(February is African American History Month. Patch will have periodic articles with a local connection to the subject. The Library of Congress web site is an excellent place to begin to broaden your gaze.)
Judith Collins has a secret. She “listens to the ancestors,” an instinct that has helped this African-American woman from San Leandro trace her lineage back eight generations, to before the abolition of slavery.
“The ancestors lead you to every avenue because they want to be remembered, they don’t want to be forgotten,” Collins said.
As African American History Month gets underway, her experience illustrates how families can unravel the stories of their pasts.
Collins, 57, said she became interested in genealogy several years ago when her daughter asked her where the family had come from.
Collins was fortunate in being able to study under Elektra Kimble Price of the African American Genealogical Society of Northern California in Oakland. With Price's continued tutelage in "retirement" Collins now teaches regular classes in the field (see below for details).
The starting point for genealogical research, Collins said, is to write down the names and birthplaces of all the ancestors you can remember. Searching records gets complex and can take years but everything begins with knowing where to look.
From roughly 1870 onward, Collins was able to look through census and county records for clues to the Collins’ origin. But before 1870, slaves were not enumerated in government records. To go back earlier in time, Collins consulted oral histories and the documented narratives of former slaves.
Through years of searching and sleuthing, Collins was able to trace the family line back to Virginia in the late 1820s and early 1830s.
It was around this time that Mary and her future husband David White were born on a plantation.
At roughly the same time and place, Columbia and her future husband John Collins were born.
The Whites produced a daughter, Elvira. The Collins had a son, Crawford.
By the Civil War both slave families had been moved by their respective slaveholders to Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, where they lived through the Emancipation and Reconstruction.
The marriage of Crawford Collins and Elvira White took place in Tallahatchie County District 1. The marriage was filed and entered in to public records as occurring on December 24, 1872. The original record still remains recorded in one of the separate binders reserved for "Colored Marriages."
Much of Collins' work involved finding and studying records, but two incidents over the course of her research convinced her of the importance of “listening to the ancestors.”
The first was when she took her first trip in 2008 to Tallahatchie County, (Charleston, MS) to see the family’s known place of origin.
Collins said she was driving along with a cousin when they passed a house. For some reason she asked the cousin to stop so she could take a picture. That turned out to be the very house where a key family member grew up – although she had no way to know that at the time.
That relative was Walter Bradford, Jr., and he turned out to be the crucial ancestor who added the context and anecdotes to what had been until then just names and the dates.
Collins said her one and only meeting with Bradford was another instance of serendipity. She had meant to visit him in 2012. But her daughter said not to wait and sent her a birthday gift in the form of a plane ticket last October.
Walter Bradford died just weeks after he regaled Collins with the stories that brought her family history to life.
“That’s what I mean about listening to the ancestors,” Collins said.
For a starting point in tracing your own ancestry, regardless of background, visit FamilySearch.org.
Judith Collins is facilitator of the African American Research Workshop which is meant to overcome the "brick walls" encountered in such studies. The workshop meets the fourth Wednesday of each month from 6-8 pm at 4766 Lincoln Avenue in Oakland. The workshop is free and preregistration is not required. For more information call 510-531-3905 or email email@example.com.
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