Well, I’m on a roll now! Last time I gave you one of “Rita’s Tips” about checking out the Register of Deeds when you’re looking for your ancestors. Here’s another research tip to help you dig up some great information.
While you’re conducting your research to find your beloved African American ancestors, here’s my Research Tip of the day: Be sure to CHECK THE EARLY PHONE BOOKS.
This might seem like a given, but it’s a step that even I–an experienced researcher–neglected to take. My research took me to the years 1904 through 1930, and I diligently searched the various Chattanooga newspapers, city directories and obituary databases. But what I didn’t think about was accessing a research tool that was and is as American as baseball and apple pie: The good old, microscopically-printed, hard-to-see-without-squinting, telephone book.
The truth is, digging up early African American history can be h*ll on wheels. African Americans were often overlooked in newspaper articles and social registers, and hardly made the papers unless they’d committed some sort of crime. Plus, many African Americans just didn’t have the finances to advertise in the early directories, or place ads in the newspapers. But if they had a telephone, the number and the address of their residence would have been listed in the telephone book.
One of the librarians brought this fact to my attention, and I’ll forever be in her debt. (By the way, make friends with your librarians, and treat them right. They are a wonderful hybrid-breed [half-human, half-encyclopedia], and they keep the lost art of researching alive and well. You would do well to have them on your side, because they look out for you when you’re not even aware that’s what they’re doing!) Anyway, the librarian placed a 1917 Chattanooga telephone book in my hands. At almost 100 years old, the pages were yellowed and flaky, and actually disintegrated into fine little yellow bits of moon dust as I turned the pages. The person I was searching for wasn’t in the book, but the experience of seeing many names I recognized and had included in my own history book made the whole exercise well worth it.
So now I’m on a quest to look at more telephone books. The problem is, 1917 is the only book the library carries. So I’ll have to try to find the publisher and see if they have any early phone books in their archives. In this case, the publisher was Cumberland Telephone & Telegraph, the predecessor of Bell South Telephone & Telegraph, which morphed into AT&T. FYI, whatever city you’re in, take a look at the earliest telephone book your librarian can conjur up, find the publisher, and hunt them down on the internet.
So that’s my research tip for the day: Use the old telephone books! In the meantime, be sure to pick up your own copy of my book, African Americans of Chattanooga: A History of Unsung Heroes and find out about the many African American personalities and events from long ago. Just click on the icon above, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon’s website, where you can make your purchase, and thanks in advance for your support!
Best wishes and happy researching,