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Dear Professor Gates:

I have been tracing my family tree on Ancestry.com and I found out that my second great-aunt, Nannie Crenshaw, was killed in Wayne County, Mich., in 1920. If I want to find out if her killer was charged and convicted, what steps should I take next? I have sent you her death certificate. —Adrienne Rose

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When we read your late relative’s death certificate, we saw the tragic circumstances of Nannie Crenshaw’s death in Detroit on April 12, 1920: a compound skull fracture listed as the result of a homicide. She was only 38 years old, single, black and working as a stenographer for “JD Baily.” How hard her untimely death must have been for those she left behind!

That being said, there are a number of ways to search for information about the murder of a relative decades in the past. One of the simplest ways to gather information is to search historical newspapers. Press accounts of homicides often contain names of witnesses and suspects. In addition, some newspapers followed trials and reported on convictions and punishments.

Was Her Death Covered in the Press?

Several databases are useful for searching historical newspapers, including ProQuest and NewspaperArchive.com.

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Additionally, the Library of Michigan holds Detroit newspapers active in 1920, which can be searched. Typically, we would also advise, in the case of an African-American death, a search of historically black newspapers. It is worth noting, however, that two of the major black papers for the Detroit area—the Detroit Plaindealer (1883-1894) and the Michigan Chronicle (1936-present)—were not in circulation at the time of Crenshaw’s death.

Our own historical-newspaper search did not turn up anything on Crenshaw. Even after using variant spellings and search terms, we could not locate a record of the homicide in Detroit.

We then noted that the death record identified Crenshaw’s place of birth as Portsmouth, Ohio, and her mother and father’s place of birth as Glasgow, Ky. We considered the possibility that a report of the murder was included in the local newspaper. Since she had been a resident of Detroit for only five months before her death, a paper from a place where she would have been more well-known might have reported the homicide, we reasoned.

NewspaperArchive.com maintains databases for six newspapers in Portsmouth. However, we did not turn up an article on the homicide there, either. You may have more luck on your own with newspapers in Glasgow, but there is always the possibility that the murder was not reported in the local newspaper.

Sadly, given the sheer volume of murders at the time, it might have been difficult for the newspapers to get around to reporting them all. Between 1920 and 1930, Detroit recorded 1,284 homicides, with one of the highest murder rates in the nation, according to Hour Detroit magazine. In fact, the era in which your second great-aunt lived was characterized by great social turmoil. Its backdrop was the Great Migration, an early-20th-century exodus of millions of African Americans from the Jim Crow South to Northern cities that increased Detroit’s black population by nearly 2,000 percent between 1910 and 1930.

Reaction to the demographic tide wasn’t always welcoming: Historians estimate that there may have been as many as 875,000 Ku Klux Klan members residing in Michigan in the 1920s. A police force stacked with white Southerners who were hired to keep “black residents in check” added to the racial tension flooding the city. Hopefully, racism didn’t impede progress on her homicide case.

How Can One Find Police or Court Records From 1920?

This is not to say that you shouldn’t bother to search police and court records for any documentation of the case. If the Detroit Police Department was unable to solve the murder of Nannie Crenshaw, a cold-case file may exist. For information on it, you could contact the Police Department. To determine which precinct would be most likely to possess the file, you would first need to determine where 50 Grant Ct., the residence listed on Nannie Crenshaw’s death certificate, was located. There is a Grant Court in Macomb, Mich., a western suburb of Detroit; however, you could also look at historical maps of Detroit to see if the city had its own Grant Court at the time.

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If a suspect was found and charged, you’ll want to look for circuit court records of the case. The Wayne County Clerk’s Office only holds records filed in Wayne County, excluding Detroit, after 1942. Contacting that office may tell you where to locate circuit court records for Detroit prior to 1942. Its records division can be reached at 313-224-5530. Most felonies, including murder cases, were tried in the circuit courts.

While felony cases were not tried in district courts, any pretrial felony hearings were. Files for criminal cases tried in the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division, Detroit, 1851-1971, are held at the National Archives at Chicago.

It may also be possible to gather information from a coroner’s report. Nannie Crenshaw’s death certificate indicates that an autopsy was performed. If you want to inquire about this possibility, we recommend contacting the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office at 313-833-2504.

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If you find that someone was convicted of Crenshaw’s murder, you can locate more information. The Archives of Michigan holds a large collection of correctional records, including an All Prisons Prisoner Card Index, 1870-1987 (pdf) that is searchable by name. This card index allows researchers to obtain a prisoner number, which can be used to search registries for prisons in Jackson, Marquette and Ionia. It is likely that Crenshaw’s murderer would have been incarcerated at Jackson, which served the Southern District of Michigan.

Do Burial Records Provide Clues?

We often recommend that researchers contact the local library in an area where they are researching, since that institution may have more access to local histories, newspapers, obituaries and cemetery transcriptions. Happily, the Portsmouth Public Library maintains a database of individuals buried in Greenlawn Cemetery. According to the database, Nanie Crenshaw (note the variant spelling) was buried in Lot 482, Section 19, with the following individuals: Arthur Crenshaw; D. Crenshaw (child); Joseph Crenshaw (infant); Jonathan Crenshaw; Joseph L. Crenshaw; and Mary E. Crenshaw.

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Because you have proof that Nannie Crenshaw was buried in Portsmouth, Ohio, you should contact the Local History Department at the Portsmouth Public Library. It may possess records or published material with information about her murder in Detroit.

Good luck in your continued search!

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 chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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

This answer was provided in consultation with Julie A. Wilmot, a researcher from 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 300 million 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.