Thursday, December 4, 2008

Illiterate Ancestor

I got the inspiration for this entry after reading: Shocking Discovery Not That Shocking

It's hard to imagine* the thought process of an editor who reviewed a story like this one: Michelle Obama's family tree has roots in a Carolina slave plantation, and decided the most noteworthy fact in Mrs. Obama's family history was this: Future first lady had illiterate ancestor.

(*Although if you know anything about UPI and its owners, you might get a clue. See Wikipedia)

Of course, if we all go back far enough, we're going to find someone who couldn't read. Thinking about that fact made me want to write about this very recent ancestor, my great-grandfather, William S. Tolbert, who according to the 1930 Census, had never learned to read. This is the only picture of him that I have ever seen, which I believe is a faded photograph that was enhanced by sketching. It shows William with his younger sisters. My mother, who had lived with him and his second wife until he died in 1939, was amazed by the likeness. She told me she had forgotten that he had a mustache until she saw it, although he was much older by the time she knew him. She was only 6 when he died. It was shared with me by a great-granddaughter of Rosa Lee Tolbert. My cousin told me that the story in her part of the family was that Joe, as he was known, had moved to West Virginia and the family never heard from him again.

William Tolbert was born to a single mother, Elender Tolbert, in Carroll County, VA, on Feb 3, 1867. (Ellie herself was also the daughter of an unmarried woman, facts that have led to a lot of mysteries and dead ends in my research of that line of my family -- so far, anyway!) On September 19, 1887, William married Rhoda Ann Webb in Carroll County. Between 1887 and 1898, when he and Rhoda filed for divorce, they became the parents of 5 children, Rozelle (who died at age 2), Mary, Diona, William Henry, and Mattie, who was my grandmother. Mattie (Tolbert) Shrewsbury's fate is a big family mystery, but that's a story to tell in the future! I have copies of William and Rhoda's handwritten divorce papers that were filed in the Chancery Court of Carroll County. They make interesting reading. In them, William, whose lawyer filed the papers, told of being in jail for bootlegging during which time he claimed that Rhoda had been unfaithful. Their divorce was finalized on May 23, 1904. However, at some time between then and the time when they were counted in the 1910 census, they must have made up. In 1910, they were living together in Raleigh County, WV, with three of their elder children, and a new son, Claud, aged 3 who was born in WV. The reconciliation didn't last, obviously, because by 1920, Rhoda was remarried, and William was not to be found in the census. I found him next in the 1930 census referenced below. On July 12, 1939, William died and was buried on the property he owned near Pax, WV. More details about him and his family can be found on Rootsweb, and you can see photos of his gravestone on Find a Grave.

Below is the full page of the 1930 Census where he was enumerated with his second wife, Anna Lucretia (Larwood) Tolbert.
(Click on the picture to see a view that can be enlarged.) (from Year: 1930; Census Place: Fayetteville, Fayette, West Virginia; Roll: 2531; Page: 16A; Enumeration District: 17; Image: 1024.0)

And here's a closeup that includes the section on education. William's info is on the first line:

As you can see, great-grandpa could not read. When I first started working on my genealogy and was learning how to search and record the info available in the census, I didn't even think to look at the columns other than "Name" "Age" "Place of Birth" and maybe "Occupation" in case someone made a living by any other means than farming! By accident, though, I started noticing that a lot of my relatives who lived in Virginia and West Virginia after the Civil War were not able to read or write. It shocked me, then made me sad; it's hard for me to imagine a life without the benefit of a basic education. As I learned more about my family and the places they lived, I came to realize that people in their world who had an education were rare and my people were not the ignorant outcasts I imagined them to be. I'm grateful that I grew up in a world where school is considered a basic right for everyone, and not a privilege for a lucky few.


  1. Very interesting article! I love the photo! It looks like a convex oval, or at least done with the same technique. Long story short, they were only faintly developed and drawn/painted over with things like watercolors to bring out the features! Beautiful example!

  2. Thanks for the comment! I hadn't heard the term "convex oval" before, but I thought it must have been something like you described! I'll have to look for more info and you've given me a place to start!

  3. I'm a photo restorationist, so I needed to learn about all forms of photographic methods to do a good job. Plus, it's just interesting! BTW, I'm Landailyn on Twitter!


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