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Finding My Roots

February 2, 2023

I enjoy watching the PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The show uses genealogical records and genetics to discover the family history of its guest. At the end of the episodes, each guest is given a book that contains genetic results, a family tree, and copies of historical records. 

Photo of Grandma Roena
Grandma Roena

Very few people have access to the professionals who spend hundreds of hours researching each guest. Sites like Ancestry and 23andMe have made it easier to search historical records and build family trees. If you are lucky, you connect with a family member who has already searched the records and created a family tree. A lot of families have members who are unofficial family historians, so this knowledge is passed down by simply speaking to previous generations.

As we get older, we experience more and more loss of our elders. During the height of the pandemic, it felt like each time I called home, I learned of another hospitalization or death. In this case, home is not the town I grew up in. Home is the town in the south where I was born — a town and area filled with my kin.

Visiting herstory

I was able to visit my family in the south in September. I can close my eyes and picture driving down the highway and getting off the exit. I can see each turn that leads me past the former homes of my great-great aunt, grandmothers, and finally around the corner to where my mom lived. They have all passed on and other family members live in these homes now, but they will always be their homes to me. 

This trip was not business as usual. I went there loaded with questions. I was able to talk to my maternal aunts and neighbors who have known my maternal family for generations. One of my aunts drove me around and shared so many stories about the childhood of my mom and her siblings. The more I reflect on what I have learned, the more I recognize that I am the legacy of those who have come before me. I am also full of regret for not sitting more with my grandmothers, mom, aunts, and uncles who have passed on and documenting what I learned. Like all families, it would take volumes to illuminate the rich family history and even more research to do it justice.

The stories that stuck out most surround my great grandparents and my great-great aunt (my great-grandfather’s sister). That generation believed in the importance of a strong work ethic, innovation, ingenuity, service, and most importantly family. These beliefs strongly influenced my mom’s generation, which in turn had an impact on my generation. 

We joke about, “Becoming our parents.” The proverbially, “The apple doesn’t fall from the tree,” has some truth. We embody the lives and values of those who came before us. Even as children begin staking out their own identity, we see them mimicking those around them. Be it a facial expression, a movement, or a saying. 


Photo of Great Grandma Addie Mae
Great Grandma Addie Mae

My great grandparents owned around 14 acres. The land is still in my family, and some of my cousins have added to the acreage. My great grandfather, who worked at a sawmill, raised chickens, hogs, and cows. They also had a horse named Silver. There was also a pond where they could fish. He had a garden where he grew peas, butter beans, corn, okra, greens (mustard, collards, and turnip), and cabbage. My grandmother also had a garden, which was behind my great-great aunt’s house. My great-great aunt’s garden was in her front yard. 

Hard work

Part of the legacy passed on was the importance of a strong work ethic. My great grandmother taught my mom and her siblings how to gather eggs without breaking them, and they would feed some of the livestock. They were also tasked with keeping the gardens at my great-great aunt’s house weed free. She expected to see clean rows when she inspected the garden. I was raised by a maternal aunt, and she had a huge garden in our backyard. Part of our job was taking care of the garden. I am sure she instructed us in the same manner she was taught. 

Innovation and ingenuity

Although my great grandparents owned land, they were not financially rich by any means, nor proceeding generations. They were innovative and resourceful in finding ways to add to their income, and they lived off the land. They were also patient. Slowly adding on to original infrastructure as resources allowed. They also made some items from scratch instead of purchasing it at a grocery store. This has impacted me a positive way and influenced my management of resources, particularly around money management. 

My great grandfather created a racetrack on their property, and on Sundays there would be buggy races. One aunt said that people would come from far and wide dressed in their best and the races happened for many years. My great grandparents would sell popcorn, peanuts, snowballs, chips, and teacakes baked by my great grandmother. My great grandfather also had a watermelon patch and would sell them from the back of a truck. My aunt remembers being on the back of the truck helping. When I would visit the south growing up, I can remember my grandmother having a store in her house. People from the neighborhood would come and buy things from cookies to soda to chips. People in my family are very good salespeople, who possess a certain charm. For example, my mom was very good at fundraising and could sell anyone anything. When I was younger, I remember being the top salesperson in a school candle sale. 

Photo of Daddy ST
Daddy ST (Addie Mae's second husband)

Importance of family

My great-great aunt, who worked at a box factory, was a huge part of the childhood of my mom and her siblings and helped my grandmother. She taught them to bake chocolate, lemon, coconut, and pound cakes from scratch as well as chocolate candy. She also instilled manners into them. My grandmother taught them to bake pies and how to cook. Cooking unfortunately is not a skillset I inherited. Many of my aunts and cousins however are “Mississippi cooks.” I may have gotten the baking gene. When I was growing up, I baked quite a bit.

My grandmother ingrained the importance of family and family sticking together to her children and that has been passed down to my generation and the generation after. When I visit there, I notice how the family takes care of each other. From a ride, to food, to a place to stay, family is taken care of, and this mindset extends to close friends as well. It is a great feeling to know that I will always have a place to go. And that is the model of the family. Older generations helping the younger, and as children get older, contributing to help elders and younger generations. 

Service to others

Service was also modeled strongly by the older generations, including service to church. Members of my family have attended the same church for around five generations. My great-great aunt taught Sunday school there. My mom was heavily involved in the church and the community and wore many hats. The service carried over outside of church. My grandmother liked to feed her neighbors and was under the philosophy of having enough for whoever might drop by. My mom’s life was about service, from taking people to work, to pay bills, or “to make groceries.” It was important to her to take care of and visit the elders in the community. This service was also displayed by my aunt who raised me. Memories around major holidays always stick out. She would bake pies and cakes and make so much food. Then she would send plates and whole pies to older friends in the area. She, like my mom, never met a stranger, and she could have long conversations with people she just met. While my aunt was more of a talker, my mom was more of a listener. I am more of the latter. 

Like the end of Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., I would love to write a book about what I have discovered about my family and include a family tree and historical records. The journey of finding my roots helps me understand my past and who I am now. It has me mindful of what I should be doing in the present with the resources I have been blessed with. I want to live out the legacy of strong work ethic, innovation, ingenuity, service, and family that was demonstrated by older generations. 

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