Black Genealogy research requires attention to obits, homegoings and surviving family members
Camden, Tenn. – About 340 miles northwest of Atlanta, lies a small community with a big heart that was originally named “Tranquility.” The community counted as one of its more than 3,000 residents a special lady, Delia Mae Tharpe, mother of Dr. Jack L. Bomar, Executive Bishop/Senior Pastor of Atlanta’s Hillside International Truth Center.
Ms. Delia, as many called her, was funeralized on the third Saturday of January admist a mountainous cool afternoon. It would have been an ordinary “homegoing” service, except Ms. Delia was anything but ordinary. Her extraordinary life on earth for 81 years is one for the history books. I barely knew Ms. Delia, meeting her perhaps once. Yet, nearly 55 persons, including my mother, Angeline Wead and me, traveled five hours each way to share with hundreds of others to celebrate the life of this lady.
What caused us to travel early on Saturday morning and return late that evening, is what I will share later in this blog.
Delia Mae Tharpe, September 28, 1941 – January 14, 2023
Just one day earlier, was the funeral for my maternal cousin, M. Madeline Wilks Matthews, who I’ve known all of my life. Her service took place in St. Louis, Missouri. My mother was the eldest cousin to Madeline. I was asked to write her obituary, which was delivered to her church secretary with all the love and care that I could deliver. Madeline was a bright light who was on this earth 93 years.
Margaret Madeline Wilks Matthews, Aug. 30, 1929 – January 7, 2023
The lives of Madeline and Ms. Delia were different and yet there were a few similarities. Both ladies lived full lives, sang in their church choirs, held many positions in church leadership, and each worked more than four decades in their respective fields. Madeline did not have children; while Ms. Delia bore nine children and had many grandchildren. Madeline was active in politics and in her retirement years, she gained additional education and served as a substitute teacher and paraprofessional in special education.
In short, I am proud of Madeline’s accomplishments that began in her college prep Omaha Central High School years where she excelled in academics, music, other creative endeavors, and as student government leader. As a young high school graduate, she was denied employment in her hometown because she was Black. That’s why she ventured south of Nebraska to Missouri where she lived the next nearly 80 years and endured the sadly typical ups and downs of trailblazing, independent thinking and working women.
Ms. Delia’s life couldn’t have been easy by usual, societal measures. She was a “dedicated and hard worker for more than forty-three years at Henry I. Siegel, ‘the H.I.S. factory’ in Bruceton, TN as a press operator,” according to her obituary. She bore nine children and raised them in humble conditions with such love, leadership and purpose as shared with laughter, sympathy tears and memorable message.
Her life was inspiring as experienced by hundreds in the near standing room-only chapel where the roomful of upright flower displays served as fragrant reminders of the depth of her influence in this hamlet of about 3,000 residents within 5.7 square miles of the Tennessee hills.
So impactful was Ms. Delia’s life that a young lady who was seated behind me said that she attended the service even though she lived in the area, yet did not know Ms. Delia “that well.” Eula Eikerenkoetter, widow of the late, popular minister, “Rev. Ike,” was there. So were several messages of condolences in the form of proclamations and recognitions that included many Atlanta City Councilmembers.
A guide for genealogy researchers
Family genealogists can learn many lessons from our new ancestors while honoring their time on this earth and their vibrant spirits. The obituaries, the services are the beginning of sharing the legacies of the families. Usually, many blanks are filled in that often break through the typical brick walls found in Black ancestry pursuits.
- Ensure the obituaries are well-researched and well written. Many eyes are on the obituaries. Besides family and friends, other entities utilize the information for legal, government, insurance, retirement, military (if applicable), social and community purposes.
- The best way to achieve the best written obituaries is through preparation that is based on accurate written and oral information.
- When written and oral background is provided for the deceased loved one, engage at least one friend or family member to edit and fact-check. This is not the time to worry about whether anyone has hurt feelings about fact-checking another’s input. This is about getting things right for the legacy of the individual and accuracy for larger purposes.
- The way the services are rendered are usually the best examples of how persons lived. Take notes.
- During the service, the songs that are sung, the scriptures that are read and the officiants are all indications of the best parts of the deceased lives.
- Meet the persons who spoke at the services. At minimal, offer condolences to them as well as the family members. As a maximum benefit for the family researcher, politely seek more information from the individuals either after the service or another time.
- The burial or final resting places provide additional insight into family histories. My cousin, Mark S. Owen, partner in Good Genes Genealogy Services, often teases me that I am fixed on cemeteries and death certificates. It is for good reason. There are details such as health information and other bits of information that can benefit the living from the official documents. At cemeteries, I walk the grounds, especially if the recent ancestors are placed in family plots. There are often other clues about our extended families and friends based on surnames and first names found on the cemetery markers.
- After receiving new and/or best information, please record and update family records. Family members deserve vibrant and verified information. Studies show the positive mental and spiritual health benefits from individuals learning more about loved ones.
- Step back a few times during this process and reflect on how you feel during the process. Often Mark and I take time to release and “breathe” to ensure that our emotional health is intact. Researching, updating and engaging in this process is sometimes taxing for individuals.
- Celebrate the lives of our ancestors. They deserve our respect, understanding and accurate depictions of their lives.