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My History Is America's History

The Endowment Launches a New Initiative to Share our Stories

By Maggie Riechers | HUMANITIES, November/December 1999 | Volume 20, Number 6

Some forty years after her father became the last member of her family to emigrate to the United States, Julia Fong visited the Chinese Historical Society in San Francisco and became intrigued by a program called, "In Search of Roots." Sparked by the program and her own growing interest in her family's genealogy, Fong began a journey to discover her family's history that included interviewing relatives, examining immigration files, and touring the former Angel Island Immigration Center. She even made a trip to China. Through her research, Fong was able to trace her grandfather's incredible journey from his homeland and to understand her family history. At the same time, she got a strong dose of American history.

"Many Americans are historians without being aware of it. Most of us have heard stories that have been handed down from generation to generation like family heirlooms, defining us and linking us with faraway places and long-ago events," says NEH Chairman William R. Ferris.

"We want to encourage Americans of all ages to explore their families' histories and to tie their stories to the larger patterns of community life, migration, settlement, and interaction, which have grown together to make up our American history," says Ferris. That is the goal of My History Is America's History, a project developed as part of the Endowment's end of the century initiative, "Rediscovering America: The Humanities and the Millennium."

In recent years the search for ancestral roots and family reunions have become popular pastimes throughout the country. A recent study, published in The Presence of the Past by Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen (Columbia University Press, 1998), found that as many as 40 percent of Americans have "looked into the history of their family or worked on their family tree." Nearly 65 percent had "attended a family reunion or a reunion of some other group of people with whom they had shared a common experience."

According to Ferris, the project is a way for Americans to make connections between families, the past, and the hopes for the future. "We can make history an adventure for the entire family," Ferris adds. My History Is America's History, which is being launched this fall, has developed materials including a family history workbook and a web site, where family stories can be shared, to give Americans of all ages useful tools to help them explore their own and the nation's past.

"The idea is not a project on family history," says Patty Van Tuyl, a senior program and development officer in the NEH Enterprise Office. "The idea is that there are already many, many people participating in activities such as genealogical research, oral histories, family reunions, and cultural tourism in their grandparents hometowns. These people are a hair's breath away from being historians. We want to nudge them into genuine historical thinking."

American history professor James Horton, an advisor to the project, believes there is a strong link between personal history and the country's history. "It's about connecting yourself to the nation's history," says Horton, the Benjamin Banneker Professor of American Studies and History at George Washington University. "We're all important in the nation's history, but people tend to make a distinction between their history and America's history." He cites as an example the experience of historians at the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute when gathering artifacts for its permanent collection on African Americans' migration to the north titled, "Field To Factory."

"People were asked for items they might have such as old suitcases," says Horton. "They responded, 'We have some old photographs and a suitcase in the attic, but you don't want that old stuff. History is about important people.'

"Everyone makes history-it's not limited to the study of presidents, military leaders or heads of corporations. Studying everyone's history affects everyone. African Americans' history is everyone's history, women's history is everyone's history. History is the study of presidents and important events and people but it is also the study of individual histories," notes Horton.

Through his lecture, "Life and Times of Edward Ambush," Horton shows that much can be learned about a community in a particular era by tracing the history of one individual. Using records from the National Archives, Horton traced the life of a nineteenth-century slave in Washington, D.C. named Edward Ambush. Horton studied freedom papers, correspondence from his master, a city directory, and information from the census of 1850. "From these documents I learned about slavery, the life of a person going from slavery to freedom, and other information about community," says Horton. "These kinds of documents can be used to trace a family or a broader community."

Pouring over public documents, as Horton did, or using resources at a local historical society, as Julia Fong did, are just two avenues to learning about family and community roots. The My History Is America's History project has outlined fifteen ways Americans can begin researching and preserving their family heritage and then move on to connecting it with their communities. These strategies are outlined in the workbook, Fifteen Things You Can Do to Save America's Stories. "If you do in any way any number of the fifteen things, you are helping preserve America's stories," says Van Tuyl.

The first ten tips are things Americans can do at home to preserve their family histories such as keeping a journal, writing down family memories, and interviewing older relatives on tape. The workbook emphasizes the importance of preserving family documents, photographs and heirlooms. And with each strategy, it provides an example of a family that traced its roots by that particular method. The workbook also suggests books for further reading and refers families to web sites that are helpful.

A family Bible, for instance, may have a list of relatives stretching back for generations or family notations on births, deaths, or other events.

Angela Walton-Raji began a journey of family discovery through a note in her great-grandmother's Bible. As a girl growing up in Arkansas, Walton-Raji had always been told that her great-grandmother, Sallie Walton, was a Choctaw

Indian but the connection between that claim and her African American roots was never clear. In trying to track down her family history at the National Archives she found nothing in records about the Indians of Oklahoma, where her great-grandmother had lived. She remembered a note in Sallie Walton's Bible that said "Choctaw Freedman." She turned to the microfilm labeled Freedman records. There she discovered her family, including Sallie. She learned both of her great-grandparents had been born into slavery, and both were enslaved by Choctaw Indians. They were freed after the Civil War, thus earning the title, "Choctaw Freedman."

The discovery of these records not only reconnected Walton-Raji with her great-grandmother but gave her a new insight in American history-including slavery, the treatment of Indians and their black slaves, the forced migration of southeastern Indian tribes to Oklahoma, and the story of freed slaves in the post- Civil War period. Walton-Raji work flowed into the next phase of family historical research, what the My History Is America's History project calls, "looking at the big picture"-fitting a family's story into what was happening in the nation at the time and sharing that story with others in the community.

The last five suggestions in the workbook are things Americans can do in their communities, including making their stories available as a resource, exchanging stories with friends and neighbors, and exploring their community's history through family stories. Families are then encouraged to write their family histories and add them to the project's web site. Other ideas include volunteering at local libraries, historical societies, humanities councils, and museums to learn the history of their community. Teachers are encouraged to use family histories as a way of making history real to their students.

The workbook cites an example of a community brought together through its interest in exploring its roots. In French Island, Maine, a small group of residents started asking neighbors to talk about life there when they were young, in an effort to capture some of the history of the French-speaking community before it disappeared. With the help from the people in the community and a grant from the Maine Humanities Council, these oral histories evolved into a photographic archive, a web site, and an illustrated history of the community.

A major component of the My History Is America's History project is its web site, http://www.myhistory.org. "The web site is the 'front porch' of the project, where people can bring and find stories about family, community, and national history," says Van Tuyl.

People can enter stories they have collected about their families and the stories will be preserved in a database. Visitors to the My History web site can also consult the "story booster" section, which links them directly to articles, maps, photographs, timelines, and charts on specific topics in American history-such as ancestry, emancipation, home and family, music, sports, or the Civil War. Families can also browse, download, or order the full text of the kit. Teachers will find links to help bring the project into the classroom, and a calendar of events will post history workshops, programs, and exhibits around the country.

The potential benefits for families, schools, and communities are great. Perhaps the line between official history and personal memory will blurr even more in the future. Ferris thinks it might. "We hope that the project will be a catalyst that brings together all the different kinds work on family history already going on. If that happens, the human element of our country's history will be richer for it."

About the Author

Maggie Riechers is a writer in Potomac, Maryland.

Funding Information

My History Is America's History is supported in part by the Geneology.com division of Mattel, Inc., PSINet, the National Association of Broadcasters, Heritage Preservation, FamilyFun, Houghton Mifflin Co., and the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

The project has been designated as an official project of the White House Millennium Council.