Saving African American genealogy programs

By Jill Sweetapple, SGA Blog Contributor and Archival Assistant at the Delta Flight Museum

Tamika Strong, Reference Archivist at the Georgia Archives in Morrow, took on a big challenge and created a program that has won a Georgia Historical Records Advisory Council (GHRAC) award. Time to find out more!

What spurred this idea in the first place, can you remember?
A chance reading of an article in Georgia Library Quarterly written in 2009 by Dottie Demarest, former genealogy and local history librarian at the East Central Georgia Regional Library System which is now Augusta-Richmond County Public Library. In the article, Ms. Demarest talked about the funeral program collection at the library. After reading it, I thought that if Augusta could do it, so could Atlanta. So I started thinking about how to get the programs and where would they be housed.

Did you talk to the other project’s “inventors” or did you jump right in?
I just jumped right in. I didn’t think to reach out to Ms. Demarest. I just figured it out on my own. The goal was to collect the programs, index them and then donate them to the Auburn Avenue Research Library. Once I had the goal in mind, I shared my idea with the members of the Wesley Chapel Genealogy Group and they liked the idea. I also approached the then president of the Metro Atlanta Chapter of AAHGS, Gene Stephens, who was also on board. Auburn Avenue was the only institution I considered as a permanent home for the collection and thankfully, the Archivist at the time, Kerrie Cotten Williams, was accepting of the collection.

Did you have programs ready to go or did a collection elsewhere inspire you?
Our collection was inspired by the collection at Augusta-Richmond, that had been digitized on DLG. We didn’t have any programs ready, so through word of mouth, we began to receive donations of programs. We are still collecting and processing them. Hopefully, the programs we are collecting now will eventually be added to the Atlanta Funeral Programs Collection on DLG.

Did you have to solicit anyone to include their collections, or did a percentage donate once they heard about the project?
All of the programs were donated by members of the Wesley Chapel Genealogy Group and the Metro Atlanta Chapter of AAHGS. Some members reached out to family members, friends, funeral homes, and cemeteries and were able to get programs from them.

How did you “advertise” to get interest and donations?
Mostly word of mouth through members of the groups, but I remember creating a bookmark and would share that bookmark with attendees of workshops I taught several years ago.

How important were your genealogical ties in growing the project?
Our genealogical ties were the driving force behind the project. The obituaries contained in funeral programs are, in many cases, the only biographical sketch an individual will ever have. In the African American community, funeral programs are collected and, in some cases, treated as heirlooms. When the collector of these documents dies, unfortunately, these documents are among the papers thrown away, especially if the deceased are not members of the family. We wanted to provide a way to preserve these records because as genealogists tracing African American ancestry, we know how difficult it can be to uncover information. Though the information contained in the obituaries may not always be correct, it is a starting point for someone tracing their family’s history. Many of my fellow genealogists are having to start from scratch and it is our hope that this collection and others like it will help provide a foundation on which future researchers can begin the journey of tracing their family’s history.

If someone wanted to do a similar project, what first couple of steps would you suggest?
I would suggest they check to see if there is another project like it in their area first. If there is not, they may want to identify and speak with a repository to see if it is a collection they would be interested in receiving. The collection criteria for our project only had one restriction, the deceased had to be African American. Auburn Avenue Research Library was selected in part because they collect materials from around the world. Someone interested in doing a project such as this will have to make sure that the programs fall within the collection policy of the institution. Once they have a home, then they can work on collecting the programs. Word of mouth and some publicity at workshops worked well for us. They may be able to expand that in other ways. The goal was the index the programs before donating them to the institution so that the institution wouldn’t have more work added to their workload. Additionally, you may want to work with the institution to identify and possibly purchase supplies, archival safe boxes, folders, etc. to house the collection so that it will not become a financial drain for the institution. Grants may help to supplement this need. Work with the institution on deciding how to organize the collection, whether each program will have its own folder or if they will be grouped alphabetically. Depending on the size of the project, you may have to get volunteers to assist with the project. Once the foundation is laid and a process established, you can focus on collecting the programs.

Tell me a bit about your new GHRAC award!
Angela Stanley, the Director of Archival Services & Digital Initiatives at Georgia Public Library Service (GPLS), who was instrumental in getting the collection digitized, submitted the nomination and we were fortunate to be one of the recipients of the award. It never crossed my mind that this project would one day be honored with a state-wide award like GHRAC. It goes to show you never know. Though my name is listed on the award, the honor is shared with everyone who made contributions to the success of the project. I am grateful for the recognition and thankful to all the partners, especially the Wesley Chapel Genealogy Group, AAHGS Metro Atlanta Chapter, Derek Mosley and the archival staff at the Auburn Avenue Research Library, Angela Stanley and GPLS, and the Digital Library of Georgia for all of their work on making this project the success that it is.

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