Oral History

How have entire lives been so reduced?

“Written records are more reliable than oral tradition, by a disconcerting margin. You might think that each generation of children, knowing their parents as well as most children do, would listen to their detailed reminiscences and relay them to the next generation. Five generations on, a voluminous oral tradition should, one might think, have survived. I remember my four grandparents clearly, but of my eight great-grandparents I know a handful of fragmentary anecdotes. One great-grandfather habitually sang a certain nonsense rhyme (which I can sing), but only while lacing his boots. Another was greedy for cream, and would knock the chess board over when losing. A third was a country doctor. That is about my limit. How have eight entire lives been so reduced? How, when the chain of informants connecting us back to the eyewitnesses seems so short, and human conversation so rich, could all those thousands of personal details that made up the lifetimes of eight human individuals be so fast forgotten?”

— Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale


Willie Brown’s sisters and me.

A recent post in a Facebook genealogy group about a portrait offered on eBay sent members speculating and lamenting and made me think of something I wrote years ago:

Urban Provisions is the first and only little home decor and furnishings shop in my gentrifying town on the edge of Atlanta. An older black woman stopped in one day and asked Ben if this was where you could get help with your ‘lectric and gas. He said, “No, ma’am.” “Well, it say Urban,” she huffed, and stepped back out.

As Ben was telling me the story some hours later, the same woman poked her head in the door and beckoned us outside. She and her husband began pulling old family portraits out of their backseat. They were for sale. One was a framed commemorative newspaper (50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation) depicting Abraham Lincoln, Booker T. Washington, and Frederick Douglass. It was in bad shape. The best of the lot was a large, well-preserved, beautifully framed photographic portrait of two women. The husband said they were his great-grandfather’s sisters and insisted they were Siamese twins. (After some grime-wiping and hard squinting, I could see that, unless split zygotes cling shoulder blade to clavicle, this was not the case. They didn’t even look much alike.) The great-granddaddy was named Willie Brown, and he lived near Edison and Morgan in Calhoun County, Georgia.

I asked the husband what he wanted for the portrait, and he told me to name a price. After some hard internal dialectic, I named $100. He said I ought to at least give him $125. I said, “Wai’ min’te, now,” and he caved. “I got to pay bills,” he explained, and I rode my bike up to the bank to get his money. I told Willie Brown’s great-grandson if he ever wanted to get his people back to stop by the store and let Ben know. The wife said, with finality, “We ain’t gon wont ’em.” She had other pictures to hang now that these were out of the way.

I collect photographic portraits of black people. The older, the better; I go for those in original frames with original glass. I have paid a lot for some and a little for others. I know the provenance of a few, but most have entered posterity in forlorn anonymity. One hundred years after the photographers bulb burst in their stoic faces, these stiff brides and babies and black-suited gentlemen regard me in tight-mouthed silence. Had they already bitterly foreseen their eternity in a stranger’s dining room? I am guiltily aware of my lack of kinship with these ghosts.

How does this happen? How do such prizes manage to break loose and drift away from their moorings in some proud, hardworking, veil-lifted family? I do know, of course, for I’m the one hoarding my family’s remaining sepia-toned snapshots — none as grand as the Brown twins — protecting them from indifference or disdain or desperation. For some, family exists only three-dimensionally, in the here and now. Sentimentality may be unaffordable. Maybe I tether these unknowns, give them a nice, black, ancestor-worshiping home, to make it up to my own, whose frames warped irremediably on back porches, their fragile, charcoaled images rotting in country sheds or shredded in the buck teeth of cellar rats. Are any of my people hanging dusty in the dimness of some junk dealer’s lair, pawned for baby’s shoes?


The “Siamese twins.”

Agriculture, Business, Free People of Color, Newspaper Articles, North Carolina, Paternal Kin

Tax trouble.


Goldsboro Messenger, 2 April 1877.

Simmons & Aldridge??? I’m fairly certain that the Aldridge in this partnership was Robert Aldridge (though it could have been one of his older sons, George, Matthew and John) but which Simmons? Section 69 imposed penalties on “any manufacturer of tobacco or snuff” who failed to pay proper taxes on their products. Robert was said to have operated a brickyard near Dudley, but I’ve seen nothing else to suggest that he also had an interest in a tobacco cottage industry.

Education, North Carolina, Paternal Kin

Signature Saturday, no. 2: Lewis Henderson’s progeny.

Lewis and Margaret Henderson were surely unlettered, and I suspect that most of their children were, too. I have only been able to find handwriting samples for two.

Caswell C. Henderson was the most worldly of the siblings, having migrated to New York City in his mid 20s, engaged in local politics, and secured a patronage job at the United Customs House while in his 30s. From his 1893 marriage certificate to Emma D. Bentley:

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And from a letter he wrote in 1926 to his sister Sarah:

Screen Shot 2014-12-05 at 5.28.33 PMSarah Henderson Jacobs Silver was also literate, though her handwriting and grammar reveal the limits of her schooling. This signature appeared on the marriage license of her niece, Minnie Simmons Budd.

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Most families grow exponentially, but Lewis and Mag’s descendants underwent a bit of a bottleneck in the third generation. Of their nine children, only two — Ann Elizabeth and Loudie — had children that survived to adulthood. Those two produced five children (barely, as one died at age 19) who reached majority. Of the five, I have only found the signature of one. Jesse “Jack” Henderson, Loudie’s son, affixed his name to his Social Security application in 1936:

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Agriculture, Business, Free People of Color, Land, North Carolina, Paternal Kin

I stated the fact.

The fourth in an occasional series excerpting testimony from the transcript of the trial in J.F. Coley v. Tom Artis, Wayne County Superior Court, November 1908. Paragraph breaks inserted for better readability.

Plaintiff introduces John Rountree who being duly sworn, testifies as follows:

I know Tom Artis. I heard him say that the cotton was for rents. I heard that for the last 14 years. I collected the rent for W.S. Hagans for several years. I heard Tom alude to it as rents. I heard last September after the land was sold, that it was interest. I never heard anything but rents to that time. I had a conversation with Tom, and carried a message to Hagans for Tom. This last Fall Tom came over to the gin house where I was ginning, and said to me that he understood that Hagans was going to sell the 30 acres piece of land, and said to me to tell Hagans if he pleased not to sell till he gave him notice, because he wanted to buy it. I delivered that mesage to Hagans. Hagans said alright he would sell it to him as soon as anybody, but he didn’t want to sell one piece at the time. We didn’t talk about the sale to Coley.


I have lived at W.S. Hagans’ for about 18 years. I farm at Hagans’. I rent land. I pay him 1/3. I collected Tom’s rent along in the Fall. Hagans has asked me to go to Tom and ask him to send his rents. Uncle Tom sometime would bring the rent and Hagans wasn’t there, and he would give it to me to keep for Hagans. Tom called it rent when Pole Hagans was living. (Plaintiff objects.) I wasn’t there when he sent it to W.J. Exum. While Mr. Exum was living, I didn’t see Tom taking his cotton there. I didn’t tell Hgans that I would swear the old man always called it rent. I had no right to, I didn’t tell the lawyers I would swear to that. I stated the fact that he always called it rent. I told Tom that Hagans had sent me for the rent two or three times. I knew it was rent. I told Hagans that I had his rent from Tom. I told Coley that the old man called it rent last summer. They had me subpoenad before then. I told him Tom always called it rent. I told Mr. Coley’s lawyers that last summer. I never told Hagans, he knew it.

Births Deaths Marriages, North Carolina, Other Documents, Paternal Kin

Misinformation Monday, no. 9: the census edition.

Census records are the gateway to genealogical research for most people, and I am no exception. I can still remember hunkering over a microfilm reader in a dark corner of Davis Library in Chapel Hill, gaping at my great-great-great-grandparents’ names revealed in crabbed script in the 1910 federal population schedule. Like so many others, I squirmed impatiently for the release of the 1930 and 1940 censuses, anxious to determine what whos and wheres could be answered by the fresh infusion of data. As much as I have relied upon census data, however, I am acutely conscious of its limits. The census schedules are imperfect documents that qualify only barely as a primary resource. This is not to discount their usefulness for genealogical purposes. I’m just saying that — based as they are on a mishmash of personal knowledge, second-hand information, hearsay and rank speculation — they don’t prove much of anything about a person’s name, age, ethnicity, relationships, or occupation.

Here’s an example, courtesy of the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County, North Carolina:

1920 real

A husband and wife with two daughters, no? If you didn’t have reason to know better, you might accept this at face value. “Hattie May” happens to be my paternal grandmother, however, so I do know better. (She was Hattie Mae, by the way.) Let’s take each person one-by-one:

“Jessie Jacobs” was Jesse A. Jacobs Jr. He was actually born in 1856, so was 63 or 64 years old, not 60, when the census taker stopped by. He is described as “B,” which is a designation he never would have provided. I am fairly certain that his wife gave information for the household, and I am equally certain that she described everyone in it as “colored.” Jesse himself might have offered “Croatan,” as the multi-racial, ethnically Native American members of the Coharie tribe were then called.

“Sara Jacobs” was Sarah Henderson Jacobs. She was, indeed, Jesse’s wife. She was born in 1872, so her age is a little off, too. She was 47 or 48, not 42.

Mamie Jacobs” was born in 1907, so her age is basically correct. She was not, however, the daughter of either Jesse or Sarah Jacobs. Nor was she a Jacobs. She was the daughter of Bessie Henderson, who was the niece of Sarah H. Jacobs. In other words, Sarah was her great-aunt. Her mother died when she was three, and she was reared for her first eight years by her great-grandparents, Lewis and Margaret Balkcum Henderson. See:

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Here, in the 1910 census of Brogden township, Wayne County, North Carolina, is a correctly described family unit. (This, by the way, is the census entry that dropped my jaw so many years ago and got me hooked.) My great-great-great-grandfather Lewis Henderson, great-great-great-grandmother Margaret, great-grandmother Bessie, and great-aunt Mamie. (Bessie was more than seven months pregnant with my grandmother when the census taker showed up on April 18. And look at how many children Margaret had lost. Only three of nine surviving. It breaks your heart.)

Back to 1920: “Hattie May Jacobs” was born in 1910, so her age is basically correct, too. She spent her first eight months or so in her great-grandparents house, but when Bessie died in the late winter of 1911, Sarah and Jesse Jacobs took her to Wilson to live with them. Mamie remained in Wayne County until her great-grandparents died, then she, too, went to Wilson. She and Hattie were known as Jacobses as a result, and for years my grandmother believed she had been formally adopted. Well into adulthood, when she learned that she had not, she reverted to her birth mother’s surname, Henderson.

Fast forward twenty years to the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County. Have things gotten better?

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No. Sarah Jacobs was 58 years old, not 49. That was likely deliberate deception. Hattie, of course, was her great-niece, but their relationship was essentially mother-daughter and undoubtedly so reported to the census taker. Their occupations are not shown here, but Sarah was described as a laundress “at home” and my grandmother as a servant for a private family. The former accords with what I was told about Sarah’s work, but I have never heard that my grandmother worked as a maid. Most curious, however, is not what’s in this entry, but what is not. Namely, my two uncles. They were three and one in 1930, and I’ve found them listed nowhere else in the census either. A deliberate omission? A mistranscription? I don’t know, but it’s another stark example of the unreliability of census records.

So, three consecutive census schedules for one family and only the first reasonably accurate. As I’ll demonstrate in coming weeks, this was not the exception. Caveat emptor.

Education, Other Documents, Paternal Kin

Signature Saturday, no. 1: Adam Artis’ children.

Adam T. Artis was illiterate. Though a smart and successful man, he executed contracts with a shaky X and probably conducted much of his business on the basis of verbal agreements. Here, his mark on a receipt for goods purchased from him by the Confederate government in 1863:

Adam Artis mark

There’s little evidence to show whether Adam’s wives could read and write, but it seems doubtful that the first three or four could. His granddaughter Pauline Artis Harris told me that education was important to him, however, and he hired a teacher to live on his farm and school his children. His efforts bore fruit. Below, the signatures of eight of Adam’s 26 or so children.

The signature of the oldest son, Cain Artis (1853-1917):

Cain Artis Sig

The signature of Louvicey Artis Aldridge (1865-1927) on the final account of her husband’s estate:

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It is, perhaps not surprisingly, the shakiest of the bunch. Vicey was among Adam’s earlier children and likely came along before her father’s resources allowed for tutors. She was also a girl.

From the World War I draft registration card of Walter Scott Artis (1874-1951):

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From the World War I draft registration card of William Marshall Artis (1875-1945):

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From the World War I draft registration care of Jesse Artis (1878-1922):

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Jesse used the alternate spelling “Artice,” which was rarely adopted by members of this family. Notice that somewhere between William and Jesse’s early schooling, cursive capital A’s shifted in style from a form very similar to a printed “A” to one like an oversized small “a.”

From the World War I draft registration card of Robert Elder Artis (1883-1934):

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From the World War I draft registration of Columbus Estell Artis (1886-1973):

CE ARtis Sig

C.E.’s signature is interesting. This round, upright script, from 1917, is a relatively early version. Later, over the course of the hundreds of death certificates he signed as an undertaker, he developed a bold, right-leaning, immediately identifiable signature characterized by a bold slash through the “r” in Artis:

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From the World War I draft registration card of June Scott Artis (1889-1973):

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Though his letters are well-formed and decisive, the missing “S” in Scott suggests a man who signed his name from memory and did not write much.

From World War I draft registration card of Henry J.B. Artis (1892-1973):

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From the Social Security application of Alphonso Pinkney Artis (1903-1976):

[I’ve got this somewhere. I just need to find it.]

Agriculture, Free People of Color, Land, North Carolina, Other Documents, Paternal Kin

I never heard anything but “rent.”

The third in an occasional series excerpting testimony from the transcript of the trial in J.F. Coley v. Tom Artis, Wayne County Superior Court, November 1908. Paragraph breaks inserted for better readability.

Plaintiff introduces Jonah Reid who being duly sworn, testifies as follows:

I have heard Tom Artis say that he was going soon to pay his rent with cotton to [William S.] Hagans. I don’t know how often I have heard him speak of that, I have heard him say something about it several times when rent was due. I didn’t hear him say what lands. Some times he was cultivating the three pieces, sometimes the 30 acre piece. I am his son-in-law. I never lived with him. Live back of his house. Never heard him call it anything but rent cotton, not interest cotton. (Defendant objects.)


I told Hagans that I heard the old man say he was going to pay his rent, that was along in September, I think this past September. The only reason I told him was he asked me. He came by where I was working on the road. He asked me how long I had been in the family. I told him 16 years. He asked if I had ever heard anything but rent. I told him no. That’s why I told him. That’s all he asked me. Tom worked the three pieces, then afterwards the 30 acre piece. That’s all I remember Hagans said. I didn’t know there had been a suit about the land. Hadn’t had the suit yet. I said I didn’t like to say anything about my father-in-law. Hagans didn’t tell me that he Artis was claiming that he was paying interest. I just answered what he asked me. I told him I had never heard any thing but “Rents”.


Jonah Reid was married to Magnolia Artis (1871-1939), daughter of Thomas and Loumiza Artis Artis. Loumiza Artis was a sister of my great-great-great-grandfather Adam T. Artis. One of Adam Artis’ wives, Frances Seaberry, was William Hagans’ paternal aunt.