Using Oral History, DNA and Historic Records to Unlock Family History
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
If you haven't read the first story in the series, start here.
There his full name was, listed in my grandfather's April 1998 obituary: Dr. Franklin E. Vereen.
It was now time to talk about family history with my mother, aunts and uncles to better understand the oral history of our past and for them to share any memories of stories from their childhood. Everyone had always been proud of the grandfather that they never knew personally. I also learned that the relationship between my grandfather and his dad had always been strained. With names and oral history in hand, the research effort moved to looking for census, draft registration, death certificates and anything else I could find through FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com. Independently, I had already taken an AncestryDNA test prior, so I had those results to work with as well.
Since my grandfather spent most of his life in Hillsborough County, Florida, and Vereen was such a unique name, targeting the search area was pretty simple. In a short time, a 1918 World War I draft registration record not only confirmed oral history, but also identified his birth date and additional ancestor. My great-grandfather's occupation was listed as a doctor and the nearest relative identified was his mother in Wampee, South Carolina. A Google Maps search indicated that Wampee is a rural community outside of Myrtle Beach in Horry County, South Carolina. This confirmed what I had already long expected due to family traditions still practiced today. My mother's family was Gullah Geechee. That is, the descendants of Central and West Africans who were enslaved on the Atlantic Coast, between Wilmington, North Carolina, and St. Johns County, Florida. I also identified my great-grandfather's name listed in a 1925 death index with Pinellas County, Florida, as the place of death. My mother had mentioned that her dad lived off in other places as a child, including with an older sister in St. Petersburg. Combining that story with the death index record, I used Ancestry.com to search for my great grandfather's name in St. Petersburg's public directory during the 1920s. There he was! Franklin Vereen resided at 726 22nd Street South in 1925. His business, the Vereen Sanitarium, was also listed as sharing the same address. Also known as The Deuces, this is an area of St. Petersburg I knew well as a child and a place my father lived in briefly during the 1960s. Later, we'd discover that my great-grandfather was likely the first Black physician in St. Petersburg.
Jumping back to seeing how far I could trace my Vereen lineage back, I now had two solid names and a specific location in South Carolina to scan. Soon, an 1880 census record of a young Frank Vereen living in the household of Jackson and Caroline Vereen was found. Matching the names of my great-great-grandparents and an older sibling born in the 1860s, I found the family in the 1870 census residing in Horry County, South Carolina's Dogwood Neck Township. Both Jack and Caroline were listed as farm laborers who did not own property.
At this point, I reached a frustrating Black history stumbling block. Born between 1846 and 1854, my great-great-grandparents had been enslaved. Because they were considered the property of an enslaver, records prior to Emancipation appeared to be essentially nonexistent.
More frustration would come as I reached the same stopping point in researching the lineage of my other family lines. However, two strange dreams, both of which I remember vividly to this day, led to a renewed research effort and more revelations.
Stay tuned for part the next story in 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.