I spent Saturday at the Grand Rapids Public Library’s main branch. A group of wonderful volunteers and staff have created a fantastic series of workshops and talks designed to help a group of eager, new researchers learn more about their African American ancestry. Saturday’s focus was learning how to find information in three databases: Heritage Quest, Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.

Polk City Directories

All of the new researchers were able to come up with a name, residence and birth year for at least one ancestor who was alive in 1940. That’s usually enough information to leap right into the 1940 or 1930 census. From there the volunteers started explaining what information could be found in the census, point out new information and start looking for new records. It’s simple, quick, effective and keeps our new researchers’ enthusiasm high because now they can learn about the research process while they are looking at records about their family. However, in some cases that method ends in failure. That’s when it’s time to return to the basics. Not only do you need to start with what you know, but you may have to close the gap between 1940 and 2018 AND you may have to walk away from the computer.

We had two researchers facing this problem. One researcher hit a brick wall before she found any records. The other hit a brick wall after we quickly found full birth and death dates for his grandmother and great-grandmother. Both of our new researchers had something in common—they knew their ancestor died in Grand Rapids.

We searched the WMGS West Michigan Newspaper online database and found an obituary for two of the elusive ancestors. The next step was to walk away from the computers, learn where the newspaper microfilms were located, learn how to put the microfilm on one of the readers and find the obituary. The obituary for one of our researcher’s ancestors provided several clues that finally helped her find her ancestor. The first clue was that her ancestor hadn’t lived in Fremont, Missouri, he had lived in Fremont, Michigan. The second clue was the name of the deceased’s brother. Roger was able to use that information to locate the brother in the 1930 census. The results of that search lead them to her elusive ancestor in the 1940 census.

The second researcher wasn’t quite as lucky. We searched for the new people we had found in the obituary. We found an obituary online for his great-grandmother with more names and places. We searched for them and every combination of names, people and places we could think of, but came up empty. I was stumped and it was time to go home. We were obviously doing something wrong with the searches. I suspected that we had been dealing with a case of multiple marriages and residences in multiple places, but wasn’t exactly sure how I would figure it out. I decided that I needed to create a timeline using the information I had. A strategy emerged. When we left the library, we knew that Grandma had died in Grand Rapids in 1999 and Great-Grandma, Helen Ward, died in Grand Rapids in 1971. The Social Security Application abstract for Helen’s daughter stated that Helen’s maiden name was Ward—the same name she was using when she died. It was unusual, but I encountered that in my family, so I didn’t question it.

If we had been at the GRPL after I created the timeline, we would have walked away from the computer again and looked at the Grand Rapids City Directories on the bookshelves. Since Helen Ward died in Grand Rapids, there was a very good chance we would find her in listed in the 1971 or 1970 directory. I couldn’t do that at home, but I could look at the most recent Grand Rapids City Directory on Ancestry.com: the 1959 directory. Success! Not only was she in the directory as Helen C. Ward, the entry said she was widowed and it listed the initials of her husband’s first and middle name. Aha! Helen’s birth name wasn’t Ward—that was her second married name. Our initial searches failed because we had been searching for the correct name in the wrong time period. I searched earlier directories and in a few years her husband appeared. When I reached the 1946 directory Helen Ward and her second husband were gone. I searched for Helen using the other surname we had for her. Now she was Helen Johnson, wife of John.

We had already searched for Helen Johnson when we were at the library, but we had looked for her in Indiana and Illinois, because the Social Security Application abstract said she was born in Indiana/Illinois and applied for Social Security in Illinois. This time I searched for her in Grand Rapids, Michigan. One promising result appeared: a 1930 census record with Helen Johnson (born in Illinois) and her sister Maude (born in Missouri—this matched the family’s oral history) living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The 1930 census said Maude was married around 1909. Another search led to Maude’s marriage record and her maiden name. More searches led me to Maude living with her parents. Searches for her parents led to a widowed mother and Helen – the great-grandmother we had been looking for! A few more searches confirmed that the correct Helen had been found, and she had lived in Grand Rapids most of her life.

I love being able to research my family at home on my computer, but sometimes it’s helpful and necessary to return to the old resources, like microfilm and books, at the library. I was able to able to find just enough city directories online to solve this mystery, but my chances of success would have been much better by using the books at the library. The Grand Rapids Public Library’s main branch (GRPL) has Grand Rapids city directories (as well as partial sets of directories for other cities) that span the years 1859 to 1998. Large portions of the 1940’s and 1950’s directories are missing from Ancestry.com. The GRPL has the entire directory. If you need to look for someone in Grand Rapids after 1930, you need to visit the main branch of the GRPL.

I’m looking forward to returning next week to help Linda Guth teach our new researchers about the U.S. Census records and help our researchers find more about their families.

Lisa Christensen