Tracing Your Roots: Who Were Our Kin Before Tragedy Struck the Family?

Illustration for article titled Tracing Your Roots: Who Were Our Kin Before Tragedy Struck the Family?
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Needing answers after a family was torn asunder by fatal acts of domestic violence.


Dear Professor Gates:

My sister Yahnique Sparks and I are having trouble finding information on our parents, Joseph Shirley Sparks and Ruby Lee Sparks (maiden name Johnson). They both died in 1981 when I was a child. Our mother perished at the hands of our father, who then took his own life. We would like to find their birth records, the date of their marriage and more information about their families (such as the identities of our great-grandparents).

My parents resided in Hempstead, N.Y. Prior to this, they lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., after traveling up from Columbia, S.C. She died on March 8, 1981, and he died 22 days later.

My mother’s parents were Avaniza (Alma) Mason, who died on April 7, 2001, and Haskell Johnson, who died on Sept. 7, 1972. They were born in South Carolina—in Aiken and Lexington, respectively—and resided in Columbia, S.C., as a married couple.

Avaniza Mason’s mother was Ruth James, who died on June 30, 1917. On her death certificate, her father is listed as Isaac James, but no mother is listed. We cannot locate a death certificate for Isaac James.

Haskell Johnson’s father was Robert Johnson. Robert’s mother is listed as Katie Johnson on his birth certificate, and his father is listed as unknown.


Any assistance you can give us in finally putting the pieces of our family together would be greatly appreciated. —Tammi Sparks

Family tragedies can make it very difficult to locate information about family members, especially when you lose people very close to you. Of course, some of this difficulty is due to the fact that survivors may not want to remember or share information about the deceased.


One place you may want to start is with newspaper accounts of your parents’ deaths and their obituaries. These may be understandably difficult to read, but they contain information on their families that could be useful to your search.

Leads Found in Heartrending News Accounts

The New York Times reported on March 9, 1981, that 35-year-old Joseph Sparks turned himself in to Hempstead Village police at 3:20 a.m. after he shot his wife, 34-year-old Ruby Sparks, and her sister, 35-year-old Gloria Bailey. The couple had separated the previous September, and Ruby had been staying in Gloria’s home, where the slayings took place. The tragedy was reportedly the result of an unsuccessful attempt by Joseph to reconcile with Ruby.


We know from this article that Joseph Sparks was born about 1946 and Ruby (Johnson) Sparks was born about 1947. The report also states that Joseph was a dividend supervisor for Paine Webber, an investment brokerage house in New York City’s Manhattan. This gives you a place of employment for your father. Paine Webber was acquired by UBS in 2000, and you could inquire to see if UBS has personnel records for your father that may contain more information about him.

Another article about the deaths gives the address for Joseph Sparks as 70 Albemarle Ave. and the address for Ruby Sparks as 52 Gladys Ave. These addresses may help you locate other records for them. The obituary for Ruby Lee Sparks (via Genealogy Bank; subscription required) appeared in The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., and pinpoints her birthplace as Richland County, S.C. It also lists her parents as Alma Mason Johnson and Haskell Johnson, and her siblings: Eleanor Martin of Denver; Sadie Bell, Benetha Williams and Annie B. Bryan of Columbia; David, Calvin and Steve Johnson and Muhammad Abdul Rahman of Denver; and Charles Johnson of Columbia. You, Yahnique and your other siblings are listed as well.


Gleaning Life Details From Death Records

The ages in the articles help to narrow down a birth date. Based on this, we located Joseph Sparks in the Social Security Death Index, which states that he died in March of 1981 and was born Sept. 18, 1945. However, the Social Security Applications and Claims Index gives his birth as Sept. 14, 1945, at Pensacola, Escambia, Fla.; while a Find a Grave memorial for Joseph Shirley Sparks gives his birth as Sept. 14, 1945, at Pensacola, Escambia County, Fla., and his death on March 30, 1981. He is buried at Greenfield Cemetery, Uniondale, Nassau County, N.Y. As you search for information about his birth, keep both Sept. 14 and 18 in mind.


The gravestone for Ruby Sparks at the Williams African Methodist Episcopal Church Cemetery in Lexington, S.C., provides her birth date as Feb. 4, 1946. She is buried next to her sister, and it is likely that they were originally from the place where they are buried or had close family residing there at the time of their death. Their burial records give you dates of birth and locations to search for your parents’ birth and marriage records.

Many states have privacy laws that prevent the public from gaining access to more recent vital records. Since you are the next of kin, you should not have any problem requesting your parents’ records, but in South Carolina you will need to provide proof of your relationship to them and copies of their death records. In that state, the counties only hold abbreviated vital records, so to get the most information you will want to order copies from the South Carolina Department of Health. In Florida, you can request a copy of Joseph Sparks’ birth from the Florida Department of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics.


We did not have access to the documents for Joseph Sparks, so we do not know the names of his parents. Knowing that he was likely born in Pensacola, we searched for African-American families with the surname Sparks residing in Pensacola during the enumeration of the 1940 U.S. census, which occurred just five years before his birth. There were only six results, and four them are all from the same household. You could search for more records on these individuals to see if you can find a connection to your Joseph Sparks.

Tracing Ruby’s Family Back to the Generation Born During Slavery

Since you have some information on your maternal line, you can start with your grandparents Avaniza (Alma) Mason, who died on April 7, 2001, and Haskell Johnson, who died on Sept. 7, 1972. They were living together as a young married couple at Columbia, Richland, S.C., in 1940. This record tells you that Haskell was residing at Columbia in 1935 but that Alma resided as Batesburg, Lexington, S.C.


In 1930, Haskell Johnson was residing at Lexington, Lexington, S.C., in the household of his father, Robert Johnson, and several siblings. The family was residing at Lexington 10 years earlier, including Haskell’s mother, Julia, and some other siblings who must have left the household by 1930.

The record for Robert and Julia in 1910 when Haskell was just 3 years old states that this was Robert’s second marriage and Julia’s first. There is also a 25-year age difference between them, so you may want to keep in mind that Robert could have had other children from his first marriage.


We had trouble locating Robert Johnson in earlier census records, mainly because there are so many people with the name around his age in South Carolina, making it hard to narrow down the search. As you look at search results like this, look for things that are like what you know about your family to indicate that you’ve located the right people, and then see if you can find more records to confirm your hunch.

For example, in our search we saw a Robert Johnson residing in Columbia, S.C., in 1900, which is a location you know is later associated with your relatives. This Robert was a widow with his mother, Eliza, as well as brother and daughters, residing with him. We know that Robert’s marriage to Julia was his second marriage, so this may be a good fit. You could trace the other members of the household forward to see if you are able to determine if they are connected to your Robert Johnson.


The entry for Alma Mason Johnson in the U.S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index records her birth on Feb. 9, 1917, at Aiken, S.C., to parents Henry Mason and Ruth James. We located Henry Mason residing at Wards, Aiken, S.C., in 1930 with wife, Conie, and nine children. Given that you said Alma’s mother died the year she was born, it seems likely that this is Henry’s second wife. His wife was recorded as Cora in 1920, which is likely the same woman as “Conie” in the 1930 record, and in 1910, his wife was recorded as Ruth Mason, who is likely Alma’s mother.

It appears that Henry Mason was married as well prior to his marriage to Ruth James, as he was recorded in 1900 married to a woman named Anna who was older than he and already had three children. One of the things that stood out for us about this record is that directly next door to Henry was a Thomas Mason who was old enough to be Henry’s father and whose wife and daughter both had the name Alvani. It seems likely that this was a family name passed down to your grandmother and that Thomas and Alvani Mason were Henry’s parents.


In 1900, Ruth James was residing with her father, Isaac James, and three sisters at Chinquepin, Wards, Aiken, S.C. Isaac was born about 1840 at South Carolina. He was a widow, which may be why Ruth’s death certificate did not have information on her mother, since the informant may not have known about her. Ten years later, he was still residing in the same location, so you know he lived until at least 1910, but he may have died before the statewide death records were kept in 1915. You could try local newspapers to see if you can find an obituary for him. You could also investigate the results for individuals with the name Isaac James that match his description in the 1880 U.S. census to see if any of them could be your Isaac James.

Since there are not vital records for Lexington County or the state early enough to give you a birth record for Robert Mason or a death record for Isaac James, you could try to determine what church the family may have attended that could have christening records for the family. You could also search some of the local newspapers to see if they reported any of the births, marriages or deaths for the family.


Thank you for sharing your family’s story, painful as it may be. We hope these leads will help you to know your origins better.

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.


Send your questions about tracing your own roots to

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.


Vulcan Has No Moon

Thank you for another story. I hope Sparks family finds some living kin to connect with.