My first serious foray into family history research was a cookbook called Family Preserves that I put together for my high school senior project. I reached out to members of my family on both sides and picked their brains about their family trees, their favorite or signature recipes, and the people, places and stories in their lives that these recipes conjured up.
I knew some of the details of my ancestry on both sides already, but this was the first time I had specifically invited folks to tell me what they knew, and really the first time I witnessed the power of remembering and sharing, and felt the excitement of recording and preserving.
Every now and then, I think I’ll use this space to pull out a story or a recipe from Family Preserves, to keep the chain of sharing alive. I know a lot more than I did back then, so let's think of these as both a trip down memory lane and a jumping off point for more conversation.
Here’s how I introduced my great grandmother Beatrice (Harris) Johnson / West. Have pity on my writing - I was 17!
Great Grandma Beatrice was born Beatrice Harris on April 14, 1915 in Montgomery, Alabama. She was the eldest of two children, both girls – her sister Lillian was born almost exactly 2 years later, in April of 1917. Their parents were Ardenia Harris (maiden name possibly Jackson) and, according to records, Solomon Harris, both born in 1897.
1918 - The family is still living in Montgomery, Alabama, where dad Solomon works for a grocer.
1930 - The family - minus Solomon, so far as I can tell - is living in Majestic, Alabama, an unincoporated coal mining town not too far from Birmingham. Mom Ardenia runs a boarding house, which becomes significant later on.
|My Great Grandmother Beatrice, date unknown.|
Between 1930 and 1940 - Both Beatrice and Lillian start families, and mom Ardenia remarries.
By 1940 - Beatrice and husband Theodore Johnson move north and east to another mining town, Powhatan Point, Ohio, but two of Beatrice's children are still with Beatrice's mom Ardenia in Alabama, at least when the 1940 census is taken. Sister Lillian is still in Alabama, in the same town as their mom, but she'll soon move north and slightly west, to Kewanee, IL.
1947 - Beatrice marries Raymond Montgomery West. They are living in Yorkville, OH, about 26 miles north of Powhatan Point along the Ohio River.
1947 -1971 - Beatrice and Ray continue to grow and raise the family, and see the children start their own families. Beatrice is active in her church.
1971 - Husband Ray West passes away.
1986 - Former husband Theodore Johnson passes away.
1987 - Beatrice's children hold the first Harris/Johnson/West Family Reunion.
1991 - Beatrice passes away in Ohio at 76 years old.
I'll be fleshing this timeline out in future posts - Beatrice was a person, not a list of dates, after all - and I'm looking forward to talking with relatives and learning more about her. She lived through several wars and the Civil Rights Movement, participated in the Great Migration, and raised 10 kids (including the woman who raised my father). She was born before Alaska and Hawaii became states, was 4 when Prohibition started, 5 when women got the right to vote and was 12 when Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic and the first movie with sound was released. Polaroid cameras and atomic bombs were developed during her lifetime. So was prepackaged sliced bread. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and John Lennon were all born and killed during her lifetime. And yet all of these things were probably only swirling in the background as she was a daughter, a sister, a mother, a wife, a parishioner, and a community member. She had her own stories to tell, and priorities.
Family, I hope you'll also share what you know - pictures, documents, stories - so we can share (and preserve!) an even better understanding of who she was and how she shaped our family with generations to come!