The lives of African Americans were rarely recorded by the mainstream press – at least for positive reasons – in the Antebellum Period or during the Jim Crow Era. However, the early Black press up to and including the early 20th Century Black Press revealed the richness of African American lives and the prosperity of their communities.
Part of what drives my genealogy journey is putting flesh to the usual vital statistics details for my ancestors and their kin. Vital statistics are unquestionably important. However, it’s rather dry stuff. For me, it’s about making the ancestors three-dimensional, living, breathing people with personal histories, quirks, and foibles. You know, the things that make people, well, people. I face the same challenges in researching ancestors who didn’t move among the great and the good as any other genealogist. There is a distinct lack of anecdotal materials, letters, journals, or diaries to achieve this goal.
My Newspaper.com membership, however, is enabling me to catch glimpses of the personal lives of quite a few of my ancestors and their extended family. Actually, that membership is working overtime. However, it’s a double-edged sword. The lives of my less melanated ancestors and kin who were middle-class or wealthy were well documented in old newspaper clippings, letters, journals, and diaries. Not so for my ancestors and kin who were poor or people of color. From my experience to date, people of color rarely appeared in your everyday newspapers. If they did, it was for reasons that weren’t very happy or positive.
Enter newspapers whose audience was primarily people of color. These papers have proven to be an information goldmine. They chronicle the social lives and careers of their community – as well as state and national news that directly affected their readership.
When it comes to Leila A “Storm” Sheffey, a cousin who descends from a different Sheffey line than mine, African American newspapers have revealed a story worthy of a Jane Austen romance: a plucky, astute, and educated heroine; solid middle-class values; a trip; an illness; a society courtship; and a marriage. OK, this being an Austen story comparison…a good marriage.
The heroine of this real-life version of Austen was Leila. Of course, none of the clippings I’ve read explain that ‘Storm’ nickname. Although one of them certainly commented about it. She was the daughter of a middle-class NW Washington DC family. In 1899, her father, Isaac Taylor Sheffey, was a successful carpenter while her mother, Laura Ann Woodson, worked for the US Bureau of Engraving.
The thing that strikes me about the 1899 article above is a sense of the seeming innocence of a bygone age. It would be inconceivable to print anyone’s full address in this day and age. Yet, there hers is.
Even better, there’s a snippet about her general demeanor: unassuming and positive in a marked degree. It just makes me think of the Parthenon of strong leading ladies amongst Austen’s heroines. Aspects of Elizabeth Bennett, Emma Woodhouse, Anne Elliott, Catherine Morland, and Elinor Dashwood spring to mind.
The other thing that immediately sprang to mind was the sheer distance and expense of traveling from Washington DC to Des Moines, Iowa. In 1899, that would have been quite the journey by train. It was definitely an adventure. This too tells me something about her.
The last thing that struck me about this seemingly superficial account was the strength of family connections. George Woodson was the nephew of Leila’s mother, Laura Ann Woodson. George and Leila both had deep roots in Wythe County, Virginia. While Leila’s family moved to Washington DC, George struck out for Iowa. Both families clearly remained in contact despite the distance between them. I can imagine the letters that passed between both households in Iowa and Washington DC: catching up on all the usual family news that fills such letters. The fondness, and the bonds between them, were clearly strong.
The article describes Leila’s cousin, attorney George Woodson, as ’distinguished’. His career certainly was. However, and this will be touched upon in a further newspaper clipping, the paper was conveying another emphasis through the word ‘distinguished’. Leila’s mother, Laura Ann, was believed to be the 3x great-granddaughter of President Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. This Woodson-Jefferson family link is hotly –and I do mean hotly – contested between the Woodsons and the Monticello Organization. In this instance, we have a strong oral family tradition butting heads against a DNA test showing otherwise. Nevertheless, in 1899, this is what was believed.
On her father’s side of the family, she was a great-grandniece of Virginia Congressman, Daniel Henry Sheffey (1770-1830), who was quite the politician in his day.
I can only suspect it was these family associations that led to the length of the article. What strikes me is that details of their respective family backgrounds were known. I have to laugh, it took me years of research to reclaim this lost knowledge.
Between Oskaloosa, Des Moines, and Washington, DC, there are plenty of snippets for Leila like the one above. Whether it was singing at recitals, fetes, family gatherings, or visits, there’s been a wealth of short print pieces that bring her to life. I’ve included an extra one below:
Her 1906 engagement announcement is simply pure gold:
Again, there is a hint to another Presidential link. Her future husband, Dr. Charles Sumner Taylor, was believed to be either a descendant of, or cousin to, President Zachary Taylor.
Putting modern American black viewpoints about such associations to one side, as genealogists and historians, we can only view things from our ancestors’ point of view. Generations ago, such family associations clearly meant something. That would be the ‘belonging to the first families of the old dominion’ bit. No matter how we feel about such things today, you don’t get a newspaper article like the one above without such connections meaning something to the reporter who wrote the article, the publisher, and the community in general.
Honestly? There are other parts of the story I find far more insightful. She was a respected court reporter. She clearly worked and worked hard. In doing so, she earned the respect of her peers. This was no easy feat for a woman in 1906. She was active in her community. And the couple seems to have been generally well-liked and admired.
And, of course, I can’t help but wonder if she met Dr. Taylor during her earlier visit in 1899, the visit where she fell ill. Was he the doctor who tended to her? What a story to tell their children and grandchildren. Did that first meeting, and his courtship, lead to her permanent move from Washington DC to Iowa? She’d clearly been resident in the town for a few years prior to her engagement and marriage. Whether this is how their romance happened or not, the newspaper snippets and articles I found for her truly transformed her from a name on my family tree to a living and breathing person.
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