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Africana Archives: Excerpts
Genealogy and Oral History

Genealogy and Oral History

The Oral Historian or Griot tradition is fundamental to West African culture. The Griot is responsible for learning and reciting the history of a family group, tribe or royal lineage. Alex Haley’s Roots introduced African Americans to the Griot or Jeliba. The tradition came to the New World with us and continues today in the works of our storytellers from Zora to Maya and all the Big Mamas and Pawpaws who know the value of recalling the past.

In Roots, one of Haley’s characters explains that the village is inhabited by those that have come and gone, we, that are here now and those that are to come. Our oral history is the thread that binds the generations together. In this new land and new day it is the duty of all to record and preserve oral history into family narratives, local histories and genealogies so that we may all find that thread that leads us to a place called home.

Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide

Excerpt from DOING ORAL HISTORY, Second Edition, by Donald A. Ritchie. © 2003 by Donald A. Ritchie. Excerpt posted by arrangement with the author and publisher, Oxford University Press, Inc.

Oral history collects memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews. An oral history interview generally consists of a well-prepared interviewer questioning an interviewing and recording their exchange in audio or video format. Recordings of interviews are transcribed, summarized, or indexed, and then placed in a library or archives. These interviews may be used for research or excerpted in a publication, radio or video documentary, museum exhibition, dramatization or other form of public presentation. Recordings, transcripts, catalogs, photographs and related documentary material can also be posted on the Internet.

Doing Oral History raises many questions and provides answers that address the range of current practices and considerations. Its question-and-answer format is intended not as a catechism of the true faith but as a dialogue between the reader and the author, similar to that of an oral history interview. Questions ranging from the open-ended (“What is oral history?”) to the specific (“Should transcripts reproduce accents and dialects?”) are intended for those conducting group projects, working as individual researchers, establishing oral history archives, videotaping, teaching, and seeking to make use of oral history in various forms of public presentation. These questions have been repeatedly asked at oral history workshops, particularly by those just entering into oral history. The answers offer realistic and practical advice while maintaining the standards that oral historians have collectively devised and promoted. Some questions come from more established practitioners who are reevaluating their methods and missions midway through their projects. The answer seek to be as serviceable to veterans as to novices. MORE

The Lineage of Abraham

© 1998 by Daryl Cumber Dance. Used by permission of the author and publisher. May not be presented in any form elsewhere without permission from copyright holders.

Excerpt From CHAPTER III:
Crawford and His Generation: Abraham's Grandchildren Doing What They Could to Help the Cause

"I fed the soldiers and did what I could to help the cause."
(Warren Cumber, Claim #19208)

The period of the Civil War was obviously a traumatic time for Crawford and his generation. Members of the family were often in attendance at meetings of the Dover Baptist Association when the group considered its stands on matters regarding slavery and abolition. That the hysteria, fear, and suspicion that afflicted the slaveholding South would affect their lives is clear. That they would be particularly vulnerable at this time is also obvious. Crawford's cousin Edmund Collier Brown was charged with a felony for possessing a copy of the Anglo-African in May 1861 (CCC Order Book, 1860-72, 74; see discussion in previous chapter).

When the war started, large numbers of slaves in Charles City deserted their owners, some joining the Yankees. Judge John M. Gregory laments in a letter dated 6/19/1862, "Almost everybody has lost some of their negroes and those that have remained do little or nothing. Every person in my neighborhood has lost some of their negroes. . . . I suppose nearly, if not fully, half of the negro men have gone" (Copland 7). The records of escaped slaves in Charles City is one of the thickest batches in the "Records of Escaped Slaves, 1863" (Auditor's Item 153, Box 17, Library of Virginia), listing large numbers who left varied plantations mainly during General George McClellan's occcupation, and one who "was hired to the Confederate government to work on fortifications at Yorktown and went to the enemy." In the aforementioned letter, Judge Gregory noted that his efforts to get free Negroes to work for him had been unsuccessful: "The free negroes refuse to work, and the demand for labor is so great in consequence of the great number of negroes who have gone from this county to the Yankees, that no labor can be hired." MORE

Slaves in the Family

1998, by Edward Ball. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The first person in slavery to the Balls who can be identified by name was a woman called Bella. On November 10, 1720, Elias made a note that "Bella had of me 3 yards of negero cloth." It was a Thursday.

"Negro cloth" was a coarse blend of wool and cotton that slaves were given for garments, a fabric manufactured in Europe and distributed by American slave owners. Whites did not wear Negro cloth, whose name and texture separated servers from served. The fabric sometimes took another, more poetic name, "oznaburgs," from Osnabruk, a town in northern Germany known for its textiles. The rough blue or sometimes white cloth was the standard uniform on the Ball plantations from the earliest colonial days until well into the 1800s.

To judge from the small size of her allotment of cloth, Bella must have been young, perhaps ten years old. In the practice taking shape, adults received five or more yards of oznaburgs per year, children about three yards. Bella reappears in the account book several times, always in the context of taking her basic needs for survival - usually cloth but also blankets and occasionally a pair of shoes. According to the slave lists, Bella lived fot at least another thirty years. No record of her birth or death, and no record of children, if she had them, has survived. We know her only as a person trying to clothe herself. MORE

Preview These Recommended Titles at Google Book Search:

How to Interpret Family History and Ancestry DNA Test Results for Beginners: The Geography and History of Your Relatives by Anne Hart M.A.

How to Interpret Your DNA Test Results for Family History: Scientists Speak Out on Genealogy Joining Genetics by Anne Hart

The Beginner's Guide to Interpreting Ethnic DNA Origins for Family History: How Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mirahi & Europeans Are Related to Everybody Else by Anne Hart

Creative Genealogy Projects: Writing Salable Life Stories by Anne Hart

Creating Family Newsletters & Time Capsules: How to Publish Multimedia Periodicals or Gift Booklets by Anne Hart

How to Trace Your African-American Roots: Discovering Your Unique History by Barbara Thompson Howell

Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915 by Mitchell A. Kachun

How to Plan Your African-American Family Reunion by Krystal Williams

Read Excerpts from These Recommended Titles at

Black Roots: A Beginners Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree by Tony Burroughs

Introduction to African American Photographs: 1840-1950: Identification, Research, Care & Collecting by Ross J. Kelbaugh

Listening For Our Past : A Lay Guide To African American Oral History Interviewing by Hasker Nelson

Black, White, and Indian: Race and the Unmaking of an American Family by Claudio Saunt

Roots Recovered!: The How to Guide for Tracing African-American and West Indian Roots Back to Africa and Going There for Free or on a Shoestring Budget by James E. White Esq, Jean-Gontran Quenum MBA

Climbing Your Family Tree: Online and Off-line Genealogy for Kids by Ira Wolfman

Explore. Discover. Learn. Teach.

Search Africana Heritage for Related Content


Explore Oral History Techniques: How to Organize and Conduct Oral History Interviews from the Indiana University
Center for the Study of History and Memory

Receive Advice on Getting Started at the Oral History Society

Explore the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina


Download and use the Transcribing Style Guide from the Baylor University Institute for Oral History.

The Style Guide provides rules for spelling and punctuation useful in converting speech to written language and deals with elements common to the interview setting, including false starts, breaks in thought, interruptions, nonverbal sounds, and unintelligible speech.

Browse the Oral History & Interviews page at

Discover Oral History How-to Guides, from Baltimore County Schools


Read Oral Histories - Interviewing Relatives and Collecting Oral History from

Read Interviewing Mom and Grandma: Oral History Tips from


Visit Using Oral History from The Learning Page at the Library of Congress

Discover the Lesson Plans page at "Been Here So Long:" Selections from the WPA American Slave Narratives

Copyright 2004 The University of South Florida and The Africana Heritage Project. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. For more information, contact the Africana Heritage Project via e-mail.