To be able to piece together the fragments and reconstruct family history, it’s important to be able to write a narrative for various time periods. To write a narrative, the family historian and researchers must collaborate by sharing oral histories; facts, such as, historical data and biographies; and genetic DNA data.
Most of my narratives come from childhood conversations with my mother and my paternal grandfather, Sandy Robinson, or Zan, as he is affectionately known. However, I have memories of past conversations that I overheard by tentatively listening to grown folk business. Sometimes I find a quiet place where I can recall conversations with Granddaddy and other elders. These memories become the basis of my research. The following story is an example of a reoccurring memory that continues to guide my research. It’s what we genealogists call a brick wall.
An older man at church recently told me that he discovered that I was related to some of his neighbors in the Clay Hill Community (1). He was amused about their description of me as a child. They told him how I use to love to sit and listen to older people talk, and they would shoo me outside to play with the other children. However, I would sneak back inside and hide underneath a table so that I could continue to listen to their conversation. That is so true! I was three years old to maybe five during this time. Yes, young, but these were my under the table days. As I grew older, I would find a quiet corner with a book and pretend to be reading. The elders were so interesting! I didn’t want to play. I wanted to hear what they were talking about, and I’ve used so much of what I heard from these conversation as a genealogist.
When I was about five, I overheard them talking about family members who had moved to Gary, Indiana. There was excitement in their voices. These family members were going to join some other kinfolk who had already moved and were making a good living working in the coal mines (2). They were excited because these relatives had experienced hardship since their move from Alabama to the northern cites. Later, I recalled them talking about their Jackson cousins who had children who were making it in the music business. Sitting on the floor at Granddaddy’s feet, listening to the radio, I learned that the group’s name was the Jackson Five. Granddaddy told me that one of them was about my age. Of course, I was more than a little surprised but thrilled to know that I was related to this group of talented young people. It turned out that the little boy was Michael.
I decided to ask my dad if this was true whenever he visited us for the weekend. I knew that these exciting people couldn’t be related to us. I just knew that Granddaddy had it wrong. We couldn’t be related to famous people, but I really wished for it to be so. Granddaddy was always telling me stories about famous people who were suppose to be our cousins, like a blind boy by the name of Ray Charles Robinson. At the time, I didn’t know anything about Ray Charles until Granddaddy told me that there was trouble in the family. That’s what he would say when someone died or something bad happened. One time the trouble was the boy went blind. Another time the trouble was that one of the children drowned.
When I asked some of the elders about some of Granddaddy’s accounts, they would dismiss his stories as though they were fictional. Therefore, I wouldn’t pay much attention to him even though I always tucked his talks with me away in my private memory box. I didn’t understand that Granddaddy knew what he was talking about until I saw the movie! Still skeptical, I kept this in my memory box.
Getting back to the Jackson family. When Daddy came, I asked him about the Jackson Five. To my surprise, he said, “Yes, they are.” What?! How? He told me, but until this day, I can’t remember. I thought it might be because of Aunt Mary who had married a Jackson, but through my research, I’ve learned that that’s not the connection. However, it’s possible that there is a double relationship through her husband. I think the reason that I can’t remember is because of what he said next. He said, “They are even more kin to Eric and Lisa. Eric and Lisa were my childhood friends just as the rest of my cousins were who were closer to my age. I was shocked! What? How can that be possible? Eric and Lisa are the children of my daddy’s sister, Rito (3). Curious, I tucked that piece of information away in my memory box.
The genetic genealogist’s dream is to have oral history proven to be factual. If this Jackson brick wall can tumble based upon oral history lining up with genetics, let it be so!
To bring down this brick wall, I’m using a combination of oral history and genetic genealogy. Questions that need to be answered –
1) Are we related to any of the surnames connected to the Jackson Five, including the name, Jackson? This requires researching their paternal and maternal lines.
2) Could Aunt Rito’s children be a closer match based upon a paternal line rather than their maternal line? This requires researching their paternal line.
3) Who are the relatives who moved during each time period? This requires researching census data, interviewing the elders who discussed this with the gentleman from church, and writing a period narrative based upon this information
4) How can DNA test results be used to aid in answering these questions? This requires DNA test results of family members.
I will reveal initial results on the next blog of My Quest for Family.
- Clay Hill is a community on the Clarke and Marengo County lines. Although it has a Marengo County zipcode, it is within the Thomasville, Alabama area code. It’s listed as Pineville on U.S. Census records. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clay_Hill,_Alabama, https://alabama.hometownlocator.com/al/marengo/clayhill.cfm
- Many people moved during the Great Migration to cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh. The Boll weevil epidemic also caused large numbers of African Americans to migrate from Alabama. Read more here: Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh
- Various spellings include Reto and Rhetta. Names spellings are significant as they often point to a familial name practice.