Saturday, November 18, 2023

Will You Turn the Page?

I don’t think I’m alone in my fascination with the PBS series “Finding Your Roots”, hosted by Henry Louis Gates. The show uses both written genealogical records and DNA testing to discover the family histories of each episode’s celebrity guests. Often those guests are surprised, even stunned, to learn what has been revealed through the diligent research of the show’s staff. 

But they are there because they want to know. And we learn right along with them. The show makes history come alive, largely because of the personal connection we come to feel with the guests as their stories unfold. 

A large portion of each story comes from primary sources. 

What are primary sources?

Primary sources are the raw materials of history — original documents and objects that were created at the time under study. They are different from secondary sources, accounts that retell, analyze, or interpret events, usually at a distance of time or place. - - Library of Congress website, “Getting Started wth Primary Sources”

All good historical research begins with primary source documents such as baptismal records, ships’ manifests, letters, newspaper accounts, and so on. I had the good fortune to take a graduate level history course with Baltimore historian Frank R. Shivers. This allowed me the opportunity to go into the Maryland Historical Society and access primary source materials in their collection for my research. It was both fascinating and sobering to read the personal letters of people whose lives and experiences were so distant from my own.

Today in Ellicott City an event is taking place which is deeply rooted in the diligent research of primary sources.

It’s a story that begins with a cabin. You may have seen it in its present form.

Image from Historic Ellicott City website

Imagine, if you will, that this cabin is a celebrity guest on “Finding Your Roots.” It goes by the name of Thomas Isaac Log Cabin, but, as the episode unfolds and the host reveals one piece of its historical background after another, a different identity emerges.

Why? Because of the thorough and persistent research of Marlena Jareaux, Wayne Davis, and Christine Bulbul. 

Today at 2 pm at Backwater Books, you’ll have an opportunity to learn the story of a cabin with humble beginnings.

Image shared by Howard County Maryland Black History 

You’ll hear how the local stories around the building strayed over time, giving a different identity to the structure most of us know as the Thomas Isaac Log Cabin. You’ll also have an opportunity to tour the cabin itself, which is being opened especially for today’s event. This map lays out where it is all taking place. 

Celebrity guests on “Finding Your Roots” page through what is called a “Book of Life” filled with information revealed by primary source research for the show. In a sense, our own celebrity is no different.

Cover of Early Ellicott City Black History by Jareaux, Davis, and Bulbul

This book documents the research which uncovered the true identity of that little log cabin that now sit on Main Street in Old Ellicott City. I’m looking forward to picking up my copy.

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