There is power in seeing the faces of your ancestors.
There is power in this encounter. An encounter with people who lived and loved and hoped and struggled just as we do. An encounter with art - in a photograph - showing a moment in the life of our loved ones.
So let's take a look at a moment in the life of Leroy Samuel Wooldridge - from about 1912 - in Powhatan County, Virginia. A moment special enough for him and his family to be cherished for generations to come.
The Family Photo
The first time I saw a photo of Leroy Samuel Wooldridge was probably in 2014. I started delving deeper into my family history, and I found that someone had posted a copy of a family photo on Ancestry. It shows Leroy with four of his eight children, along with two of their spouses and five of his grandchildren. It's a stunning photograph - albeit a tad grainy and not amazingly clear. My guess is that it's from about 1912.
There's a lot to love in this photo. First off, Leroy looks like Colonel Sanders from KFC! Amazing. Then there's the fashion: big dresses, cool ties, big hair. I love that my great-grandmother Mary Susan is sitting front and center. And can we notice the smiles? Only two of them are smiling - one is my Mary Susan, who has a youthful joy about her in the photo, too. It feels so very characteristic of her descendants - we have a habit of standing out in a crowd!
I then found another version of the photo, but this time the family posed in front of a house. Instead of standing in the back, Leroy sits front and center with arms crossed - enthroned as the pater familias of the Wooldridge clan in Powhatan County. Mary Susan is standing behind Leroy this time. Together, these two photos are the only photos I have of my great-grandmother from before her marriage in 1913.
The photo in front of the house comes from a book that includes the Wooldridge family. The author even helped to identify the different people in the photo, which was an added bonus.
The Wooldridge family has deep roots in Chesterfield County, Virginia. They're known for being some of the earliest and most successful coal miners in the county. They were also instrumental in the founding of what is now the town of Midlothian. I grew up 10 minutes from the area where my Wooldridge family would have run the mines. Growing up, not only did I know nothing of my family's connection to the area, I never even knew there had been mines there!
This is one of those cool - history-comes-to-life-when-its-relevant - type of stories! Genealogy has this sort of effect on us, doesn't it? When we know we have a personal connection to history, it comes to life before us. And we care! History stops being about dates and it becomes about us and the people that made us who we are.
So back to my story! Leroy Samuel Wooldridge was born on 3 Feb 1839 to John M Wooldridge and Mary Susan Beazley. He was the middle child, the second of three sons. Leroy moved to neighboring Powhatan, while his older brother Chamberlayne eventually moved to Paducah, Kentucky and his younger brother Henry Clay stayed in Chesterfield.
Leroy married Edmonia Stratton after fighting in the Civil War in 1867. Edmonia passed in 1905, and Leroy lived until 1918. The longest living of their children was my Mary Susan who lived until 1988. Over the years, the Wooldridge cousins have lost touch, but through the power of genealogy we are coming back together again!
A copied photo is a beloved photo
Soon after I found the first photo of Leroy and his family, my cousin Veronica connected me to two women with a DNA connection to our family but who weren't sure how they connected. (The whole story will have to wait for another post...but trust me, it's an amazing story!) Well, long story short, they turned out to be descended from one of Leroy's daughters, Rosa Lee.
Later that year, we had a big Southern-style reunion for everyone to get to meet in person and share in the joy of new connections. As we were enjoying some amazing Southern food overlooking a lake in Powhatan, some of my new cousins brought out a box of old photos. They pulled out a particularly old one, framed, and asked me if I might know who the people were. HA! Did I ever!
It was the exact same photo I had seen online the year before...but this time it was a fuller picture, not accidentally cutting out one of the grandchildren. I was able to share who everyone was in the photo...and as I did, I could feel my connection to my cousins. I could point to my great-grandmother and then point to her sister Rosa Lee and say, "you're from her!"
My cousin Veronica and I posed with their copy of the photo - both of us in disbelief to be holding another copy of our family photo! A few months later, I found *another* copy of the photo in a box of photos at my aunt Patsy's house. My great-grandmother and her siblings must have loved this old photo. Different branches of the family all had a copy. A copied photo is a beloved photo!
This Wooldridge family photo has proven to be a bit of glue for my extended Wooldridge family. It's been like one of those best friend heart necklaces, where each person gets half of the heart. By each of the different lines descending from Leroy and Edmonia having a copy of this family photo, we can identify the other as being part of us. We each share something we never knew the other had too.
Do you have a cherished old family photo? Has a photo helped to connect your family?
This post was inspired by the week 8 prompt "Family Photo" of the year-long series that I'm participating in with Amy Johnson Crow's 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.
My ancestors - and your ancestors - deserve the best researcher, the most passionate story-teller, and the dignity of being remembered. So let's keep encountering our ancestors through family history and remembering the past made present today!