Everyone needs a mentor. I’ve been blessed to have several amazing ones including the late James Dent Walker from the National Archives.
I was introduced to “Jimmy”, as he was known to friends, in 1977 when I wasn’t having any luck with my application to DAR – the National Society of the Daughters of the Revolution. No local chapter in my neck of the woods would invite me to become a member even though I had documented my eligibility. That may sound strange these days but that was back where there weren’t any African American members in DAR.
So many times, Jimmy and his wonderful wife, Barbara opened up their home in Washington, D.C. to me when I came in town to do research. That little bedroom on their third floor became my official home away from home. By day, I’d hop the 16th Street bus and ride down to the National Archives for hours of family research where Jimmy would check on me from time to time.
Then loaded down a whole new batch of notes, I’d take the bus back for an evening with my hosts – always a combo of great food, great company, research tips and stories of days gone by from both Barbara and Jimmy. More than a few times over the years, I’ve paused to remember how generous they were with their hospitality, time and wisdom.
I quickly learned that Jimmy was the genealogist’s genealogist. Over the years, many a researcher at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. was the beneficiary of Jimmy’s absolute mind-blowing knowledge of where to find that exact piece of information that would finally connect a weary researcher with their ancestor.
But Black family genealogy was his passion and his efforts created a strong support network for people, like me, doing African American family history. In fact, Jimmy helped author Alex Haley document his family history which was later immortalized in the bestseller, Roots.
During his 30 year career at the National Archives, Jimmy became a noted expert on pension and military records. After he retired as director of local history and genealogical programs, Jimmy was hired by DAR to help document the service of more than 5000 African Americans who fought in or gave civil service during the American Revolution.
In 1977, I received an invitation to join the Daughters of the American Revolution from the Ezra Parker Chapter DAR in Royal Oak near my hometown of Detroit, Michigan. Later that year, I became a member. Jimmy never said so, but I know he had a hand in encouraging DAR to welcome me as their first African American member. And even though he’s gone now, the wisdom I got from the genealogist’s genealogist is always part of my family history toolkit.
My Aunt Clara was the first person I knew who was passionate about family history. In 1976, when I decided to start researching our family, I didn’t know where to start. Somewhere I read that you should start by talking with your oldest relative. At that point, it was my maternal great Aunt Clara who was 81 years old.
Born Clarissa Mae Weaver on December 1, 1894 in Cleveland, Ohio, Aunt Clara grew into a strong, feisty woman with an opinion on everything and anything – whether you wanted to hear it or not. My childhood memory is that Aunt Clara was tall and imposing, the kind of person who commands attention when she walked in a room. And she sure got our attention.
In her later years, Aunt Clara had a little touch of dementia but that didn’t dull her memory of the old days. When she got us kids sitting still for long enough, that was her opportunity to share a family tale. Aunt Clara absolutely never missed those opportunities. I’m sorry to say, I don’t think I soaked up enough of the family history in those early days.
But I made up for lost time when I started doing genealogy in 1976. Aunt Clara was right there ready and willing to share all she knew. As I look back, her amazing enthusiasm about genealogy was infectious. And I caught it!
Over the next 8 months, Aunt Clara and I bridged the distance between my home in Detroit and hers in Cleveland with phone calls and letters – sharing and discovering more about our Weaver, Coover, Hood and Scribner family lines. But in September of that year, Aunt Clara fell and broke her hip. In a week she was gone.
Aunt Clara was my genealogy muse. I am so grateful for the time we had to share our mutual passion for Black family history and, more importantly, for me to get to appreciate Aunt Clara as the strong, endearingly eccentric and amazingly inspirational woman she was.
Who inspired you to start doing genealogy?