The Gwynn’s Island Project Reconnects the Descendants of Black Island Families to their Roots

Maria S. Montgomery & Allison Thomas
Maria S. Montgomery & Allison Thomas

Maria Montgomery found me on Ancestry.com in 2016. Our family trees overlap because my ancestors enslaved hers. We are “linked descendants”—cousins regardless of whether we share DNA. She asked if I had any probate records that might list people my family enslaved on Gwynn’s Island in Mathews County, Virginia, a five-square-mile triangle of land in the lower Chesapeake Bay.

I sent Maria my third great-grandmother Mary T. Edwards’ Civil War diary that lists 20 enslaved people seized as contraband by the Union Navy in 1863. Maria’s great-great-grandparents, William M. Smith (“Billy”) and Dolly Jones (“Young Dolly”,) are on that list.

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Gathering African American Families’ Oral Histories – The Getting Word Project: African American Stories from Monticello – Part Three of Three

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.

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Gathering African American Families’ Oral Histories – The Getting Word Project: African American Stories from Monticello – Part Two of Three

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.

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Gathering African American Families’ Oral Histories – The Getting Word Project: African American Stories from Monticello – Part One of Three

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

Continue reading “Gathering African American Families’ Oral Histories – The Getting Word Project: African American Stories from Monticello – Part One of Three”