In December 2020, Eric Kolenich of the Richmond Times-Dispatch interviewed several descendants of President John Tyler. He was prompted to write about them and their ancestor when John Tyler Community College began to consider changing its name, and his conversations with members of the Tyler family highlight the issue of how descendants of Confederate enslavers choose to regard their ancestor.
What are the salient facts? Tyler stepped into the position of tenth president of the United States for a single term, but later betrayed his country when he was elected to the Confederate Congress in 1862. When he died shortly thereafter, he was buried with a Confederate flag draped across his coffin. Although Tyler led a country founded on the principle of human equality, he was a plantation owner whose wealth was gained from the exploitation of an enslaved workforce. His great-great-granddaughter’s recent research has discovered 46 enslaved people listed in the 1850 census. During his presidential career, Tyler stood up for his own principles and values, and vetoed much legislation. As a result he was thrown out of his political party, was the first president to have a veto overridden, and was the first president to go through an impeachment vote.
Part 3 concludes this blog series on conducting oral history research through the story of the Getting Word project. If you want to know more about the project and the historians, you can find it on the Getting Word web pages and in the books and online publications of the historians profiled in this part.
In addition, you will find a treasure trove of guidance and reflections on the “how to’s” of oral history research from these experienced researchers.
Part 2 of the Oral History post describes the kinds of impacts that oral history research can have, regardless of the circumstances of the family whose history is being woven together. The Getting Word project’s impacts and aftermaths are an interesting story, and I hope they give you ideas for what your research might inspire in your family and what else, beyond history, you might be able to create.
So many of us want to know our ancestors’ stories and find out more about where we’ve come from. DNA research has advanced our ability to find and learn about our family members to an extraordinary extent, but family stories are still a basic piece of the work. Because of my involvement in several projects associated with the enslaved and slave owning families of Monticello, I have known about the Getting Word oral history project for many years. I’ve also been able to see the all the ways that project has lasted on and extended beyond just being an oral history project.
I am fortunate to know the three historians who initiated and conducted most of the work of Getting Word, and I realized what a significant resource they are to other oral historians, especially those who might be in the early stages of interviewing family members. The three women, Ms. Gray, Ms. Stanton, and Dr. Swann-Wright, graciously agreed to give me their oral histories of working on Getting Word, and included advice and guidance for others doing the same work.
The blog post will be in three parts, over three weeks.
Part 1 – The Story of the Getting Word Oral History Project
Part 2 – The Impact and Aftermath of the Getting Word Oral History Project
Part 3 – The Researchers and Their Advice for Oral Historians
Dedicated to Susan Hutchison, Co-Founder, Coming to the Table
Written by Pam Smith and Ann Neel
Publication facilitated by Prinny Anderson
As all of us in CTTT know, honest communication between blacks and whites has historically been fraught with difficulty. We don’t share the same experiences so we don’t always speak the same language.
There are good reasons for sharing this series of poems written to each other over two decades ago by P(black) and A(white), as we were attempting to communicate honestly and fearlessly about the meaning of race in our entangled family histories. We think these poems are as relevant today as when they were written.
A few days ago, I got an email from a friend who has become a leader in the field of researching African American family histories, up to and beyond the “brick walls” of slave lists that do not give names and the unwritten records of births, deaths and marriages. This email contained a link to something published by Beacon Press in “Beacon Broadside.”
With this double endorsement, I immediately clicked through.
What I found was Sharon Morgan’s review of Alondra Nelson‘s new book, The Social Life of DNA, full of tantalizing information and pieces of Ms. Morgan’s own family research story. I learned that besides the documentary investigations she does so well online and in county courthouses, Sharon has long been researching DNA connections to her family’s roots in Africa. From Sharon’s overview of points in Ms. Nelson’s book, I learned about an exciting and compelling new application of DNA research. The Social Life of DNA includes a discussion of how DNA profiles can be applied to making successful reparations claims.
Without hesitation, I bought the book!
Read the review. Then read the book. And finally, come back here and share your comments!
What Linked Descendants Say About Making Connections Across the Divide
Reflections provided by participants of the December 2015 Coming to the Table conference call. Post co-authored by Sharon Morgan, Our Black Ancestry, and Prinny Anderson, Linked Descendants.
If you could have a conversation with a descendant of the people who owned your ancestors, or with a descendant of someone your ancestors owned, what would you want to say? What would you like to ask?
This was the starting point for a conversation when ten people recently gathered on a conference call sponsored by Coming to the Table — Bittersweet: Linked Through Slavery. The themes from what people shared on the call are presented below. Feelings – strong and uncomfortable — came up for everyone.
Part 3 – Connecting with the Descendants of the Bleak House African American Community
Part 1 narrated what happened when Alice and Jon Cannon bought Bleak House, the remnant of Bleak House Plantation, and then found a book with the names of its enslaved residents. Alice was galvanized into learning about those people and finding their descendants. Part 2 tells what she learned about them as talented, self-determining individuals, some still in Virginia, others farther afield.