I had a discussion with other African American genealogists about using Ancestry family trees. My opinion was that I hoped that more subscribers would make their trees public instead of private. The connections that I’ve made from researching public trees has been invaluable, and one in particular stands out in my mind. My final tribute during Black History Month is a salute to my first cousin Robert Lee Neal (1917-1987).
My grandfather’s sister told me many stories about their father Roy Neal, and even though I have no pictures of him I wanted to find any of his nine sisters and brothers. While researching the family trees on Ancestry I happened to find a connection with one of the brothers, William Neal. This was a rare occasion because most of the trees are private and don’t allow me to make sure I have a positive match. I emailed the owner and he wrote back explaining that indeed, his great uncle was the same William Neal! I was so excited to share information with him that we emailed back and forth for days, sending pictures and sharing more stories of the other side of our families. I could never find such personal information from a book or online, so to me it was more valuable than any other resource.
It was in this exchange that I found one of William Neal’s sons Robert Lee Neal. Although I learned that all of William’s sons were creative, intelligent and witty, I was drawn to Robert’s artwork and the dedication to his craft. I found magazine articles from when he was a child entering art contests, and continued through his adult years studying under famous WPA artists. Here’s an excerpt from one of the newspapers:
Another local artist who worked with one of the WPA’s most famous artists and a well-known African American Dayton painter. Neal did not live in Dayton when he was involved with the WPA. A native of Atlanta, he started painting under the guidance of the famous African American muralist Hale Woodruff. “He began his studies when he was 15, and his lessons cost 50 cents a day,” said Neal’s widow, Alberta Smith Neal. “When he was about 18, Mr. Woodruff wanted him to enter a big show, but Bob didn’t have the right clothes and couldn’t afford to attend the opening. Mr. Woodruff rented him a limousine and a tuxedo so he could go, and Bob ended up taking first place in the show-his painting was judge to be better than his teacher’s (Woodruff)”.
Neal moved to Dayton in the early 1940’s, after the WPA program had ended, but many local artists recall his stories of Woodruff and his own work with the WPA murals. “Bob was Woodruff’s understudy for the Amistad murals at Talledega College in Alabama,” said Michael Sampson, local artist and coordinator for public communication at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center at Wilberforce University. The murals were painted in 1939, just before Neal came to Dayton, and Sampson has a copy of a letter written by Woodruff to his biographers that clearly establishes that “Bob actually did the cartoons (under drawings) for the murals, and he posed for all the hand drawings and some of the figures done in the mural.” Photographs of the mural series, titled The Mutiny Aboard the Amistad 1839, were on display in the DAI exhibition, and those who knew Neal could recognize his long expressive hands on the men in the paintings; in addition, many of the figures- and even some of the faces- share the same features of Neal’s self-portraits.
In Dayton, Neal continued to paint, and some recall his mural that decorated the Lakeside Grill (now the Crescendo) on Germantown St. The club is still operating, but the mural has been painted over. None of the local WPA artists in this article are with us today, and unfortunately, neither is most of their WPA work. Undoubtedly, not all of the work produced under the auspices of the WPA could be labeled as “great”, but the WPA and the art that it spawned is part of America’s –and Dayton’s- history, and its goal to integrate art into daily life played an important role in our public art legacy. It is ironic that, in just half a century, so much work that was intended to preserve local heritage has been destroyed and forgotten by the “future generations” which it was intended to inspire. Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from such devastation is that it is imperative to preserve and document public art. After all, it is our public art that, in part, documents and preserves our times, our history, and our heritage.
Copyright 1998 Virginia Burroughs-Dayton Voice
In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s day I was inspired to concentrate on my own Georgia ancestors. I revisited one of the documents that I found early on in my research that shows Gabriel Neal, (my third great-grandfather), on the 1867 Return of Registered Voters for Banks County, Georgia.
“WE CERTIFY to the correctness of the above Return,”
Board of Registration
P. P. Casey
J. G, Stringer
C. W. Beal
J. B. S. Davis
Source: Microfilm, Georgia State Archives
Contributed by Jim Davis
Transcribed 2005 by Jacqueline King
Professor Henry Lewis Gates, Jr. presented a similar document to U.S. Congressman John Lewis on an episode of Finding Your Roots that brought him to tears. I also feel that same tug at my heart and sense of pride that my great-grandfather only two years out of slavery recognized the importance of his vote. I’ve stared at this document numerous times searching for a deeper understanding of what it must have meant to Gabriel and my other family members to finally be able to participate in this process.
But in 1867, what exactly was the process for newly freed African Americans?
Congress passed the first Reconstruction Act on March 2nd, 1867 which divided the Confederacy into five military districts each governed by a Union general. The first two Reconstruction Acts were followed by a series of supplementary acts that authorized the military commanders to register the voters and supervise the elections. As a result of these measures all of the states had returned to the Union by 1870.
While some sources describe that as many as 700,000 Blacks were registered by 1868, it made me wonder how many of them would cast a vote in the next election. And if they did make it to the polls, would they be educated enough to make their own choice, or were they being coerced by political agendas? Blacks would only have a short time to celebrate the Fifteenth Amendment ratified in 1870, and would soon meet with opposition from Southern states in the form of Jim Crow laws, intimidation and violence.
My ancestors in Banks County, Georgia were proud farmers, and even 13 years later on the 1880 census only one of Gabriel’s daughters could read and write. I believe that Gabriel took a strong leap of faith to make a better life for his children and grandchildren in signing his voter registration. In that step he would attempt to ensure his family’s freedom for generations to come.
When I voted for the first African American president in the last 2 elections I kept Gabriel and his sacrifices in my thoughts. I worked as a volunteer to register new voters, donated financially and continue to work as an advocate in Washington, D.C.
The words of Dr. King resonate also continue to resonate with me in my genealogical research. The foundation of my study requires me to “sift and weigh evidence” and to maintain a level of integrity in my work. It is therefore equally as important for me to give back, educate, and enlighten others on the joy of finding their own ancestors.
“To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.” Martin Luther King, Jr.,-The Purpose of Education
Bragg, William H. “Reconstruction in Georgia.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 10 January 2014. Web. 20 January 2014.