Monday, January 21, 2019

Tracking Down Ancestors Through Mystery Photos

As genealogists, we are constantly seeking evidence of our ancestors' existence. We delve into census data, wills, probate and military records, vital and burial records, and more! We visit repositories, cemeteries, churches, plantations, and old homesteads in our efforts to learn more and more about family members who preceded us. But, nothing tops off our research findings more than the blessing of coming across (positively identified) photos of our ancestors!

Some families are blessed to have tons of pictorial records, but that is not the case for everyone. In my family, photos, prior to those of my own generation, are far and few between and hard to come by. However, every now and then, a family member surprises me with new (to me) photos they've "found". Such was the case, just a couple of days ago, when I visited the widow of my late cousin, Harold Green, of Louisburg, NC. I'd contacted her with a request to stop by and rephotograph some pictures I've seen many times before, since the cousin they've been left in the care of plans to donate them to a repository. My cousin's wife, Christine, was very happy to allow me to do this. In an attempt not to take up too much of her time, I got in there, snapped the photos I'd gone for (while exchanging pleasantries and getting caught up on each other's lives), and was thanking her and preparing to leave when she surprised me by saying, "I found some more pictures, not too long ago, and I'd love to let you see those. They are in a bag, somewhere, but I can't seem to find where I put it." Of course, I stopped dead in my tracks and expressed how much I'd love to see the pictures. She and I both looked around the room for the mysterious "bag", which she eventually found. One by one, Christine started pulling out 8x10, framed photos. I had to ask her to slow down so I could examine each one!

These are the first two photos Christine showed me:

This was the only photo Christine was able to identify. "She said,
I know who that is! That was Jessie's husband - the doctor."
This photo of Dr. Patterson was taken by Ellie Lee Weems,
an African American photographer in Jacksonville, Florida,
where he and Jessie lived.
Next, Christine pulled out this photo. She said she didn't know who it was, but I felt that I was
looking at a photo of the same man - only a little older and thicker. I belive this to also be Dr. James Perry Patterson, of Jacksonville, NC.
Who was James Perry Patterson? Dr. James "J.P." Patterson was the husband of my first cousin-twice-removed, Jessie GREEN. Jessie was the daughter of Annie Green and a yet-unidentified father, and granddaughter of my 2x great-grandparents, Nathaniel Hawkins and Anna Green. It's been challenging to find much information about Jessie, over the years; but her husband, being a prominent black doctor and engaged community member in Jacksonville Florida, has left a bit more of a document trail.
James worked at a Jacksonville hospital, located at 103 E. Union Street. He and Jessie shared a home on 8th Street and also owned a home on American Beach, which some of their close family members, from Louisburg, fondly remember visiting. He was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and may have been a Freemason.

What About Cousin Jessie?
What I know about Jessie Green is that she is one of several siblings, children of Annie Green and a purported "white mill owner" (believed to have the surname, Vann), who left Louisburg and were passing as white. I've found mixed documentation on all of them, but not enough evidence to confirm that any of them were actually passing - at least not full time. However, I can clearly see that Jessie was married to a black man. He worked at a black hospital, was in a historically-black fraternity, and owned property in a black beach community. I feel fairly comfortable that she and her husband weren't passing, despite the fact that I've been told that by family members who actually knew them. Either way, I'm told over and over again that Jessie looked white.  Even today, before writing this post, I called Christine to confirm some things and she reiterated that Jessie looked just like a white woman. I asked about her hair, and she said that looked like a white woman's, also. With that in mind, it's hard for me to think that this next photo is Jessie, although it would just really make sense for it to be, given that the two photos, above - the only other 8x10 framed photos in the bag - were of her husband. Could this be my cousin Jessie Green, Dr. Patterson's wife?
Is this Jessie Green? Yes, she's light, but her hair is not that of a white woman. If this is her, is this a wedding gown she's wearing? If so, might it be a wedding portrait? I feel really unsure about this one, but I really don't know who else it would be. This person doesn't fit the profile of any of my other known family members.
I have seen a few photos that might have been Jessie, but they all have multiple subjects and it's unclear which is her. However, there is one photo (below) that was shared with me many years ago, and which I was told was a portrait of Jessie. I guess I can see it as slightly possible that this could be a younger photo of the woman above, but I really think the jury's still out on that. What I do notice is the similar style and material of the dress - especially the sleeves - which makes me think these photos would have been taken during the same time period, and, therefore would NOT be the same person.
This is the photo that was identified as probably being Jessie Green. I've had this one for several years. It was not with the recently-discovered photos.
I'd like to end this photographic journey with another photo that was in the bag. It was quite the mystery - for about 48 hours. However, thanks to the help I got from gen-friends, after posting it on Facebook, I've been able to follow a research path, based on one very valuable suggestion, and have gone from not knowing where the photo was taken, who the group of people was, or why it was relevant to my family- to now having the answers to all of those questions!

This photo is encased in a hard, cracking black cardboard frame. When found, I had no idea what the context was and neither did my late cousin's wife, Christine.
Unraveling the Mystery of a Photo
The first step in attempting to uncover the mystery of this photo was to simply note what I could observe. Obviously, this is a group of black women, most likely a school group, perhaps at the college level. The white male standing to the side appears to be in charge - maybe a principal, president, or founder - and I assumed the older adults (in the back and on the porch) to be faculty/staff members, one being a nurse and the one seated perhaps having another level of importance. I noticed that all of the young ladies seemed to be wearing a similar hairstyle (with parts in the middle) and that they were dressed uniformly, in white blouses with dark skirts. Some of the women are wearing dark bows or ties and a few seem to have something pinned over the left breast. They are sitting on the steps of a brick building. I noticed the white wooden rails and ballisters as well as the shuttered doors behind them. Also, I took note that there appears to be an area behind the stairs that may have been a basement or lower floor.
With all of my observations noted, I posted this photo on Facebook - on my profile and in several groups. Right away, people began to suggest that this may have been a nursing school. I'd thought about that, also, but was leaning more towards it being some other kind of program, with the woman in the nurse's hat being part of the faculty - the school nurse. Several historically-black women's colleges were suggested as was a specific building on the campus of Shaw University. All of the suggestions were considered and vetted, but there were two which immediately showed themselves to have merit: Scotia Women's College and Lincoln Hospital.

Scotia Women's College, now Barber-Scotia College, is located in Concord, NC. It was started immediately after the Civil War, as Scotia Seminary, with the purpose of educating formerly-enslaved black women. As soon as one of my FB friends suggested it (and showed a series of photos that seemed to match mine), I thought the "where" part of this case was solved.
This is one of the photos of Scotia Women's College shared with me by my Facebook friend, ItsMheMorris. I found the photo on the Internet and saw that it is labeled with the years 1915-1916. Everything about the building is the same as in my photo.
I was sooooo excited when I saw this photo! I just knew I had it! Besides, I remembered being told that someone in my family went to Barber-Scotia, but I just didn't remember who. I thanked my Facebook friend and was ready to just start the work of determining which family member might be in the photo. Buuttttt... 
..... then came another suggestion in a different group: Lincoln Hospital in Durham! Again, a photo was shared and again it seemed to match very much with mine. Take a look.

                         nursing students posing for a photo in front of their dorm.
Well, certainly you see my dilemma here. Clearly, this photo, supposedly of Lincoln Hospital nursing students, is of the exact same people pictured in my photo - apparently on the same steps in front of the same building. So, what now????

I have searched for any connection between Lincoln Hospital and Scotia/Barber-Scotia College, and found none. The Lincoln Hospital photo is from their Wikipedia page. We know that Wikipedia is a community-based resource, which offers an invitation to anyone to edit its pages. That was a fact that had to be considered as I began to sort through this. The Wikipedia page is the only place I found this photo (or anything else) that matched with the one I had.

The photo to the left is a screenshot from the YouTube video, "Long Live Barber-Scotia", which is featured on the "Our Heritage" page of the Barber-Scotia web site. Several similar photos are found in connection to Barber-Scotia's early days as Scotia Seminary and Scotia Women's College. In addition, Graves Hall, the building the group is seated in front of, is on the National Register of Historic Places and is described exactly as (what we can see of) the building in the photos.

In addition to the evidence already mentioned, which points to the photo being of Scotia, not Lincoln, the gentleman pictured in my photo (and on the one purported to be Lincoln Hospital) is also pictured in some of the others I've found online in connection with Scotia. He is, without a doubt, Scotia College's third president, Mr. A.W. Verner, who is shown here in this screenshot from the book,

Portraits Of The African-American Experience In Concord-Cabarrus, North Carolina 1860-2008. 

Though the above photo is not as clear as I'd like, it's easy to see that this is the same building, porch, man, and many of the same students and staff as shown in my photo, as well as in the others from Scotia College. This source, independent of the college, itself, is (I believe) the strongest piece of evidence that my photo is from Scotia and that the one on the Wikipedia page for Lincoln Hospital is incorrect. To put the icing on the cake, I made another call to Christine Green, who, when asked if any of the Greens went to Barber-Scotia, proclaimed, "Yes, Jessie went to Scotia! She used to talk about it all the time!" She hadn't even thought about that when she found the photo or when she'd shown it to me or to Cousin Florine.

So, there you have it. All the evidence points to this photo being of my cousin, Jessie Green's class at (most likely) Scotia Women's College. In addition, once I realized this, I pulled up the portrait of the young lady I'd been told was Jessie (above), and realized that the blouse she's wearing is of the same style as that of most of the young ladies in my photo. I've blown up the photo and closely inspected the features of each of the lighter-skinned females but still can't definitively say which one is Jessie - but I guess she has to be in there. Interestingly enough, there's one who looks like she could be that older lady (from above) but she would not be a match to the younger photo of Jessie. (In the re-post of the photo, below, I've indicated with green dots the only young ladies I think could be Jessie. I've added a yellow dot in the middle of the one I believe is most likely of the four, but the proof remains to be seen.

I've reached out, via email, to the number on Barber-Scotia's web site and I'm hoping they will have information about Jessie's enrollment and time at Scotia, as well as (hopefully) a photo that has her positively and uniquely identified. In addition, I'll be sharing this post with the folks at Wikipedia, with hopes that they'll remove the incorrectly-attributed photo from their Lincoln Hospital page.

"Mystery photos" don't have to remain that way. As genealogists, we must simply apply our sleuthing skills in a different way and we must share with and ask help from our friends, thus bringing those long-hidden photos out of the darkness and into the LIGHT! (Couldn't help that one!) :)

Thanks for reading! If you have additional ideas or info about any of these photos, please leave a comment here on the blog. Thanks!


P.S. There were several other photos (and a few documents) in Christine's bag. I'll be coming back to share more about those at another time.

Permalink: https://justthinking130.blogspot.com/2019/01/tracking-down-ancestors-through-photos.html

Portraits Of The African-American Experience In Concord-Cabarrus, North Carolina 1860-2008, Bernard Davis, Jr., Xlibris Corporation, 2010

Wikipedia contributors. (2018, May 31). Lincoln Hospital (Durham, NC). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:45, January 21, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.phptitle=Lincoln_Hospital_(Durham,_NC)&oldid=843736295

1 comment:

  1. Your mother and I are 4th Cousins,
    Joyce Beasley. You can reach me j.m50buchanan@gmail.com