By Nora McGreevy
JUNE 25, 2020
Funeral programs serve a range of purposes, from offering a written record of a service to celebrating lives and aiding the grieving process. But for historians and genealogists, these documents also represent a gold mine of archival information: birth and death dates, photos, lists of relatives, nicknames, maiden names, residences, church names, and other clues that can help reveal the stories of the deceased.
Now, a newly digitized archive of African American funeral programs is set to bring thousands of Georgia residents’ lives to light. As Kenneth H. Thomas Jr. reports for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Digital Library of Georgia recently debuted a freely accessible collection of more than 3,300 programs printed for services in Atlanta and across the Southeast.
Dated to between 1886 and 2019, the trove encompasses photographs, prayers and guest signatures, among other records. It currently boasts more than 11,500 digitized pages and is expected to grow as more programs are contributed.
“Funerals are such an important space for African Americans,” says Derek Mosley, an archivist at the Auburn Avenue Research Library who led the digitization project, in a statement. “The tradition of funerals is not reserved for the wealthy or privileged, but the community. It is that lasting document of someone’s life. In the program is the history and throughout this collection, you see the evolution of the stories people left for future generations.”
The new archive shares the stories of such individuals as Austin Thomas Walden (1885-1965), a municipal judge whose benediction was delivered by Reverend Martin Luther King Sr., notes Matthew Taub for Atlas Obscura. Mrs. Ida J. Howard (1857-1930), meanwhile, served as the president of an organization constituting 78 sub-societies with more than 10,000 members.
Many programs include obituaries filled with rich details on their subjects’ lives. Mrs. Julia Burton’s (1890-1967), for instance, states, “From childhood she displayed a deep interest in the fine arts, particularly in music and was an avid and knowledgeable sports enthusiast. She read widely and was known for her warm sympathy and understanding.”
Slavery’s legacy poses a particular challenge for those hoping to reconstruct African American genealogies. As Jason Daley reported for Smithsonian magazine in 2018, the details enslavers chose to record were usually extremely limited. Key information is often scattered throughout plantation inventories, baptismal records and other fragmentary documents.
Throughout the years, records of marginalized communities “were often either destroyed, kept in private hands, or never created in the first place,” notes the library in the statement.
Due to Jim Crow segregation laws and the nation’s long history of systemic racism, African American communities often lacked the political or economic power required to preserve their own cemeteries long-term. This means that many historically black burial sites have been lost to time and neglect—though efforts are underway in parts of the country to “rediscover” these important places.
“The challenge for African American genealogy and family research continues to be the lack of free access to historical information that can enable us to tell the stories of those who have come before us,” says Tammy Ozier, president of the Atlanta Chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, in the statement. “This monumental collection helps to close this gap, allowing family researchers to get closer to their clans, especially those in the metro Atlanta area, the state of Georgia, and even those outside of the state.”
Moving forward, Mosley and Ozier tell Atlas Obscura that they hope to see historic city directories and black American church records digitized as well.
“I was amazed at the one-pagers from the 1940s, and by the 2000s there was full color, multiple pages, and a ton of photographs highlighting the life and love shared by the families,” says Mosley in the statement. “This collection is public space for legacy.”