Strange and wonderful things …

Many strange things happen to me in genealogy. They might be called coincidences, but they happen too frequently for me to label them in this manner. Although most commonly applied to finding your soulmate, the Yiddish word “beshert” means preordained or inevitable, and can also be used to describe a situation that was “meant to be.” A beshert set of circumstances took place very recently.

Periodically I get emails from the Tower Hamlets Local History Collection. Tower Hamlets
is the borough that encompasses London’s East End neighborhood. Many immigrant families, including Jews, made their first home there, as it was close to the docks.

A few weeks ago I received an email alerting me to an upcoming exhibit featuring colour photographs taken in the East End after World War II. These were unusual for the time – most photographs taken post-war were black and white as colour film was expensive. The images were taken by David Granick, a Jewish fellow who was a keen local photographer. After his death the photographs was donated to Tower Hamlets Local History Collection.

Now park that information and I’ll describe something else. I’m always desirous of communicating with the older relatives in my family. If I can jog their memory with bits of my genealogical research, I can sometimes learn more about the family; it’s a kind of symbiotic process.

My cousin Graham’s mother Marion is 91 years old and I was investigating her family. Her father’s mother had a sister named Jane who married but never had any children. The husband passed away, followed five years later by Jane. Ancestry.com provided her probate entry as a “hint” which I clicked to review. There was her name, last place of residence, date and place of death, the date of probate, the amount of money she left, and lastly, the beneficiary – it was David Granick.

It was a very good thing I was sitting down when this appeared on the screen; I was quite shocked. Was this the same David Granick who was the photographer? A search of English online vital records showed me that only one David Granick had ever lived in England. A bit more sleuthing and I discovered that David’s mother was a sister to Marion’s father. This meant that Marion was first cousin to David Granick, as is my own mother, albeit by marriage.

What are the odds? Beshert! – it was meant to be – and I suggested Graham take his mother to the exhibit!

– Jeremy Frankel

Working

Frankel & Fisch photo July 2015

Working this weekend with a client to preserve
her precious historical photographs, documents,
and artifacts. The National Geographic Society
issues in front of us were not being saved!

The oft-told tale

Langston Hughes’ Jewish ancestry
How bubbe meise went viral in the age before the internet

In The Big Sea, an autobiography by Langston Hughes published in 1940, he recounted a spare history of his family line that included a great-grandfather, a slave trader who fathered his grandmother. The name that came down attached to this story as it was passed orally through generations was Silas Cushenberry, and the claim was that he was Jewish. For 75 years this has been repeated in biographical works about Hughes’s life, and even made it’s way onto the University of Kentucky Libraries website in a sketch about Hughes’ father (http://nkaa.uky.edu/record.php?note_id=515).

In a recent issue of the Forward (26 Jun 2015) Benjamin Ivry mentioned this tale in a review of The Selected Letters of Langston Hughes edited by Arnold Rampersad. Needless to say, our genealogical antennae were quivering as we set about to research Hughes’ lineage.

We conducted some census surveys of clans with that surname from 1810 onward in the United States and delved into records tracing Hughes’ immediate known family. Of course by 1860 we reached an impasse as the U.S. Census for that year did not record slaves, and although a separate census was conducted specifically enumerating slaves we found no conclusive listings of Hughes’ grandmother.

Finding no indications of Jewish affiliation, we searched further and came across a compilation of the history of the Cushenberry families published in 1897, Genealogical Memoranda of the Quisenberry Families, written by Anderson Chenault Quisenberry (https://archive.org/details/genealogicalmemo00quis). The Cushenberry families were not Jewish, but descendants of English immigrants who settled in Virginia, Kentucky, and Indiana initially. There is one mention of a Silas Cusheberry who served in the Civil War, and clear notations that the family included members of many Christian denominations. We emailed Mr. Rampersad with our findings and he replied that he wasn’t surprised.

Remarkably it seems that no one saw fit to investigate the claim, and while Hughes may have had a Jewish slave holding ancestor, his name was not Silas Cushenberry. This exercise brings to mind a disturbing trend in genealogical research perpetuated by Ancestry.com and their use of “hints.” Although useful in connecting researchers with public trees established by others, it has encouraged sloppy investigations. With the click of a mouse, false information is copied onto another person’s tree, then copied again, until the data goes viral and is accepted as fact.

The moral of the story? Verify your conjectured facts with documentation. Don’t believe oral tales passed down in your family until you have done your best to locate records to support them. Sometimes the data will reveal disturbing truths that families have hidden with more pleasant memories, and this may not be welcome news for older family members who have grown up with familiar stories. Be tactful, be gracious, share the information with your relatives who care to know the truth and pass down to your children and grandchildren the real history of your family.