Dear Professor Gates:
There is a legend in my family that we are related to Elston Howard, the first African American to play for the New York Yankees. Proving this is difficult, and needless to say I have hit a huge wall. Elston’s bio says he was born in 1929 in St. Louis and died in 1980 in New York City. Although family lore says my ancestors were in St. Louis for a time, I have not found any Howard connections to St. Louis and Elston Howard. My Uncle Jimmie, however, was convinced that Elston was a cousin. Can you help, please? —Aaron Howard
Most families have at least one story about their origins or notable ancestors that gets passed down through the generations. In your family the legend is more recent, since you’ve heard that you may be related to Elston Howard, who, in 1955, was the first African American to play with the New York Yankees. While family stories can be a great starting place for tracing your roots, it is always best to confirm these stories by finding sources—both primary and secondary—about your ancestors and those you believe to be related to you.
Simply put, primary sources are documents that were created at the time of the event. For example, a birth certificate is recorded right after a person was born, so this would be a primary source. Other primary-source types of records include census records, will and probate documents, military records and vital records. A secondary source is something that was recorded or created after the actual event happened, such as a biography, history book or a family story.
To determine whether or not your family legend is true, you can use secondary sources to start your research and then primary sources to find out what is fact and what is fiction. You’ll have to start by researching the ancestry of Elston Howard and then comparing it with records you have for your family.
Trace the Ancestry of Elston Howard
According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, eight years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major-league baseball, Elston Howard “suited up” as the first black player for the Yankees, in 1955. Prior to signing with the Yankees in 1950, Elston had played for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro League.
As Ricky Gomez writes for the NBHFM, “During his 12 seasons with New York Yankees, Howard was selected to nine All-Star teams and won four World Series titles and two Gold Glove Awards at catcher—and made Major League Baseball history in 1963 by becoming the first African American to be awarded the American League Most Valuable Player Award.” He died on Dec. 14, 1980, at the age of 51.
As for his origins, Elston was born in St. Louis on Feb. 23, 1929, to Emmaline Webb and Travis Howard. The two were never married, and when Elston was 5 years old, his mother married Wayman Hill and they lived together in St. Louis, where he grew up.
Your family’s legend is that you are related to Elston by your Howard ancestors, since you share a last name, so you’ll want to focus your research on your male ancestors who have the Howard name. When you say you are related to someone, it could be a very close relative, such as a cousin, aunt, uncle; or the relation could be a bit more distant, such as a second or third cousin. Keep this in mind as you search to see if your families are connected.
For instance, if your Uncle Jimmie was, in fact, a first cousin of Elston, the ancestor you two would share would be your great-grandfather. This man would be Elston’s grandfather. In confirming family legends such as yours, it is best to draw a family tree on a piece of paper that shows the possible connection. This will help you recognize which people in the family to focus your research on to help you find a possible common ancestor. If your relationship to Elston is more distant, your common ancestor will be further back in your ancestry.
For example, if your fourth great-grandfather and Elston’s third great-grandfather were the same person, you would be Elston’s fourth cousin once removed. The “once removed” shows that you are in the next generation after Elston. A more detailed explanation for figuring out family relationships can be found at Genealogy.com. There is also a useful tool here that can help you calculate your relationship to someone based on a common ancestor.
Because Elston Howard is such a well-known figure, there are several secondary sources that give us more information about his parents. His wife Arlene’s memoir, Elston and Me: The Story of the First Black Yankee, gives us the most detailed information about his father, Travis Howard. According to the book, Travis was born circa 1898 and grew up in Memphis, Tenn. He later came to Sikeston in Madrid County, Mo., where he worked at a local school and met Emmaline Hill. Arlene writes that Travis and Emmaline never married because Travis’ father was a scholarly man from a well-off family who thought the relationship was inappropriate. The book also states that Travis died in Memphis on Oct. 8, 1988. Using this information, you can begin to search for records of Travis Howard to determine who his father was.