Postcard picture of an Automat in Philadelphia, circa 1904 (Wikimedia Commons)

A town lost to history and a family fracture are among the factors complicating a search for ancestors.

Dear Professor Gates:

I have been trying to research my maternal line for 10-plus years, but I have not been able to find any documentation of my great-grandfather beyond his enlistment in World War II. I have names that were given to me, but am not 100 percent sure that those names are correct. 

My grandmother’s father was Ulysses Bell, who was born Nov. 27, 1907, and died Nov. 19, 1971, in Philadelphia. He was supposedly born in a town called Cobbs or Glasboro, Ga., but neither town exists any longer. I can find no record of him prior to his application for veterans compensation from WWII. 

The story goes, when Ulysses’ mother, Julia (or Julie), died, his father, a man we know as “King Bell,” took him to Philadelphia, where he was raised by his aunt Naomi Dunston. King then supposedly left and moved to Detroit, where he started another family. Supposedly, he died around 1956. The only thing I have for him is a census record from 1880 listing a King Bell as a 4-year-old with parents named Sallie and Grimes Bell.

As for Ulysses’ mother, Julia, I assume her maiden name was Dunston, but I have also heard the name Julia Tyson or Julia Cobb. The older generation refuse to tell the stories they know, so I fear I will never be able to solve the mystery of who my family really is. It would be my life’s dream if you could help me in any way possible. —Marissa Bell

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We were able to uncover a few interesting leads that will help you solve the mystery, including ones for Ulysses Bell’s parents. It’s not surprising that the trail ran cold for you, since the spelling of names varied widely in the records we found. Such variations can come from inaccurate transcriptions of the original records, or misspellings by informants or the recorders. It’s always wise to include a wide range of spellings in your searches.

Family Lore About Ulysses’ Early Years Checks Out 

Our starting place was to locate Ulysses residing with his aunt Naomi. We located “Eulyases” Bell residing in the household of Sabe and Naomi Dunson at Fitzgerald Ward 3, Ben Hill, Ga., in 1920. This aligns with your family story about him living with his aunt, but suggests that he first lived with them in Georgia, not in Pennsylvania.

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A World War II draft registration card for Ulysses Bell (on Fold3; subscription required) dated Oct. 16, 1940, notes that he was residing at 1912 Ellsworth St. in Philadelphia. That is the same address he provided for his aunt Mrs. Naomi Dunson, whom he recorded as a person who would always know his address. At that time, he was employed at Horn and Hardart Baking Co. (makers of the first American food-service Automats) at 10th and Locust in Philadelphia. He gave his birth as Nov. 27, 1907, in Cobbs, Ga.

As you know, he served in the U.S. Army between Sept. 4, 1942, and Dec. 7, 1945, including two years spent serving overseas. He was one of more than 1.2 million African Americans (pdf) to serve during WWII. A Veterans Compensation Application in 1950 (via Ancestry.com; subscription required) also gave his birthplace as Cobbs, Sumter County, Ga., all suggesting that is the county where you want to search for more information on his parents. As you mentioned, Cobbs as a town no longer exists, but you could search in Sumter County for records of him. We noted that Sumter County is not far from Ben Hill County, where Ulysses appears in the household of his aunt Naomi in 1920.

There is a death record for a Tobe Duson in Ware, Ga., on March 20, 1935, who could be the husband of Naomi Dunson. You could order a copy of the original record to see if it includes any information about his family. If this is the same person, it will give you another location to search for information about Ulysses, since you know he continued to live with this aunt, Naomi, until at least 1940 and was likely still in the household in 1935. This would suggest that the family remained in Georgia and left for Pennsylvania between 1935 and 1940.

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Casting a Wide Net Catches Further Family Clues 

We were having difficulty working backward in time, so we expanded our search options. We searched for a Naomi without a surname born around 1898 and residing in Sumter County, Ga., in 1910 to see if we could locate Ulysses’ aunt.

With this method, we located an interesting record for an individual whose name had been transcribed in the database as “Naomi Tis*,” meaning that the transcribers had difficulty reading the record. If you examine the original record, you’ll notice that the name is difficult to read but could be “Tison” or “Dison.”

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What is interesting about the record and what indicates that this is likely a record for your ancestors is not only the location of the household but also the fact that it includes Naomi, who was a sister of the head of household, and a Julia, who was also recorded as a sister. The youngest person in the household is “Eula C,” a nephew, age 2, who matches Ulysses’ description. This would align with your family story that Julia was Ulysses’ mother and Naomi was Ulysses’ maternal aunt.

There are other clues in this record that you can use to learn more about this family. The head of household (brother of Naomi and Julia) was “Son Tison/Dison,” who was born around 1885 in Georgia. Also in the household was their mother, Ollie, born around 1850 in Georgia. Another child in the household, Mammie, born around 1906, could be Ulysses’ sister or cousin. Searching for records for any of these family members will likely lead to more information about your Ulysses.

Tracing Back Another Generation to Likely Grandparents 

Using a similar searching method that we outlined previously, we located a record for a Jasper Tyson residing in Sumter County, Ga., in 1900 that may be a record for your family. His household included his wife, Polly; a son, Harry, who was born around 1882; and daughters Julia (born around 1886) and Norma/Naoma, born around 1888. Naomi’s birth date is slightly off, but the rest of the household would align with the “Dison/Tison” family we located in 1910, considering that “Ollie” could be “Polly.” Another clue that suggests this is the same family is that both the 1900 and 1910 census records have them residing in Militia District 756 in Sumter County.

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From the record we located, it seems possible that your Ulysses never resided with his father—or, if he did so, it was only for a short time between census records. What is interesting is that there was a King Bell residing in Militia District 756, Sumter County, in 1900 in the household of his father, Randall King. They were likely not living far from each other, since they were recorded only two pages apart and the Bell family was included as family No. 185 and the Tyson family was recorded as No. 210. It is very likely that this is your King Bell, and this record even provides you information about his parents to help you work even farther back along the family tree.


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, 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.