I have been researching my family’s ancestry for almost 5 years now. I have spent long hours in front of my laptop searching on the internet. I have also spent many hours in libraries and archives researching through books, newspapers, and historical society’s newsletters. I have looked through census reports, land papers, and tax records. I have ordered death certificates and found marriage records as well. I have read more books about genealogy research than I can count.
There has been one resource that has become more beneficial than I ever thought it would be. That resource is the funeral program. The funeral program has been a long-standing tradition within the African American culture. The funeral program was to African Americans what the newspaper obituary was to white Americans during a time in our country when newspapers did publish the deaths of African Americans. The funeral program can give you a short obituary that can include parent’s names, sibling’s names, marriage dates, occupations, military service, birth and death dates, and where a person has lived. They sometimes will have a photo of the deceased as well. These are excellent documents for researching genealogy and often times the most overlooked documents in the African American culture.
I remember that my Granny kept funeral programs in the top drawer of the dining room cabinet. I never understood why she did that and back then children didn’t ask adults questions like that. As I got older and I started going to the funerals of my family and friends, I too started to keep the funeral programs. Back then I wasn’t keeping them for research. I’m not sure why I started keeping them in the beginning, maybe it was the last thing of theirs that I would have, or maybe I was trying to be like my Granny. But once I started researching my family’s ancestry one of the first things I looked at to reference was my Granny’s funeral program for additional information about our family.
Then a light bulb went off in my head, if my grandmother and I saved funeral programs then there must be other people in our family that have saved some too. So I set my eyes on finding any and all funeral programs I could. I decided that 2015 was the year of the obituary. So I decided to go to social media and make the announcement. I posted on Facebook that I was looking for any and all obituaries and funeral programs for anyone with the last name Mays, Denson, Hatchett, or Wright, and I tagged everyone that I was friends with from Newport. I posted that same post every month with no luck at all. One weekend in June I was in Little Rock with my Mom and we decided to contact one of our cousins to inquire about some family funeral programs. I was able to find a great many funeral programs from my cousin Oliver ‘Sonny Boy’ Dillingham. He had four 3 ½ inch binders full of funeral programs. His collection was inclusive to all people who had lived in Jackson County, Arkansas at one time or another. He had one binder was just of Hatchett relatives. I had hit the genealogy jackpot. I found my grandfather’s and seven of his nine brothers and sisters’ along with several other relatives. Although this was a great find, and I was very excited in the back of my mind I knew there had to be more somewhere.
A year or so later I had settled back into my regular routine of research. I had started Google searching my relatives in hopes to find something new about them. And one of my Google searches, ‘African American history of Jackson County, Arkansas’ brought up an article announcing that the James Logan Morgan Jr. Collection was ready for public viewing at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock, Arkansas. I knew Mr. Morgan. We were from the same town and were members of the same church. He and my grandmother had worked together on articles for the Jackson County Historical Society and church programs for years and years. The article said that his collection had over 2,000 funeral programs from residents of Jackson and Woodruff counties. I screamed when I read that because those are the two counties from which all of my family was either from or lived in over the past 150 years. There were also church records, school records, military records, photos, and genealogy correspondence and research. So I knew this was a collection I had to put my eyes on. So I made the trip to Little Rock one Saturday morning to visit the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies to see what I could find. During that trip, I found my paternal grandfather’s funeral program along with some other relatives that had vital information that I had been looking for.
This collection had a wealth of information on both sides of my family. Going through this collection was like taking a walk down memory lane for me. I was able to see a lot of pictures of my grandparents with their friends and my parents with their friends. These were people who I grew up knowing and respecting from local churches, our school, and the community. And this was me only getting to spend five hours on just a small portion of the collection. I am learning through my research that there is so much out there in terms of genealogy, family history, and information other than census records, vital records, and newspapers that are normally discussed genealogy reference books. Thinking outside the box and looking for additional resources, like funeral programs, have become a vital key in breaking down just a few of my brick walls. And this is why my journey continues…