Recently, the New York Times ran this vivid collection of memories of the black YMCA in Evanston (IL). It prompts an interesting set of adjectives: touching, bittersweet, shaming.
Touching, because of the affectionate nostalgia that shone in every recollection. Bittersweet, since the world of these memories is gone forever. Shame at the segregation that made a separate Y necessary for Evanston’s black citizens.
Evanston was not alone in this. The black citizens of my hometown of Montclair, N.J., also had to create their own YMCA. By the time I moved to town a decade ago, the segregation was gone but the building remained, a branch of the main YMCA a mile north. It housed programs for toddlers and preschoolers and was called the “Little Y.” (A few years ago, it was demolished to make way for a new elementary school.)
A lot of the folks who took their kids there for Mommy and Me swimming were ignorant of the history. I remember the reaction that greeted me when I gave a factual answer to someone who wondered aloud about how the building came to be. First there was a look of shock. Then – “Are you sure? That seems really unlikely.”
Yet many, many towns have old segregation fault lines. Some are rather close to the surface, and in places where we think they aren’t supposed to be in the first place. (Relevant point: New Jersey schools were integrated by law in 1947, a lot later than I had supposed.)
It’s good that people are looking at these old buildings and institutions and asking about what they were and how they came to be. The Times story, as well as the stories told about my hometown Y, teach us that out of an insane situation came a heritage of achievement and treasured memories. I’m glad the history isn’t getting lost, even while I hope the circumstances that created it never happen again.
This week the Archaeologist attends a gathering of her husband’s tribe. With five family groups plus one matriarch represented, it qualifies as a reunion, if not one of those massive roundups of descendants that I hope to attend one day. (Or organize, if I get crazy enough.)
Reunions, large or small, are where the family genealogists get a lot of work done.
Of course the point is to spend rewarding time with family, and I wouldn’t promote a lot of family harmony if I spent the entire reunion with a tape recorder and a magnifying glass. But these are occasions where nosing around about family business is part of the fun, and genealogy is definitely on the program of festivities.
Some of the basic housekeeping tasks I try to accomplish include:
• Getting identities and background information for old photos;
• Going over recent research finds with relatives to see if they shake loose any additional memories;
• Showing off family group sheets to younger relatives who ask about them. It’s great to take these opportunities with little kids who are genuinely curious. Five minutes or so is probably what most younger children can sit still for, but who knows? Those five minutes might uncover a budding genealogist down the road.
It’s nice to think about a summer filled with families sharing memories – and information. If you have family reunions, what do you try to accomplish for your research while you’re there?
… The Draft Riots were consuming New York City (from July 13 – 16, 1863).
It was an ugly chapter in New York City history. The spark was a strict new draft law empowering the President to draft all males between ages 18 and 35 for a three-year term of military service. It also established a loophole whereby a man who paid $300 (or paid a substitute to fight for him) could exempt himself from the service — a natural sore point for those lacking money to buy their way out.
It was a short step from resenting the draft to resenting the city’s African American population. Modern scholars see the riots as a boiling point for a big, noxious stew of tensions — white laborers resentful of black laborers’ competition in the marketplace; decades’ worth of sensational journalism decrying the supposed evils of interracial socializing and marriages. The mob also targeted so-called “amalgamationists,” which mostly meant white women married or cohabiting with black men.
When it was all over, at least 120 citizens were dead (some estimates put the toll much higher), and 50 buildings were destroyed, including, infamously, the Colored Orphan Asylum, whose children were moved to the almshouse on Blackwell’s Island for safety. African Americans bore the brunt of the mob’s fury: citizens were seized by the crowd to be stabbed, lynched, and beaten to death, and the homes of several prominent black citizens were burned.
The Draft Riots have retained a vivid life in the imaginations of novelists and filmmakers. A notable recent example is Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs of New York, which draws heavily on Herbert Asbury’s 1928 account. (More recent scholarship has disagreed with aspects of Asbury’s study, including casualty figures.)
With the Civil War raging, the Draft Riots were a destructive and disturbing convulsion — “equivalent to a Confederate victory,” wrote scholar Samuel Eliot Morrison. Order was restored after three days of violence, but the scars remained in permanent rifts between the black and white working class, and a widespread exodus of black families from once-thriving African-American neighborhoods in Manhattan.
I was mucho enjoying Dick Eastman’s review of the photography compilation The Last Muster: Images of the Revolutionary War Generation by Maureen Taylor. Some Revolutionary War veterans lived into the dawn of the age of photography, and Taylor’s book collects as many of their images as she could track down. It’s jarring to consider Continental Army soldiers posing for a photographer. Yet there they are, very old, often frail, but living links to a legendary past.
Time and generations are fluid, a point we often miss because of internal assumptions. Recently at a dinner with old friends, a trivia challenge was thrown down: Who is the earliest president to still have living grandchildren?
Good one! I was trying to think of presidents with considerably younger wives or second marriages. My guesses were Theodore Roosevelt or just possibly Grover Cleveland (the only president who got married in the White House! More trivia!).
But the answer, apparently, is John Tyler (1790-1862), president from 1841-45, or forty years before Cleveland. As of 2009 there were two living Tyler grandsons through his son Lyon Gardiner Tyler (1853-1935): Lyon Jr., born in 1924, and Harrison Ruffin, born in 1928. A jaw-dropper, but upon consideration, an understandable genealogy tale. It’s a not-unprecedented combination of longevity and fertile second marriages to much younger wives — in Tyler’s case, Julia Gardiner, 30 years his junior and the mother of Lyon Gardiner Tyler.
I saw another example of this a couple of weeks ago in the story of a (living) nephew of a Civil War veteran who worked to replace the marker on his uncle’s grave. This, too, was a tale of two marriages and two succeeding generations of males producing children late in their lives.
While there is nothing quite that extreme in my own family tree, there does seem to be a pattern of later-than-usual marriages. Our timelines are a bit stretched out, as a result. When my 12-year-old had to make a family tree a few years ago, the teacher couldn’t help noticing that she had a grandfather born in 1913, the sort of date most of the other kids were putting down for the births of their great-grandparents.
But families don’t always reproduce on trend. It is a useful thing to remember the next time we’re trying to figure out a time frame in which to search for Ancestor X. Better not say, “She couldn’t possibly have been so-and-so’s grandchild!” until we’re sure that’s really true.