The elder Frances Walker (family photograph courtesy of the younger Frances Walker)

A record search uncovers clues to why a Georgia family fractured eight decades ago, leaving painful memories.

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Dear Professor Gates:

My grandmother Frances Walker of Edison, Calhoun, Ga., was born on Dec. 22, 1938, and died Dec. 2, 2002. Her mother was Ella M. King, who was born in 1913 and died in 1981 under the married name Holmes in Oakland, Fla. Her father was named Charlie W. Walker. 

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It’s been said that my grandmother had a really bad upbringing and was raised by a different family member, a “family friend,” possibly. I really would like to know what my grandmother was hiding and why it was so painful for her to speak about it. Can you help me to fill in her background, please? —Frances Walker

People often want to know more about the secrets or skeletons that their elders shielded from them during their youth; however, these can be some of the hardest facts to authenticate, since the details of a personal family situation might be part of a closed record (such as an adoption or abandonment). Additionally, because of privacy laws, some 20th- and 21st-century records may be sealed, depending on the state. Therefore, some clever sleuthing may be necessary to discover more about one’s recent ancestors who may have had a painful past.

A Census Record Reveals Much

U.S. census records are often helpful; however, each decennial census becomes available to the public only after 72 years. Therefore, to locate more details about your grandmother Frances Walker, we examined the latest one available: the 1940 census. However, she would have been only 16 months old at the time of the enumeration, so we would encourage you to look up Frances again when the 1950 census becomes available in April 2022, which would likely identify more details about her adolescence.

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In 1940, Frances Walker resided with her mother, Ella M. Walker, and her “grandparents,” Alexander and Sallie Harrison, in Edison, Calhoun County, Ga. We noted that the Harrisons were designated as grandparents to both Frances and Ella, which is not possible. Furthermore, because the couple was age 80 and 85 years respectively, they were most likely the great-grandparents of Frances and the grandparents of Ella. Also living in this household was Eula Harrison, who was identified as the daughter of Alexander and Sallie Harrison, with her two children: Leroy (born 1927) and Sallie Mae (born 1930). Interestingly, both Eula Harrison (born about 1911) and Ella M. Walker (born 1916) were enumerated as widows.

Because of your grandmother’s birth date, we examined Georgia death records to locate a possible death record for her father, Charlie W. Walker, for the years 1936 to 1940, since Ella was listed as a widow. Yet we were unable to locate evidence that Charlie passed during those years. He may have died outside the state of Georgia, or Charlie’s death was never recorded. However, there was another possible explanation for Ella’s designation as “widow”: According to Harold Henderson in the June 2013 issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, “ ... married women whose husbands were absent, unmarried women with children, and divorced women might be subjects of gossip. When a census enumerator inquired, an informant could call such a woman single, married, widowed, or divorced—no category existed for abandoned or betrayed.” Therefore, it was possible that Ella Mae Walker was not a widow in the traditional sense but may have been single, abandoned or divorced from Charlie W. Walker.

Further Searching Reveals a Tragic Event

So what, then, happened to Charlie W. Walker if he did not die as the census taker enumerated in 1940? The best record that we could locate for Charlie was for a C.W. Walker who was residing in Leary, Calhoun County, Ga., just miles from Edison where Ella M. Walker was enumerated in 1940. According to the 1940 census, C.W. was living in the household of his cousin, Roosevelt Goodson (born 1916). Additionally, C.W.’s mother, Fanny Walker, was probably the other woman living in the household (born 1874), as she was listed as Roosevelt’s aunt.

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If Charlie W. Walker was living within walking distance of the mother of his child and his daughter, why weren’t they in the same household in 1940? We examined newspaper databases, available court records and obituaries in an effort to locate the catalyst for their separation. And after some careful digging, we located one possible explanation.

According to a 1937 Georgia death record, Charlie W. Walker and Ella Mae King had an infant son who died after 22 hours of life at 11:45 a.m. on Nov. 15, 1937. This son would have been the older brother of your grandmother Frances Walker. Therefore, it is possible that Charlie and Ella Mae’s relationship was strained after the death of their firstborn son and ended after the birth of your grandmother. It would be very difficult to locate a record that would substantiate that assumption, but the death of a child is one of the most difficult and traumatic events a family can experience.

A Closer Look at an Extended Family

We returned to the 1940 census to learn more about the early-childhood home of Frances Walker; specifically, the woman listed as the other grandchild of Alexander and Sallie Harrison: Eula Harrison. If Eula was in the same situation as Ella Mae, the two women may have relied on their parents and/or grandparents to help raise their children—a common practice among African-American families since slavery, which tore apart families and frequently required extended family members to step in and raise children. We suggest picking up The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 by historian Herbert G. Gutman for further insight into the origins of this tradition, as well as Jacqueline Jones’ Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, From Slavery to the Present.

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To this day, black children are more likely to live in the same household with a grandparent than white children, according to the Pew Research Center. Hispanic and Asian children live in households with grandparents in similar numbers, though they are less likely to be raised primarily by them.

We traced Eula Harrison using historical documents, until her death in 1998, since we were hoping to find a connection between Eula and your great-grandmother Ella Mae Walker (who died in 1981). According to the Akron Beacon Journal in Ohio (via Newspapers.com, subscription required), Eula died on Oct. 2, 1998, after a short illness. Next of kin were identified as her son, Leroy Harrison, and his wife, Roselyn, of Akron; her daughter, Sally Mae Zachery, and her husband, Cecil, of Orlando, Fla.; and her sister, Minnie Lee Daniels of Fort Gaines, Ga.

We urge you to do more research to identify the connection between Eula (Harrison) Bennett and Ella Mae (King) Walker. We suspect that the connection between the two women may bring about more evidence about your grandmother’s childhood: specifically, that Frances Walker was raised by her great-grandparents Alexander and Sallie Harrison. Try to identify records for each of the persons mentioned in Eula’s obituary, since this might help explain the relationship between the Harrison and King families.

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A final note: We were able to locate online family trees, such as this one on Ancestry.com (subscription required) that claimed Sally Mae (Harrison) Zachery was raised by her grandparents Alexander and Sallie Harrison. Once you have the family tree fleshed out using records, a clearer explanation of the relationship may reveal itself.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also co-founder of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

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This answer was provided in consultation with Lindsay Fulton, director of research services for the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 1 billion searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today about researching African American roots.