Friday, March 25, 2016

Photo Friday: New Castle, Alabama

Before I boarded my train back from Birmingham to New Orleans, my newfound Evans Family cousin scooped me up from my hotel and took me on a whirlwind tour of one of the coal mining communities where our shared ancestors had lived in the early-to-mid 1900s.

New Castle, north of Birmingham, along the L&N Railroad. Image Credit below.

New Castle, Alabama is located about 10 miles north of Birmingham and, since about 1870, has housed various coal mining operations that included company-owned homes, stores, schools, and churches for the miners and their families. The mines are no longer in operation today, and the houses are now owned by individuals, including some that are still in the hands of Evans relatives. 

Here’s a look at some of what I saw:

 New Castle Road is the main road through town and connected the community to other coal towns to the southwest and northeast.

Overlooking a portion of New Castle from one of the highest points. The area has been mostly reclaimed by woods now, but you would have seen large machines, great coal heaps, and many more houses and other buildings back in the day.

The New Castle Post Office, this used to be a gathering place for the community, where both mail and hot pieces of news were picked up.

One of the original camp houses (from my cousin's early years). Time, weather and abandonment have taken their toll.

Mt. Joy Baptist Church, which sits at the top of a hill overlooking the community. This was one of two black churches in the community. My great-grandfather Theodore Johnson (Steve Evans)'s sister, Sarah, lived on the same hill, and her husband, Archie, lived across the street. She was, I was told, an eclectic woman!

Eastern Star Missionary Baptist Church, the other black church serving New Castle. Several family members were ministers, but they were Methodist and did not preach here.

One of the Evans Family houses, my great-grandfather's sister Janie Mae and her daughter Veola had it built.

Another of the Evans Family homes, still showing some of the bones of the original camp house.

The Louisville & Nashville Railroad (LNRR) tracks through New Castle. These and smaller spurs throughout the area moved people and coal to and from the mining towns to Birmingham with its coke and steel plants, south through Montgomery and Mobile to Mississippi and New Orleans, and north to Nashville, Louisville and Cincinnati, where they could connect to other points. 

My cousin also took me to the Evans Family plot in New Castle cemetery - I think I'll post those as my next photo Friday. Getting to see, stand on and walk the land where my ancestors and their families lived and hung out was an awesome, awesome experience and I'm grateful to my cousin for being so excited to make it happen.I can't wait to visit again and see the other towns we're connected to - Bradford, Majestic and Dixiana, I'm looking at you!

Map Credit: This image was modified from a map in "The Birmingham District: An Industrial History and Guide" by Marjorie Longenecker White, published by the Birmingham Historical Society in 1981.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Wedding Wednesday: Solomon Harris and Ardenia Jackson

After all that research in Alabama, I had to take a breather, but I’m easing back into organizing and writing things up. If you read my last post, you know that the greatest find of my trip was actual living family members, but I also found some pretty neat documents. Here’s one of them:

This is the marriage record for my paternal great-great-grandparents, Solomon Harris and Ardenia Jackson (written here as Adelia).  They are the parents of my dad’s mom’s mom, Beatrice Harris. If their names sound familiar, it’s because last August I posted that a basic record about their marriage had been placed online at Well, I used that information on my trip to find their marriage application, license and return at the Montgomery County Probate Office in Alabama. That’s what you see above.

After I visited the Probate Court, I spent some time at the Alabama Department of Archives and History, also in Montgomery, and something told me to look up marriage records there, too. Thank goodness for that feeling, because look what they had that the Probate Office didn't!

This beautiful baby right here is a copy of the certificate that apparently would have been given directly to the couple to take to their pastor of choice, who would sign and return it to them upon completing the ceremony. They would then have taken it back to the courthouse to be officially registered.

Solomon and Ardenia were married on the 3rd of December in 1914. While the first record above states Solomon was 21 and Ardenia was 18 when they married, other records that state that both Solomon and Ardenia were born in the summer of 1897, making them each actually just 17. The ceremony took place in Madison Park, in Montgomery, AL and was conducted by a Reverend P.J Minefield. According to the marriage license application (in the first document above), Ardenia was Baptist, while Solomon has no religion listed, so it’s likely Rev. Minefield was a Baptist minister. However, I haven’t yet been able to find anything on him.

Something did come up when I looked up Madison Park in Montgomery County, Alabama: the History page for the Madison Park Community Reunion. If this is in fact the Madison Park where they were married, then they celebrated their union in a town that had been founded about 30 years earlier by former slaves in order to “have a future for themselves and their families.” According to the website,

 “They worked their own land; built houses, established a school and houses of worship…. [T]he community established farms and produces row crops and table vegetables. They built grist mills, saw mills, two syrup mills, a cotton gin, grocery stores, a park and a gravel pit. The community for all practical purposes was a self-sufficient community.”

You can read more here.

This was a place designed so that African Americans, so recently out of slavery and facing hostility and abuse from a region not willing to give up the racism or economics of slavery, could feel safe and make their own way in the world. I don’t know if Solomon and Ardenia actually lived in this community or had some other tie that led them to be married there, or if this is even the same Madison Park (though I couldn’t find any others) but if they did live there, how cool! (And yes, I sent the group an email to see if I can find anything more!)

Solomon and Ardenia brought two daughters into the world together, Beatrice in 1915 and Lillian in 1917. In fact, another of my cool finds from the trip to Alabama were Beatrice and Lillian’s listings in the Montgomery County Register of Births. (This was a real case of serendipity, because there are only 2 registers and 10 years worth of birth records available at the Probate Office, 1908-1912 and 1913-1917. I found 4 people!)

Here’s Beatrice:

(Left Side)

(Right Side)

And here’s Lillian:

(Left Side)

(Right Side)

Among other things, these records tell us that this was the first marriage for both Ardenia and Solomon, that they are living in Beat 18 of Montgomery County in 1915, and that both are working as farm laborers in 1915 and 1917. But by 1918, Solomon is working for the Winter Loeb Grocery Company, and it looks like they are living in the city of Montgomery itself, instead of on the farmland surrounding it. This may have been due to a devastating infestation of boll weevils that hit Alabama's cotton crops starting in 1892 and covering the entire state by 1916. Crops were destroyed year after year, farmers were forced to sell land, and sharecroppers and tenant farmers were pushed off or left the land in search of better opportunities. But through that challenge, or whatever caused them to move, Solomon and Ardenia were still together.

Solomon Harris' World War I Draft Registration Card, 1918

Unfortunately, this is the last record that I have been able to find for Solomon. We know from Ardenia’s obituary that Solomon passes away before her, and we know that by 1930 Ardenia and her teenage daughters are living together in Jefferson County, where Ardenia makes her living operating a boarding house. Finally, we know that she remarries in 1935 and moves north to Kewanee, Illinois in the 1940s. I can’t find anyone in this family in the 1920 census, so that gap between 1918 and 1930 unfortunately can’t be filled right now.

But at least we're able to capture a few snapshots of their life together - their union, hard work, children, change. Perhaps with time, luck, and more research, we'll be able to flesh this out further.

Do you know something I don't about Solomon and Ardenia? Please share!

Monday, March 14, 2016

When the Shaky Leaf Leads to a Living Branch: Alabama Recap

So, I just got back two nights ago from spending two weeks in Alabama. Family, the most amazing thing happened while I was there: I met real, live, actual relatives of my great-grandfather, Steve Evans / Theodore Johnson!!

Main entrance of the Birmingham Public Library, my first research stop.
I thought I was going to be spending all my time on documents and photos, in archives, libraries and county courthouses between Birmingham and Montgomery. And that is pretty much what happened...until two days before I left.

That's when I updated my family tree on and got one of those shaky leaf hints they are always talking about in their commercials. (This is NOT a commercial. Those ads make genealogy look like a walk in the park where you barely put in any effort and your whole ancestry unfurls in front of you like a red carpet. FALSE FALSE FALSE. But, I digress.) That hint directed me to another user's tree that shared individuals with mine. I clicked on the username to get more info, but it said that this person hadn't logged in in over a year. Still, I figured I'd reach out, so I sent a message and went to bed.

Alabama Department of Archives and History, in Montgomery.
The very next day, you all, there was an email in my inbox! It was the great-granddaughter of Steve Evans' sister Janie Mae (who I've mentioned in my previous posts about reconstructing Steve's life) and she was absolutely interested in connecting! And, she'd already filled in her mother, who was raised by Janie Mae, and had included some of her mother's memories in the email. How awesome! Then, her mother sent me an email with even more information, and an open invitation to talk!

I was in an archive in Montgomery when I got the first email. There was some mime-screaming. And some chair dancing. And a VERY excited call to my grandmother, Steve Evans' daughter. I wrote back, and then finished my research and headed back to Birmingham, since my trip was wrapping up.

As we exchanged emails, it came out that I was in Birmingham, and guess what? So was the cousin who was raised by Janie Mae! And she sure enough made sure that we met up both my last night in Birmingham and the very next morning - she literally dropped me off at the train station.

Headed towards the former coal camps of New Castle, Alabama.
But, man, what we did in between is what was awesome. We shared photos of our branches of the family and put pieces of the family story together based on her memories and stories (some passed down by Janie Mae, who was her grandmother), the documents I'd collected, and the stories I'd heard from my Grandma and her cousins in Illinois (which I haven't shared on here yet, but will!).  She introduced me to a few of her grandkids, fed me, and took me out to New Castle, one of the coal mining camps where the family lived. SHE TOOK ME TO THE FAMILY CEMETERY. (Yes, I know all caps is yelling.) Her hospitality, warmth, and excitement seriously meant the world to me. I can't believe these two branches of the family have the opportunity to link up again.

I'm excited to share what I've learned, but bear with me, b/c I need to organize the info before I can write about it! I'm also very excited to continue to get to know Janie Mae's descendents, and of course, for them to be in touch with Steve's other descendants (and Marshall Evans' descendants as well). Who knows, maybe there'll be a reunion in our family future?

But, as a start, my Grandma now has her cousins' info and a picture of her aunt. And I've got two new Facebook friends :)

Note: We did a lot of talking and looking at photos, and yet, somehow we managed to forget to take a picture together! Next time!