Black Family History Opens New ArchivesRoundup
tags: African American history, urban history, Washington DC
Paula C. Austin is Assistant Professor at Boston University and author of Coming of Age in Jim Crow DC: Navigating the Politics of Everyday Life (New York University Press, 2019). Catherine Nelson was born and raised in Washington, DC. She received her Bachelor's degree from Nyack College in Nyack, NY and spent the majority of her career working for IBM Corporation, primarily in the Finance department, where she achieved the position of Internal Audit Manager. Catherine also spent four years in Tokyo, Japan as assistant to the treasurer for IBM Asia/Pacific Group. She is currently retired and lives in Virginia Beach, VA. Donna Payne Wilson is one of the two daughters of Myron Rudolph Ross Jr.'s sister, Doris. Donna and her sister Robyn were born and raised in Washington, DC. Donna graduated from Georgetown University Law Center and is a practicing attorney in Metropolitan DC; Robyn graduated from Harvard with an MBA, works in finance, and lives in Florida. While working in New Jersey, Donna had the privilege of living with Myron’s widow, Lee G. Ross.
This post is part of our forum on “The Significance of the Black Family in the US.”
Coming of Age in Jim Crow DC: Navigating the Politics of Everyday Life centers the voices of young Black people in D.C. during the 1930s, listening closely to their musings about their lives and futures. This book sits at the intersection of the field of Black childhood studies and D.C. history. By engaging in “reading against the grain” methodologies, it spotlights young Black poor and working-class people as “thinkers, theorists, commentators, and critics” in the racial and rival geographies of the Jim Crowed U.S. capital. It also challenges notions about whose lives, voices, stories, and ideas mattered, thus building on the expansion of what has been included in the Black intellectual tradition.
As part of a national study on Black adolescent personality development, Howard University sociologist, E. Franklin Frazier interviewed some 200 D.C. young people and their families. In Negro Youth at the Crossways, as in his famous, or infamous, Negro Family in the United States, Frazier framed young Black people, especially those in poor or working class families as politically apathetic, and socially and developmentally deficient—even as he indicted Jim Crow. One of those young people was Myron Rudolph Ross, Jr. Because so much of Myron’s interview remained in Frazier’s papers, Myron and his family figured prominently throughout Coming of Age in Jim Crow DC—his stories about his siblings and parents, his dreams and plans, and his adventures as a boy scout. But it wasn’t until February 2020, when Catherine Nelson, Myron’s cousin, through the magic—but actually the hard and mostly invisible work— of Black genealogy, found me and reached out, that so much more of not only Myron’s but the Ross Nelson family’s life and history was revealed. Through conversations with Catherine and Myron Ross Jr.’s nieces, “the privilege of family history,” as historian Kendra T. Field calls it, added important components to the story: specifically, the ways in which Black life defies the confines, but also the historical narratives, of racial segregation and its violence. And the ways that Black families, in some cases, can serve as the conduit for this refusal.
As Field outlines, the questions historians ask of archival materials are sometimes at odds with a family’s own investigation into its history and often have different objectives. Engaging with family history—bringing together “professional history” and family memory—can open up spaces of knowledge professional history alone not only misses, but sometimes unintentionally erases. As Field says, it is a “privilege” when these dovetail, offering an opportunity to “appreciate the stakes of these divergent perspectives.”
Myron Rudolph was the eldest of nine in a family that included siblings Norman, Evelyn, Wayland, Bernard, Doris, Hortense, Yvonne, and Roland. He was also part of a larger extended family that included his mother’s siblings. Catherine Nelson was a baby when Myron, and her aunt and uncle, Laura Evelyn Nelson Ross and Myron Ross Sr. were interviewed for Frazier’s study. Catherine’s father, Willie Nelson, was Laura’s younger brother. Over the last two years, Catherine Nelson, who emerged as the Ross Nelson family historian, and Myron Rudolph’s niece, Donna Payne Wilson, graciously exchanged emails with me, talked with me via phone, and gathered other nieces—Robyn Payne, Constance Ross, Sheila Ross, and Kimberly Gross, via Zoom. Much of what follows comes from those conversations. Through both Catherine Nelson’s genealogical work and the “memorial work” of nieces/granddaughters, I came to learn so much more than the snapshot rendered of the Ross Nelson family in Coming of Age.