The final installment in a series by Victoria Marin, an Educator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Victoria has been blogging about her discoveries as she explores her surprising and complicated personal history.
Part 5: My Mother’s Father
Within the past year I’ve gotten engaged and turned 30, so perhaps it’s fitting that I spent part of my summer researching my family’s history and ancestry. As I enter a pivotal new decade and add my own branch to my family tree, it’s important to me that I have a solid understanding of where I’ve come from, so that I can reflect on my own sense of identity, and have something tangible to share with my children.
This project has emphasized the value of curiosity and thoughtfulness. Although I’ve always considered these traits inherently part of who I am, I now realize that I’ve actually grown into them – my younger self understood neither mortality nor the preciousness of time well enough to take advantage of them when I could. And so, perhaps the most difficult part of this experience has been taking ownership of my own ignorance. Even as three of my four grandparents lived long enough for me to remember them vividly, I still don’t feel as though I knew them particularly well. The final grandparent I researched, my mother’s father, William Anderson, is the one I knew even less than the others, and perhaps unsurprisingly, is the one I’ve faced the biggest obstacles in uncovering information about.
William Anderson was born in 1918 to Robert and Marguerite (nee Myers) Anderson. Robert was born in 1887 in Mississippi, and by 1930 was working as an elevator operator in Chicago. He and Marguerite, who was born in 1890 in Missouri, had deep roots in the south: according to the 1930 census, both of their parents were born in Missouri (information for both Robert and Marguerite’s parents is extremely limited—I have no records directly related to Robert’s parents, and all I have on Marguerite’s parents beyond birthplace are their names, Harry and Ollie Myers). Since reading Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, I’ve been particularly fascinated by the circumstances that inspired their northward migration—perhaps connected to the so-called “Great Migration” of black Americans from rural southern communities to larger urban centers in the northeastern, Midwestern and western United States. Although Chicago isn’t too far from northern Missouri, the urban landscape was likely quite a shock for Robert and Marguerite, whose parents had likely worked as tenant farmers. It is also likely that the move was motivated by the demands of a growing family, and the industrial opportunities of the north (I imagine elevator operation work was a bit easier to find in Chicago than rural Missouri).
Despite the apparent prosperity of the north, several of Robert’s and Marguerite’s children, including my grandfather, William, made their way south as adults, eventually settling in St. Louis, which is where William met my grandmother, Jennie, in the mid-1940’s.
William and Jennie had 11 children, including my mother, Sheila, the third oldest. Since William had pretty intense gambling and alcohol addictions, neither my mother nor her siblings remember spending much time with him as children (he was constantly being thrown out of the house by my grandmother), and while I have vague recollections of him myself, he died after having a heart attack when I was just six years old.
Sadly, I haven’t even been able to find a photograph of him. But I do have one little memory that I hold dear–that his nickname was “Slim” because of his tall, thin stature and that I thought it was so cool that he let me call him Slim instead of grandpa.
Over the past month, I’ve used several types of primary and secondary resources to learn more about my family’s history. I’ve poured over public records like census reports and passport applications (thanks to a paid account with ancestry.com), interviewed older relatives (I found that these conversations are a lot more fruitful in person, with access to photos to look at while talking), studied historical events and trends surrounding periods and movements in my family’s lives, and was even fortunate enough to sift through a detailed journal my great grandmother Gladys kept while traveling in the 1920’s. And with these details, I did my best to connect the dots, to make sense of the people who came before me, and to honor them.
I believe that the beauty of humanity is the freedom and possibilities that we are all born with–our lives are not tethered to the circumstances surrounding us. Even so, it’s so spiritually enlightening to make profound connections (and disconnections) to people I never knew personally. I’m fascinated by the decisions my ancestors made because ultimately they have impacted me in some way, by affecting the generation after them, to make their own choices, eventually leading to my own place, my own role in continuing the American story.
– Posted by Victoria Marin.Victoria has lived in New York City for three years. She has worked in publishing, public relations and public education (she also fancies pubs…coincidence?). Victoria’s biracial background has been the subject of question and debate for as long as she can remember; this series is a self-guided exploration of her genealogical history. Her research sources have included public records, ancestry.com, memoirs, interviews and her own memories.