Preserving our ancestor’s stories for the next generation
Those blessed with elderly relatives may have access to a treasure trove of memories, details and more when it comes to genealogy research.
Black Women for Wellness (BWW) recently sponsored “Our Elders
— Hearing the Heartbeat of the Village,” an event designed to prepare community members who wish to document the history their elders have lived.
To celebrate Grandparents Appreciation Day, observed on the first Sunday of September after Labor Day, readers may wish to interview their living relatives to learn some of the history which evades most Black families.
Actually, anytime is a perfect time to record the stories of ancestors, which can inspire and motivate younger family members.
“Sharing our stories can empower, awaken, and transform,” according to oralhistoryforsocialchange.org, which provided handouts for the BWW gathering, part of the group’s regular “Breakfast @ 8” meetings.
“There’s a lot of great material out there to be recorded,” said Jane Collings, a project manager and researcher at the UCLA Library Center for Oral History Research (COHR), which conducts multi-session oral history interviews with individuals who have been a part of the history of Los Angeles. (https://www.library.ucla.edu/help/research-help)
Collings explained how the program has been in existence since the 1960s, collecting audio of oral histories. The library has digitized the older tape recordings.
“A lot of it is on the web, and you can just google ‘UCLA oral history,’” Collings said.
The university’s program also offers training for those looking to do oral history projects. She had some hints on how to conduct in-depth, one-on-one interviews with elders, who recount stories that span decades. But she reminded attendees that not each encounter has to be formal.
“When you talk with somebody, get out your phone… and do a recording on the fly,” Collings said, comparing the mix of random, impulsive story collecting along with more formal interviews to a “history mosaic.”
“And when you put them all together, you’re really getting everything that’s out there,” she said. “It’s very fruitful and creates a nice collection.”
The COHR collection houses the memories of several Black Angelenos, including those who made jazz history on Central Avenue.
One musician, Phillis Battle, was onhand to share her story with BWW event attendees.
“I knew two dreams I wanted to pursue, singing and traveling,” Battle said, noting she was raised in New York where her mother took her to see Ella Fitsgerald and Sarah Vaugn. A friend signed her up for amature night at the Apollo one Wednesday.
“I was shaking so,” she remembered. “Thank God, they didn’t boo me. That’s what gave me my courage to get out and pursue my career.”
For 15 years Battle was a member of The 5th Dimension.
Dr. Mable Carter, a community advocate for more than 50 years, also shared part of her history.
“We are a people that not only have survived, but we thrive,” Carter said. “I will never forget the day when I woke up and found that I was aging – and not so fantasticly.”
She was beginning to accept the aches and pains as part of her awakening routine, part of her life.
“What was jarring was I was beginning to mirror my grandmother, complaining about body aches,” Carter added, noting she spent 30 years raising three sons. “I was the butcher, baker and candlestick maker.”
Then that day, she did not recognize the person in the mirror.
“But there was no neighborhood ‘Jiffy Lube’ or ‘Tune Up Master’ that I could pull into for instant oil or filter change,” Carter joked. She made a change, instituting a new purpose and getting new results. She conquered diabetes and started a new career as an author of “paranormal romances” at the age of 60.
“Commitment and self love. They were the glue that fused everything together,” Carter said. “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings”
Friends and family could hold a number of similar fascinating stories, just waiting to be explored.
Interviewers should remember that in collecting oral histories, the person to be interviewed, the narrator, is the owner of the story. It’s recommended that before the interview, a written form should be composed to outline the purpose of the project and clarifies that the interview will remain confidential until the narrator grants permission for its use via a signed release.
Remember, it is a privilege to listen to an elder or a grandparent’s story. It is best to schedule the interview for a time and place with few distractions, interruptions and background noise.
Interviewers should avoid questions which would give only simple “yes” or “no” answers. Start a natural conversation with your relative, then bring in more specific questions or prompts. As your relative answers each question, you will gain a sense of whether they prefer to give short, brief answers or prefer to go into details. You’ll need to prompt them if they stop talking.
Some sample questions could include:
• What do you remember about…. ?
• Describe the place that ….
• What was your role in ….
• Tell me a story about …
• How did that affect you?
“Your living relatives may be able to provide clues that you can then research to gain a historical perspective,” according to ourpublicrecords.org, an organization which offers help for those looking for birth and death records and those who want to know where they can find public records on the web.
Ourpublicrecords.org suggests that grandparents and great-grandparents can be a great start to genealogical research and finding civil records, like marriage licenses, divorce, military and criminal records, along with census reports.
According to its website, the organization has tracked down the best public records searches that can be used and ranked them to help aspiring genealogists find the best ones. It has also created a guide to help people interview their elderly family members for genealogical research, and learn how to get the best experience and understanding from those interviews at https://ourpublicrecords.org/interview-elderly-relatives/.