Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Family Histories

Sitting with our extended family on July 4th, listening to the stories about life on the Eastern Shore going back to the 1930s, I started thinking about the ways in which families preserve their history - whether through oral tradition or written records. Historians, of course, learn to layer their analyses of the past with as much documentation as possible. For example, when I was a political historian at the University of Tennessee I had to support my work with data from myriad sources: newspapers, first-person accounts, voting records, governmental records, and a selection of secondary sources. From that mass of information one would try to distill the essence of an event or period and draw appropriate conclusions.

But unless one is the scion of a prominent family for which there are voluminous records, how does the average person interpret the often spotty family history beyond the bare-bones data provided by genealogical records? Moreover, in the case of exposure to oral histories, to what extent does one accept the veracity of that information and thereafter pass it along to children and grandchildren as family gospel? Has one's family history been cleaned up, whitewashed, or sanitized for our protection, with the uglier chapters and characters air-brushed from the picture like a doctored Soviet photograph?

Sure, these are weighty questions to ponder at a family reunion. Still, I found them intriguing given some family members' genealogical bent. My mother, for example, has used her retirement to probe the genealogical records to support her membership in the DAR, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), and, more recently, the Jamestowne Society. It turns out we're lucky enough to have a fairly colorful family history that includes a panoply of Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers, Confederate politicians, slave owners, tobacco planters, and even a few eccentrics. My father's family tended to be a more staid and bookish lot, with plenty of ministers, school teachers, and carpenters filling out the ranks. (Naturally, I'm most interested in the eccentrics, since I'll doubtless fall into that category when my behavior is recalled decades from now.)

In the end, I was heartened by the brutal honesty of some of the stories told on July 4th. Most I had heard before, but I was gladdened to hear some details corroborated by other family members. All agreed, for example, that a long-deceased Uncle Lloyd was as racist as the day is long. His claim to notorious family fame was his practice of lending money to friends and family at usurious rates of interest. Over the years my father has often told the story of a day in the 1950s when his grandfather Charles and Uncle Lloyd sat on the porch chatting. Looking across a wide expanse of fields at the comfortable cottages of some African-American residents, Lloyd turned to Charles, my great-grandfather, and remarked in disgust, "Charlie, those n-----s have houses as nice as yours and mine." To my father, who has never tolerated even the merest hint of racism, this was doubtless a cautionary tale for the rest of us. Uncle Lloyd was held up as the example of how not to conduct oneself as a member of the family.

Surveying the cast of characters in our family, Uncle Lloyd seems to be the mean-spirited anomaly, if the stories are to be believed. Sure, as a southern clan wed to the land our family carries the baggage of slavery and racism. It would be unrealistic to suggest otherwise. But given the liberal outlook of much of the family today, I'd like to believe that we've at least learned from that experience and evolved in our outlook. That's certainly the legacy I'm going to try and pass on to my sons.

(Photo info: The first photo shows a group of children in the village of Justisville, VA, circa 1935. My father, age 5, is in the front row, far left. The second photo is my mother at 16, taken in 1951. Photo #3 is me in my father's lap, with my grandfather and grandmother flanking us. This was taken about 1968, when I was 4. The final photo shows my grandmother and grandfather with my father, left, his older brother, center, and younger brother, right. Probably taken around 1938. )

1 comment:

One Wink at a Time said...

You are so lucky to know so much of your family history, good and bad. Unfortunately, I became ravenous to know mine at a point in time when there were too few family members left to give me much information. It's an ache that I've had to accept, but hope that my kids develop that "need to know" before it's too late for them.
I applaud your mother's efforts to amass the information she has. It's an admirable task that will hopefully be much appreciated by future generations. And OMG Brian, you look just like her. Not at all in your blog photo, though.
Uncle Lloyd, excuse my frankness, musta been a real SOB ;-)