Fall 2018

The History in Our Families

With the availability of genealogy tools for the public’s use and prime-time television shows about people exploring their lineages, more people are becoming aware that their relatives lives’ reflect history and that the stories of everyday people are worth knowing and sharing.

Holiday gatherings can provide an opportunity to have meaningful conversations with older family members about their formative years and family history. One of Saint Leo’s history professors, Dr. Heather Parker, was interviewed last year about ways people can ask relatives to share recollections.

Fruitful conversations resemble oral histories, which Parker is experienced in collecting using formal methods. But everyone, she said, can use some common interviewing techniques to engage with older relatives even if no book, archive, or collection is planned. Her advice circulated nationally in fall 2017 through an Associated Press story that included her as a source.

Parker recommended that interested parties ask family members in advance to bring photos to the next get-together, with a promise to handle them gently. If you can, she said, bring a portable scanner to preserve digital images of the photographs, or use a smart phone with adequate memory to do so. A magnifying glass will be handy, too, she said, because details from the backgrounds in the photos might give clues about the time-period and location in which the photo was taken.

When it comes to personal stories that people may tell, Parker advised listeners against being visibly shocked if any disturbing information is disclosed as this could discourage the relative from continuing to tell the story. She also cautioned against prying or being too pushy if people don’t want to go into details, as older generations in America might have a different sense of privacy than their younger counterparts.

On her website africanamericanpasco.org, Parker dispenses even more guidance for those who want to conduct detailed research, perhaps beyond the boundaries of their own families. For instance, she conducted research on African-American families who live currently or lived in prior generations around University Campus in Pasco County, FL. Theirs is a little-represented history. Many groups including African-Americans have not been included in national or local history books and were overlooked by city or community newspapers, but Parker employed recommended historical methods to help address the void.

Her website even includes a link to a site providing consent forms for people willing to provide interviews that can be formally archived. Parker also discusses on the website ways to find and approach interview subjects, as well as the related use of photographs, census records, and other types of records and documents.

Dr. Heather Parker has offered this photo from her own family to illustrate ways that descendants can delve into their history through images. This photo shows Parker’s grandmother, Isabelle, on the left, and Isabelle’s sister Ruth on the right. They are both single young ladies in this photo. The cars in the background, as well as the purses, outfits, and hairstyles are clues that this was taken in the 1940s. And the fact that the young ladies are leaning against the tree informally rather than standing upright indicates the image was not taken by a parent or authority figure, but someone they were comfortable with and maybe out for a bit of fun.

Jo-Ann Johnston earned her bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University (NY) and her master’s degree from Bay Path University (MA). She joined Saint Leo University in January 2008.

Write A Comment