A Review of Back There, Then: A DC Historical Genealogy Memoir

Review by Stacie Marinelli

When Marietta Stevens Crichlow was turning 90, her daughter Linda was in the midst of preparing a special birthday remembrance when she came upon a genealogical memoir that Marietta had been researching and writing for many years. Fascinated by this neatly assembled collection of stories and documents, Linda took up the task of organizing and extending the narrative of her African-American family’s past into a coherent document, eventually published as Back There, Then. The result is a history of the Stevens-Crichlow ancestral line from slavery to the present, as well as historical surveys of places where family members had lived and notes about various world events that affected (particularly) African Americans.

Updating Marietta’s manuscript involved more research in libraries and archives, interviews with relatives, consultation with academics, and membership in the African-American Genealogical Association. While the names of a few enslaved family members could be found, no details of their lives were discovered. To give some idea of the wide reach of genealogy sources, documents searched included marriage licenses, birth certificates, death notices, city directories, census data, land deeds, business cards, estate records, gravestones, local histories, newspaper articles, maps, diaries, photos, letters, and church newsletters. A look at the handwritten letters and directories included in the appendices gave me a real admiration for the hard work of historians who must decipher faded and often illegible records.

A genealogical memoir attempts to document rather than embellish a family story. What can’t be known is often as interesting as the “facts.” To fit this model, Marietta and Linda validated what they could with a wide range of resources, but also included some family lore they could not document. One of the most compelling mysteries is whether the slave owner Wilmer McLean (in whose home Lee surrendered to Grant in 1865) fathered a child named Lucy with Betsy Love, Marietta’s enslaved maternal great-great grandmother. Intriguingly, Lucy’s photo bears a striking resemblance to a photo of Wilmer McLean. More family lore was passed down that Marietta’s great-grandfather James ran away from slave owners at age 14 to became a water boy for Civil War troops.

Marietta-Crichlow-and-Linda-Crichlow-White

Back There Then’s authors, Marietta Crichlow and Linda Crichlow White at a book event at the DC Public Library March 2015. Photo courtesy Linda Crichlow White.

By far the most interesting part of the book for me detailed discoveries made about Marietta’s husband’s father, Cyril Crichlow, who went to Liberia as Marcus Garvey’s Resident Commissioner. I’ll leave it to interested parties to learn more for themselves, but it struck me as an encounter with a fascinating chapter of history. Another highlight of the book was the inclusion of local African American history – the 1862 founding of DC’s Freedmen’s Hospital to provide medical treatment to former slaves; the period when Georgetown was primarily Black; the years that Ledroit Park was considered “the ‘garden spot’ of DC for Negroes;” and how after World War II, it became easier for African-Americans to find employment in the federal government.

In Back There, Then, genealogy and memoir can be viewed as a search for knowledge, identity and community, and a way to take control of personal and family history. Marietta and Linda’s handsome collection takes its place within a genre that blossomed among African Americans after the 1976 publication and later broadcast of Alex Haley’s Roots. What distinguishes Marietta and Linda’s endeavor from other genealogies I’ve seen is its smooth organization and the connections made between wider cultural events and the lives of African Americans.

As it gets easier for the average person to conduct research, the compilation of family histories brings up a number of contemporary questions. Who decides what history actually is? Is it just a recounting of the actions of “newsmakers” and world-changing moments or can it also be defined as the multiple narratives of everyday people? And how do our lives intersect with the big events of our times – social movements, war, economics, technology – that affect where we live, what work we do, what kinds of lives we lead?

Marietta and Linda note when family members were impacted by slavery, war, job discrimination, housing restrictions, Brown vs. the Board of Education, the Great Depression and other economic upheavals. By the same token, it may also be said that those individuals were reciprocally part of that history. Marietta was among the first Black teachers hired in 1954 to teach in DC’s schools when they were first integrated, and relatives were church leaders, founders of businesses (including a Black business school in New York City in 1920), and participants in social organizations and movements. Henry Louis Gates expressed the belief, in his book In Search of Our Roots, that “(b)y telling and retelling the stories of our own ancestors, history can move from our kitchens or our parlors into the textbooks, ultimately changing the official narrative of American history itself. ”

So one thing that conducting a personal journey into one’s family past does is hand the construction of “history” back into the hands of all of us, removing it from the exclusive property of professionals in the field. A genealogical memoir may be a tool for correcting mistakes and clearing up mysteries in oral and written history, adding individual accounts to the formation of a social history, even healing families. We can also celebrate the “detritus” of people throughout history who left behind physical evidence of a kind and quantity that will not exist in our collective digital future. What will we have to guide us to the past when everything is digital and many things ephemeral?

Conducting and reading genealogical memoirs helps us discover what we can learn from our ancestors, what attributes we too can claim, and how our personal events collide with “history.” After all, what is the importance of an individual genealogy apart from its social context? Back There, Then is an account of one family that illuminates the lives of African-Americans within a certain social and historical nexus, and shows readers how to conduct their own genealogies and what can be gained from their efforts.

You can buy your own copy at various local independent bookstores or online  at the book website here: http://www.backtherethen.com/

– Stacie Marinelli

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