New Digital Archive Opens Access to Thousands of Digitized African American Funeral Programs (1886–2019)

Funer­al rites, buri­als, and oth­er rit­u­als are held near-uni­ver­sal­ly sacred, not only due to reli­gious and cul­tur­al beliefs about death: We pre­serve our con­nec­tion to our ances­tors through the records of their births and deaths. For many Black Amer­i­cans in the U.S. south, grief and loss have been com­pound­ed by cen­turies of vio­lence and tragedy, but funer­als have still tend­ed to be “cel­e­bra­tions of life” rather than mourn­ful events, says Derek Mosley, archivist at the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African Amer­i­can Cul­ture and His­to­ry.” African Amer­i­can “funer­al pro­grams tend to reflect that,” and there­fore offer a wealth of infor­ma­tion for his­to­ri­ans and geneal­o­gists as well as fam­i­ly mem­bers.

Mosley is a con­trib­u­tor to a new dig­i­tal archive that “cur­rent­ly boasts more than 11,500 dig­i­tized pages and is expect­ed to grow as more pro­grams are con­tributed.” These his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments date from between 1886 to 2019, though “most of the pro­grams are from ser­vices dur­ing the late twen­ti­eth and ear­ly twen­ty-first cen­turies,” notes the Dig­i­tal Library of Geor­gia, who hous­es the col­lec­tion. “A major­i­ty of the pro­grams are from church­es in the Atlanta, Geor­gia area, with a few pro­grams from oth­er states such as South Car­oli­na, Ten­nessee, Flori­da, Michi­gan, New Jer­sey, and New York, among oth­ers.”

The archive offers an incred­i­ble resource for peo­ple look­ing for infor­ma­tion about rel­a­tives. For researchers “these doc­u­ments also rep­re­sent a gold mine of archival infor­ma­tion,” Nora McGreevy writes at Smith­son­ian, includ­ing “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.”

In many cas­es, those sto­ries were lost when Jim Crow, pover­ty, and rede­vel­op­ment dis­placed fam­i­lies and erased bur­ial sites. The col­lec­tion, says Mosley, offers “a pub­lic space for lega­cy.”

It is a way for local his­to­ri­ans to recov­er impor­tant com­mu­ni­ty fig­ures. One pro­gram, for Dr. J.W.E. Lin­der, “who died in 1939,” Atlas Obscu­ra’s Matthew Taub writes, “and whose memo­r­i­al ser­vice was held in 1940” informs us that the deceased was the son of “Con­gress­man George W. Lin­der, of the Geor­gia House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives dur­ing the Recon­struc­tion Peri­od.” In the pro­gram for Judge Austin Thomas Walden, who died in 1965, we learn that he served as the first munic­i­pal judge in Geor­gia since Recon­struc­tion. His bene­dic­tion was deliv­ered by the Rev­erend Mar­tin Luther King Sr. and he received trib­utes from the May­or of Atlanta, the Pres­i­dent of More­house Col­lege, and the office of Pres­i­dent John­son.

Such pil­lars of the com­mu­ni­ty can be found among a host of pro­grams memo­ri­al­iz­ing ordi­nary, every­day peo­ple. The descrip­tions in the funer­al lit­er­a­ture open fas­ci­nat­ing win­dows onto their lives and their extend­ed fam­i­ly con­nec­tions. Mrs. Julia Burton’s pro­gram from 1960, for exam­ple, tells us she was born on the plan­ta­tion where her par­ents were like­ly enslaved. Her obit­u­ary not only describes her many clubs and her char­ac­ter as “a well-informed per­son in many areas,” but also lists the names of her hus­band and son, three grand­daugh­ters, two grand­sons, two sis­ters, and two brothers—invaluable infor­ma­tion for peo­ple search­ing for rel­a­tives.

“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 the tell the sto­ries of those who have come before us,” remarks Tam­my Ozi­er, pres­i­dent of the Atlanta Chap­ter of the Afro-Amer­i­can His­tor­i­cal and Genealog­i­cal Soci­ety. “This mon­u­men­tal col­lec­tion helps to close the gap.” As it grows, it will like­ly come to rep­re­sent greater geo­graph­i­cal areas around the coun­try. For now, the rough­ly 3300 dig­i­tized funer­al pro­grams, some a sin­gle page, some elab­o­rate, full-col­or pro­duc­tions, focus on an area to which thou­sands of fam­i­lies around the coun­try can trace their lin­eage, and to which many may find their way back through pub­lic archives like this one.

via Atlas Obscu­ra

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mas­sive New Data­base Will Final­ly Allow Us to Iden­ti­fy Enslaved Peo­ples and Their Descen­dants in the Amer­i­c­as

The Names of 1.8 Mil­lion Eman­ci­pat­ed Slaves Are Now Search­able in the World’s Largest Genealog­i­cal Data­base, Help­ing African Amer­i­cans Find Lost Ances­tors

Take Free Cours­es on African-Amer­i­can His­to­ry from Yale and Stan­ford: From Eman­ci­pa­tion, to the Civ­il Rights Move­ment, and Beyond

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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