The songs of our ancestors are also the songs of our children. Philip Carr-Gomm
Every winter term, juniors in the required US History course at Carolina Friends School take a deep breath and embark on a massive research project – a history of their own families on both sides, from great grandparents to the present. Describing the experience, they use words like “daunting,” “really cool,” and “a lot of work, but fulfilling after the fact.”
“Of course they have to get comfortable using a library, but there’s much more to it than that,” says Bryce Little, who inherited the concept from former head teacher Bob Fulks in the late 1980s and has since developed it into an Upper School rite of passage. “They’re required to do at least two interviews with people who are knowledgeable about their families, preferably relatives, so they learn to frame good questions and really listen to the answers. And then they have to synthesize all that information.”
With a background in archaeology and Native American studies and a string of degrees from such institutions as the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago, Bryce is known for his encyclopedic knowledge on any number of topics, one of which is American History.
For the family history project, along with the factual and anecdotal research, he asks students to compile a family tree and, if possible, supply photographs of all family members, including themselves. In addition to creating a biographical sketch of each ancestor, each student writes an autobiography. Finally, they put the data into context by analyzing notable family patterns of ethnicity, education, family size, politics, religion, and occupation.
“It’s about learning about your roots and yourself,” says Jackson, one of this year's 39 US History students. “I didn’t really know that much about my family until I talked to people.” Along with the increased self knowledge come stories that bring the past alive. “The coolest thing was sitting down with my great-grandmother and getting to hear her stories about her childhood, like the hobo they found hiding in the kitchen during a party.”
“I learned that my grandmother on my dad’s side was five feet tall and my grandfather was six feet, seven inches,” says his classmate Lili. “So when they went for a walk together, she had to run to keep up.”
Once encountered, these stories become a part of them forever. Dillon, a senior, tells about a grandfather who left the Mennonites to start a traveling circus; classmate Ifedayo collected a treasure trove of stories and photographs on a family visit to Nigeria the summer before his junior year.
The anecdotes and pictures add substance to the bare facts of the past: the grandfather orphaned when his parents were killed during the partition of India and Pakistan, the grandmother raised by her dead mother’s best friend, the father who played a full season of baseball as a kid and never lost a game, the priest who broke his vows, the women’s rights activist, the homecoming queen, the movie cashier, the barnstormer, carpenter, stone worker, doctor, landowner, farmer, coalminer, soldier, baker, secretary, preacher.
They came to this country from the British Isles, from western and eastern Europe, from Scandinavia and Russia and the Middle East, China and India, west Africa, Central and South America and the Caribbean.
They founded Goodyear, served as ambassador to Australia, trained the actor James Stewart to fly a plane, and supplied the stone for Duke Chapel.
“My aim with this project is for students to claim their own piece of history, one that’s unique to them, which can assist them at a critical time in their lives when they’re forming their identities,” Bryce says. “They’re working on it at a point in the course when we’re studying the time period of their great-grandparents, so for the rest of the year America’s story parallels their stories.”