Badass Researchers

….otherwise known as nerdy genealogists who like small airless rooms filled with dust and ancient ledgers and cemeteries….LOTS and LOTS of cemeteries.

One of the true joys of being a researcher/genealogist (besides being badass and finding badass people) is road tripping. Once online research is exhausted it is often necessary to travel onsite to document repositories.   Having a goal, a cooler full of snacks and a reservation at a local B&B makes the world a happier place.  Joy is found in the hunt. My sidekick, Jenny, is an invaluable resource and motivator. She knows North and South by holding her finger up to the wind. She doesn’t like to trespass and is just learning to step outside her comfort zone.  She says “we’re gonna go to jail” a LOT. Most of the time she is a chicken! But, Jenny is my secret weapon. Everyone (even her ex-husbands new wife) loves her. She can sweet talk anyone. And as previously mentioned, she has an uncanny sense of direction. We NEVER get lost. When I get tired or disheartened she makes me keep going, makes me stay focused. One time in Memphis we spent HOURS at the library going through microfilm and couldn’t find the obit we needed. We got to the last reel and I had lost hope. I stood up and said “I’m done, It’s not here and I’m tired.” She jerked me back down into my chair by my pants and said “You have one more, we’re not leaving until we are done.” (imagine that littered with a few very bad words!) AND the darn obit was there! We squealed and high fived and hugged! She notices things I don’t. We divide and conquer when necessary and otherwise work together perfectly to achieve our research goals. 

So early one Friday morning we hopped in Jenny’s car and off to Holly Springs we went. It’s a little over three hours from our home town to Holly Springs, MS. Our goals were seemingly simple. 

  1. Go to Marshall County Court House and find marriage records and land deed records for both Josie and her parents. I knew for certain that both Josie and her mother, Eliza, owned land in Holly Springs on Institution St. in 1900 and according the U.S. census, Eliza still owned her land in 1910. 
  2. Look through college catalogs at Rust University. George was a professor and Josie attended. 
  3. Find an obituary for George Wells and Berry English.
  4. Walk the streets Josie walked. 

I did a little recon work before we left and was put in touch with a local historian named Bobby Mitchell who was indeed VERY knowledgeable. An overall historian, who knew the streets, cemeteries, houses and citizens of Holly Springs. Unfortunately Josie’s family had escaped the eye of everyone. At the Court House we needed land deeds and marriage records. The marriage records were, unfortunately, out for rebinding. (Who knew that was even a thing?)So, Jenny, Bobby, Mark (County Court Clerk) and myself poured through deeds and found two instances of Eliza and Berry English buying and selling land, but no other documents. We walked through a local cemetery hoping to find gravesites for the English family, with no luck. Bobby was so helpful I told him lunch was on me and he should pick out a local spot. He said follow me. So we had hamburgers and fries at a local dive in square paper bowls.  It tasted like adventure. 

The deeds we found didn’t have addresses, but we did know names and the road Josie lived on. It was a cold winter day, but Mississippi cold, not Ohio cold. So I decided to walk the streets. I didn’t think I would find anything. I wasn’t particularly looking for anything. I just wanted to share an experience with Josie. So I walked along paths she most assuredly did. I looked up in a yard I was passing and saw an old sign, shoved off to the side. I could only see “Norfl…” so I walked up into the yard and read the sign more clearly…”Norfleet House.” The Norfleets were the family Berry and Eliza purchased land from. That sign was complete luck. It was like the first time at the cemetery finding Josie’s grave. I found exactly what I needed, as if I was being guided.

Before heading home, Jenny and I went to the library at Rust. I had written to the librarian/archivist multiple times with no response so I hoped popping in would yield better results. When we got to the library I explained to the librarian/clerk at the desk what I was specifically looking for and she didnt even get up from her chair. She just said “we don’t have anything like that.” Another librarian passed by and the sitting librarian had me explain what I was looking for again. She too said “Im sorry, we really can’t help you”…but added “and its not because you’re White. The archivist is off and we don’t know what is in her collection.” Shock from the statement must have showed on both mine and Jenny’s faces, because the librarian hurriedly rummaged up a couple resources for me, but nothing that turned up any information. All of this wordy story to say this: Up till that moment, I didn’t even consider their lack of helpfulness dependent upon my race. I’ve never thought “oh this person isnt helping me because I am White.” But you know what it made me realize? She HAS had those experiences. She has had bad customer service because of her race, so that was what was on her mind. I just thought they weren’t helpful because some people aren’t helpful! But after that moment I was uncomfortably aware of my race and her race the whole time I was there.

So the trip didn’t yield much new information that we didn’t have and that’s ok. Sometimes the joy isnt in finding new information. Sometimes joy is found in something as simple as walking the streets Josie walked. Seeing the same buildings that would have greeted her on her way to school. Maybe the biggest gift I received was gaining a deeper perspective for what it felt like for Josie to live a life where the color of your skin impacted how people interacted to you. Although I didn’t find out what year she graduated from college, I did have a moment to reflect on race and interaction in a different new way, outside my perspective. My respect and awe for her and her successes was nothing but strengthened. It was a moment to pause and reflect and learn. The journey along her streets brought me joy AND insight.

2 thoughts on “Badass Researchers

  1. Wow, wow, wow! That core shift in awareness from the perspective of racial difference is huge, a life changer. And that video of you walking with the commentary from Jenny, then all your excitement up close and in-your-face made me laugh out loud! I get it, very personal and moving, the timing was priceless.

    Liked by 1 person

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