ANSWERING THE ANCESTORS’ CALL
by Kathy Lynne Marshall
Published in the Baobab Tree,
Journal of the African American Genealogical Society of Northern California, Inc.
Vol. 22 No. 3, Summer 2017, ISSN 1543-4125
The clock is ticking faster and faster now that I am in my 60th year of life and
longevity issues have begun creeping into my thoughts. I am the fourth-oldest member
of my mother’s family! I have been futzing around with gathering family history
information for 40 years, even before Alex Haley’s Roots hit the world to grand acclaim.
On crowded shelves in my home library are several three-ring binders filled with printed
census, vital records, and other official documents for each of my six main family lines:
• Williams (Maryland, Pennsylvania and Ohio);
• Marshalls (Georgia, Missouri and Ohio);
• Carters (Virginia and Ohio);
• Bookers (Virginia and Ohio);
• Myers (Germany, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Ohio); and
• Dooleys (Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio).
But what will happen to all of my precious containers full of priceless genealogy
information? Nobody can really ferret out what all those individual documents mean,
unless they are written in a narrative form that compiles those disparate facts into an
interesting story, right?
After my birthday in 2016, I really felt the pull of the ancestors. I began
researching how to write interesting histories about my relatives, utilizing as much data
from official sources as possible. Initially, I had two main goals in mind. First, was to find
out about my enslaved second great grandfather, Otho Williams, who was born in 1834
in Washington County, Maryland; I had never been able to go back further than the
1870 census for him and his wife, Alice Logan. This goal would include old fashioned
family history research utilizing as much GPS (Genealogical Proof Standard) as I could
muster, in addition to getting as many relatives as possible to take DNA tests, so we
could find out about our ethnic heritage.
Equally as important as conducting slave research, though, was my second goal
of commemorating the lives of my ancestors who descended from the slave Otho
Williams. I initially decided to dedicate myself entirely to creating one book that would
explore both of those lofty goals. That meant no more diddling around with online
Scrabble games until I had completed this monumental task!
On October 1, 2016, I listened to a Genealogists Writing Room webinar which encouraged African
Americans to start writing our own stories, instead of letting others write our history for
us. That webinar, and other sources from genealogy conferences and books, suggested
that one could start writing a book by revealing what we already know about our own
family. That would mean writing about myself first, including my childhood memories,
adulthood, my children, etc. Then I would write stories about my parents, grandparents,
and so forth.
THE KEY IS TO START WRITING NOW!
Even though I may never find out answers to all of my questions, I needed to start
writing now. “But I hardly know anything about my enslaved ancestors,” I whined to
myself. Many sources indicated it would be acceptable to simply acknowledge that
some historical unknowns might have to be researched at a future date. “Just start
writing now” became my mantra!
I finally understood how to begin this monumental project and I felt a strong
assurance that I would be successful this time! The ancestors want their stories to be
told and they want me to complete this inspirational writing journey now. Once I truly
believed that, the words began to flow from my excited synapses through my fingertips
and onto my laptop computer. I found it easy to create an outline for the book, including
about 50 questions about my enslaved ancestor, such as: Where did Otho Williams
live? Who were his parents and his slave owner? What daily duties did he perform? Did
he fight in the Civil War? Was he successful after slavery? Was he a metalworker like
many of his descendants after slavery? So many questions had to be researched and
I wrote an initial Introduction stating what I intended to do. I had read that it can
be effective to write the book as we are making discoveries. That way, the reader can
share in our exciting finds and disappointments as the research progresses. Plus, it is
motivating to know that your book is actually being written! So that is the tactic I took for
The first month, I wrote feverishly about my immediate family’s upbringing.
Although my beloved mother, Mary Carter Marshall, passed away in 2007 from breast
cancer, I am fortunate enough to have her personal journal, called Reflections from a
Mother’s Heart. Therefore, I can share heart-warming details about her childhood in
Ohio, her marriage to my father, Thomas Marshall, her job as a teacher and principal,
and her thriving watercolor art business in retirement. This wealth of information which
came directly from her typed memories, allows me to write her story, using her own
words, in her own voice.
I also had a few letters from my grandmothers and uncles from 40 years ago,
containing important family history. Since 2006, I have been inputting family history
information from our 1983 and 2003 family reunions, and official census and other
documents into my ancestry.com account and Family Tree Maker on my personal
computer. Although data for most of my relatives only goes back as far as the end of
slavery, I still have a lot of data to help me write creative nonfiction memoirs and
accounts for several family members. Also during the first month, with a little financial
help from me, I was able to get several relatives to take autosomal, Y-DNA and mt-DNA
tests, realizing that the results would take up to two months to get back.
By the end of the second month of non-stop composing, I had nearly 90 pages of
narratives, photographs and charts! I sent a copy of that first draft to my Aunt Myrtle
“Lavata” Williams, who is not only the 85-year old great granddaughter of the slave I am
investigating, but also our beloved family historian. She sent me back pages of typed
feedback, corrections, and additional stories. Her first-hand accounts of living with my
great grandparents, Otho Sherman Williams and Myrtle Booker Williams, were very
helpful, since I was too young to know either one of them. Aunt Lavata’s insights were
invaluable for the “16 People Lived in My House?” and “A Super Star at 106!” and “The
Designated Genealogist” chapters in this book.
I carefully incorporated all of the references and resources to help me develop
stories that seem to come directly from the mouths of my ancestors. As I wrote every
page, I could hear them talking to me saying “No, write it this way,” or “Yes, that’s
exactly how it happened!”
By the third month, though, I was running out of stories I already knew and began
attempting to break through that blasted 1870 Brick Wall that is the bane of many a
person doing slave research. Based on the phenomenal success I had by the end of the
first month, I began to think I would have a decent draft of the book by the end of the
third month. Wrong! The roller coaster ride that is African American genealogy research
shifted again! I could not find Otho William’s slave owner or parents, even after perusing
Maryland Land Records, census, Slave Schedules morning, noon and many nights!
For several years, I did have a phenomenal theory of Otho’s parentage which I
shall share with you. During a 2012 trip to the Ohio State Archives, I found there were
several white men with the same name as my second great grandfather: Otho Williams
and Otho Holland Williams. All were from Hagerstown, Maryland, in the late 1700s and
1800s. I mused “how many Otho Williams could there be in such a small town?” Now I
knew nothing about Maryland, just that it was a small state, compared to California. And
once I found out that Brigadier General Otho Holland Williams, 1749-1794, from
Washington County, Maryland, had ties to English Royalty, I immediately thought of a
great title for my book: “The Cream in Our Coffee Wore a Crown.” I even pitched that
story to ancestry.com in 2015 and was in the final running for the commercials they ran
during the Olympics in 2016! But alas, our story was not selected, perhaps because
their Pro-genealogists did a little digging into my theory and found out that it was wrong,
or perhaps because I was not enthusiastic with my high proportion of European DNA. I
was unable to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that my theory was true about our
nexus to the white Otho Williams, even though there was quite a bit of circumstantial
evidence that kept me insisting it was true for a long time. Word to the wise: be flexible
in your theories until you are positive they are right or wrong!
In the beginning of my fourth month of work, I found several momentous
“Smoking Guns” which lead to exciting answers to terribly important questions about
Otho Williams’ parents and his slaveowners. Read and reread land records, especially
every bill of sale, deed of manumission, and agreements; but there are also some slave
transactions in regular deeds. Once you know who the owner is, peruse their Wills and
other probate records to (hopefully) learn specific information about their slaves. My
book was filling out quite nicely by the end of the sixth month.
I even spent the first two weeks of the seventh month in Maryland doing “boots
on the ground” research to see where my family lived, to smell the air they breathed, to
touch the ground they walked on in the 1700s and 1800s, and to take plenty of
photographs for inclusion in the book. I also spent many happy hours in the Washington
County Free Library, Western Maryland Room, and Historical Society taking photos of
original documents that I had only seen online before that trip. I even drove 90 minutes
away to Baltimore to do more research in the Enoch Pratt Library; drove through Kent
and Cecil Counties in Maryland; and went to the home where my grandmother was born
in Germantown/Philadelphia to check out other places where my Williams family lived. It
was truly a magical experience! As soon as I got home, I wrote up my travels for “The
Journey Home” chapter.
But I started having concerns that the slave research portion of the book was
fairly academic with lots of charts and graphs, and the DNA chapter was somewhat
technical. Both of those more scholarly segments contrasted a bit awkwardly with the
folksy stories of my Williams descendants. I agreed with some of my editors that it
seemed like I had two separate books: one about the slave Otho Williams and one
about his descendants. So in the eighth month on this project, I decided to split my
writings apart into two separate books.
One book is called Finding Otho: The Search for Our Williams Ancestors and it
includes the exciting discoveries I was able to finally make regarding my second and
third great grandparents. “Exhilarating” describes the satisfaction I feel in the
information I am finding about my enslaved ancestors. This book is still in progress.
The other book contains stories about the indomitable spirits of the descendants
of my enslaved Williams, as well as profiles about me and my immediate family,
including my father and a few of his family members. Many of these stories are about
regular black people who lead typical, hardscrabble lives as domestics and cooks and
laundresses in racially-divided America. Some stories tell of remarkable successes of
their children who made their way into the highly regarded professions of medicine,
engineering, computers and education. The tenacity and fortitude of all of my relatives
have driven them to ensure that each new generation is better off than the last. I feel the
stories contained in this book are not only meant for my family, but for anyone interested
in learning about the history of a resilient African American family.
So what is the best way to get a book finished? Agree to speak at an Authors
event, which will force you to finish writing and print several books for sale in a short
turnaround time frame! After I uploaded to Facebook a picture of me with an advanced
reader copy of The Ancestors Are Smiling! which I had printed from lulu.com, my
Facebook friends asked when they could have a copy. Then, in early June, the Elk
Grove Fine Arts Center asked me to participate in their annual September Authors’
Reception, with the deadline for delivering the printed books being no later than mid-
August! Agreeing to speak at this event forced me to get busy and finish the book! I had
to find volunteers to help me do the final copy-editing; create an appealing cover;
ensure that I used proper formatting for the copyright and other pages in the book;
make sure all of my citations and bibliography were complete; figure out how to
purchase ISBN numbers so the book could be sold on amazon.com and in stores;
determine how long it would take to get the book printed and mailed to me so I could
schedule deadlines; arrange to sell the books on my www.KanikaMarshall.com/
books.html website and Amazon.com, etc. Believe me, my head was swimming, trying
to get it all done in time for my mid-August book delivery deadline!
Here is a sneak peek of some of the heroes telling their stories in The Ancestors
• Otho Sherman Williams: his Mount Vernon, Ohio, home was a sanctuary for up to 16
of his descendants, for decades. He was the son of the slave, Otho Williams, who is
profiled in the upcoming Finding Otho: The Search for Our Williams Ancestors.
• Reba Williams: a cook for a Pulitzer Prize winning author who, at the age of 106, was
profiled on the Jay Leno TV Show and in Essence Magazine.
• Pearl Williams Carter: a hard-working domestic employee all of her life who instilled in
her seven children how to be contributing American citizens.
• Myrtle “Lavata” Williams: the Designated Genealogist who was the appointed keeper
of our family history and who was almost abducted in Istanbul!
• Mary Carter Marshall: who went from a small-town existence in Ohio to become a
beloved educator and professional artist in California.
• Dr. Thomas R. Marshall: who delivered many hundreds of babies after growing up in a
funeral home, and perhaps being the first Iron Man Triathlete.
• Last but not least are me, my siblings, my children, and my grandchildren. We are the
proud descendants of these remarkable ancestors.
Many thanks go to African American Genealogy Society of Northern California
members Janice Sellers, Diana Ross, and Michael Willis, as well as many other people
in Maryland and Ohio and California, for helping me with various components of these
genealogy books. I am so very excited that my ancestors will be coming to life for
everybody to enjoy.
THE ANCESTORS ARE SMILING!