Search for roots leads one man to Cedar Grove

Cornelius Thomas and his wife NancyCornelius Thomas and his wife NancyWhen Raymond Reddick began going through his grandmother’s attic after she passed away in 1985, he stopped to look through a box of pictures. Inside were photographs of his family members going back several generations.

For Reddick, it was just the beginning of an investigation into his family’s history that would take him from Boston to Connecticut to Chicago, and finally to a grave in Dorchester’s Cedar Grove cemetery. His imagination fired by the photographs, Reddick immediately wondered how he could match names to the unidentified faces.

“I decided to take advantage of all of the older relatives who were still alive at the time, in their nineties,” Reddick said.

His relatives were able to identify many of the subjects in the photos, and from there Reddick was able to construct a rudimentary lineage.

“I just started from my grandmother’s and grandfather’s death certificates,” he said. “I went all the way back as far as I could go, and then I contacted relatives who were living in Connecticut and Chicago and who had left here over 100 years ago, who had gotten married and their names had changed.”

These relatives were amazed to hear that their families had roots in Boston, but did what they could to help. Reddick said that when he went to meet them, they compared photographs and found that many in his possession had also made the long journey with his relatives as they spread out westward across the country.

As Reddick learned more, the story of his family was sharpened and defined. His grandfather’s great grandfather, Daniel Thomas, an escaped slave from Virginia who lies now in an unmarked grave in the historic Forest Hills Cemetery, was at its beginning. Daniel had fled slavery and made his way to Nova Scotia before heading down to Boston with his young family, including a son, Cornelius Thomas, who now lies in Cedar Grove. It was with Cornelius that Reddick struck genealogical gold.

In April 1893, Cornelius had been profiled in the Boston Daily Globe in a brief article that gave Reddick some insight into the life of his ancestor. In the piece, Cornelius is chronicled as a “newsboy,” a “grandfather of five children, a Baptist, and a Democrat.” He was also an entrepreneur, and, after a couple of years as a distributor of newspapers, he established routes along which he was distributing one thousand papers a day, each one by hand.

“Thomas never was sick,” the Globe article says. “His day’s work begins at 5 am, at which time he has cooked and eaten his breakfast. He begins to sell the evening papers as soon as they are out, and gets through about 6 pm.”

Discovering this article was a watershed moment for Reddick, who, as a boy, had grown up listening to his grandmother tell stories of their family’s history. She had told him about an escaped slave and his family, but now these people had names.

“My grandmother took me to Beacon Hill before she passed and she took me to all the houses they lived in,” Reddick said of his ancestors. “She told me about how the slave was hiding here when he first came to Boston.”

While Reddick was pursuing his own family’s heritage, researchers at Forest Hills Cemetery were engaging in an act of historical recovery of their own. Sylvia McDowell, a scholar-in-residence at Forest Hills who passed away March 11, had begun a project in conjunction with the Forest Hills Educational Trust that they called “Finding Voices in the Silence.”

Forest Hills is well known as the final resting place of many prominent Bostonians, said Cecily Miller, Executive Director of the Forest Hills Educational Trust, but she said that she felt the stories of African-Americans interred there were not being properly acknowledged.

“We felt like part of cultural oppression is that the achievements of people and the concerns of people, the conditions people live under and the conditions they face, aren’t discussed,” Miller said. “They are not talked about, they aren’t part of the story of history.”

McDowell and the Forest Hills Educational Trust received a $3,000 grant from Mass Humanities, and McDowell, who spent years as a librarian at MIT, Boston University, and Harvard, went to work. After happening upon a story about her work in the Globe, Reddick came forward with the research he had done on his own family.

“I had all of the work all done and I was starting to write everything down in a book form,” he said. “I had just buried my mother at Forest Hills.”

For McDowell, and for researcher Dee Morris, who along with researchers Kerri Greenidge and Elaine James has taken up the work where McDowell left it, Reddick’s story is one of many just below the surface at Forest Hills and Cedar Grove.

“A lot of archives are filled with the archives of very important, very crucial, but also very wealthy people,” Morris said. “Much of the rest of the community, people like us, we’re nowhere. We’re much harder to find out about.”

For Morris, who has written books on the history of Somerville and Medford, working to uncover stories such as those of Daniel and Cornelius Thomas is personally satisfying.

“I can make these people known,” she said. “The fact is it puts a face on events, it puts a very human face on them. Here is a guy raising a family in an African-American community, he has the fugitive slave father, he is trying to make a go of it, and they do. They are a huge success story.”

Not everyone might be able to replicate Reddick’s success in tracing his family’s history, Morris said, but they will not know until they try.

“He had a lot of family photographs,” she said. A daguerrotype of Cornelius and his young wife Nancy on their wedding day was a particularly spectacular find, according to Morris. “That wedding picture, talk about rare. First of all, to have someone from the lower middle class of that time, to have an African American couple, you just don’t have that. And here it is, sitting in Boston.”

For Reddick, however, the process really began when he was a child, when he would sit in the kitchen with his grandmother. He played piano and she was a singer, and they were very close, he said.

“Sometimes we’d be sitting in the kitchen, and I’d ask her, tell me some more about your grandmother, and Uncle Frank Gillespie, and your uncle that was first black police sergeant in Cambridge, and I would ask her little things like that,” Reddick said, sixty-two years old now and proud to tell the stories he has uncovered to his own grandchildren. He said that people ask him now how to go about researching their own families, and he tells them it takes a lot of time.

“They ask me about it, and they’ve started, but they don’t finish,” he said. “It’s something you have to keep going at, and it takes time.”