I grew up in North Philadelphia with my mother and five siblings. I am the youngest out of the six. As a young child, I knew from television and school that it was considered 'normal' to have two parents in the home. It never bothered me that my household wasn't structured that way and I never asked why. My mother held it down and my needs were always met. My mother took care of hardheaded kids, who really didn't like being related to one another. She worked and graduated from college as a teacher with determination. It was always important to my mother that we were all in school, got along with each other, dressed neat, did our chores, stayed out of trouble and to not have anybody call her job at anytime about her kids. I feel bad now knowing we worked her last nerves. My mother tried so hard to instill in her children the importance of family, that by sticking together as a team, we could all make it. I grew to understand that sticking together meant a lot of things: having rent parties, dinner parties, helping to bail somebody out of jail and weekend card games. My family had a lot of card games with the goals in every adult's minds to beat each other out of their money. While my family played cards the children always had the run of the house except for the room they were playing cards in. Card games and funerals are where I got to see most of my family.
When I was about ten years old, I started to ask my mother about her side of the family. I spent a lot of time with my cousins at family card games but didn't actually know how we were all related. One weekend, my oldest brother Ronnie came by to pick up my mom and I in his long, shiny, green Buick for a trip down to my cousin Terry's house for a family party. As I sat in the back seat, looking out the window and listening to my mother and brother mumbling about who was going to be at the party, I decided to interrupt their conversation. "Hey mom?" I blurted out. "Who is my cousin Terry to you?" "What?", my mother said. I repeated the question because I thought she didn't hear me. "I heard what you said the first time. He's family", my mother said. "What kind of family?", I asked. My mother and brother looked at each other then my mother turned around in her seat to look back at me and said, "Why do you want to know that?”. "Well, we learned a lot about this lady and her family in school today and I want to know about our family", I said. "You ask a lot of questions to be such a little girl", my mom said with a smile. "Terry is my sister's son, we will talk about it another time", my mom said. She turned back around in her seat. We never did talk about it again that day but it fueled my thoughts on how many sisters did my mother have.
History was my favorite subject when I was in elementary school. The more I learned about the heroic and strong people in my lesson books, the more I wanted to know about my own family. My mother was our family’s primary source of strength, which was also true to a lot of other people but it seemed like know one, was ever there for her. I often wondered, where did my mother get all of that strength from? Was it something that she was born with or did someone teach her how to be strong?
One winter morning, I laid in bed unable to sleep. The sound from the wind blowing like a wolf outside the window of our third floor apartment made me feel a little uneasy. It seemed as though every time the wind blew, the room I shared with my sister Niecy, filled up with cold air. It had snowed for two straight days so I was anxious to be the first one up and out into the fresh piles of snow, regardless of how the wind was howling. Outside our room, I could hear my mother getting dressed for work. I remember wishing that my mother wasn't going out there in all that snow, along with the howling wind. I heard her footsteps descending the stairs then the sound of the front door opening before being closed again. I grabbed my blanket and quietly slipped out of bed. I tip toed down the steps and climbed up on the ledge of the window in the front room. I wanted to be there for my mother in some way as she stood, alone, on the corner waiting for the bus to come. "Missing work is not an option" is what my mother would alway say to her kids. I wrapped my blanket around me to ward off the chill that was creeping through the window as I kept my eyes on my mother. She was constantly readjusting her hat and scarf in an attempt to warm her face, while repeatedly stepping back and forth to the edge of the curb to see if the bus was coming. She has to possess some sort of super human strength to withstand the bitter cold and not be afraid to stand out there alone in the dark. My mother spotted me in the window and motioned for me to get down. I reluctantly did as I was instructed and climbed down out the window then went back up the stairs to bed.
By the time I reached high school, African-American history was a mandatory class for freshmens, which was fine by me as it inspired further interest in my own family history. At one point in the class, we were assigned a family tree project. As I looked over the assignment that the teacher had given out, I realized that there were a lot of questions that I couldn't answer about my family. I raised my hand to ask my teacher what was probably the dumbest question I had ever asked in school: Where am I supposed to get this information?". My classmates giggled before the teacher responded. "You have to go home and ask your family, Sharon", my teacher said. I was so embarrassed. Later as I walked home from school, I thought about the questions I had to answered about my family tree. What is your grandparents and great grandparents name? Where was your mother born? What do your father do for a living? Name the family members that served in the war. I was worried I wouldn't be able to complete the project because trying to talk to my mother about her family was like pulling teeth.
I had a few months to work on both the project and my mother. I figured out long ago that the best time to coax my mother into talking about her past was to do it during the holidays. Christmas was right around the corner so I knew I had a window of opportunity. It's something about the holidays that will get people in the mood to talk about the old days. So on Christmas Eve I stayed up late to help my mother prepare for Christmas dinner, we were expecting a lot of family and I knew she needed the extra hands. "Hey Mom, do you need some help?” I asked, as I walked into the kitchen. She acknowledged that she did before telling me to help her chop cheese. I grabbed a bowl from the kitchen cabinet, a knife from the drawer, and a block of cheese from the refrigerator and sat down at the kitchen table with her. We both sat there for a few minutes chopping cheese into small cubes without saying anything to each other and then I blurted out. "Hey Mom? What were you like when you were a teenager?" My mom stopped chopping the cheese in mid chop. She looked down at the cheese then back up at me. She seemed a little irritated but I think the holiday music coming from the hi-fi in the living room seemed to relax her a little. "I used to sneak out of our back window to go to parties. We lived on the first floor, so it was an easy climb", my mother giggled as she confessed. "Did you ever get caught?" I asked. "If I had, I wouldn't be here sharing this story with you. Your grandmother was very very strict and if she found out that I was partying, let alone sneaking out of the house she would had whipped me with a switch naked, then waited for my wounds to heal then whipped me again", my mother said. I started to shiver at the thought of it all. I could feel mother looking me up and down as I sat their shivering in my chair. "You cold baby girl?", my mother asked me. "I'm okay", I answered. "Mmmm", I heard my mother whisper underneath her breath. "You know I work long hours just like your grandmother use to do and if I ever found out that you or your siblings ever sneaked out of the house, well you know how the rest of the story ends don't you?", my mother asked me. I swallowed deeply. "Yes ma'am", I answered. I silently vowed to myself that I would never sneak out of the house ever again because having this conversation with my mother assured me that I would regret it.
My grandmother Jennie Bronson-Dorsey. (Photo courtesy of Margaret Dorsey-Cotton)
"Tell me some more stories about your family", I asked my mother. "Why do you keep asking about people that aren't here anymore child, what good is going to do for you to know?”, my mother said. I took in a deep breath because I knew I was treading on thin ice with all the questions. So I just went for it and said, "I really feel like an orphan in my own family compared to all the people that I learn about in school. I know more about Dr. Martin Luther King and Fredrick Douglass than I do my own grandfather. Honestly mom, I don't think it's fair. I have a school project to do on our family tree and there's a lot questions that I don't have answers too and I don't want to have to stand in front of my class and tell them I don't know anything about my own family, that's embarrassing." I knew I was being sassy with my mouth but I didn't care, I took the chance to express how much it meant for me to learn about my own family history. My mother looked at me for a good minute with out blinking which made me a little nervous. I believe she knew I was taking the opportunity to use my school project to learn more about her family that she didn't like to talk about.
"Those people that you're learning about in school, miss fresh mouth, fought and died for our civil rights. They're important to learn about", my mother said in a stern voice. "I understand mom, but I want to know about our family, they were important too. Who were the family members that fought and died for our bloodline? What was your mother like?”, I asked. My mother took in a deep breath at those questions, looked me straight in the eyes and said. "I don't know of any family members that fought and died for our bloodline but your grandmother's name was Jennie Bronson. She didn't take know mess from nobody. She was a tall mean woman; she practically towered over my daddy." My mother paused for a second, I thought she was going to tell me that she had enough of all the questions but she didn't. "My mother liked to drink beer and party and that bothered me. I guess that's why she didn't want her kids to go to parties. At some point in her life though, my mother got it together and became a nurse", my mom said. "Oh wow! It's really amazing to know that my grandmother quick her parting ways to become a nurse. I know you had to be proud of your mother", I chimed in. "I was proud of her", my mother said with a smile. "I also think it's really awesome that you and your mothers name were similar", I exclaimed. “Yeah, I guess so, my name is Jeannette and her name was Jennie", my mom said. "Where did your mother get the name Jennie from?”, I asked. "I'm not sure but I think it was from one of her aunts," my mother said. "How many brothers and sisters did your mother have?", I asked. "I'm not sure because my mother didn't talk much about her family, but my mother and father had three girls. We were all born in Philly. My oldest sister Edna which was your cousin Terry’s mother, was born in 1930, my middle sister Margaret was born in 1934 and and I was born in 1935," my mother said.
As I watched my mother talk about her family while chopping cheese at the same time, I could see the sadness building up in her eyes. "We weren't born with know silver spoons in our mouths. The 'Great Depression’ had ended before we were all born but it always felt like the 'Great Depression' was part of our lives. The struggle was real baby girl. My dad was never around and my mother was always working and food was barely on the table", my mother said. "Tell me something about my grandfather then, mom, what was he like, and why wasn't he around?” My mother looked me straight in the eyes, her facial expression reeking of despair as the thought of telling me what she knew but it clearly overshadowed the fact that it was only right for me to know since I was always asking about our family. My mother 's voice softened as she told me that my grandfather's name was Edward Dorsey, that he was a short thin man, who worked odd jobs in the neighborhood. "I am not sure but I think my dad stayed away from us because my mom liked to drink", my mother said with the saddest look on her face that I had ever seen. "Where was your dad from and what ever happened to him?", I asked curiously. My mother paused for a second, as though she was looking for the right words to say. "My father was from Maryland, he was the only child of his adoptive parents, (I gasped quietly at the thought of my grandfather being adopted) he served in the military, I'm not sure what branch. By the time you were one year old, both my mother, father and my eldest sister Edna had died. My oldest sister died during childbirth and left behind six children. The childrens father Richard Sommerville, my sister Margaret and I did our best to help take care of my sisters children until they were grown. Those days were extremely hard", my mother said. I could see that talking about the past was wearing on my mother and I didn't want her to be weary during Christmas so I changed the conversation to who was all coming to Christmas dinner. I had just enough family information to complete my family tree project.
From left to right. My aunt Edna, my aunt Margaret and my mother Jeannette. (Photo courtesy of Margaret Dorsey-Cotton)
In 2002, twenty-one years after my mother and I had a short history lesson on Christmas Eve about our family roots, my family still seemed unknown to me. I felt it was time for me to dig up my roots. I now had two children of my own. My goal was to go as far back as I could in hopes that I would discover the woman who bared the children and held down the household. I spent over a year trying to figure out what direction to go in to find my family roots. It was very frustrating not knowing how. One day I took the train into the city where the main library is located. I needed help on finding books on how to research African American roots. I spent the most part of the day in the African American section trying to figure out what would be the best book to read. After finding a few books I toted the heavy load I borrowed on the train back to my house, I was exhausted. When I got to my front steps, I laid my heavy load of books beside me and sat down on the bottom steps.
My next door neighbor Ms. Raina happened to be walking up from work. She sat down next to me. She shared with me about her day and how tired she was from her long commute home from work. I couldn't help but to share with her my frustration with not knowing what direction I needed to take to find my family roots. "I have been researching my family for over twenty years”, Ms. Raina revealed. At her admission, I turned my head so quickly that I got an instant cramp in my neck. "You did what?" I asked her. “I've spent most of my life researching my mother’s line as well as my father’s side of the family. When you get a chance later, come over to my house and I’ll show you some of the records and pictures I have been collecting throughout the years,” she offered. I excitedly agreed to go over to her home later. We talked for a little while and then we gathered our things before going back to our respective houses.
Ms. Raina Sieble and I sitting on my front steps in 2004. (Photo by Sharon N. Calvin Jr.)
A few hours later, I went and knocked on Ms. Raina’s big wooden door. She welcomed me in and I couldn't help but to immediately notice the various piles of papers stacked neatly near the computer in her dining room. She pulled up a chair next to hers at the computer and we sat down. She pulled out an old photograph and handed it to me. Although I didn't know anything about the people in the photograph, I was immediately drawn to the history behind who the people were. "Who are these people?" I asked Ms. Raina. "Well, the people in this photo are my great aunts and this photo are my grandparents", she said. As Ms. Raina continued to pull out more pictures of her family, I was amazed that she still managed to hold onto all those old pictures.
Feeling a little bit of envy, I told Ms. Raina I only seen a picture of my grandmother on my mother's side once but that was as much as I had seen in terms of old photos. As much as I wished I could see pictures of my ancestors, I knew there was little to know chance that this would be possible, as my family really didn't share pictures, talk about neither the past nor the people who lived in it. Ms. Raina shared with me her ancestor’s death certificates, marriage licenses, wills, census records, ship manifest records and birth records. I was overwhelmed with all that she had sought out and found on her own. "You have to show me how to find records like these for my family?" I asked Ms. Raina. "I won't just show you, I can teach you", she said. “You've got a deal", I told Ms. Raina.
A few weeks later I was back at Ms. Raina’s house, excited about lessons and unaware of the adventure I was about to embark on. She explained to me that it was best to start from the present and work my way back into the past. I had to decide on what branch I wanted to start with, either my mother's side or my father's side. Since I was more familiar with it, I chose to start with my mother’s side. She handed me a family tree chart similar to the one I had received from that memorable high school family tree school project. "Use this family chart to document every person that you discover. No matter who you are looking for in your family's lineage, you'll need to have their birth or death dates, so that you can try to access their birth and death certificates, these records can help you complete your tree. Most importantly, if you're looking for a woman and she is married you will have to know her married name in order to try to obtain her death certificate. These records can help you follow maiden names or name changes throughout your family line,” she explained to me. “But how can I get records for the people in my family? I’ve already exhausted my mother with stuff about our family history and dates is the last thing I have on them", I told Ms. Raina. All she could suggest was that I seek more information from other members in my family, like my siblings or my aunt Margaret.
With that in mind, one day as my oldest sister Gweny and I was talking on the telephone I asked her if she knew anything about our grandparents and great grandparents. "Why do you want to know about people that aren't here anymore, what good is it going to do for you?" she asked me. "Here we go again" I said, trying not to sound too sassy with my mouth because my oldest sister had the power to pop me if I got out of line, know matter how old I got. My oldest sister was like second in command in our family with my mom being the first. "You don't think it's unfair that we had to learn about others people history growing up in school and we don't know the history of our own family to share with our children? Don't you want to know?” I asked my sister. "Don't make me know difference either way”, my sister said. “I know that you've always asked mommy about our family. Our grandmother Jennie and her parents Hattie and David Bronson are all buried at Rolling Green cemetery, which is in Chester Pennsylvania, maybe that will help you. I don't know where our grandfather Edward is buried but I do know that he fought in the war", my sister said. I was stunned that my sister had so much family information, all this long time.
Nervously, the next day with my pen and pad locked and loaded, I called Rolling Greens Cemetery. I was able to obtain the birth and death dates for my grandmother Jennie Dorsey, and her parents (my great grandparents) Hattie and David Bronson. With this knew information that I'd gathered I went to the Philadelphia Vital Statistics online and printed out three death certificate applications. I filled the applications out and then sent them away. Six weeks later all three of the certificates came back, which held a wealth of family information. By using their death records, I started slowly stitching together my family tree.
My grandmother Jennie Bronson was born on March 17, 1912 in Sumter County, South Carolina. She was a practical nurse. She died three months after her first child Edna on October 5, 1959. My great grandmother Hattie was born on November 1, 1886 and died on August 7, 1941, my mother was only seven years old when her grandmother died. Witherspoon was my great grandmothers maiden name. She was born in Sumter South Carolina. Her mother and father names were Winnie Mack and Robert Witherspoon and they were also born in South Carolina. My great grandfather David was born in Moncks Corner South Carolina in 1882 and died in 1957, his parents names were not listed on his death certificate, unfortunately.
After I gathered family information from my grandmother and great grandparents death certificates, Ms. Raina introduced me to a valuable genealogy-researching tool, ‘ the federal census records.’ The federal census has been taken every ten years in the United States since 1790. The federal census records has many purposes. The government uses the census to gather population count, employment, health, housing, and education. This is how we know the ethnic make-up of an area and congressional apportionment. Every year the make of the census changes but for the most part the census includes names, ages and relationships of everyone living in the household. Amongst other details such as whether people own their home or if they rent, their parents place of birth, education, race and what language people spoke. The 1940 census records was the last census records to be release to the public.
Trying to trace African Americans before the emancipation of slaves can also be a challenge. Being able to go beyond the the year 1870 to find African American families is getting past 'the brick wall'. The 1870 United States federal census was the first federal census following the emancipation of slaves and the first to record many former slaves by their first and last name, along with everyone else living in the household. If you do find your ancestors in the 1870 U.S. federal census it can determine approximately where they were living and what surname they used just after the abolishment of slavery. In the 1870’s many former slaves still lived near their former slaveowners, it was an uphill battle for former slaves and freed African Americans after the Civil war, particularly in the work area. Paying jobs were scarce which forced former slaves to continue to work for their former slaveowners for little or know compensation for their work.
It is easy to see that the federal census is a good tool for doing genealogy research. Ms. Raina also explained to me since I obtain my families death certificates, I could use the information off of their death certificates to verify them in the census records, which would allow me to take a peek into their lives and go back as far back as possible. I was really excited about this part of my journey.
The information that I gathered from the census records I was able to write small family history stories. It felt amazing to be able to see just a glimpse of what my family was doing with their lives, before I was even thought of.
My great grandmother Hattie Catherine Witherspoon married my great grandfather David Bronson around the 1900’s in Sumter County South Carolina. They had six children from their union. My grandmother Jennie was their second child. In 1910, my great grandmother Hattie and her family migrated out of South Carolina when many African Americans were trying to escape racial discrimination and the lack of jobs. My family planted their roots in the West part of Philadelphia, in the 1920’s. My great grandmother Hattie was a homemaker and my great grandfather provided for his large family working at a Philadelphia dairy supply factory. My oldest sister once told me a story about our great grandfather David. On the weekends he would bring my mother and her sister’s milk from his job. My aunt Margaret told me when she was about eight or nine years old, she would take the bus to her grandparents house to brush her grandmother Hattie's long wavy hair because her eyes were failing her. After the ending of the ‘Great Depression’ my grandmother Jennie married Edward Dorsey on August 7, 1930 at City Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. By the time my grandmother was twenty-two years old she had three daughters. During World War II my grandfather Edward was a Army solider in the Asiatic Pacific from 1943 to 1945. He was honorable discharge with severe medical issues. He received a medal of honor for his service. I will forever be proud of my grandfather. I can't imagine how mentally and financially hard it must have been for my grandparents and their three girls during that time in their lives. I started to understand why my mother didn't want to talk about her family's past as it was painful for me to even discover it.
My grandparents Jennie Bronson and Edward Dorsey marriage license. ("Citing Philadelphia Marriage Records, 7 August, 1930, Court, License number 591957, Room 417 City Hall Philadelphia.")