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Getting lost in history

Dr. McGrade’s Family Stories, Family History class is an enlightening experience for students

In 2019, professor of English Dr. Susan McGrade developed her HUM 3410-Family Stories, Family Histories course after an immersive experience at the Allen County Public Library’s world-renowned Fred J. Reynolds Historical Genealogy Department.

“I was researching my own family history when I realized that I had been working for several hours without even realizing how much time had gone by,” Dr. McGrade said. “I suddenly wished that my students could have a similar experience—to so thoroughly enjoy their research that they get lost in it.”

Three years later, the results of this course have exceeded her expectation—so much so that she presented on the course in March at the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States’ national conference.

“Every semester, I have students who spend hours at the genealogy center, invested in solving a mystery within their family. I am always impressed when they become ‘hedgehogs’ in a dogged pursuit, accessing rare records and combing through data. Once they make their discoveries, they become producers of knowledge, and they take on some new ownership of what it means to be a researcher and a scholar,” Dr. McGrade said.

The interdisciplinary course introduces students to the literature of family stories and the science of genealogical research. Students study a variety of literary works that examine the significance of family heritage, migration and immigration narratives, ethnic identity and citizenship status narratives, and then conduct their own genealogical research about their families.

Dr. McGrade said the course would not be possible without Fort Wayne’s gem of a genealogy center and its staff.

“Director Curt Witcher and senior librarian Allison Singleton have been instrumental in providing expertise and helping me design appropriate research assignments,” she said. “They answer late-night questions from students and have become invested and involved in their stories, as well.”

Some Graduates of Dr. McGrade’s Course Shared Their Findings

Jeff Dobhriste, Electrical Engineering Major

My journey in Dr. McGrade’s class began as a small inconsistency. I found a census record from 1860 which contained information about members of my father’s side of the family in Missouri; one name was conspicuously missing from the subsequent 1870 census. It was the name of my fourth great-grandfather, Robert Emmett Montgomery, born 1823. After countless hours, I found his Civil War records and began constructing a narrative of his last year of life.

In this process, I learned about what life was like in the 19th century in America, the history of the United States around this period and the legislative actions that led to the war. I learned about how the story of my ancestors intertwines with the stories of people from different backgrounds, how we all influence and shape each other in this vast, intermingling melting pot of a country we live in. But most importantly, I learned how human and fragile the people of the past were. Not the stoic, unfeeling monoliths that get quoted in history books; they were real people, with fears and doubts, making decisions about their lives in the exact same way I do.

I found that my civil war ancestor deserted his unit to care for his sick children, and upon his return to camp agreed to make up the time lost at the end of his tour of duty. Due to the exposure to the harsh winter journey and the conditions of the field hospital, however, he also fell ill and died on the day he would have been discharged if he hadn’t left.

After the semester was over, my wife and I traveled to St. Louis to see for ourselves where Robert and his family lived and died. I found his modest grave marker at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, visited the site of the battle he participated in at Pilot Knob and spent more time than my wife would have liked at the Missouri Civil War Museum talking to a historian and recreating Robert’s life.

Catherine Mcnulty, Biomedical Engineering Major

My grandmother was born in Poland when World War II began. She was only a few months old when she was taken from what was Naliboki, Poland, to Germany where my great-grandmother, great-great-grandmother, my grandmother and her siblings were put into a labor camp. My grandmother grew up only knowing of the world that was their labor camp—where her childhood was formed without toys and fun trips but by her imagination along with the company of other children in the labor camp. Eventually, the camp was liberated where they were freed and were able to then get on a ship to Ellis Island, New York.

My great-grandfather was also from Poland, but he was taken to Soviet Russia where his father was the lead composer of the Russian Orchestra as an amazing violinist. They received protection because of having a high status, but my great-grandfather was still put into the Soviet Army.  My great-grandfather and his father received many gifts for the amazing skill of playing violin, but they lost it all to get on the ship to Ellis Island.

The amount I was able to learn about my family in a single semester—information that I’d been seeking my whole life—was astonishing.

Andrea Schriver, Accounting Major

The class gave me the opportunity to interview my great-grandparents about their experiences when they immigrated to America from the Netherlands in 1957.

The main idea I learned from speaking with my great-grandparents is the importance of knowing the main language spoken in the region. Not knowing a language can create difficulties in communication while simultaneously cultivating isolation and loneliness. Additionally, I learned about my other great-grandmother’s service to the United States as a Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) in 1943 and 1944 during World War II.

Dereon Minter, Business Administration Major

I feel like Dr. McGrade’s class is a needed class in college. To know where you come from and what your family tree has been through can greatly help you better understand where to go in life. The class gave me the ambition and opportunity to find myself. That’s an opportunity you should always take.

Desmond Patterson, Business Administration Major

Dr. McGrade’s course has helped me find a lot of information about my family history. Parents didn’t know a lot about their grandparents, and has helped me recover interesting information about them. I was able to go back six generations to find that my sixth great-grandfather on my dad’s side was born a slave in Georgia. I was the first person in my family to recover a variety of unknown information about our past, and my family was very fascinated about all that I was able to find.