Family history is not my day job. It doesn’t feed my five, ravenous, teenagers, doesn’t provide health insurance or a retirement plan.  But family history has been my passion since I was a teen and my 2x great aunt, Dott Zue Carrier, gave me a copy of a genealogy she had commissioned.

 

Aunt Dott was never one to let facts besmear our family tree. Hence, the copy I received had names blacked out as if this was some sort of redacted FBI document.  Who got axed from the family tree? The first I uncovered was Martha Allen Carrier, sent to the Salem gallows by the accusation of witchcraft. 

As an angst-ridden and back-talking teenager, I was fascinated by Martha Allen Carrier.  Most historians agree she hanged not just for allegedly Satan canoodling, but also because of her defiant and mouthy attitude.  At sixteen, that sounded just like me!

 

I also loved history and earned an undergraduate degree in it from Texas A&M. But, time and again, was told history majors don’t land history jobs.  So I taught high school for the blink of an eye and then moved on to another career.

 

Henry1About the time I was finishing a PhD in adult and higher education (University of Oklahoma), I was pregnant with my third child. Henry was born with a complex congenital heart condition.  He had numerous open heart surgeries, followed by a heart transplant, before his sixth birthday. He incurred a permanent brain injury as a result of his heart failure and the ensuing surgical repairs.  For the record, Henry is now fourteen and doing great!  He does have an intellectual disability and we use several supports to plan for his best life as he moves into adulthood.

 

The experience of raising Henry led me, in 2011, to change careers and become a disability advocate.  A good deal of my job is educating parents, legislators and communities on how we can best support persons with developmental disabilities. One of the trainings I’ve come to adore is speaking on the history of Americans with disabilities, pre-1930. We often presume that conditions continuously improved. Yet, the 19th and 20th centuries have countless and tragic examples of how this is not true.

  

FamilyBabyAs a mom with an older litter, I had more time to return to genealogy. Naturally, I wondered what lives like Henry’s would have been like when born decades or centuries ago.  I also found a picture, in the stacks of family photos that made their way to me, of a newborn with an apparent disability.

 

I vaguely remembered this child – the daughter of one of my Granmama’s cousins.  I knew this child had been institutionalized, likely in Louisiana.  But with no notation of the back and Granmama long gone, I held in my hand the scant evidence many family historians have: One of their ancestors was “put away” and forgotten.  No remaining relatives can remember this baby girl or who her parents were. She was, apparently, never reclaimed by my family.  This was heartbreaking to me and hit a little too close to home.

 

What brought me to the genealogy speaking circuit were the criminal cases in my ancestry – two executed women, a fugitive, and a hanging judge.  Local societies invited me to speak on researching past criminal events. I realized people found these black sheep ancestors intriguing yet were challenged to find further information and records. Motivated by these speaking opportunities, I set about adapting my lectures on the history of disability, institutions and sanitariums to meet the learning needs of family historians.

 

I still have my day job and the true honor of working in a great agency and with some amazing families.  But I am, at heart, a historian. And, like most genealogy hobbyists, most obsessed with my own ancestors.  So, I am moving toward my third career as a family history educator. I firmly believe we do better research when we understand the contextual history of an ancestor’s life.  What did it mean to be the colony’s cooper?  What happened to wives and mothers abandoned in 19th century? How were people with autism, cerebral palsy or tuberculosis seen, treated, included…or not?

 

I admit that I’m most drawn to the sadder stories in family history research.  They tend to arrive with a lot of mystery but also ask for our empathy.  I look to my Henry and know his life is not sad or tragic but the same cannot be said for some of my ancestors.  They were forcefully migrated, saw their mothers hang, or had the only proof they existed eroded down to one unclaimed photograph.

 

I’m excited about this new chapter in my life -- one that, ironically, requires me to delve into the past.  I hope you will share this website and consider me for speaking arrangements. My intent is to always leave participants as motivated as I am to learn more!