Remembering ‘Roots’ Author Alexander Murray Palmer Haley

Alex Haley (1921-1992) was a famous African American author who had more impact on genealogy than any other person in the past 50 years. He was born 11 August 1921. Haley would be almost 92 years old if he were alive today.

After the release of his book Roots: The Saga of an American Family (New York City, New York: Doubleday) 37 years ago—on 17 August 1976—and the launch of the eight-part television mini-series on ABC-TV in January 1977, the genealogy world was forever changed.

He was 55 years old when Roots was published.

Alex Haley Roots Book Cover

Image credit: Wikipedia.org

From that point on the number of genealogical societies in the U.S. skyrocketed from 400 societies to over 4,000. Public libraries and state archives across the country were flooded with family history researchers using their book and microfilm collections.

Some major milestones to keep in mind: the first laptop wasn’t invented until 1981 (Osborne); Google was launched in 1995; and GenealogyBank was born 19 October 2006.

One man can make a big difference.

Recently Alex Haley’s nephew Christopher Haley participated in a DNA study and was surprised to learn about his Scottish roots. Hosted by Megan Smolenyak, this episode of Roots Television shows the family reunion of the Haley and Baff families:

Eleanor Roosevelt’s ‘My Day’ Newspaper Column: A Public Diary

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about Eleanor Roosevelt’s popular and long-running newspaper column, “My Day.”

When you think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt what comes to mind? Maybe it’s the fact that he was the only U.S. president to be elected to four terms. Maybe you’re familiar with the programs he helped to establish during the Depression, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Maybe you remember the words from his speech after the attack on Pearl Harbor, calling it “a date which will live in infamy.” Our 32nd president led the nation during the difficult times of the Great Depression and World War II.

What do you know about his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt? She was a crusader for many political and social issues, including women’s and civil rights. Mrs. Roosevelt has a long list of accomplishments in her own right apart from being a first lady. Starting in late 1935 she became one of the most-documented first ladies in U.S. history, due to the fact that she began a syndicated newspaper column that she personally wrote. Eleanor worked on her column “My Day” six days a week, from 1935 to 1962, writing about her daily activities and giving her views on a range of subjects.

This 1935 newspaper notice announced the upcoming “My Day” newspaper column.

Roosevelt Columns, Plain Dealer newspaper article 30 December 1935

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 30 December 1935, page 7

Many of Eleanor Roosevelt’s newspaper columns read like diary entries. In some cases, they resemble a letter to a dear friend—filled with her thoughts, conversations and opinions.

Her newspaper columns addressed many different topics; not all were especially poignant. For example, in one early column she discusses how much sleep she got and describes eating a tray of food by herself in her room. But looking at the totality of the columns helps paint a picture of the United States through the mid-20th century, reflecting the important issues our families faced such as war, poverty and racism. These “My Day” columns provide researchers with a social history of life during this time.

One issue that Eleanor Roosevelt was passionate about was civil rights. In her 21 February 1936 column, she mentions that she and her husband enjoyed a concert by African American singer Marian Anderson.

My Day in the White House by Eleanor Roosevelt, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 21 February 1936

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 21 February 1936, page 6

Three years later in February 1939 Eleanor Roosevelt quit the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) over their refusal to allow Marian Anderson to perform in Constitution Hall. At that time the Hall was segregated and the DAR refused to allow African Americans to perform there.

In her resignation letter, Mrs. Roosevelt stated:

“However, I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist. You have set an example which seems to me unfortunate, and I feel obliged to send in to you my resignation. You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed.”

You can view a copy of that DAR resignation letter on the National Archives website.

Thanks to the support of Eleanor Roosevelt and other like-minded individuals, Marian Anderson eventually sang at Constitution Hall at the invitation of the DAR in 1942.

photo of Eleanor Roosevelt and Marian Anderson

Photo: Eleanor Roosevelt and Marian Anderson in Japan. Credit: Flickr: The Commons, U.S. National Archives.

Mrs. Roosevelt’s 27-year newspaper column spanned her time as first lady, when she became a widow, and when she worked with the United Nations. One of her only breaks from writing the columns was in the days following her husband’s death on 12 April 1945.

In her last column, which ran 26 September 1962, Eleanor was once again addressing the issue of civil rights. In that column she discussed the issue of desegregating the schools, saying:

“In the same way, we must realize that however slow the progress of school integration in the South, analogous situations exist over and over again in the Northern states. There the problem of school desegregation is closely tied to desegregation of housing; certainly we are not doing any kind of job that we could hold out as an example to our Southern neighbors.”

With that discussion Eleanor’s “My Day” column came to an end.* She died two months later on 7 November 1962 at the age of 78.

* “My Day” by Eleanor Roosevelt, 26 September 1962. Available on the website My Day by Eleanor Roosevelt. Prepared by the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project.

Rosa Parks Statue: Honoring an American Civil Rights Pioneer

When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person on an Alabama bus 58 years ago, her act of defiance against racist laws sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and accelerated the Civil Rights Movement, forever changing America. In a ceremony Wednesday in Washington, D.C., which was attended by dozens of her relatives, the deceased Civil Rights pioneer was honored by the unveiling of a life-size statue in the nation’s Capitol building.

photo of Civil Rights pioneer Rosa Parks with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Civil Rights pioneer Rosa Parks with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The recent statue unveiling marks an important moment in black history as Rosa Parks is the first African American woman to be honored in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall with a life-sized statue. Many congressional leaders praised her courage and example during Wednesday’s dedication ceremony, including President Obama.

During his remarks, President Obama said: “In a single moment, with the simplest of gestures, she helped change America and change the world.”

Rosa Parks & the Montgomery Bus Boycott

When Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat on Dec. 1, 1955, it wasn’t because she was too old or tired. Although her resistance came at the end of another long working day as a seamstress in the Montgomery Fair department store, Parks was only 42 and a strong, healthy woman.

No, what prompted her refusal that day was that Parks had simply had enough of the city’s segregation laws that gave whites more rights than blacks.

Boycott Busses in Montgomery, Alabama, Crusader newspaper article 9 December 1955

Crusader (Rockford, Illinois), 9 December 1955, page 8

News of her arrest for refusing to give up her seat to a white person quickly spread throughout the African American community in Montgomery, and a protest was organized: blacks refused to ride the city’s buses until the segregation laws were changed. A young minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., led the protest and soon rose to prominence in the nation’s Civil Rights Movement.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted 381 days before the segregation laws were finally changed and African Americans once again rode Montgomery’s buses.

Genealogy Search Tip: Are Your Queries Returning Too Many Records?

GenealogyBank has grown from 160 million records since its inception to over 1.3 billion records today. That is a lot of articles to search through to find information about your family history. Genealogists often approach GenealogyBank with a direct search—using a surname—searching across the entire database to make sure we don’t miss any genealogy records about the family.

Sometimes, though, the simplest search query returns too many records for you to reasonably examine them all. When that happens, GenealogyBank has created over a dozen targeted search pages to help you narrow down the number of results you get back. Here’s a quick list of these helpful targeted search pages to get you started:

You can also perform targeted ethnic family searches with our African American, Hispanic and Irish American search pages.

Use these special search pages to narrow down your search to a particular type of newspaper article, as the following example shows.

Let’s say you’re searching for all the arrivals and departures of the ship Hector. If you search GenealogyBank just using the word “Hector,” you’ll get 400,000 hits. But, if you search the word “Hector” using the handy Passenger Lists link on our home page or in the left navigation pane of the Newspaper Archives category, you can narrow those search results to 14,000 passenger and ship records that specifically mention the ship Hector.

GenealogyBank Passenger List search for "Hector"

GenealogyBank Passenger List search for “Hector”

Even 14,000 records are a lot to examine. Limit the search again by a range of years when your relatives likely arrived on the ship Hector and you’ll have a manageable number of articles to sift through. Let’s say you are reasonably sure your ancestors arrived in America on the ship Hector sometime between 1820 and 1825—go ahead and use that date range in your search query.

GenealogyBank search results page for Passenger List search on "Hector" from 1820-1825

GenealogyBank search results page for Passenger List search on “Hector” from 1820-1825

Save time and zero in on the articles you need. GenealogyBank has more than a dozen targeted search pages: use them to focus your searches for the type of newspaper article you are looking for.

GenealogyBank targeted search pages

GenealogyBank targeted search pages

Researching State Archives for Genealogy Records

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary talks about how valuable state archives can be for your family history research, and describes how to access them.

If you’re looking for an exciting resource to help with your genealogical research, I recommend visiting your State Archives as soon as possible. Although archives are supported by open records laws, they are vulnerable to budget cuts—so don’t take state archival research for granted, as shown by the close call that recently happened to Georgia’s state archives.

On 13 September 2012 the governor of Georgia made this announcement:

“The Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget has instructed the Office of the Secretary of State to further reduce its budget for AFY13 and FY14 by 3% ($732,626)…To meet the required cuts, it is with great remorse that I [Gov. Nathan Deal] have to announce, effective November 1, 2012, the Georgia State Archives located in Morrow, GA, will be closed to the public.”

After this state government announcement, the Georgia archival research community provided a strong response, including letters, petitions and a FaceBook page at www.facebook.com/GeorgiansAgainstClosingStateArchives.

Faced with this public opposition, the governor made an online announcement using Twitter on 19 September 2012:

“In proclaiming Georgia Archives Month today, @GovernorDeal said he’d find a way to keep the archives open to the public.”

The archival research community welcomed this follow-up announcement from the Office of the Governor on 18 October 2012:

“Gov. Nathan Deal and Secretary of State Brian Kemp announced today that the state will restore $125,000 to Kemp’s budget to keep the Georgia State Archives open to Georgians for the remainder of the budget year…Georgia’s Archives are a showcase of our state’s rich history and a source of great pride…I worked quickly with my budget office and Secretary Kemp to ensure that Georgians can continue to come to Morrow to study and view the important artifacts kept there.”

Vanishing Georgia, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 16 December 1982

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 16 December 1982, page 16

This story has a happy ending, but based upon an informal survey I took at a genealogy presentation on State Archives, only about 20% of family historians have ever visited one in person, or online. This is surprising, since state archives accessions include a vast assortment of genealogical documents, such as:

  • census records (state)
  • diaries (ex. Civil War)
  • oral histories
  • grave registrations
  • land records
  • military records
  • naturalization
  • probate
  • vital records and certificates (birth, marriage, death)
  • Works Progress Administration surveys
Archives Given 'Yankee Diary,' Greensboro Record newspaper article 8 November 1967

Greensboro Record (Greensboro, North Carolina), 8 November 1967, page 42

In addition to genealogical resources, state archives typically house historical state documents, state constitutions, governor’s papers, historical prints, and artifacts such as flags or maps.

The focus of state collections is similar to that of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), whose website is www.archives.gov.

NARA provides a summary webpage with contact information and links to all state archives at www.archives.gov/research/alic/reference/state-archives.html.

National Archives and Records Administration's state archives website

National Archives and Records Administration’s state archives website

As this is a hard-to-remember URL, I generally locate the page by entering “National Archives State Archives” into a search engine.

Many state archives’ online sites contain databases and digital images. Some highlights include:

  • Missouri: Anti-Slavery Alphabet, Maps, Confederate Pension Applications, World War I Statement of Service Cards, etc.
  • Pennsylvania: Land Records, Maps, Military Files, Patent Indexes, etc.
  • Texas: digitized records pertaining to the Republic of Texas including Republic Claims, Confederate Pensions and Passports, etc.
  • Virginia: Revolutionary War records (Bounty Warrants, Rejected Claims, Pensions), Cohabitation Registers (African American), Works Progress Administration Life Histories, etc.

Tips for Online Archival Research

  • Since every website is uniquely designed, keep a log of the steps taken in locating an online resource.
  • To find related digital projects, search the Library of Congress website for Memory Project websites, or visit www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/statememory/.
  • Some digital projects partner with others, such as the Mountain West Digital Library for Utah, Nevada, Idaho, and Hawaii.

Tips for Visiting State Archives in Person (generalities, as each location is unique)

  • Many archives partner with libraries, where you will have access to extended resources.
  • Some state archives offer access to popular subscription databases.
  • When requesting to examine original documents, expect to register with a picture id., which may be valid for one year.
  • Prior to entering the archival document room, you may be required to store personal items in a locker, except for paper and pencil.
  • Options for obtaining copies may be available, although some allow the use of digital camera photography (without flash).
  • Be respectful of all historical items, and keep items in the original order.

How to Date Family Photos with Vintage Fashion Ads in Newspapers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary shows how the fashion pages in old newspapers can help you date family photographs based on the clothes your ancestors are wearing, especially ladies’ hats.

If you’re having difficulty dating family photographs, you could invest in a clothing reference to help you figure out the time period based on the clothes your ancestors are wearing. Another option: you can browse the thousands of old fashion advertisements and style pages in GenealogyBank’s online historical newspaper archives.

I recommend the latter, as there is no larger archive for vintage fashion ads and style images available online.

vintage photo and illustration of ladies' hats c. 1898

Vintage photo and illustration of ladies’ hats c. 1898

Take, for example, the undated photo on the left, which was located in the William Edward Burghardt Du Bois Collection of the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photograph Collection.

The identity of the African American woman featured in the old picture is unknown, but her hat is consistent with Victorian-era fashion. Not only are there elegant embellishments (feathers), but the bodice and high collar are reminiscent of the Victorian time period. The head positioning (looking to the side) indicates she wanted her hat to be a central theme of the photograph.

I wanted to determine if the estimated date range of 1899-1900 was accurate.

Was the photographer identified? No, but if he/she were, then one could use newspaper advertisements and obituaries to learn the work location, and life and work spans of the artist.

Was the medium (gelatin silver print) used at this time? Yes, and the size of the print is consistent with known examples.

Were there newspaper advertisements that supported this clothing style? Yes, with the closest fashion advertisement match located in the Kansas City Star on 16 January 1898.

This doesn’t indicate that the woman in the photograph resided in Kansas City—just that she wore a fashion trend common in the United States at the end of the 19th century.

Taking all these factors into account, it does give credence to the 1899-1900 estimate, or perhaps a wider range, say 1898-1901, since fashion trends spread from east to west, and often took time to appear in outlying regions.

Search Tip: Keywords to Find Fashion Advertisements

What keywords should you search for to find fashion advertisements in newspapers? To find fashion ads and style pages in GenealogyBank’s newspaper archives, try search keywords such as “Dame Fashion,” “Latest Fashion” or “Millinery.”

illustration of lady's hat, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper 27 May 1892

Illustration of lady’s hat, Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 27 May 1892

Some time periods, such as the Civil War, are more distinctive than others, but early fashion advertisements were not as visual (simple drawings, or merely descriptions).

photograph of Miss Chapman

Photograph of Miss Chapman

Once you have narrowed an old family picture to a specific date range, construct a collage of fashion images from newspapers, and cross-reference with photos that have known dates.

Establish the “earliest” possible date your ancestor’s photograph could have been taken, based on the earliest date when the fashion was first advertised in newspapers.

And don’t forget to browse your ancestor’s hometown newspaper, taking note of fashion editors and which stores were advertising. You may find an exact match to a family photograph.

If you’ve been able to date a family photograph using this method with fashion ads in GenealogyBank, please share it with us in the comments!

 

Oliver Cromwell: An African American Revolutionary War Hero

Oliver Cromwell was no ordinary soldier of the American Revolution. This military hero’s discharge was signed by General George Washington “stating that he was entitled to wear the badges of honor by reason of his honorable services.”

Cromwell’s story first appeared in a newspaper interview conducted when he was 100 years old by a reporter of the Burlington Gazette (Burlington, New Jersey) in 1905, which was reprinted by the Trenton Evening Times. As the newspaper article noted: “though feeble, his lips trembling at every word, when he spoke of [General George] Washington his eyes sparkled with enthusiasm.”

The archive of old newspapers in GenealogyBank is packed with thousands of these firsthand accounts of military service in the Revolutionary War, adding a personal touch to the facts of many of these early American military battles.

In that 1905 interview, Cromwell told of his Revolutionary War service crossing the Delaware “with his beloved commander…on the memorable Christmas night [in] 1776.”

The old newspaper article adds that Cromwell: “took part in the battle of Trenton, and helped to ‘knock the British about lively at Princeton.’ He also fought at the Revolutionary War battles of Short Hills, Brandywine, Monmouth and Springfield, where he was severely wounded, and saw the last man killed at York town.”

interview with African American Revolutionary War veteran Oliver Cromwell, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 11 April 1905

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 11 April 1905, page 5

A few days after Cromwell’s death, the local Burlington Gazette published an editorial calling for the erection of a monument in honor of the Revolutionary War hero.

“And thus, one by one, the men who purchased with their blood the liberty we now enjoy, are going off the stage…We suggest whether it would not be proper to erect some suitable monument over his grave…it will be pleasant to know that the people of Burlington felt sufficient interest in him, to mark the spot where his ashes are buried.”

The reprint in the Trenton Evening Times notes: “Unfortunately no such monument was ever erected and there is nothing to indicate the last resting place of Oliver Cromwell.”

Oliver Cromwell lived in a different time and place, and life was more difficult than it would have been for him now. He was African American, one of the many that served in the American Revolution. Though honored by General Washington, his pension was revoked by a local pension agent. “Tears fell from his eyes when he told of his discharge being taken from him by the pension agent.”

In 1984, this plaque was placed on the property where his home once stood.

plaque indicating spot where African American Revolutionary War veteran Oliver Cromwell's house once stood

Photo from the official Burlington County, New Jersey, website

His grave has been located in the cemetery at Broad Street Methodist Church in Burlington, New Jersey. The local historical society was named in his honor in 1983.

Oliver Cromwell (1752-1853), one of “the men who purchased with their blood the liberty we now enjoy,” was “respected by our citizens” then and remembered to this day.

See what other American Revolutionary War veterans’ stories you can find in GenealogyBank’s online historical newspaper archives. There are many more stories of Revolutionary War heroes like Oliver Cromwell waiting for you to discover.

102-Year-Old Ex-Slave Once Shook Abraham Lincoln’s Hand

I ran across this interesting obituary in an old newspaper today. It ended with this line: “She once shook hands with Abraham Lincoln.”

In 1912, or even today, it would be impressive to know someone who shook hands with a President—especially one of the stature of Abraham Lincoln.

There were, no doubt, many highlights over the course of Mrs. Catharine Pride’s 102 years. She was born an African American slave in Virginia in 1810, and after the Civil War had lived in Germantown, Pennsylvania, for more than 40 years.

Now—put that in context. She was born an African American slave and she had the opportunity to meet and shake hands with Abraham Lincoln, the man who freed the slaves. It must have been a very powerful moment.

Catherine Pride Obituary - 102 year old slave shook hands with Abraham Lincoln

Reclaim your ancestors’ stories and make sure the family knows the details of your ancestors’ lives, like this obituary of Mrs. Catharine Pride published in the Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 19 January 1912, page 7.

You can discover a wealth of information in our full historical newspaper archives or explore only your African American ancestry in our African American newspapers collection.

13th Amendment Ratified, Abolishing Slavery in America

Our online archive of old newspapers is a great resource to help with your family history research, filling in details on your family tree. It’s also a good way to learn about the times your ancestors lived in, and better understand their lives.

For example, if your ancestors were alive on Dec. 6, 1865, then you know one of the major news topics they were discussing around the supper table. For on that day, the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, forever abolishing slavery in the United States.

The next day, Americans saw in their local newspapers something very similar to what New Yorkers were reading about the newly-ratified constitutional amendment marking the abolition of slavery:

Slavery Forever Dead New York Herald Newspaper Article December 07, 1865

New York Herald (New York, New York), 7 December 1865, page 1.

Some people today think President Abraham Lincoln banned slavery when he issued his Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War, but that was not the case. Using his War Powers, President Lincoln only did what he could legally do: free the slaves in Confederate-controlled parts of the country. Slavery itself remained legal in the U.S.— slaves were not freed in the four border states that did not secede from the Union: Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri.

It would take an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to legally ban slavery in the United States, and when the Georgia Legislature approved the 13th Amendment—becoming the 27th state to do so—the necessary approval of ¾ of the states was reached and the amendment was ratified.

13th Amendment Newspaper Article Lowell Daily Citizen & News 1865

Lowell Daily Citizen and News (Lowell, Massachusetts), 8 December 1865, page 2.

The American Civil War was fought over two main preservation issues: whether the Union should remain intact, and whether slavery should be preserved. After four terrible years of military fighting that killed over 600,000 soldiers and wounded hundreds of thousands more, the nation had its answers: the Union would remain whole, and slavery was ended.

What a tumultuous year 1865 was for America! At the beginning of the year the Civil War was still raging. During April General Robert E. Lee surrendered the main Confederate army—and five days later U.S. President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by a Southern sympathizer. By that summer the fighting had ended and the American Civil War was finally over.

And all during that long year the process of ratifying the 13th Amendment to ban slavery in America was slowly winding its way through the state ratification process. While this was of great interest to all Americans, of course, it is safe to say the outcome of the constitutional amendment’s ratification was especially important to African Americans, as the following three newspaper articles show (all from GenealogyBank’s African American newspapers collection).

The Duty of Colored Men in Louisiana Black Republican Newspaper 1865

Black Republican (New Orleans, Louisiana), 15 April 1865, page 2.

This newspaper article was published on the day President Lincoln died, and reminds its African American audience that ending the Civil War and freeing the slaves is but a first step toward a society where all members are free, educated, and equal participants with full legal protections. The old newspaper article warns that it is prejudice itself that must be overcome:

There are many remnants of the past guilt yet polluting the soil and the atmosphere. There are cruel and dangerous prejudices that must be outlived. The sting of the serpent of slavery is in the hearts of the people. They may die with it, but justice and righteousness will live forever, and with them we must and shall succeed.

Our Country Black Rights Article South Carolina Leader

South Carolina Leader (Charleston, South Carolina), 21 October 1865, page 2.

These are powerful words in an African American newspaper from South Carolina—the first state that seceded from the Union and where the Civil War’s first battle was fought—published just months after the war ended. The historical newspaper article goes on to say:

We are confident of a change, because satisfied that the present policy is a failure. No cause can long prevail unless founded in absolute justice to all men. With such implicit faith in the justice of our cause, let us give our unqualified support to the President, and press steadily on for the accomplishment of the great purposes of our country—the moral rights, the intellectual privileges, and the physical liberties of mankind.

At the end of December 1865, following ratification of the 13th Amendment, this newspaper article was published with the title “What Is a Man?”

What Is a Man? Black Equality Article Colored American Newspaper

Colored American (Augusta, Georgia), 30 December 1865, page 2.

This old newspaper article concludes with these stirring words:

But these laws are dead, and we are glad of it. Fate has torn down the shutters and broken the locks of the temple of knowledge, and the great problem of advancement has commenced, and if, in its solution, it should give birth to men in the full sense of the term; we hope and trust that the boundary lines of color and race shall be obliterated from the map of common sense, and every man shall stand on his own merits as a man, and the world shall behold the consummation of the poet’s [i.e., Robert Burns] highest hope, that

Man to man the world o’er

Shall brothers be, an’ a’ that.

Good luck with your family history research, and enjoy browsing through historical newspaper archives such as the ones GenealogyBank offers. You’ll find many details, and possibly even maps, photographs or other illustrations, to learn more about your ancestors—and the times they lived in.

If you are researching your black American ancestry you may find our special African American newspaper archive to be particularly helpful.

Henry ‘Hank’ Aaron: Baseball Superstar, Humanitarian—& Gentleman

As regular readers of this blog know, GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives are a great resource to research your family history and fill in details on your family tree. These newspapers are also a terrific window into the past, letting us learn more about important people and events in our nation’s history.

For example, let’s see what these old newspapers have to tell us about one of the outstanding athletes in American history: Henry “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron, the superstar who played baseball in Milwaukee and Atlanta for 23 seasons, from 1954 to 1976. Aaron is famous as the baseball player who broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record of 714—and, as expected, there is plenty of newspaper coverage of his historic home run and other baseball exploits.

The newspapers also tell us much more about his life than this: in addition to being a rare and gifted American athlete, Henry ‘Hank’ Aaron was a humanitarian—and a true gentleman.

The sports media and baseball fans were whipped into a frenzy as Hank Aaron approached Babe Ruth’s magical number in the 1973 Major League baseball season. Although 39 years old that summer (an age when most baseball players have retired) Hank Aaron was on target, hitting 40 home runs…but ended the year with 713 home runs, still short of the goal of 715. He had to wait all winter for another opportunity to break baseball’s home run record the next spring.

When the 1974 season began, Aaron wasted no time. He hit the record-tying 714th home run on his first at-bat that year, in Cincinnati. On April 8 the Atlanta Braves returned to Atlanta for their home opener, and 53,775 wildly cheering fans attended the game hoping Aaron would get the record that night. Hammerin’ Hank did not let the crowd down, hitting home run number 715 in the fourth inning. He received a thunderous standing ovation from the Braves’ baseball fans while fireworks lit up the sky above the stadium.

Hank Aaron hammers historic 715 homerun

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 9 April 1974, page 1.

In addition to details of the baseball game itself and Aaron’s record 715th home run, the newspaper article provides this detail:

Aaron broke away from his mates and rushed to a special box adjacent to the Atlanta dugout where he clutched his wife, Billye, and parents, Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Aaron, of Mobile, Ala.

“I never knew she could hug so tight,” Aaron said of his mother.

The following newspaper article tells us something about the character of Hank Aaron. Although he was one of the greatest American baseball players ever, he kept his ego in check; Aaron was widely recognized as a good teammate and a quiet, respectful man—a true gentleman.

Hank Aaron kept his word on the 715th homerun

Wichita Times (Wichita, Kansas), 2 May 1974, page 5, (African American Newspapers).

As this newspaper article relates, Hank Aaron was sensitive to the disruption his teammates had to endure while the press thronged around him night after night in 1973-74 covering his chase of the home run record. When it was finally over and the champagne celebration in the Atlanta locker room after the game was ready, Aaron thought immediately of his teammates:

The Braves had opened the champagne and were ready to pour, but Hank Aaron had something he wanted to say first to all his teammates.

“Thank you for being patient,” he said, his sincerity moving them. “Thank you for putting up with all that you have—the newspapermen, the photographers and all the other distractions. I know how difficult it was sometimes, and I appreciate the patience you’ve shown.”

Hank Aaron doesn’t make many speeches. Everybody in the room knew he meant this one.

Away from the spotlight and the glare of media publicity, Aaron had another career: he was a great humanitarian. He devoted countless hours to helping others, especially children, as shown in the following newspaper article.

Hank Aaron Goes to Bat for Easter Seals

Milwaukee Star (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), 9 August 1973, page 8, (African American Newspapers).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Newspaper archives provide all sorts of surprising stories about the life of the person we’re researching. How many people know that Henry Aaron was once a mayor?

All Black Alabama Town Makes Hank Aaron Mayor

Wichita Times (Wichita, Kansas), 13 March 1975, page 1, (African American Newspapers).

Hank Aaron was born in Alabama, and in 1975 he was:

…sworn in as honorary mayor of Hobson City during ceremonies in which 75-year-old northeast Alabama all-black town dedicates new Town Hall.

There was a dark side to Hank Aaron’s pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record—and the newspapers covered that as well: racism raised its ugly head. Throughout the 1973 Major League baseball season, during the offseason, and again in 1974, Aaron received hate letters mixed in with the supportive letters that were pouring into the Atlanta Braves’ mailbox. Some even sent him death threats.

What pursuit of baseball homerun record has meant for Hank Aaron: People listen

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 9 April 1974, page 11.

In the above very revealing newspaper article, Hank Aaron opens up about the threats he’d been facing:

Aaron’s hero off the field is Dr. Martin Luther King. “He could walk with kings and talk with presidents,” said Aaron. “He wasn’t for lootings and bombings and fights but he wasn’t afraid of violence, either. He was 20 years ahead of his times.”

King’s death by assassination cannot, of course, be forgotten by Aaron. Sometimes Aaron wonders about that, too. He says that among the hundreds of letters he receives weekly, many are threats on his life.

“But I can’t think about that,” he says. “If I’m a target, then I’m a target. I can only worry about doing my job, and doing it good.”

This same newspaper article says of Aaron:

He has recently become identified with black causes. For example, he is now a close personal friend of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a leading young black spokesman. Aaron, in winter, now is the organizer of a celebrity bowling tournament in Atlanta with proceeds going to research on sickle cell anemia, a disease that afflicts black people.

And this:

Aaron is also outspoken on the progress, or lack of it, for blacks in baseball. He says that blacks are stagnating. “Whatever so-called progress there is—like blacks staying in the same hotels with the white players—this came about from civil rights legislation, not from any leveling action by baseball,” says Aaron.

“Why aren’t there even no black managers? Why aren’t there even no black third base coaches? There are token first base coaches—a few. But what does a first base coach do? He has no duties. No responsibilities. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. He’s not expected to have any intelligence.”

Aaron still feels some of the clichés of being black. He remembers that once blacks were considered “too gutless” to be able to take the pressures of day-in, day-out major league baseball.

“Jackie Robinson changed a lot of those beliefs,” says Aaron. “His courage and intelligence showed what the black man could be made of.

Hank Aaron’s stance on black rights is explored further in the following newspaper article.

Hank Aaron: Baseball Still Not Doing Enough To Give Equal Opportunities To Minorities

USA Monitor (Fort Worth, Texas), 1 March 1993, page 17, (African American Newspapers).

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