Standing on the Shoulders of Our Ancestors

I was raised to do two things: Work hard and get a good education, with the expectation that doing so would result in success.

alphabet blur books close up

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Because my childhood neighborhood in the smallish (now bigger) suburb/town was populated mainly by factory and steel mill workers, the value of an honest day’s work was instilled in most families.

At the same time, many who put food on the table through manual labor did so hoping their children wouldn’t have to work quite so hard to make a living.

This wasn’t the case for everyone, however. There were students at my high school who expected to get a job at the mill or Ford or Chevy like their fathers and uncles (somehow the mothers rarely figured into this) and make a “good living.”  They believed this despite being warned by teachers that those jobs weren’t going to be around.

Some parents probably encouraged this belief, not wanting their children to “get above themselves,” perhaps fearing those children might one day look down on them (as if children don’t do this anyway <grin>).  I’ve heard this is referred to in Australia as “Tall Poppy Syndrome.”

And the same attitude exists in England, where my husband was raised, as my mother-in-law once shared in recounting the following anecdote.

My then future husband was one of two boys in his village school class who were given the opportunity to attend a more scholastically rigorous middle school that would prepare them to attend University.

Naturally, my MIL chose to send him. But the mother of the other boy did not, explaining she didn’t want her son to get any ideas about being better than he was.

The (future) Engineer did attend that school, which resulted in much greater and more opportunities than he would ever have had if his mother had chosen to have the same attitude as her neighbor.

For me, a higher education was imperative because I was hopeless at anything requiring hand/eye coordination (coordination in any form, in fact), and at age eighteen, I was a woefully impractical dreamer with my head in a book. A college degree would help me find my way.

It did, though that path proved more meandering than anyone expected, moving from job to job in several fields, mostly restaurants, and sometimes doubling back to work at a previous job once more. I made a living working two jobs (sometimes three) or working full-time and going to school (plus side gigs) until after I was married and had our daughter.

Eventually I found my place at the local library, and worked my way up the ladder, which entailed getting a second degree. (Later, I chose to work my way back down, but that’s another story. :-))

For my field, education meant two college degrees, backed up with many years of customer service jobs. For someone else, education might be an apprenticeship, on-the-job training, a vocational school certificate, or a combination of all these.

Thus, I’ve come to define education as the means to develop a knowledge base that makes one employable, preferably with the possiblity of improving one’s life.

It means being given the opportunity and the encouragement to make the best of the talent and brains we are born with.

Many people get neither.
I was privileged to have had both.

Why?
Part of the answer lies in the color of my skin and where, when and how I was raised.

But with a family tree populated mostly by farmers and manual laborers, how is it that my particular branch tried to reach higher? Who of my ancestors decided their children should be encouraged to do more?

How did it happen?

I am not casting aspersions on the industriousness of farmers or manual laborers. Without farmers, we wouldn’t eat, and despite the advance of technology, many of what we consider life’s necessities wouldn’t exist without manual labor.

However, farming and manual labor are, and always have been, jobs where the pay rarely reflects the toil expended. To this list,  I would add most jobs in the service industry, which frequently require more skill than people realize, yet are still inadaquately compensated.

Most people don’t choose to work poorly paid jobs, even if they enjoy the work. They do it because they have no choice.

Who in my family began the process that gave me that choice? Who looked at her or his life and said, “This is okay, but I’d like my children to have other options,” and then, somehow managed to provide those options?

neon signage

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It wasn’t my father. Although his father was a laborer and farmer, Dad was pushed to go to college.

I don’t know if similar expectations were placed on his sister.

It was common knowledge that Dad skipped two grades, landing in high school at age twelve. Although this doesn’t jive with the year he graduated, his parents moved to Ohio around then, and he enlisted in the Navy at seventeen, so he probably lost a couple of years in the process.

ByrdMerlinE_Navybuddy WWII

Dad’s on the right.

After World War II, Dad went to Glenville State College in West Virginia on the GI bill, graduated in three years, and then returned to Ohio, where he eventually met and married my mother.

She was a high school graduate, but there was no expectation of any higher education for Mom, her two sisters or four brothers. In Mom’s family, the kids were encouraged to get out of the house as soon as possible. From the choices they made, the options on offer seemed to be finding a job, joining the service, and/or getting married.

Mom got a job, and then married my dad.

Back then, the working world was divided into “white collar” jobs and “blue collar” jobs, terms that I have only just now realized are incredibly sexist, as well as arbitrary.

Dad was neither, and both. He grew up poor, in the hills of West Virginia, yet had a college degree. As a warehouse foreman for Goodyear, he was considered management, and thus wore shirts and ties to work, but his work clothes reeked of Eau de Rubber.

auto black black and white car

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In fact, the clothes stunk so badly, he and Mom took out a loan to add on a second bathroom with a closet, so he could shower, change, and store his work clothes separately as soon as he got home.

Dad never called himself white or blue collar, but hillbilly or redneck instead. Repeat those words to Mom, and she’d laugh, saying he’d lived in Ohio longer than he’d ever lived in West Virginia and was a transplanted buckeye.

In truth, he was no longer a hillbilly or a redneck, but he also never went corporate, turning down promotions to avoid having to move, and occasionally siding with workers in labor disputes.

I find this dichotomy in myself, and I’m grateful for it because it reminds me not to take too much for granted.

My father thought deeply, and Mom thought quickly. At least that’s how I viewed them. And the encouragement to make the most of ourselves came from both.

Still, I think the expectation originated with my father’s family.

Specifically, it came through my grandmother, Leone Catherine Lang. The eldest of seven children of Thomas Jefferson Lang and Emma Virginia Weinrich, she finished high school and the one year of college needed to teach in a one-room schoolhouse in Alice, West Virginia.

Wikipedia’s entry for Alice says, “Alice is an unincorporated community in Gilmer
County
, West Virginia, United States. Its post office [2] is closed.”

End of entry.

Evidently, it’s not a big place and probably never was.LangLeoneMemorial1993

 

Grandma’s teaching career was brief, ending when she married my grandpa, Everett Ernest Byrd, at nineteen. As I write this, I think about how young she was and wonder if she was one of those teachers who had students who were bigger than her. I also wonder if the experience of controlling a building full of children of all ages, coupled with having been the oldest child in her family, made her the strong-willed woman I knew.

When she told me married women weren’t allowed to teach, I was outraged! She calmly explained that a man might need the job to support his family, and I was surprised she accepted the limitation so easily.

Despite her having spent the time and effort to qualify as a teacher, the expectation was that grandpa, with his eighth-grade education, would find a way to support them and their children.

And, so he did.

Initially, I thought this disparity in education was an anomaly in our family, that my grandmother continued with school because she hadn’t yet married.

When I looked deeper, however, I discovered this wasn’t the case.

Though her father and mother, Thomas Jefferson Lang and Emma Virginia Weinrich only went through eighth grade, at least five of their seven children surpassed that level, including all the girls.

Leone completed 1 year of college.
Harold Clare (Heavy) stopped attending school after eighth grade. He married Alma Gay Bird, who despite the different spelling of their last names, was my grandfather Everett’s sister.
Fay Dorrette was a student nurse in 1930 before dying of TB in 1933 at the age of 24.
Lacelle finished high school, worked briefly as a maid, and then moved to Ohio, living in the same town as Leone. She married at age 66, returning to West Virginia with her husband, before coming back to Ohio on his death. I inherited her amethyst ring (eventually). If you’d like to read about that, click on her name.
Thomas Jefferson (Jr.)’s life is shrouded in mystery, at least so far. Though he was living with Thomas and Emma  in 1930, I have found no further trace of him until he washes up in Florida many years later. My mom and dad said he was a hobo during the Depression, riding the rails, which is interesting if true. Sadly, life as a vagabond doesn’t lend itself to record keeping, so I know very little about him, though I remember meeting him as a child.
George W. had completed two years of college by 1940 but hadn’t attended any school during that year. He went on to be a three-term president of his local autoworkers union.
Darlette Kay finished high school, but shot herself in her father’s barn at age 36. Although her brother George lived in Ohio by this time, he was the one to find her body.

The records I’ve found lead me to believe this is the generation when our family developed a culture of encouraging further education, though of course, I can’t prove it conclusively. Until 1940, the census didn’t ask about levels of education, only if each person could read and write, and sometimes not even that.

Assuming I’m correct (always a dangerous thing to do), what caused this sudden emphasis on further education and/or training?

Here are my two hypotheses:

  • Sometime between 1900 and 1910, Thomas began working for the  Rural Free Delivery (RFD) mail service. The RFD began in several West Virginia towns in 1896, and quickly expanded to cover the state. Thomas delivered the mail at least through 1940, first as a contractor, and then as an employee of the USPS. In 1910, he and Emma were living in a rented house. By 1920, Thomas listed his occupation as farmer and RFD carrier, and he and Emma owned their home, though it was mortgaged. By 1930, they owned the home and farm, possibly able to afford it because of the extra income from his mail route. Did this income also make it possible for their children to pursue further training and/or education?
  • Or was it Emma who was responsible for encouraging this advancement? She was born in 1876, a year after her sister Helena, to a father and mother who were unusually old for first-time parents. Emma’s mother, Elizabeth Daugherty, was thirty-five when she married Karl (Charles) Weinrich, a German immigrant and Civil War veteran sixteen years her senior. This means Emma’s father was fifty-five and her mother thirty-nine when Emma was born. Could having older parents and/or an immigrant father somehow have affected Emma’s attitudes toward educating her children?

Clearly, I can never answer these questions, just as I can’t be 100% sure it was Emma and Thomas whose influence has carried into my own generation.

In all likelihood, the true reason for this change was the result of several factors, some of which I  probably cannot begin to guess. In the end, I can only take away this lesson: When someone talks about how slavery was so long ago, I can see how long ago it wasn’t. The Civil War that legally ended the abhorrent institution was fought by ancestors whose lives had direct impact on family members I knew as a child.

Because my great grandparents had the ability to freely establish families, work for pay, buy land, and send their children to school, their children had advantages which ultimately affected me.

The last American slave ship came to this country in 1858, just twenty years before Thomas Jefferson Lang was born. The cargo — calling the enslaved people “passengers” would whitewash the experience of their journey — may have had children the same age as Thomas or Emma.

Do you think the descendents of that human cargo would have had the same advantages enjoyed by Thomas and Emma’s descendents, e.g., me and my siblings?

Viewing family history from the perspective of a genealogist has also enabled me to see how a change of attitude or circumstance can affect a family for generations. In the case of my 2x great grandfather, Montcalm Armstrong, his Civil War service had a great affect on his children, which almost certainly filtered down to his grandchildren, perhaps even his great grandchildren.

Being a slave during the same time period could only have worse consequences.

We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. And those whose ancestors were forced to kneel in subjugation begin their climb from a much lower place.

 

This is Thomas Jefferson Lang’s fiddle, which I ended up with. I didn’t even know I had a musical ancestor until my stepmother gave it to me, having somehow gotten it from one of our relatives, probably Thomas Jefferson Jr. Initially she said it was my grandfather’s, which I knew wasn’t correct. But then she added that Uncle Jeff (Thomas Jr.) said he remembered his father playing it, I understood. She was thinking he was my uncle, rather thanmy father’s. Ergo, the fiddle belonged to Dad’s grandfather, the older Thomas Jefferson Lang, who I knew when I was very young. He died in 1966, at age 88, followed by Emma a year later at age 90.

 

 

 

 

 

7 thoughts on “Standing on the Shoulders of Our Ancestors

  1. I came from white collar expectations, but mentally, I preferred the blue collar approach. I got a degree but hated the intense competitiveness, the ambition, the need to subjugate my personal choices to the demands of my employer. I was never happier than when I chose to exit corporate life and ‘reduce’ he way I lived to reflect my new blue collar wage- (not salary-) earning. The education and the way I was raised, to value knowledge for its own sake, have contributed materially to my contentment by enriching my interior life, informing my mind and teaching me how to study by myself if I find a subject interesting.
    You have an interesting and varied family, and I think several of your insights are rather valid: older parents do tend to value education more highly, perhaps having already seen what the lack of it can do. And immigrant parents have the drive that made them leave their homes and come to America to improve their lot, and they want their children to take the next step.

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    • I agree with your point about valuing knowledge for its own sake. I go on tangents about things that interest me, which keeps me thankful for our library system.

      Also like you, I never wanted to get ahead simply for the sake of doing so. I think I changed jobs a lot because I like new things — at least if it’s by choice. “White collar” work in the sense of being ambitious and always trying to get ahead was never for me, but being a librarian was different, a little looser in that sense (at least at my level), with more creativity in how you did your work.

      I worked in an office for a year and was absolutely miserable, so traditional “white collar” was clearly not for me.

      I feel lucky to have been able to both make the choice to “straddle the gap” between the two, and to understand the work my family did to give me those choices. So many people get no choice in the matter, including my ancestors.

      The idea of “finding your passion” is a modern construct and still not possible for everyone. Even if you do “find your passion,” no one loves their work every second of every day. People who expect that are setting themselves up for a disappointment. Like marriage, or even friendship, nothing is wonderful all the time.

      I am fortunate to be well content with the choices I’ve made and so grateful to have had them.

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  2. That’s pretty neat family history (I like that you have an ancestor named Thomas Jefferson) and interesting to think how the attitudes of one generation can have a big impact on those following it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s exactly the idea I was trying to explore. 🙂 As for the name, we also have a George Washington. That and Thomas Jefferson are two of the more “normal” names from that side of the family.

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  3. Really informative and interesting post! I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know/forgot your Dad worked at Goodyear! The only family history I know is my Dad’s grandparents came over from (then) Prussia, and my Grandpa’s youngest brother, Leo, died at age 9 in the Spanish flu epidemic in October 1919. I want to do the Ancestry thing, but I have projects to finish first.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, it definitely takes time. I get lost and hours slip away. Very glad you found it interesting. That’s not always the case with other people’s genealogy, so I tried to not get mired down in details.

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    • Also, I read a book about that pandemic. Turns out it’s misnamed. They aren’t sure where it started, but it was likely in the US or France, and the poor Spaniards got the blame. Genealogy gets harder when there’s another language involved, but you could probably go back at least a few generations and learn a lot about those.

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