Black history is oral history

ST. PETERSBURG — Genealogy is basically and foremost the study of dead genes in one’s family. Once the entire study is completed, which spans many years, the compiled results become the family keepsake known simply as a “book of the dead.”

Host a family reunion and attend the reunions of cousins, uncles, and aunts. Look for your grandparents’ sisters and brothers also. Identify the most senior kinfolk, the elders. Ask questions of them. Keep a diary or journal and allow them to answer without interruption.

Notice and observe how smoothly their recitations flow during this reflective phase. Be certain to remember details and or record every word and phrase. Colloquial language is a plus. That verbiage alone can help label the locations of the country, town, city, county, or village where the majority of relatives lived and died—the family seat.

How can we know who lived? “Black History is oral history,” said columnist Peggy Peterman in 1984. The interviews with relatives serve as the real need to collect information of those who died. Relatives found many ways to preserve their dead kin. Begin now asking them! The spoken information becomes the text for one’s publications and lectures.

Death certificates are a strong verification of a person having lived. Jonathan C. Gibbs, Florida’s Secretary of State in 1868 and later the Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1873, died August 14, 1874 in Tallahassee. No death certificate was ever found. Why? In Florida, death certificates were not made mandatory until 1914.

Always know that names were constantly spelled incorrectly, sometimes proving to be difficult for the researchers. A misplaced letter in a surname can alter the research for years following the wrong trail.

In 1964, mama Altamease applied for her birth certificate the name recorded was Alta Marie Gardner! Mama Idella, her mother, was alive in Pierce so that was a big help. The certificate had to be recorded again with the proper spelling of her first name. Why? Property rights were sometimes difficult to inherit!

I’m asked by younger cousins, “Why is your surname spelled Nickson and not Nixon like ours?” My three siblings and I were always told that daddy and several of his cousins changed the spelling to enter World War II. I found a photograph of our father, Reginald, standing in his vegetable garden in Homeland near a small handmade sign that read R.E. Nixon. He was about 13 years old.

Later, while serving at Fort Chagaramus in Port of Spain, Trinidad, the staff sergeant’s surname was spelled Nixion. All of the world’s nationalities spelled it differently. The various spellings of every surname occurred each decade of the federal census report periods. The census Soundex was created for the 1900 census. Researchers, for the first time, heard and accepted the inconsistence of spellings. Invariably, the names were given phonetic credibility.

Once King James the First, of England, assembled 14 appointees to translate our Bible from the Spanish, we now understand that there was language arts nuance. In one instance a “red” sun does not mean the color red. The “e” in the Spanish language is pronounced as long “a” in English. Therefore, “red” is actually “rayed” sun. What? Astronomy in the Bible? Uniquely so, in placing the puzzle pieces together, there will be surprises. Don’t ever get discouraged by all the circumstances that you find on the family tree. Find a reasonable and suitable explanation for all of family life and history.

The camera was not an invention found in America until 1851. The three known photographs of slaves that exist were made by Harvard. That was an event in Columbia, S. C.! Harvard’s camera was said to have been the only one in America at that time. Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president, was the first president ever photographed.

One of my four great grandmothers, Henrietta Rebecca Macon Nixon, of Midway in Gadsden County was photographed on her wedding day wearing a finely tucked pink muslin cloth dress June 8, 1869 a mere 18 years after the Harvard’s photograph. Rev. James A. Linton performed the ceremony. A collateral cousin maybe holding clues to significant pieces of the puzzle of family history!

Jacqueline N. Cotman has written extensively in genealogy and family history. She is a member of the Afro American Historical and Genealogy Society (AAHGS) and a board member of the forming of the St. Petersburg Chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH).

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