re-enlisted, under the same terms as his previous contract. But this time he didn’t stay for the whole term: in August of ’41 he was honorably discharged because he had found paying employment. Through a friend's connection, he would serve as an orderly at Weaver Bros., Inc, a real estate firm down the street from the Washington Monument, at 15th and G, NW. And because he’d been setting aside a few dollars each month, he had a little nest egg to withdraw - $56. I wonder what he did with it...

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Can You Dig It? Louis Shepherd and the Civilian Conservation Corps

One day sometime last year, my mom and I asked my Grandma Doris if she knew anything about my granddad Louis Shepherd serving in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). One of the first record sets family historians look for when researching male family members are military records, because they can be goldmines of information that shed light on the whole family. My grandfather, having been born in 1922, was of an age to have fought in World War II, but if he served, it is the World’s Best Kept Secret – to our knowledge (“as the story goes,” essentially), he was unfit for service due to his scoliosis. So, the question became, what was he up to in the 1940s? My mom was pretty sure he’d served in the CCC, but neither she nor her siblings had details.

Grandma to the rescue! (To those of you who think you don’t have anything to share, YES YOU DO!!!) She headed to her bedroom and came back with a thick folder, out of which she pulled 2 papers. One, a cover letter from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA, the official holders of the government’s archival records), the other, a photocopy of my grandfather’s discharge paper from the Civilian Conservation Corps! Score!!

OK, so what even is the Civilian Conservation Corps, you ask? Imagine: It’s early 1933. It’s been a little over 3 years since the U.S. stock market crashed on Black Thursday in 1929. Banks have collapsed, leaving people without their life savings. Around a quarter of the public is unemployed. People are “rioting” for food, marching for jobs, and WWI veterans have recently camped out in DC to get bonus pay for their service. The nation is hurting and people are starving. And you are Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and you’ve just been elected President in a landslide victory on the promise of a New Deal package of reforms that will lift the economic fortunes of the nation.
A Civilian Conservation Corps recruitment poster, ca. 1941. (Public domain courtesy of the Works Progress Administration, accessed via Wikimedia Commons)
So, you propose and push forward a plan to hire the nation’s young men, ages 17 – 25, who make up a significant portion of the unemployed. You’ll put them to work taking care of the country’s natural resources. They’ll live in camps across the nation and plant trees, fix roads, build dams, restore historical structures, and take on many other projects that will allow them to develop vocational skills, further their educations, and – crucially – send $25 of the $30 they’ll earn monthly back home to their families. This, in a nutshell, is what the Civilian Conservation Corps was.

According to his discharge paper, Louis Shepherd served in the CCC from October 21, 1940 until August 14, 1941, when he was honorably discharged. He was 17 when he enrolled, 18 when he left. Unlike some of the young men in the CCC, Granddad served pretty close to home, in Cabin John, Maryland. That’s in Montgomery County and isn’t terribly far from his mom in Washington, DC, about 12 miles.

The discharge paper says that Louis was an auto mechanic prior to signing up (who knew??), but that his work in the camp was doing canal excavation. The company that Louis was a part of, Company 333 in camp NP-2-MD, was one of two who were charged with restoring the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, an industrial waterway that ran parallel to the Potomac River. Running from Georgetown, in DC, to Cumberland, Maryland, the canal had been in use since the 1800s but had ceased operations after a disastrous flood in 1924. 

The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in use, ca. 1900-1924. (Public domain courtesy of the National Park Service Historical Photograph Collection, accessed via Wikipedia.)
The 150-200 young men in NP-2-MD and NP-1-MD, just a bit away along the river, cleared away rocks, debris and overgrown foliage, repaired the crumbling walls of the towpath, resurfaced the towpath along the canal, and ultimately restored approximately 22 miles of the canal before World War II diverted funding and resources, leading to the end of the CCC. In their time, these young men at NP-2-MD – all of them black because CCC camps were by this time completely segregated – laid the foundation for later efforts that would see the land on which they worked become the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park.

By dionhinchcliffe (Cropped from Washington, Jul 26, 2008) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
When Grandma Doris pulled out that discharge paper for Granddad Louis, she opened a door that’s led to a whole world of interesting information, speculation, and things to research. It turns out that NARA has Louis’ Individual Record, at least 6 pages of information related to his service. I’ve sent away for those. It may have been only 10 months of his life, but what did they mean to him, and how did they shape his world?

I’ll be exploring his service and CCC experiences in futures post – especially when his Individual Service Record arrives! – so stay tuned for more. Do you know anything about his service, or about the two camps in Cabin John, MD? Please let me know below!