Tracing Your Roots: How Were My Ancestors’ Lives in 19th-Century Arkansas?

Children of sharecropper, near West Memphis, Ark., in 1935 (New York Public Library Digital Gallery, Farm Security Administration Collection)
Children of sharecropper, near West Memphis, Ark., in 1935 (New York Public Library Digital Gallery, Farm Security Administration Collection)

In a common scenario for African Americans, the paper trail disappears once a reader gets to the 19th century.


Dear Professor Gates:

I have been working on my family tree for years. I am having difficulties finding information on my paternal great-grandfather. His name was Leon Turner (born in 1901) and he married Birdie Todd (born in 1900). Both were born in Arkansas. They pretty much spent their lives in Ouachita County, Ark., including Smackover, Lafayette and Cullendale. Their children’s names were Lucille, Earl, Archie and Ellery (Elree).

I cannot find census records from when Leon was a child. Can you help me find out who his parents were? —Sherice Turner

We found that Leon and Birdie were living in Smackover, Ouachita, Ark., in 1930 with the children you mentioned. Ten years earlier, the couple were living in Smackover in the household of Berdie’s father, Peter Todd. This pointed to Smackover as a place to focus our search. However, when we searched for other individuals with the Turner surname in Smackover, we came up with some promising leads, but nothing definitive.

Military Records Point the Way 

We pivoted to looking at World War II draft records. That war roiled the social order of Jim Crow Arkansas in ways that would reverberate into the postwar civil rights era. “The large number of African-American troops who served in World War II brought about tensions in Arkansas as African-American soldiers from the North who trained and passed through the state at times refused to show deference to local whites,” the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture describes. “More and more black troops chafed under the blatant hypocrisy of fighting for the idea of liberating nations overseas while facing racism both at home and in the military.”


While we didn’t locate information about what your great-grandfather experienced during this period, we do know that Leon Turner registered for the draft in 1942. He listed his wife, Birdie Turner, as his next of kin, so we know this record is for the right person. He gave his birth date on the record as Feb. 11, 1900, at Ouachita County, Ark. In the physical description on the next page, it records his height at just 5 feet. Noting physical descriptions like this can sometimes be useful in confirming that you are looking at records for the same person.

A draft card for Leon Turner in 1918 at Stephens, Ouachita County, Ark., records his birth date as Feb. 11, 1900, and the description on the back gives his height as “short,” which would match the description in the World War II draft record. At that time, Leon was only 18 years old and gives his next of kin as Charlie Turner in Stephens, Ark. It seems likely that this is a close relative, given Leon’s young age.


The Census Record Search Resumes With Success 

We located the household of Charley Turner at Smackover, Ouachita, Ark., in 1900. The household included your Leon Turner, who was not yet a year old when the census was taken. It also included Charley’s wife, Mary (born about 1879), and children: Harison (born around 1891), Loucous (born about 1898) and Pearl (born about 1896). There also was a boarder in the household, Bose Harris (born around 1878).


We were then able to locate the household of Isham Turner in Johnson, Union County, Ark., in 1880. He was born around 1829 and his wife was Nancy Turner, born about 1838. Also included in the household was a Charles Turner, born around 1871, a good match for your Charley Turner. Charles had a number of siblings recorded in the household whom you could investigate further.

The family was residing in the same location in 1870, when Charles Turner was recorded for the first time at only 3 months old. This record includes some siblings who were not recorded with the family in 1880. You could continue to search for records of the siblings and other relatives in these records to continue working backward on the family tree.


We should also note that we found Charley Turner residing in Smackover in 1920, not far from where your Leon was residing with his in-laws. Charley was listed as being born about 1869 and is also old enough to be Leon’s father. His household included his wife, Matilda (born about 1872), and a number of children: Isaac (born around 1895), Calvin (born about 1901), Hopesy (born about 1906), Lucius (born around 1899), Henry (born about 1908), Charley (born about 1910) and Caroline (born around 1912). The household also included Charley’s father, Isom Turner, who was born around 1830 in Arkansas. Note that Lucius/Loucous was also in the household in 1900.

We can reasonably conclude that these are all records for the same family, and that Leon Turner’s father was Charley Turner, his mother was likely Mary Turner, his grandfather was Isom Turner and his grandmother was Nancy Turner. You now have the names of likely ancestors who were born before the end of slavery. Congratulations!


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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This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, Ph.D., a senior 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,, 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.


Rooo sez BISH PLZ

I wanted to pub Professor Gates’ appearance on Trevor Noah’s Daily Show last night, promoting the PBS Series, which IINM airs this Tuesday at 8p ET – I guess we’ll have to settle for all these segments instead, since they’re all at least somewhat relevant in one capacity or another

We see you, Professor! Thanks to you and Trevor for giving such an informative interview. :-)