All week, I’ve been thinking about this line from the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers,” which follows the paratroopers of Easy Company in World War II. It’s a moment at the end of episode 4. Operation Market Garden, a massive attempt to invade Germany through Holland, has gone spectacularly badly. The troopers that managed to survive are in a weary retreat, defeated and beaten down. As they leave, Lewis Nixon tells his friend, Capt. Dick Winters, ruefully: “I think we’re gonna have to find another way into Germany.”
Some weeks ago, I had a really meaningful research success. Following it up has brought almost no reward and almost entirely frustration. Nothing is working as I’d hoped. My expectations and anticipations aren’t being met. My standard research techniques are no use.
I don’t like trying to find another way into Germany. Having to spend my time devising alternative research strategies offends my desire for efficiency. Why can’t it all work the way it did before?
It’s not working because… well, for a lot of reasons.
First, though, the success.
A few years ago, I began following a tiny nonprofit organization called the Killer Blues Headstone Project. The group’s mission is to find the unmarked/unnoted graves of blues musicians and buy headstones for them. It’s an admirable goal, and they’ve had numerous wins. They placed eight headstones in 2020 alone.
In June they put out a general call for help locating the grave of Bumble Bee Slim (Amos Easton), a guitarist from the 1930s-1960s. Despite having “snoop” in my name, I’d never thought to volunteer my skills before — sometimes it takes a while for my light bulb to go on. But I read their post and realized: Hey, I do snooping. I can snoop for them.
Slim was born near Waynesville, GA, in 1905; moved around the country; and died in Los Angeles. Killer Blues thought he might be buried in the City Cemetery in Brunswick, GA. So I built a family tree and tried to fill in the gaps. After a while, I could see he had a number of family members buried in a small African American cemetery closer to Waynesville, one county away from Brunswick. I suggested they check there.
My hunch was right. Slim is in the cemetery I pointed them to. Even better, Killer Blues was able to connect with the man who dug Slim’s grave in 1968. He ended up approving the stone design and helped to lay the new headstone. There’s a photo on the webpage and everything.
I was, and still am, absolutely elated.
To celebrate, I made my husband listen to Bumble Bee Slim for an hour on Spotify. Then I got to tell my family and friends, who are impressed and proud. The whole thing has been a high point of my year. It felt so unbelievably good to do this. There’s nothing in it for me — no money, no personal connections — just the pure satisfaction of knowing that I was able to help.
Fantastic! Throw me another one, coach!
And so they did: Next on their wish list is finding the grave of Little Junior Parker, a singer and musician who died quite young in 1971. A Mississippian, he grew up in Bobo and Clarksdale, in the very heart of blues country.
This one seemed to come together just as quickly, especially when I found this article. As part of celebrating Parker’s birthday, his family gathers every year at the cemetery attached to Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, south of Bobo. My research showed he had multiple relatives buried there. To me, this felt like an incredibly solid lead. I sent it on to the Killer Blues folks and waited to hear that I’d gotten it right again.
They wrote back a week later: They were in contact with Parker’s family. He isn’t buried there.
When I first began snooping in earnest, I wanted to see how much I could find out about a person just from my desk. With an ever-expanding universe of digitized archives and records, I have access I would never have the time for if I had to go to a physical building, reload microfilm machines, etc.
Unfortunately, this research style only works if someone thinks records are worth digitizing, and that itself depends on what got saved in the past. Archives are not neutral. They are subject to human biases about race, culture, and class. (It was only last year that the Alabama Department of Archives & History admitted that their collection had systemically omitted the lives of African Americans — for a century.)
In other words: If you were a white woman who lived in an urban center, I can put together your story. Your birth came with a certificate. Your family probably made sure you had an obituary. You might have a passport record. And in between, you may have been in the newspapers more than once. The richer and more active you were, the better my chances of fleshing out your biography. One of my research subjects, a rich white woman, provided so much material that I gave up on her.
Blues musicians, as you can guess, provide none of this ease for the lazy researcher. Compared with the lives of upper-middle-class white Chicago housewives, these men may as well have lived at the opposite end of the galaxy.
They are African American. Their origin is usually rural, usually poor, usually Southern. So far, all of the men I’ve researched were born into the cold brutalities of the Jim Crow South. This means they dealt with a series of life-shaping discriminations extending from their ancestors to after death, in archives and even cemeteries. (Part of the reason I looked outside of Brunswick’s main downtown cemetery for Bumble Bee Slim is because I suspected that Brunswick had segregated its cemeteries, and 1968 seemed too soon for them to be allowing African Americans to be buried anywhere prominent.)
Birth certificates are rare or nonexistent. If your local government hasn’t bothered to pave the road out of your area of town, are you going to City Hall to record a birth? (Road names in these areas: New Africa Road, Browntown Road, Twist Gravel Road.) As if you could even get the time off to do so. What if there’s a fee? So birth dates depend on later records, like Social Security documents, and change often.
There’s no point in looking for your yearbook photo if your school couldn’t afford books. And that assumes you were able to go to school. One census search turned up an eight-year-old child listed as a “day laborer.” Your heart breaks at the thought.
If you live a life the government doesn’t think merits documenting, records never get made or saved. More erasure: If your life is seen as automatically worthless, your small victories aren’t going to make the newspaper. If the paper had to choose between giving space to a white ladies’ garden club or an African American church supper, it was never a question. (Is your town or settlement even big enough to have a paper? Guess what’s not going to get digitized anytime soon, if copies even exist.)
And if your death does manage to get into the newspaper at the end of your life, it will still be an indignity.
So this is where I’m at, trying to track down life stories as ephemeral as dust coming off an Arkansas farm road, but none of my familiar tools and tricks are right for the job. None of my usual sources are there in the ways they are for white people.
You could even argue, fairly, that these aren’t my stories to tell. As a middle-aged white woman in Chicago, those are the stories in my lane. I will certainly take that hit.
But I would argue that no one else appears to be doing it, and it’s a job worth doing. I have a relative in an unmarked grave. I know what it is to look at a faceless stretch of grass and wonder where he might be.
Perhaps I can save someone else from that feeling. I just have to find another way into Germany. ☗
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