One of the best ways to understand our ancestors’ lives better is to talk to them and ask them questions about how life was where they lived, worked, and played. I know, I know. You’re going to say, “How do I do that when so many of the ancestors I’m most interested in are deceased?” Well, the answer is: you have to rely, to the extent possible, on their descendants who are still alive. Interviewing relatives can yield jewels of information when people are willing and able to participate. I want to share an example of how a conversation with one of my family’s elders helped me to contextualize census records I had found previously and to follow her leads to round out our family history.
Recently, I called my maternal grandmother’s 83 year-old cousin, Mary (a pseudonym), a resident of southwest Louisiana, to find out what new insights she could provide about our family. I unexpectedly learned many details about a place (and its people) that was very special to her – her hometown, Grand Coteau, Louisiana. Grand Coteau is a town (some would call it a village, based on its population of 919 in 2018) that evolved out of the efforts of two nuns who, in 1821, established a convent and a girls’ school called the Academy of the Sacred Heart. It was solidified even further as a religious center in 1837 when the Jesuits established St. Charles College to educate lay people and, later, exclusively Jesuit priests. I didn’t know this before writing this article, but a Civil War battle was fought there, too!
According to Cousin Mary, most black people, including her immediate family, lived in homes along the various “alleys” of Grand Coteau. However, Cousin Mary’s great-grandparents, Norbert Lewis (known by his children and grandchildren as Pop Venome) and his second wife Mary Hawkins Fuselier, called Marie Chris, lived on the main road (designated Main Street on the 1940 U.S. Census) going through Grand Coteau. These days, it is called Martin Luther King, Dr., but it was known colloquially as “Front Street” when Cousin Mary was growing up. Cousin Mary’s great-grandparents had lived on Front Street as long as she could remember, and she was born in 1937. Actually, prior to that, Pop Venome’s brother, John Lewis, had owned property in the vicinity of his house. According to the 1930 Census, John had worked as a woodchopper for St. Charles College. The Lawrence Martin family and Willie and Ella Lawrence family lived on one side of him; Henry Ivy, David Little, Rodney Key, and Frank Barry lived on the other side.
Research Tip: If you intend to interview or visit with a relative over family history, plan to have some questions already prepared or events/themes that you want to discuss, explore, verify, or clarify. Make sure that your questions are mostly open-ended in nature so that you can get as much information as possible. Open-ended questions are those that will require more than a “yes” or “no” answer: “Grandpa, have you lived in Baxley, Georgia your whole life?” versus “Grandpa, besides Baxley, what cities and states have you been to or lived in?”
By the time of the 1940 Census, some of the families in the neighborhood had come and gone, but there were still a few familiar faces. The Little, Lawrence, Key, Martin, and Ivy families still lived in the same area. John Lewis had died by 1937, but Pop Venome and Marie Chris had moved to an adjoining or nearby property. To Cousin Mary, it seemed that Pop Venome had more means than others in the area. He had a house with a large back yard and a “big, heavy, green” bath tub with feet. They didn’t use a galvanized tub like most people used because Marie Chris was a tall, big lady, and she couldn’t bathe well in them. Although in 1940, there was no occupation listed for him, Cousin Mary remembered that Pop Venome worked as a janitor. He would “fix bottles”, sweep, and clean both the Saloon (the only local bar on Front Street) and the Bakery Shop. Cousin Mary spent a lot of time with Pop Venome and Marie Chris. Sometimes she would stay at their house overnight, especially when her mother would walk from Grand Coteau to Sunset to take her teenaged daughters to school dances.
Cousin Mary recalled other blacks who lived on Front Street around 1947 when she was about 10 years old: Victor and Theresa “Therese” Esprit; Lawrence and Eva Martin, along with Ms. Eva’s niece, Cleona Miller; Alberta “Ms. Bertha” Key; Ella Lawrence; “Aunt Leez” Little, along with her son, Henry (“Mr. Toran”), and his wife (her maiden name was Eaglin). Some of the white families on Front Street were the Barry’s and the Miller’s. There were several businesses that operated on Front Street, too. These included the Bakery Shop (the building is still there); the Meche Store (Ms. Regina sold mostly material, but most of the old country stores sold a variety of products, including food); Morette Smith’s store (which sold groceries like sausage and rice in sacks, by weight); and, at the end of the road, Walter Barry’s Saloon. The Saloon was at the corner, and on the side of the saloon was the post office that Barry’s sister managed. According to Cousin Mary, the E. Petetin Store was a larger store that sat across the street from those businesses. Not too far away was the jail; people could talk with and deliver meals and other needed items to the inmates through the jail’s windows.
Research Tip: Some people have no trouble talking, but others may need a little encouragement. Start off the interview with small talk rather than jumping right into asking your questions. It might also be helpful to provide a photo, memento, or relevant document to help jog the person’s memory. Be patient; be comfortable with long pauses and silence; and follow your relative’s lead, even when it’s not necessarily the direction you want to pursue. You probably still will get valuable information!
Cousin Mary remembered Ms. Therese (Esprit) as a diminutive, brown-skinned, portly lady and mentioned that her grandchildren now live on the property where she had lived. Ms. Alberta Key’s house wasn’t as close to the front of the street as Pop Venome’s was; she and her sister Hazel lived “all the way to the fence.” Cousin Mary noticed that the Charlot family lived there in later years and surmised that, in marrying Ms. Ezola Key, Mr. Charlot may have bought the sisters’ interest in the land at a later date. Ms. Little (also known as Aunt Leez) was a tall, dark-skinned lady. She and the other black ladies in the community would wear long dresses, according to Cousin Mary. Ms. Little’s son (Mr. Toran) and his wife (Ms. Tah was described as a “little” woman) also lived with her; they had no children. On Sunday nights, since she didn’t know how to do hair, Marie Chris would send Cousin Mary to Ms. Tah, who would comb her hair (in five plaits) on Monday morning before she went to school. Ms. Tah would sit on the bed, and Cousin Mary would have to sit on a can. Cousin Mary also remembered a Ms. Deuce who “came up” with her mother and stayed at Aunt Leez’ house.
One of Pop Venome’s daughters, Nan Orelia, lived not too far away. Nan Orelia had mostly sons and lived on a farm in Blue Springs (possibly the town of Bellevue). One of Pop Venome’s sons, Voorhies (my great-grandfather), lived nearer to Grand Coteau in a town called Sunset. He would bring his children to Grand Coteau, and Cousin Mary would play hopscotch with them in the yard. As she got older, she spent more time with her cousins Bernice, Bernita, and Myrtle Mae Lewis (my grandmother) in Sunset. There were two community stores in that area – Willie Mills’ Store (near Sunset) and Chappy Mills’ Store near Blue Springs – that they could walk to in order to buy groceries. They also would go to dances in Bellevue that were hosted by the priests from Grand Coteau. In recalling the night before Myrtle Mae’s wedding, Cousin Mary said that she and her cousins traveled to Mathilda Henry’s house to get “all [Myrt’s] pretty, black hair” done. They took a lantern to make the trip because they knew they’d have “to pass on the headland/turnrow, [where] you’d park the buggy or the wagon and get some water.and you’d have to turn around where the grass and road met. ”
How fascinating it can be to reflect on the times that the grass and the road meet! Turning points are a common theme in my conversations with family members, and Cousin Mary and I discussed several of them as she shared the many memories of the place she called home for the early part of her long life. Talking with her really did give me an opportunity to see a community described in census and other records en vivo, so to speak. I expect to continue researching how the folks she described were connected, not just by Grand Coteau, but also by their family ties (i.e., marriage, ancestry). I hope I’ve inspired you to use the tools of interviewing and conversation to bring the names and places you find in genealogical records to life. You really can find some treasures!