SALT LAKE CITY — No famous ancestors are necessary for you and your family to have a part in history.
Quintard Taylor, a professor of American history at the University of Washington and the founder of blackpast.org, spoke on the topic of “We Are All Historians: African-American History is Family History” on Saturday, March 3, at the Church History Museum.
“All too often,” he said, “African-American history is defined by a number of people, including myself, as a broad, sweeping narrative with powerful images like Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King engaged in a heroic struggle against racial injustice.”
Because they are so well known, those Civil Rights figures may seem a little removed from the average person’s ancestry. “(But) these people,” Taylor said, “are really not so distant at all. They are the contemporaries of my parents and my grandparents and my great-grandparents.”
He shared how his own family history research journey began in June last year, when his visit to Salt Lake City included an unexpected three hours at the Family History Library. While at the library, he was assisted in tracing his family tree back to his great-grandparents on each side.
By learning who his ancestors were and where they lived, he was then able to weave a speculative narrative of how their lives may have intersected with historical events.
His great-grandfather, Henry Taylor, was born in Haywood County, Tenn., in 1845 and was 20 years old at the end of the Civil War. Whether he fought in it is unknown, but if he did, he could have been a survivor of the nearby Fort Pillow Massacre.
Henry Taylor and his wife, Sarah, lived during the rise and fall of civil rights for blacks in Tennessee, and they probably voted in 1880, the last time that blacks would be able to vote in Haywood County for 80 years.
Taylor’s grandmother Mamie may have walked the streets of Memphis at the same time as Ida B. Wells.
Mamie was also the source of a genealogical and family mystery. She gave birth to Taylor’s mother, Grace Brown Taylor, in 1909, but Grace was then raised by her grandparents. What happened to Mamie?
“The official lie,” as Taylor called it, was that Mamie and her husband died in an automobile accident when Grace was an infant. Taylor’s aunt Bessie, meanwhile, had said that Mamie died in childbirth. Whatever the truth, a 1910 U.S. census shows 1-year-old Grace living with her mother, Mamie, who worked as a cook in a Memphis family’s household.
The car accident, Taylor said, was “clearly established to hide an unpleasant truth.” His grandmother had been a 19-year-old single mom in a time when such a thing was socially unacceptable, particularly if the man involved was not an African-American, a fact that remains unknown in Mamie's case.
Taylor referred to mysteries like that as “the hidden time bomb of genealogy: Are we really who we think we are?”
The narrative continued. Was Taylor’s father, also named Quintard, present at the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921?
A second cousin, Elbert Williams, who was a charter member of the Haywood County NAACP who fought to regain the right to vote, was lynched in 1939.
“New generations continue to fight," Taylor said.
The work and sacrifice of generations came to fruition with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which allowed Taylor’s parents to vote for the first time in their lives at the ages of 62 and 51. They voted in Brownsville, Tenn., the same place that Taylor’s great-grandparents had lost the right to vote 80 years prior.
Though they are not in the history books, Taylor said, his ancestors are just as much a part of history as those whose names are mentioned.
“I realized that my family were heroes just like Martin Luther King, just like Ida B. Wells, just like the other people we talked about, because they were sacrificing, they were fighting in their own way,” Taylor said. “They were surviving slavery and sharecropping and the denial of their civil rights, and the most precious right of all, the right to vote. But they never accepted the idea that this would be permanent. And they decided to do what they could, when they could to make sure that their children would experience different things. They did this, and because they did this, I can stand here proudly today before you to share their heretofore-untold story. They are our history, because we’re all part of history.”
Phyllis Caruth, chairwoman of Utah’s chapter of Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, thought the presentation was excellent. “Most impressive was the fact he could take ancestors and put them in the time that they lived. It really helped bring the presentation alive. You gain a much greater appreciation of your ancestors and what they lived in.”
Taylor’s presentation gave Ruth Johnson, a resident of Salt Lake City, some pointers for comparing oral histories with actual records, as Taylor demonstrated with his grandmother Mamie's story.
“I think you have to dig a little deeper about cover-ups,” Johnson said.
Don Harwell of Cottonwood Heights said presentations like Taylor’s “(give) us all inspiration to go start digging up that information.” Harwell has completed his genealogy for four generations on each side of his family, but says he still has a lot more work to do. “I keep coming to these things because they inspire me,” he said.
Taylor’s presentation was the first of five research series that will be sponsored by the AAHGS Utah Chapter this year.