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!

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