Tracing Your Roots: Why Did My Family Bury the Past?

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Silence shrouded information about a family’s past, and those who could provide answers are deceased. Fortunately, there’s a paper trail.


Dear Professor Gates:

No one in my family would talk about our past, so it basically died with my great-great-aunts. Our family is from Robeson County, N.C.—mainly St. Pauls, in the Kintuck area—and my ancestors were slaves. My great-grandfather’s name is Edward McMillan (born in 1912) and my great-grandmother’s name is Mary McMillan (maiden name could be Harold or McNeil), born in 1907. How can I get more information about their origins and ancestors? —Sharone McMillan

As we started delving into your family’s origins, we uncovered details that point to tragic ends for at least two of your kin. Given that, we’re not surprised to hear that your relatives wouldn’t talk about the past.

Surprisingly, often the work of genealogy involves unearthing information that was carefully buried. It is possible that if you share some of what we’ve discovered with living relatives in older generations, they may respond with additional, previously undisclosed details or clues that you can research further. These may be leads that were previously withheld on purpose, or perhaps the new information simply jogs some memories and puts past observations in a different and illuminating context.

Death Records Open Up a Window to Family Secrets 

We began our search with a death record for Edward McMillan who died at St. Pauls Robeson County, N.C., on March 31, 1964. There are several details you can gather from this record. It gives his birth date as May 8, 1907, at Robeson County, and his parents as Nelson McMillan and Eliza McDonald. He was married at the time of his death, and his wife’s name on the certificate was Mary Louise McMillan.


The nature of his death may have contributed to some of the secrecy in your family, as the cause of death was listed as unknown, even after an autopsy. The certificate further states that the “deceased was found in ditch and apparently had been dead several hours.” His wife was the informant on the certificate, suggesting that she might have been the one who found his body.

Edward McMillan’s obituary in The Robesonian reads that he was found dead near Lumberton and that his funeral would be held at the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church near St. Pauls, where he would be buried. It states that he was survived by his wife; two daughters: Ella Louise Jackson of Newark, N.J., and Marie McMillan; and three sons: Jack, Willie and Johnny McMillan of St. Pauls. He also was survived by a sister, Mary Sue Gillespie of St. Pauls, and two brothers, Braxton and James McMillan of New York City.


Edward’s funeral does not appear to have been the first time Mary Louise had to bury a family member before his time. In the same newspaper we also found an obituary from Aug. 24, 1955, for a 19-year-old man named Edward McMillan in St. Pauls, who died of shotgun wounds received at King’s Café on a Sunday night. It says that he was survived by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Edward McMillan, as well as one brother and one sister. This could be an obituary for a child of your Edward and Mary Louise McMillan.

We found his death record, which states that his full name was Henry Edward McMillan, who died on Aug. 21, 1955, and with parents named Edward McMillan and Louise Harnel. The birth index for Henry Edward McMillan records his birth on Nov. 8, 1935, at St. Pauls to parents Eddie McMillan and Mary Louise Hardwell (similar to “Harold,” the possible surname that you mentioned), meaning that this is a son of your Edward and Mary Louise McMillan. You could order the original birth record to see if it contains any additional information about the family.


We also located the death certificate for Mary Louise McMillan on Oct. 29, 1965, at St. Pauls. It records that her birth date was May 10, 1912, at Robeson County and that her parents were Floyd McEachern and Beaulah McNair (similar to “McNeil,” another possible surname that you mentioned for Mary Louise). Even though neither parent’s surname is Hardwell, we’re sure this is the same Mary Louise, since it describes her as the widow of Edward McMillan. She “apparently died suddenly due to natural causes” at the relatively young age of 53.

The obituary for Mary L. McMillan says she was survived by her daughters, Miss Eloise McMillan of New Jersey and Miss Marie McMillan of St. Pauls; and her sons, Jack and Willie of New Jersey and Johnnie, who was in the Army stationed in Massachusetts. It also names surviving siblings, which could help you locate more information on her family, including Katie McEachern and James McEachern, of St. Pauls; Hilda Farmer of Durham, N.C.; Hendy McEachern of Fayetteville, N.C.; Bernice Dickson, Mattie Hill, Evelyn Blue and Leo McEachin [sic.], all of Corona, N.Y.; Vardell Hill of Brooklyn, N.Y.; Wade McEachern of Jamaica, N.Y.; and eight grandchildren.


We’d like to pause here to point out the split between North Carolina and the New York City metropolitan area for the survivors’ places of residence in this obituary and the previously cited one.

While North Carolina and New York are relatively far-flung, they are connected as common endpoints in a journey undertaken by millions of African Americans during the early to mid-20th century, known as the Great Migration. Fearing domestic terrorists (such as the Ku Klux Klan), chafing under Jim Crow oppression and seeking better economic opportunities, many black people fled Southern states for the urban centers in the North.


“Between 1900 and 1940, almost two million African Americans left the South,” write Shepherd W. McKinley and Cynthia Risser McKinley in a 2006 article in the Tar Heel Junior Historian. “Most departing from North Carolina moved directly north to states along the East Coast. In fact, North Carolinians, along with Virginians and South Carolinians, topped the list of immigrants to New York State. From other areas of the South, African Americans relocated to places such as Chicago.”

A second Great Migration followed after World War II through 1970. While we couldn’t pinpoint what spurred your own relatives’ northward trek, we know it followed a well-worn path.


Did Mary Louise Have a Secret of Her Own? 

Using the information we located in the death certificates and obituaries, we searched the North Carolina Birth Index for children born to Floyd McEachern and Beulah Mcnair (and variations of the names) and located birth records for seven children born between 1917 and 1931. All of the given names match those named in the obituary for Mary Louise McMillan. The index did not contain a birth record for Mary Louise and was also missing a few other siblings named in the obituary, but these are certainly records for the right family.


While searching the North Carolina Death Records collection for the same information about the parents, we also located a death record for Mary Louise’s brother, Henry Mack, who died in Fayetteville, N.C., in 1979. Collecting these records on siblings may help you to learn even more about the family.

We located a marriage record for Floyd McEachern and Beulah Mcnair at St. Pauls, Robeson County, on Aug. 9, 1915. If it was correct on Mary Louise’s death record that she was born in 1912, then Floyd and Beulah were married three years after her birth. That indicates a possibility that Floyd was not her biological father (perhaps explaining his surname being different from the one that Mary was identified with in the obituary for her son Henry). This record does tell you that Beulah was born about 1895 and her mother’s name was Lizzie Mcnair.


We located the family of Floyd and Beulah residing in St. Pauls in 1930. Mary Louise was not in the household, though many of her siblings are there. If she was born in 1912, she would have been 18 in 1930 and perhaps residing in another household. What was more puzzling was the fact that Mary Louise does not appear in Floyd and Beulah’s household in 1920, when she would have only been about 8 years old. The oldest child in their household was Henry, who was 4 years old, born about 1916.

We searched the neighbors’ households for Mary Louise and noted that Beulah’s mother, Lizzie Mcnair, was residing directly next door with two daughters, Beatrice and Novella; and two sons, Fred and Gus, all between the ages of 10 and 19.


It is strange that Mary Louise would not be residing with a family member at such a young age, so you may want to try several different search options, such as just searching for girls with her name about the same age residing in St. Pauls in 1920 to see if you can locate a good match for her elsewhere. Perhaps she was living with a biological father, or in a different family entirely and was later adopted into this family. She obviously was acknowledged by her siblings later in life, but this may be pointing toward one of the secrets the family did not speak about.

You can also continue to work backward on this family tree, tracking down vital and census records. For example, the death certificate for Beulah McEachern on Oct. 8, 1965, records her birth on June 10, 1897, to parents Pete Oliver McNair and Elizabeth Carlyle. This helped us to locate her in even earlier records, such as the household of her parents, Oliver and Lizzie McNair in Saddletree, Robeson County, in 1910. That record lists many siblings that you could also trace for more information on the family.


Tracing the McMillan Line Into the 19th Century

You could follow the same principles to work backward on Edward McMillan’s line. For example, Edward McMillan appears on a federal census record for the first time in 1910 at age 2 when he was residing in St. Pauls in the household of his parents, Nelson and Eliza McMillan. The siblings mentioned in his obituary, namely Mary S., James and Braxton, were also in the household.


This record tells you that this was the second marriage of his father, Nelson, and that there was about a 40-year age difference between his parents. There were also a few other McMillan families recorded near them who all may be closely related to yours.

We were able to locate Nelson McMillan residing in St. Pauls in 1870 with his first wife, Susan, and six children, who would all be half siblings to your Edward McMillan. Many of the names match the neighbors to the family in 1910. All these relatives would be worth further investigation.


You had mentioned that you knew your ancestors were once enslaved. We noted a slave owner on the 1850 U.S. Slave Schedules named John N.M. McMillan who had slaves in Robeson County, including a 9-year-old boy who would match the description of Nelson McMillan. You may want to research this John N.M. McMillan to see if he is Nelson’s former slave owner, and if any of the records for John could reveal more about your McMillan family.

With this, we may have uncovered branches in your family tree that date to before the end of slavery. We hope that these leads help you and your family get the answers you are seeking.


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.