This Black History Month Florida Trust Board Member Ennis Davis shares his personal stories, lessons learned and challenges faced when researching the history of Black families
"Remembering Paradise Park" by Lu Vickers and Cynthia Wilson-Graham is more than just a book about tourism and segregation at Ocala's Silver Springs. For me, having a friend randomly purchase this book at an August 2017 Florida Trust for Historic Preservation Board Retreat was a lifetime game changer.
Prior to agreeing to join the Florida Trust's Board of Directors, I knew very little about my family's history. Despite being close, no one really talked about the past, other than both sides of my family had lived in Central Florida for generations and rumors that my maternal side of the family had ties back to somewhere in coastal Georgia or South Carolina.
When I took a quick look at "Remembering Paradise Park" I felt like there was something special about it. Maybe it was the color. Maybe it was the historic photograph on the cover. Whatever it was, I had to ask my friend if I could flip through her newly purchased book. I quickly realized a name in the book that was prominently featured was one I knew very well ...Vereen, my mother's maiden last name.
Seeing this, I immediately texted a screenshot to my mother and asked if she had ever heard of this place or knew the names of the family in the book. After all, Vereen is so unique of an African American last name, that every Vereen I had ever met was typically related to me in some sort of way. I soon received a reply that pushed me into the path of exploring my own family history. She not only knew the family, but she also had a personal story to share.
It was during a school field trip to Paradise Park in the 1950s, where she started dating my father. On that same trip, the park's owner Eddie Leroy Vereen pulled her and her sister off the bus to meet his family. They were cousins that also had ties back into South Carolina. While my family had settled in Hillsborough County, this set of Vereens had established themselves in Marion County during the late 19th century. I then came to the realization that it was time to learn more about my past.
Over the next few years, I poured the passion I had for researching cities and buildings into digging into my own story. I quickly learned that the traditional research resources of genealogy aren't as effective when digging into Black history.
With this in mind, this month I'll share some helpful tips I've come across to unveil my past that could be applicable for others researching Black history. I'll also share a few personal stories discovered along the way.
To get things started, there was one thing my parents had that came in very handy at the beginning of my research effort. Despite slavery, the first thing I wanted to do was to see how far back I could trace my family lineage. Luckily, my parents had saved obituaries of family and friends, dating back to the 1960s. Relatives that had passed years before my generation were thought of. This was important because nicknames are very popular in my family. So popular that you can go knowing someone your entire life without knowing their real name.
The older obituaries brought a bit of clarity to the research effort by listing real names, family links, parents and siblings of the deceased and details about their occupations, places of birth and death. All critical bits of information that could be used for further exploring the past of Dr. Franklin Vereen, my maternal great grandfather who passed 52 years before my birth.
Stay tuned for part two of Ennis' family research blog series!
Ennis Davis is a certified senior planner specializing in transportation and urban planning who holds a degree in Architecture from Florida A&M University. He is the author of the award winning books “Reclaiming Jacksonville,” “Cohen Brothers: The Big Store” and “Images of Modern America: Jacksonville.” In addition to serving a variety of organizations committed to improving urban communities, Ennis serves on the Board of Trustees for the Florida Trust.