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AfriGeneas Free Persons of Color Forum

Re: Why Oral History Does Matter

Hi Louis. You are probably correct in the sense that I have become quite cynical about oral history after finding so many false stories in my own family and others.

I still follow every lead given to me by an ancestor when researching the facts and actively seek this information, but I insist on checking everthing out and only believe what is proven. I once spent 16 hours at the New York Public Library finding out that my grandfather's story of serving with the Rough Riders was meant for our entertainment. His stories were our entertainment before we had T.V.

As genealogists we make up a very small portion of the world that is interested in knowing what actually happened in particular families. (If we did not know this before we started our reserach, we sure find out when we send the genealogies we have worked so hard at to our relatives, only to find that no one actually reads them).

Historians study oral history, and some colleges offer courses in the subject. Historian David P. Thelen in "Memory and American History" explains that oral history tells us more about the period of history that the narrator has passed through than what actually happened: "the important question is not how accurately a recollection fitted some piece of past reality, but why historical actors constructed these memories in a particular way at a particular time."

When researching African American history, we have to take into account the fact that many elderly ancestors lived through Jim Crow. My wife's ancestors in Northampton County, N.C., had a hard time believing that it had a free African American community that made up about 10% of the free population from 1800 to 1810 and had better relationships with whites than they had during nearly all of the twentieth century.

And during the Jim Crow Period, people in the Southeast as well as historians erased from their memories and our history that many of these families that were free in 1800 descend from the over 1,000 mixed-race children born to white women during the colonial period in Maryland and Virginia.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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