Network from Big City to Small City

Researching African-American Roots
Where Big City Helps Small City by Networking!

by Jane Campbell Arrington

A small statement having a big effect...this is how I would describe my day in Washington, Pennsylvania on Saturday, October 6, 2007, as a participant in the 5th Annual Afro-American Festival, given by the Washington African-American Roundtable, under the auspices of the Washington Historical Society and the LeMoyne Community Center Executive Board.

Washington, PA,, my hometown, is the county seat of Washington County, in southwest Pennsylvania -- a part of the Panhandle which also includes portions of Ohio and West Virginia. It is a two-three hour trip from Cleveland, Ohio, depending upon your driving speed. Once a thriving coal center like southwestern Ohio and northeastern West Virginia, the main industry in town now is the Washington & Jefferson College. There are two main libraries in the city: that of the College, and a small public one, the Citizens' Library.

Several years ago, while visiting my relatives and researching for information on my ancestors at the local library, the Citizens' Library, regretfully, I found little material on African-Americans who helped with the growth of the city. Yes, there was mention of those in the ministry and a few that graduated from the College, but as a whole, little to nothing about everyday events and folks. After speaking to the reference librarian, she decided to rectify this oversight by reviewing the newspaper articles on microfilm written by an African-American woman, Miss Eva Brooks, called "Miss Evie" by all of us who dearly loved her. She was the Griot of our minority community who each Saturday, wrote the "comings and goings” and community events in the local newspaper, beginning about 1933 to Miss Evie's death in 1969. These columns were to become the foundation for historians and genealogists today.

Subsequently, a few people formed the African-American Roundtable, who as part of their mission, established an annual festival with a focus of honoring past African-Americans in this city.

African-American Genealogical Society, Cleveland has been a part of these festivals for the past two years. In 2006, I created a presentation board using business people of color, for the year 1920. My purpose was to show young people that if, in 1920, these entrepreneurs could make it in Washington, then certainly, in 2006, it was possible. Surprisingly, the board was exhibited at the Citizens' Library for Black History Month. Reactions from people who found their ancestors addressed were awesome. I had included trades people, both men and women, in addition to those with professional skills. You ask, how was AAGS, Cleveland involved? All the text material I used to prepare the board was from a book I found in Salt Lake City when the group spent a week there in 2005. Having seen displays of different presentation boards prepared by members of our group, I used a few tips from our members when preparing for this festival.

When asked to make another presentation board in 2007, I made three: one gave a brief history of the slavery trade; another a short history of the slave owner of one branch of my family; and finally, a genealogy report of the first three generations of this family back to 1791. Photographs were included with related text.

I was wonderfully surprised at the outpour of compliments and questions on genealogy from attendees. Most thrilling to me was my own brother's reaction, how proud he was of this presentation, and a request for these boards to be used within the community.

I'd call this Networking from big city to small city, assisting each other in our quest to bring our ancestry to the general public. Networking: because it helped interested folks in Washington to realize what an asset existed in the Pittsburgh AAGHS, merely 45 minutes away, where they could find others with a common interest and need (Marlene Bransom, AAGHS, president and member of this Roundtable group). Networking: because when we give conferences or other special events, we just may reach the folks at that festival. Networking: because we have accessibility to materials not easily available in small towns/cities, and we have an obligation to share our gifts with those who have fewer gifts. By the way, not only were we thanked for the presentation, our brochures and pencils went quickly! Next? What about African-American genealogy organization(s) in West Virginia…

Last updated: October 20, 2007