Ken Anderson, ’17, has always enjoyed listening to his maternal grandmother’s stories. While he grew up in Philadelphia, he has a long line of ancestors on his mother’s side, including his grandmother, who lived in Richmond. “The stories, and the way my relatives describe their antecedents and the city of Richmond are covered in romantic charm, and look back to a different time of old attitudes and a very different city,” he says.
Together, these stories form an oral history of the Scott family, but Anderson wondered just how much was historically accurate and how much was family lore, passed down through generations and edited by each person’s individual memory?
With the help of a UR Summer Fellowship, Anderson set out to research his mother’s ancestors in Richmond. “There are sometimes large memory gaps in my family history. I wanted to fill in those gaps so that the same mistakes wouldn’t be made 50 years down the line,” he says.
For example, family lore indicated that Anderson’s ancestors weren’t slaves for long and instead lived primarily as free blacks. But was it true?
Through records obtained from Ancestry.com; conversations with long-lost relatives, some he hadn’t spoken to in many years; the family bible; and even knocking on the door of his ancestors’ church in Richmond’s Northside neighborhood, Anderson began to piece together a detailed portrait of his family dating back to before the Civil War.
“Being able to trace my family history back to before the end of slavery was a big deal,” Anderson says. “Slavery as an institution ruined the chances for many present-day black Americans to find their true origins. It takes only one slave owner who kept bad records [to keep someone] from finding a great-great-great grandmother or uncle.” Anderson’s family is of mixed racial heritage, which gave him an advantage in discovering in-depth information and documentation on the lives and livelihoods of his ancestors.
To provide context for his own family history, Anderson also researched the black middle class and the social dynamics of the city of Richmond. While Richmond remained segregated throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the city did have a community of free black persons within its limits dating as far back as the early 19th century, contrary to the commonly held belief that most blacks were slaves until after the Civil War.
In Richmond, black residents developed their own sense of community, living together in economically diverse neighborhoods like Jackson Ward, developing schools, and adhering to a set of ethics and values that aimed to advance their socio-economic status. Anderson’s research revealed that the lives of the Scott family fit that experience. His ancestors worked hard to increase their station, rising from working as a blacksmith in one generation, to working as brakemen for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in the next, to working in security for the owner of Thalheimer’s department store in a third. “Their activities, morals, occupations, and relationships all describe part of what it means to be both black and middle class,” Anderson says.
The experience conducting research into the black middle class experience and connecting it to his family’s story has allowed Anderson to look at his own history through a refined lens. “I enjoyed finding out the details without bias or selective memory loss,” he says.
But it has also left him with more unanswered questions, which he intends to explore by continuing his research. “My great-great-great grandfather is listed in Richmond telephone books from the end of the Civil War until about 1900, but the 1900 census doesn’t include him. We know he didn’t leave Richmond, but there are some people with the same name who are listed in one of the insane asylums in the city, so I’m not sure if he went crazy,” Anderson says. “That’s one question I’d still like answered.”
“I’d also like to get in touch with some very removed cousins that still live in Richmond that even my grandmother isn’t close to. They would be her second or third cousins,” he says. “I’d like to reconnect the family branches and get access to information and resources they may have. Genealogy is never finished.”