Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Place And History

South Carolina Monument, Battle of the Crater
Petersburg National Battlefield
Petersburg, Virginia
Hello Everyone:

I hope you all had a chance to read and consider yesterday's post, Venting In The-Art Madhouse. Regardless of who you are, where you come from, or what you believe (or don't) believe, you cannot help but be affected by the events in Paris and their ramifications. It is sad to think that we have to parse our words and images so carefully, that we cannot fully express ourselves.  That being said, today we are going back to our usual topics of architecture, historic preservation, urban planning and design.  Today, we are going back to Thom Mayes's brilliant series "Why Do Old Places Matter?"  The subject this time is ancestors and how old places connect this generation with the past.  For blogger, the place that connects the past, present, and future is Manhattan's Lower East Side.  It was there that blogger's paternal great grandparents first settled in the late nineteenth century upon arrival from Eastern Europe.  For others, it is the pueblos of the American Southwest, Salem, Massachusetts, or the Native American villages throughout the Mid- and Northwest.  These old places are not only great places to learn about history and culture, they are also amazing places that connect us to our family's history.

Trace Adkins and Jim Lighthizer
Civil War Tomb of the Unknowns
Arlington National Cemetery
Thanks to websites such as; television programs such as: Finding Your Roots and Who Do You Think You Are, interest in genealogy in the United States as grown.  These forums provide a space for ordinary people, of all backgrounds, to find out who they are and where they came from.  In the process, "...information is discovered, recovered, and new ties are forged between themselves and their  ancestors."  Mr. Mayes cites a 2005 poll by Market Strategies, Inc, on, that revealed "73 percent of Americans are interested in their family history." ("Americans' Fascination with Family History is Rapidly Growing," accessed Dec. 22, 2014) When searching for their family's past, the location is extremely important to people and being there is a deeply moving experiences.  Quoting musician Trace Adkins in the Civil War Trust magazine, Mr. Mayes writes,

I was able to look across the battlefield and see it the way it looked when my great-great-grandfather was there.  Words cannot describe what a spiritual moment that was for me, and it was only possible because of the preservation of that hallowed ground.  ("Trace Adkins Forges Links to the Past, Hallow Ground Magazine, Summer 2013, access Dec. 22, 2014)

Somerset Place Plantation
Creswell, North Carolina
Dorothy Spruill Redford, the author of Somerset Homecoming, wrote of her journey to Somerset Place Plantation through genealogy. Ms. Spruill Redford wrote,

People need that, they need tangibility.  They need something they can touch, that they can hold, look at, point to.  Why that's so important, I don't know, but it's honest-to-god necessary for people to feel something with their fingers, not just with their minds.  The past is that way-the house you used to live in, the tree you used to climb, the doll you used to take to bed.  These are all tactile trigger that fire the emotions in a way mere memories can never do.  The day I first stepped onto the ground of Somerset, I felt a tangibility more intense than all documents and records I'd collected. (Redford, 1988, 209-10)

Ellis Island Reception Hall (date unknown)
New York City
Historic preservation and genealogy go together like peanut butter and jelly.  In fact, many people involved in early preservation efforts were motivated by the desire to preserve the places where ancestors lived. (Weyeneth, 2004, 275) This motivation focused on honoring the accomplishments of their ancestors and reinforcing a strong identity between people and their past deeds.  Mr. Mayes cites the example of the Daughters of the American Revolution, whose membership is predicated on genealogical connections to someone who participated in the American Revolution.  Part of the DAR's mission statement is the preservation of American historic sites and they continue to support historic places throughout the United States. (

Angel Island, site of Asian immigration to the United States
San Francisco, California
In the present day, the field of genealogy is finding appeal with people of diverse backgrounds, however, Mr. Mayes speculates, "I don't think the field was always as welcoming as it is today.  Many may still feel that genealogy is tainted by the reality that people have used it to establish a sense of superiority over other people."  Classic example, is the descendant of the Pilgrims who uses their Mayflower ancestry as a claim of superiority over those whose ancestors came to America in the nineteenth century.  Historic preservation was not immune to claims of ancestral superiority, as a means of telling a selective history of the United States.  Mr. Mayes opines, "I think that's why preservationists haven't always felt comfortable in recent years fostering the connections between family history and the preservation of old places."  He credits the 1977 mini-series Roots with a dramatic change in the way genealogy was embraced.  Further, "It seems to me that it may be time for people who care about old places to welcome and foster the connections that family history can forge between people and old places.

Somerset Homecoming
Creswell, North Carolina
Thom Mayes spoke to Brock Bierman, senior director at regarding the connection between ancestry and old places.  Mr. Bierman is a strong supporter of the "power that genealogical research and knowledge can unlock."  His view on link between uncovering your ancestors and old places:

It's very important for you to not only know who your ancestors were, but also where your ancestors were from.  Where did they come from?  How did they end up where they did?  People want to know the journey-the journey is important as the family history.  It gives you roots, it gives you an association with where you're from, how you're connected not only to your community, but to the very country you live in, and to the society you belong to.  It makes you feel very appreciative of the sacrifices they made, but also a sense of pride-that your ancestors helped build this country. (Interview with Thom Mayes Dec. 19, 2014)

Familial connection to a place may be the result of an ancestor just living there-not as the building owner/builders or through the history books.  Mr. Mayes quotes an anecdote from the Somerset Plantation website of the experience of an elderly African-American gentleman visiting the site:

Somerset Homecoming (date unknown)
Creswell, North Carolina
What had been unnamed before was pride in the craftsmanship and the skill his ancestors brought to the place and left there.  What had been unrecognized was his tangible connection or place in the history of America: his inherent and historic value.  Regardless of circumstances under which they labored, the existence of the plantation house symbolized all that his ancestors created and at that moment in time, instantly connected him, in a culturally affirming way, to his past. (Somerset Homecomings, accessed Dec. 6, 2014)

Thom Mayes suggests, "If people listened to what the genealogical record actually has to
Vesuvius Furnace
Lincoln County, North Carolina
say, and follow that to the places of their ancestors, they can learn a far more interesting, deeper, and nuanced story of their own past and the past of America as a whole."  Mr. Mayes cites his own family's connection to a log cabin in South Carolina, a farm farmhouse in North Carolina, and a Presbyterian church.  He knew those places throughout his life.  However, it was through his own genealogical research that he discovered that his ancestor Bartholomew Thompson was both a farmer and ironworker at Vesuvius Furnace.  Vesuvius Furnace and the owner's house still survives in Lincoln County, North Carolina.  Having that tangible place gave Mr. Mayes a three-dimensional document that connects him to his ancestor.

Lower East Side of New York City
Mr. Brock pointed Mr. Mayes to recent studies that discuss the impact of knowing familial origins.  The study was released this past September and "...draws a correlation between interest in family history-a group defined as 'family history enthusiasts'- and community involvement.  The study concludes that people who explore family history...perform more volunteer work, are more active in voting and/or public affairs, belong to more civic or veterans organizations..."  (Odum Institute for Research in Social Science, 2014)

Perhaps, more fascinating for Mr. Mayes, is a 2010 study by Emory University which revealed, "[c]hildren who know stories about relatives who came before them show higher levels of emotional well-being...[f]amily stories provide a sense of identity through time, and help children understand who they are in the world." ("Do You Know? The power of family in adolescent identity and well-being," accessed Dec. 21, 2014)  What strikes Mr. Mayes (and blogger) is the similarity between the sense of identity, continuity, and memory that old place fulfill in our lives.  They become apparent in the way people talk about being in a place where their ancestor inhabited.

Hester Street (date unknown)
Lower East Side of New York City
Earlier, yours truly shared that her paternal line landed on the Lower East Side of New York City.  The Lower East Side was home to the city's population of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who worked in the factories and sweat shops.  My late grandfather was a garment factory worker.  His family came from Poland.  Even though, the Lower East Side has gentrified, when you walk through, you can still sense the history of the place. The brownstones still tell the story of those who lived, worked, and died there.  For blogger, the connection to the Lower East Side comes through the stories my late dad used to tell me about growing up, going to school, playing stick ball in the streets, and spending time with his friends.  Those stories, combined with being there, gave blogger a tangible sense of history.

History is not just what you read about in the textbooks, it is about place and the connection to the place through ancestry.  This is powerful connection that gives one a sense of identity.

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