More Than a Photo: Preserving Family Stories

A black and white group photo including Isma Burrell on the steps of a church buildingAs Pittsburgh resident Harold Hayes looked at a vintage, slightly-torn black and white photo of his maternal grandmother Isma Burrell standing with a group of people, he slowly began to realize the significance of the image.

Taken in 1927, the photograph showed his grandmother, a bespectacled young woman wearing a white lace dress and white stockings, standing with her 15 fellow ushers from the original Bethel A.M.E. Church in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Hayes remembered as a child in the 1950s listening to his grandmother’s agitated words about the pending demolition of her beloved church. It was one of hundreds of buildings in the Lower Hill leveled with a wrecking ball to make room for the Civic Arena (now also demolished).

Africana Family Storytelling webinar

Saturday, May 30, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Anyone may join the event, but participants must register.

Hayes, a retired KDKA-TV news reporter, had listened intently to family stories and histories over the years. He began searching through photos, newspaper clippings and historic documents in the 1980s, piecing together information about the generations that had come before him. His project continues to this day.

“I started out of curiosity, but once you begin ... it’s hard to stop,” he said.

Hayes will share his experiences in a free Africana Family Storytelling webinar scheduled from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 30. The event, sponsored by the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation (PBMF) and the August Wilson House, will be a discussion of how to empower attendees to interview family members, find their stories and document the information in a print narrative or using audio and video. Participants will be welcome to share finished pieces on the PBMF website and could be considered for inclusion in the archives of the August Wilson House.

Pitt Magazine Senior Editor Ervin Dyer will host the event, which will include presentations by Hayes, audio journalist Allegra Battle, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Lacretia Wimbley and writer and genealogist Monica Haynes. The event is funded through a Year of Creativity grant.

Dyer says it’s especially important for Black families to unearth and document family stories.

“Today, because of narrative discrimination, when most people think of Black people and Africa, they don’t think of heroes,” he said. “Such stories rarely elevate the fullness of Africana people and their experiences and, instead, strip them to narrow one-dimensional snapshots of being less human.”

But in fact, said Dyer, Africana people have fascinating stories to tell about their lives, struggles, education, careers, hobbies and much more. Dyer has a number of aunts whom he said were always referred to as “domestics,” a term used to describe household servants, which often diminished their contributions to family and society. In reality, they were also unique individuals, mothers, faith leaders and more, who were engaged in the community and who looked out for one another.

A photo of a handwritten letter

Surprises and joy in store

Sometimes a check into family history can reveal a surprise.

Hayes saw a written account by one of his aunts that described her paternal grandparents.

“It indicates that my paternal grandmother was the child of a wealthy White plantation owner in Virginia,” he said. “Her marriage record, though, says her parents were Black tenants who lived and worked on the plantation.”

Dyer said interviewing family members can expose light, life and humor—qualities that make a person human.

Ervin Dyer“Much as how August Wilson shared stories of Black life in his plays, these stories of how people survived, how they made it in life, where they found joy—it helps people to understand Black culture,” he said.

Webinar panelists will also provide tips on documenting the stories. Dyer says there are many ways to tell a story—through a poem about your favorite aunt, a video produced at the lake where your uncle taught you to fish or through recipes of your grandmother’s tasty dishes.

Dyer regrets not hearing more stories from his own grandmother as he watched her cook at her wood-burning stove on Sunday afternoons in rural Hanover County, Virginia.

“I was 7 or 8 back then and I wanted to tell her my stories,” said Dyer, emphasizing the importance of mining these stories while the people are still here to tell them.

“There are so many layers to people,” he said. “We tell these stories to pull back the layers.”