My Other Family – Life on Cambridge St.


People often ask me where I’m from and I tell them Philadelphia.  Some of them look at me with a little half smile and say, “but you have a Southern accent.” Yes, I have a Southern accent because I’ve lived in the south for 47 of my 64 years, but I was born in Philadelphia and I consider Philly my home.

This is a picture of my god-parents, Felix and Lessie Belyeu – aka Big Mom & Big Daddy.  Anytime I write about childhood memories more than likely one of them will be mentioned. As a neophyte genealogist, I’m well aware that when we build our family trees, it should only include blood relatives.  However, there are many people like me who were raised in part or altogether by grandparents, godparents, aunts, uncles, sisters and brothers.  I spent most of my first eleven years with my god-parents and their daughter, Gladys. Even though they’re not on my tree, I consider them my family.

Life on Cambridge Street

We lived on Cambridge Street in West Philadelphia – a narrow street of row houses.  I remember most of the homes on our block were well kept brick homes, with white accents and green shutters.  Almost every home had a white flower box on the front porch. I don’t know about the other neighbors but Big Daddy bought and paid for his home.

Our Sundays were spent in Church – no washing cars, going to the movies or chores of any type.  If our Sunday clothes were not ironed before Sunday morning, we had hell to pay but we still had to go to church.   On Saturday mornings, Big Mom made pancakes with fresh blueberry syrup.  Saturday evenings in the summer was when Gladys and I took our weekly walk over to Master Street for a cheese steak or hoagie and a Black Cherry Wishniak.

Summer was my favorite time of year, not because school was out but because we always took trips to Atlantic City or Coney Island.  We went to Atlantic City several times during the summer but Coney Island was a special trip.

One of the things I didn’t understand when I was a child was our trip taking routine.  Our car was packed down with everything we needed: food, water, blankets and all sorts of other things including a pee jar for my little god-brother.  We took baskets of fried chicken, potato salad and cole slaw to the beach.  At the time, I didn’t know that it was because there were limited places where we could eat. I didn’t understand that if our car broke down we might have to sleep in the car if we couldn’t get back home.

Racism was never discussed in my presence.  I don’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing because I was always told that I could achieve anything I wanted if I worked hard enough.

Neighborhood Shenanigans

Several times a year we had block parties. Most of the neighbors participated but some were just annoyed by the street being blocked off and all of the noise – we just ignored them.  During the winter when we had record snow fall, we would have snowball fights and build igloos in the street.  I don’t know how it is now, but our block was too narrow for snow plows so it allowed the kids to have all kinds of snow related activities.

Our Neighbors

Our neighbors had an eclectic mix of jobs.  They were small business owners, school teachers, policemen, beauticians, salesmen, painters, repair men, cooks and domestic workers.  With a few exceptions, everyone worked hard and tried to better themselves.  Of course, there were some trouble makers and alcoholics who were often the source of amusement and gossip, but I don’t ever remember the police having a presence on our block.

We knew all of our neighbors and respected our elders.  If any of us kids got in trouble, our parents usually knew it before we got home.  By the time we got home we had probably already been fussed at by one of our neighbors.

Most of the families on Cambridge Street were either Catholic or Methodist. We were the only Pentecostal family on the block – the neighbors called us holy rollers.

Both of my god-parents were from Alabama. Big Mom was one of eight children, most of whom moved to Philadelphia.  Big Daddy had siblings but I’m not very familiar with his side of the family, except for his brother Thurston.  I believe most of Big Daddy’s family moved to Detroit.

Big Daddy was a door-to-door salesman of Watkins products. Big Mom was a homemaker who never worked outside of the home.  She made artificial corsages and boutonnieres, had an in-home child care of three children and sold home-made pies and cakes.  She was an extraordinary baker.

All Good Things Must Come to an End

Big Daddy died of heart failure in 1957, he was 54 years old. Big Mom died at age 67 of kidney failure in 1977.  In 1962, my mother came to Philly and took me to live with her in Tennessee, but until I got married, I continued to spend summers on Cambridge Street.

Lost & Found


Have you ever lost anything in a store, on a plane, at a concert, at church or even at home?  I’ve left books on air planes, lost small items at church and lost any number of things at home.  With the exception of our homes, once we realize we’ve lost something, we usually check with the lost and found.  Sometimes our items are safely stored in the lost and found; sometimes they are never seen again.  So, what happens when we lose people?  I know we don’t actually lose people, but we often lose contact with them.

The picture above, of my sister Harriet and her children, is probably from the 1970’s.  Back in the mid 1990’s I lost contact with my half-sister and brothers – Harriet, Raymond, Larry and Phillip.  In 1994 when my family moved from Delaware to Georgia, we lost a lot of files and paperwork. This was before cell phones, Facebook and Twitter and the internet was still in its infancy. Without common friends and relatives, finding people was not an easy task.

When I first started looking for Harriet, I tried telephone numbers that I had in some old-school address books.  I called phone numbers that I had for Harriet, Phillip and my dad’s first wife, Miss Elizabeth. I sent letters to the last addresses that I had and all I got was nothing, nothing, nothing!

To complicate matters, my father had a third set of children, one of whom I had never met.  All I knew about them was their names – Tina and George.  I met George briefly when he was about 5 or 6 years old.  I had an idea of their ages and I remembered their mother’s name was Barbara, but I didn’t have any common friends, addresses or phone numbers.  Needless to say, I had absolutely no idea how to find them.

Over the years, I conducted many internet searches and was unsuccessful.  Finally, on June 7, 2016, I did another internet search.  Again, I found some information on Harriet, all of which was old – old phone numbers and old addresses.  This time, I decided to expand my search to her children.  I found disconnected phone numbers and old addresses, but my search led to an entry that said my nephew Thaine had presence on social media. Jackpot! I headed straight to Facebook.

Facebook can be a massive time suck or a gold mine of information.  In one day, I went from having no information on my siblings to finding all of them.  Unfortunately, my brother Larry had passed away and so had Miss Elizabeth.

So far, contact with my siblings has been Facebook, text messages, and phone conversations. I’m looking forward to a trip to Philly so I can reconnect with Harriet and Phillip and connect with Tina and George.  I’ve also connected with my brother Raymond who moved away from Philly.

My search too over twenty years but it finally paid off.  I’m so glad that I kept searching and didn’t give up.


I Used to Hate the Begats but Now I Love Them


Descendants of Fred Johnson, Jr. & Ora Lee Johnson

This picture was taken in August following the funeral of my mother-in-law, Ora Lee Johnson.  These are most of her children, some of her grandchildren and a few of her great-grandchildren.  It is a modern representation of the Johnson’s begats.

I was raised by my god-parents, extremely God fearing people and both were church trustees.  Needless to say, I was always in church:  Sunday School, Sunday Morning Service, HYPBC (Holy Young People’s Bible Class), Sunday Evening Services and mid-week Bible study.  Every now and then we studied what was my least favorite Bible passage: the begats.  I hated to read the begats.

An incomplete list of begats from Genesis 5  (KJV)

This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him;

 And Adam lived an hundred and thirty years, and begat a son in his own likeness, and after his image; and called his name Seth:

 And Seth lived an hundred and five years, and begat Enos:

And Seth lived after he begat Enos eight hundred and seven years, and begat sons and daughters:

And all the days of Seth were nine hundred and twelve years: and he died.

And Enos lived ninety years, and begat Cainan:

And Enos lived after he begat Cainan eight hundred and fifteen years, and begat sons and daughters:

And Cainan lived seventy years and begat Mahalaleel:

And Cainan lived after he begat Mahalaleel eight hundred and forty years, and begat sons and daughters:

 And all the days of Cainan were nine hundred and ten years: and he died.

 And Mahalaleel lived sixty and five years, and begat Jared:

And Mahalaleel lived after he begat Jared eight hundred and thirty years, and begat sons and daughters:

This list goes on and on and on!

This long list of people whose names were incredibly hard to pronounce was terribly intimidating.  Truth be told, when I didn’t have to read aloud, I skipped the entire section of begats.  I couldn’t figure out why it was important to know whose daddy was whose and why it was important to know all these people.  Little did I know that decades later my time would be consumed with my own list of begats:  ancestors who came before me and my parents.  I want to know who begat them, who they begat, where they lived and something about their lives.

If I could turn back time, I would have asked more questions of my mother and uncles; especially my Uncle Owen.  Uncle Owen,  mom’s half brother, was 30 years older than my mother.  He would have known more about my mother’s paternal line.  Unfortunately, that was a missed opportunity that can’t be reclaimed.  Mom is still living and her mind is pretty sharp but she has forgotten a lot of things; and there are a lot of things she never knew.  She’s been as helpful as she can but she doesn’t understand what the fuss is all about.

These days I spend most of my money on two things:  my grandson and genealogy.  Internet subscriptions, books, pedigree charts, ancestry charts, workshops, conferences and travel – these are the items that fill my expense list.  All of this to feed my curiosity of my family’s begats.


What, we’re not from Mississippi?

As long as I can remember, my mother Ruth Washington, told me that our family was originally from Mississippi.  Mom and Uncle Thomas were born in Tennessee and my Aunt Lillian was born in Kentucky. alabama-county-mapAccording to Mom, both maternal grandparents and my grandfather’s first set of children were all born in Mississippi.

With this information in hand, I scoured census documents on looking for my grandparents in Mississippi. As a genealogy newbie, it didn’t occur to me that this information passed down by recent generations was not true. Unfortunately, this type of misinformation is common in many families, especially when the family history is oral and not documented.

Of course, I believed that we were from Mississippi because my mother said so.  There was no reason for me to believe otherwise.  Another reason I thought our family was from Mississippi was my childhood memory of my cousin’s death.  When I was 12 years old, my cousin Lula Mae died of a brain aneurysm.  After the funeral, I traveled with my family to Iuka, Mississippi where my cousin was buried in a family cemetery plot. For me, that confirmed that our family was originally from Mississippi.

I found out that at some point my great-grandfather, Thomas Harris, moved his wife and children from Alabama to Mississippi. He and his wife stayed in Mississippi where they died; hence the burial plots. His children and grandchildren eventually moved to Tennessee.

From several types of records found on and Family Search I found ancestors as far back as 1823 who were born in Alabama.  Most of them were born in Clarke County, Alabama; a few ancestors were born in Choctaw County and the Choctaw Nation.

It took some time to solve this mystery, but I finally got it done and was ready to move on to other family mysteries.

That’s My Daddy


When I was five years old, my parents separated.  My mother left Philadelphia and went back to her home town of Nashville to help take care of her mother who was seriously ill.  Even though I was still living in Philadelphia with my god-parents, I didn’t see my father on a regular basis and when he did visit, we didn’t talk about family.  When dad died in 1985, I still didn’t know anything about his side of the family.

In 2012 I joined Ancestry in hopes of gleaning some insight into dad’s family.  After working my way through a ton of census reports for a George Washington born in Georgia, I managed to find one census document.  I don’t know why in the world so many people named their sons George Washington other than to teach me to carefully peruse documents in search of the one I needed. In addition to the census report, I found his military registration and a death record from the state of Pennsylvania.

Even though I was extremely frustrated, every few months I would run a search on dad’s name with no new discoveries.  Then one day in August 2015, I ran a search and the picture above appeared.  At first I started to ignore it but something said, click on the picture. I looked at it and said, “That’s my Daddy.” I looked at the information on who posted the picture and saw that it was posted by a Winnie Whitfield who labeled the picture “Uncle George and Maggie.”  I contacted her through  Ancestry messages and found out that she was my first cousin – the daughter of dad’s sister Essie Mae.

It wasn’t long before Winnie and I were talking on the phone and exchanging addresses.  By this time, I was living in Smyrna, Georgia and Winnie was living in her home town of Tifton, Georgia. Between phone calls and visits, Winnie and I have become close friends and she has shared a lot about dad’s family.

You never know when a random search will pay off.



AAHGS 37th National Conference

Last weekend I attended the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical (aka AAHGS) Conference in aahgs-confAtlanta, Georgia.  This year, the conference was hosted by the Atlanta Metro Chapter of AAHGS.

Being my first national genealogy conference I was really looking forward to meeting some fellow family historians (I don’t think of myself as a genealogist yet), learning some new techniques for finding ancestors and learning more about African American history.

One of the classes that I was excited about attending was, Why Every Family Historian Should Have a Blog, taught by Andie Criminger.

Andie started the class with a quote that actually summed up the need for a family blog:

Preserve your memories
Keep them well
What you forget
You can never retell

– Louisa Mae Alcott

Now, while I’m new to genealogy, I’m not new to blogging, so I thought I’d dust off the old blogging fingers and start anew.

My plan for this blog is to share my mother’s side of the family (the Harris’); my father’s side of the family (the Washington’s) and my other family (the Belyeu’s).  Of course mixed in are other surnames like Perryman, Mitchell, Turner, Rice/Ryce, Sanders and Smith.