“Who am I?” is a universal question asked for centuries by people around the world searching for their identities. Native Miamians Patricia Jennings Braynon and Marvin Elliott Ellis are among those with a passion for discovering the past. They began their searches with archival records including obituaries, souvenir programs, and online databases.
In celebration of American Archives Month, Braynon and Ellis presented their findings in “A Genealogy Talk” on Oct. 14 at The Black Archives Historic Lyric Theater Cultural Arts Complex. Entertaining and informative, each told stories of surprises and disappointments they found looking through boxes and online for information about their family histories.
Patricia Jennings Braynon is chairwoman of the The Black Archives board. Formerly director of Miami-Dade County’s Housing Finance Authority, she and husband Oscar, former property manager for Miami International Airport, are traveling retirees. They incorporate genealogy research in their travel.
“At various sites, we walk in the sand of our ancestors, see what they saw, and meet people who look like us,” she said. “Most of all, it’s fun sharing these experiences with our children and grandchildren.”
Braynon also gave examples of how to uncover one’s family history, resources for amateur genealogists, her personal genealogy journey, and tips on how to get started.
With roots in the Bahamas, Jamaica, South Carolina, Cuba and Florida, she and her brother, Anthony Jennings, inherited photographs, birth, marriage, baptismal records, and death certificates. Stories about family members who were enslaved, loyalists in the Bahamas, Civil War participants, a “rum runner,” “double cousins,” and Irish ancestry are documented through archival records and DNA. Braynon exhibited a copy of the 1919 manifest from their grandfather’s boat, listing passengers including name and height.
Marvin Elliott Ellis lives in the present, plans for the future, and never stops thinking about the past. Family and friends expect late-night and early-morning texts with excited announcements of his discovery of new family connections. Once a bush, his family tree is now loaded with cousins living in the same region who never knew they were “kin.”
In 1985, Ellis began identifying family members throughout the Americas searching archival records, databases and genealogy and family-tree websites. Now a retired Miami-Dade County Public Schools educator, he is tracing his paternal ancestry back to 1790 Wilkes County, Georgia, and his maternal ancestry back to 1799 St. Croix, Danish Virgin Islands. His research is so intense, he is the community’s expert “go-to” genealogist. Also a professional photographer, he documents community events.
Three years ago, Ellis founded and chaired the panel discussion “In Search Of Our Roots: African Diaspora Genealogy of African-American and Antillean Creole People,” a component of Miami Book Fair. He is also chairman of the Episcopal Church of The Incarnation's annual October Family History Month Activities. Youth at the church are encouraged to learn new skills searching and finding relatives near and in far away places.
Looking to the future, The Marvin Elliott Ellis Collection of Personal Papers and Photographs are archived at The Amistad Research Center on the campus of Tulane University in New Orleans; Xavier University of Louisiana Archives also in New Orleans; and Miami’s Black Archives.
Braynon and Ellis are archives advocates and users who demonstrate the value of preserving and accessing family records in search of one’s roots family and community history.
In addition to the genealogy talk, the archives offered tours of its repository and presentations to student groups.
Archives Executive Director Timothy Barber engaged nearly 400 seniors from William H. Turner Tech High School during their visit to the complex. A historian and archivist, he shared information about Miami’s black family histories and the archives profession.
Archivist Jocelyn Hurtado presented to students and faculty at Florida International University and Florida Memorial College. She wrote an article selected by the Society of Florida Archivists for online publication in their series “Celebrating Florida Archives” The Archival Spotlight article highlights the collection of the late Eldridge F. Williams, former director of Equal Educational Opportunity for Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
Williams’ collection represents one of the many contacts made as a result of my creating the Photographic Archives in 1974 and establishing The Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida, which was incorporated Nov. 17, 1977.
Through my membership in the Society of American Archivists Roundtable for Archivists of Color and as a charter member of the Academy of Certified Archivists, records of enduring value that document Miami-Dade County’s black experience from 1896 to the present are being preserved.
Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Virtual Genealogy Fair
The National Archives in Washington, D.C., is sponsoring the Virtual Genealogy Fair beginning 10 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 25.You can watch the sessions and download the materials at your convenience. Visit www.archives.gov/calendar/genealogy-fair.
For more about The Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida, visit www.bahlt.org/the-black-archives.