That’s My Cousin, But I Don’t Know How

(Presentation by Veronica “Ronnie” Phillips)

“Genealogy….why do it?” Veronica “Ronnie” Phillips challenged SJHS members and guests at our December 12 evening meeting.

She asked us to imagine being an orphan. Gazing into a mirror, we might wonder if we looked like our mother or father, or a once-removed relative. Growing up, we might wonder how and where our ancestors grew up. Discovering our own artistic talent, we might wonder if that gift was passed to us by our genetic family. Why do genealogy? Because we’re curious!! Even if we aren’t orphans, we are curious about who these people were!!

Ms. Phillips has traced her family lines back 6 generations. She shared her voyage of genealogical discovery with us, enriching the discussion of available research tools and resources with the excitement and energy she used to pursue her personal genealogy. Her curiosity first arose in New York, where her grandfather had moved in 1921 (after a very truncated genealogically-preserving stay in Alabama!!) to improve his life and become a minister. Many people were introduced to her as “Cousin” and she began to wonder how ALL these people could be her Cousins. “Begin with who you know” she advised, cautioning us genealogical ‘wanna-be’s’ that maybe our ‘cousins’ don’t REALLY know how they’re related to us, either. Upon completing her ‘first line’ of ancestors, via her Granny Sophie, she was hooked.

Ms Phillips identified useful research records, among them church records, in which godparents were often cousins. She also used Ellis Island records (where spelling mistakes are common), and 1917 and 1930 Census Records (where pieces are sometimes missing). Tracking back through time to Estate Lists (c. 1846), brought the reality of slavery home; her ancestors were listed as property, dissociated from any family grouping and described by traits (e.g. skills, judgments of ‘moral character’) that substantiated only their price/value to their owners.

“These ancestors become real to you and discovering them can be bittersweet” she said, noting that her research drew her to love history. so much so that not only is she finalizing her own multiple family lines, but also researching lines for friends and cousins–well, maybe they are cousins, but not yet.

She noted that there are “black holes” in all searches, e.g. Churches that historically wouldn’t record a father’s name without proof of marriage, or the post-Transfer Day era when all the record-keeping changed. There are also historical conventions to learn about, e.g. where and when a father’s first name might become a child’s last name, or in what geographical areas the surname of an ancestor might be changed to reflect Estate ownership.

However, there are good tools available to the curious and tenacious genealogist. The new African Roots Project, a database integrating census information, Free Papers, Church records, Slave Tax rosters and other disparate records, is a tool that may help people name-trace their ancestors more efficiently; there is already a snippet on-line in Denmark. The Danes wrote everything down. In 1848 when the police were interested in the whereabouts of the freed labor force, Travel Passes were assiduously recorded. In 1855, Census takers did group people in families, and places of birth were often carefully recorded. Contract Day contracts, which the newly freed were to sign or be considered vagrant, were archived.

“Sometimes, however, only oral history can make the connect” she added, and urged us to collect pictures, oral histories and traditions, because the next generation won’t have access to these tools. Even the ‘far–out’ tiresome family adventure story told and retold by Uncle So&So may have a kernel of truth in it.

Ms. Phillips warmly and enthusiastically shared with us some of the original documentation she gathered, as well as the synthesis of her detective work, displaying e.g. the ancestral chart of one ‘line,’ The Edney Family, which records 1,049 living relatives. She recently organized and joined 77 of them together for a family cruise, truly realizing her research.

In 2001, as a 26 year resident of St Croix, she was a founding member of the Ancestor Discovery Group, who puts together topical informational presentations on genealogy, and serves as a mutual support group for budding genealogists. She cordially invited everyone to a March 18th 2007 event on St Croix where 50 family trees of Virgin Islanders will be displayed!!

As the final challenge to us all, ‘Ronnie’ asked if we could name the 32 ancestors most directly responsible for each of us being here. And then she charmingly proceeded to thank… by name… all 32 of her ancestors, for allowing her to be with us tonight.

Thank you, “Ronnie”, for such a delightful, engaging, lively, motivating, and moving evening.

Summary by Robin Swank
Secretary, SJHS

NOTE: Lolly Prime thoughtfully provided sample Ancestral Chart and Family Group Record templates to each attendee, a head start for those motivated by Ms. Phillips to begin their genealogical journeys that very evening.

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Veronica Phillipps

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