Was My Ancestor an Afro-Cuban Railroad Man?

Eileen Pironti, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and NEHGS Researcher Meaghan Siekman
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Dear Professor Gates:

I am looking for genealogy resources about Afro-Cuban people in the Ohio Valley region (Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee). My father’s paternal grandfather, Thomas Regan, was born in Cuba circa 1900.


Using Ancestry.com, I found out that he arrived in the United States about 1918 by way of Ireland. Once in the United States, he seemed to have reached Chicago first and then underwent a series of name changes or modifications. His middle name was “Jefferson,” which may have been added years after his birth.

What must it have been like for a young Afro-Cuban to find his way to the Ohio Valley locales of Cincinnati and Covington, Ky., where he ended up settling, starting a family and working on the railroad! He died in Covington circa 1960. Can you help me research him further? —Leslie A. Ragan


The story you have learned about your great-grandfather sounds interesting, indeed. We did find some leads that can help you learn more about him and his origins.

Working Backward

You state that your great-grandfather died in Covington, Ky., circa 1960. To find the exact date of your great-grandfather’s death, we checked the Kentucky Death Index, 1911-2000 on Ancestry.com, and we located a listing for the death of Thomas J. Ragan, who died in Kenton County, Ky., on Jan. 2, 1960, at the age of 55. Covington is located in Kenton County, and this individual’s age and death date closely correspond with the information you provided.


We suggest that you contact the Kenton County Public Library to request a search of its newspaper collection for Thomas Ragan’s obituary or death notice. These articles may provide additional information regarding his early life in the U.S., as well as the names of other family members who may also have settled in the Covington area. The library offers research and photocopy services for a fee. Researchers at the library looked for Thomas Ragan’s obituary for us but didn’t see it at a glance. We were told that the library does have death records up to 1963. Additional information about these services can be found on the library’s website.

U.S. census records are informative for this time period. In the 1940 census for Covington, we located a Thomas Ragen, age 19, who was born in Kentucky. He was living with his brother Louis Allen, age 24; his mother, Maggie, age 41; and Maggie’s husband, Charles Jones, age 40. Their race was described as Negro. This document tells you that Maggie had a son circa 1916.


If you then go back to search for Louis, born circa 1916, with Maggie as his mother, you will find the Ragens [sic] family in the 1930 U.S. census: Thomas Ragens, age 42; Maggie, age 36; Lewis A., age 14; and Thomas A., age 10. This census tells us that Thomas was born circa 1888 in Kentucky, his race is described as Negro (Black) and his parents were also born in Kentucky.

This appears to address your question about Thomas J.’s heritage and how he ended up in Kentucky: He was born there. The records you uncovered that suggested he immigrated to the U.S. may have been for other Thomas Ragans/Ragens/Regans. Or perhaps there was a reason the census taker was told that he was born in Kentucky and not elsewhere.


You can keep taking the family back in census records to see what other information you may find. You stated that Thomas J. Ragen lived in Chicago at one time. Ancestry.com has marriage records for Chicago from 1871 to 1920. In searching this database, we located a marriage index record for Thomas J. Regan, who married Maggie O’Connor on April 28, 1907, in Chicago. Thomas is listed as 25 years old.

To see the full, original marriage record (film No. 1030419), which might provide you with additional information, you can order the microfilm from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and view it at a local Family History Center. This marriage record might list where both Thomas J. and Maggie were born. It might provide some information about their parents, too, including their heritage (in case you would still like to explore a Cuban connection).


You can also follow this couple through the census records. Do they appear in Chicago in 1910, 1920 and 1930? If so, then they most likely are not your ancestors, who were in Kentucky. You can also search for the birth records of Lewis and Thomas A. The records should mention their mother’s name, and you can see if it matches the O’Connor name. If it does, then you will know for sure that your great-grandfather and his wife were married in 1907 in Chicago.

Exploring Railroad Ties

In addition to census records and the Kentucky Death Index, a number of city directories are also available online through Ancestry.com. We checked the Covington city directories for Thomas Ragan/Regan, and we located a 1957 listing for Thomas A. and Beatrice Ragan, who resided at 1031 Russell. Perhaps this is the Thomas A. Ragan who was born in Kentucky circa 1920, son of Thomas J.? You said that Thomas J. worked for the railroad, and it’s worth noting that this Thomas A. Ragan is listed as an employee of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad.


This railroad line ran both passenger and freight trains throughout the Southeastern part of the U.S. beginning in the 1850s. The L&N Railroad had lines running through a number of states, including Kentucky. We suggest that you contact the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Historical Society to learn more about those who were employed by this company. It may be able to provide you with information about the employees who worked in the Covington area. Perhaps you will find Thomas J. in the society’s records.

Another place for you to contact is the University of Kentucky Libraries system. Among its holdings is a collection titled Louisville & Nashville Railroad Company Records, 1850-1982. This collection includes a number of company files, photographs and press clippings. It also contains copies of the company magazine, L&N Magazine, dated 1925-1974, which includes a section regarding employee promotions, retirements and deaths.


Other Great Resources

Although you currently live in Georgia, becoming a member of genealogy societies located in other states, such as Kentucky, can be extremely beneficial to your family research. Such societies include the African American Genealogy Group of Kentucky and the Kentucky Genealogical Society. Although you may not be able to attend society meetings, a number of organizations provide member-only access to a variety of databases, magazines and journals related to the area or family you are researching.


As you progress in your research on the Ragan family, in addition to Ancestry.com, you may wish to check FamilySearch, which has a number of online databases that contain items such as land, probate and select vital records. Many of these databases have links to images of the original records.

Among the databases posted on the website are items pertaining to the states of Ohio and Kentucky. In addition to online resources, FamilySearch also provides a service that allows you to rent microfilmed records via interlibrary loan and have them sent to your local library or local Family History Center.


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 editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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


This answer was provided in consultation with Eileen Pironti, 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.

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