Have you ever had a connection with someone you have never met? I have a very strong connection with my grandfather, Booker Mays. He is my only grandparent that died before I was born. So I never got to know him as a person, have a relationship with him, or make memories with him. But despite not knowing him personally, I have this connection to him that is hard to explain. Maybe it’s because if I had been a boy, my parents had decided that I was to be named, Booker, after my grandfather. I remember like it was yesterday, the first time I ever heard anyone talk about him was when I was in the second grade. I had gotten in trouble earlier that day for telling my teacher to shut up. Later that evening I overheard my Granny talking to my Mom about what had happened at school that day, and she told my Mom, Trisha has a mouth and attitude just like her father and grandfather. I remember her laughing to herself like she was remembering something he had once said or done and shaking her head. That moment has always stuck with me. It was like that was my first memory of Booker Mays.
Although I have this connection with my grandfather, I haven’t been able to find much information about him. When I started this journey all I knew was the basics about him, his birth date, marriage date, death date, and that he worked for the railroad. In the beginning, much of my research efforts for Booker Mays ended in frustration and disappointments. I wasn’t able to find him prior to the 1930 US Census. I couldn’t find his social security application. I didn’t know his parent’s names. I felt like I had just as much information two years on my journey as I did when I started researching. A part of me feels guilty because I have been able to research back seven generations on my mom’s paternal side of my family. My mom’s maternal branch, five generations. My father’s maternal branch has been researched back well over ten generations by my cousin. But when I look at my family tree all I have on Booker’s branch is his name and a possible name for his mother, I feel like I haven’t done enough to find out more about him and his family.
Since Booker Mays is the only grandparent of mine not born in Arkansas, and I don’t know anything about his life or family in Mississippi, I have had to do some out of the box genealogy research to get to know my grandfather. I knew he worked for the railroad, so about two years ago I went online and searched for information for Missouri Pacific Railroad. I found an email that was for former employees. So I sent a very generic email stating that I was researching my family ancestry and asked if there were any employee records available from the 1940s and 50s. I honestly wasn’t expecting a response or any information, but what could it hurt right? To my surprise, I received a response just a few days later stating that yes those records are available but are now housed at the National Archives district office in Atlanta. I was given the contact information for the person at the Atlanta office and the additional information needed to request information about my grandfather. Later that day I emailed the Atlanta office with Booker’s employee information, my relationship to him, and why I was requesting his employee records. I got a response the next week telling me that Booker’s employee file was housed there and that it consisted of over 400 pages. He also told me that for $20 they could go through the entire employee file and pull out 25 pages of what they considered had the most genealogical information, and I could get the entire report at a later time. I received that 25-page document two weeks after I sent in the $25 check.
When I got my package in the mail, I didn’t know what to expect. On one hand, I didn’t want to get my hopes up thinking I would get a lifetime of information about Booker Mays. But realistically I figured this report would probably consist of a bunch of time cards and time off requests. The 25-page report had Booker’s application for employment which included his dependents information and his parent’s names. It also included a few hand written letters from him and my grandmother explaining the details of his doctor’s appointments for an on the job injury he sustained. There was his death record from the funeral home, and my grandmother’s application to apply for railroad benefits after he passed away. Although I didn’t get any new information, I was able to learn about his on the job injury and see the letters that were written on his behalf of his doctors and friends in the community about his pain level at the time. I did later request his entire employee file.
This was just the beginning of my research of my grandfather. The confidence I gained through this experience by reaching out to people that I didn’t know and getting such a positive reaction helped me to continue to look for other out of the box resources. In part II of this blog, I will discuss how I researched my grandfather using online newspapers to learn even more about the man I never met. And this is why my journey continues…..
To read Part 2, click here
To read Part 3, click here.
To read Part 4, click here.
To read Part 5, click here