Uncle John William Olton Jr. (1870-1943)
Warde-Olton Family History Collection Oral traditions and oral history

Oral tradition gives researchers their best hope for success in family history research. This is particularly true for once disenfranchised Black populations in Barbados, who as a result of slavery, lived most of their lives outside mainstream institutions and were poorly documented.

Roots, the TV mini-series, created the opportunity for open dialogue with family members about oral traditions and family history. Those fortunate enough to have grandparents could collect a wealth of information about the names, places, and stories that framed the family’s history. They might rekindle oral traditions heard as a child growing up that had little meaning at the time, but now appear as part of the natural process of sharing memory and history. In Barbados, while the masses were enjoying the occasion of independence and the creation of new Black national heroes, few were showing interest in family history and genealogy.

There is a perception that the old people like to keep secrets, but this writer’s experience revealed a very different picture.  Elderly relatives were eager to pass on vital information about names, places, and events, some from memory and some documented. One such critical piece of information is the birth names of the females in the family. This group created the fewest records, as many were unmarried and landless. Oral tradition led me to the only story of a slave in the family.  She was an old lady that Aunt Daisy said she visited as a child, a “born free slave”[i].  The records revealed a grandmother 3 times removed, named Hanna Esther, baptized January 10, 1834, in the year that all slave children under the age of six years were set free. In this case, the documents backed up the story.

Barbadians have a strong tradition of storytelling. Many times, family history and traditions are embedded in these stories. It is vital for the family researcher to begin documenting everything. This will save time and effort later on. Place names, Christian, and surnames of relatives, migration data, military service, dates of birth, marriage, and death are many of the life events found in these oral traditions.

Take an elderly relative to visit family and friends from his/her generation and take notes of their conversation. Very often, valuable oral-tradition will be passed between them. This is also a good time for the family researcher to notice photographs and other family documents that may be displayed in a relative’s home. Ask questions. Get permission to take a digital photo of the item(s). The above photo was on the wall in the home of an elderly relative. It became the inspiration for my family history research journey.

[i] Interview with Aunt Daisy Olton, Brooklyn, NY, 1995.