Sunday, March 18, 2012

Genealogy Workshop Tackles Family Murder

On Saturday morning, March 17, 2012, I welcomed another opportunity to facilitate a Developing Research Strategies workshop at the National Archives (Southeast Branch) in Morrow, Georgia.  This hands-on workshop was sponsored by the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society – Metro Atlanta chapter (AAHGS).  The room was packed with over 50 members and non-members, including six eager-to-learn college students who are Andrew W. Mellon interns in the Recruiting Tomorrow’s Library Leaders program at the Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library.  This program is designed to promote careers as librarians, library professionals, and archivists.  Archivists and librarians assist many genealogy patrons on a daily basis at countless archives and libraries throughout the nation. However, these six students were also keenly interested in learning how to trace their own family roots.  They certainly chose a great workshop that entailed a genealogical puzzle with an interesting twist.  You will see what I mean; the title of this blog post gives an indication.

Mellon Program Coordinator Neely Terrell (far left) with six of her interns: Anthony McCool (Morehouse College), Camille Vincent (Spelman College), Jahnesta Horney (Clark Atlanta Univ.), Anthony Kinsey (Morehouse College), Kendall Barksdale (Clark Atlanta Univ.), and Denzel Caldwell (Morehouse College).

All of the workshop participants were given a handout that contained the oral history of AAHGS member Bruce Ingram’s paternal family from Conyers, Georgia.  Mr. Ingram was able to provide the names of his paternal grandparents, great-grandparents, and even the names of two of his great-great-grandparents, Ned & Julia Sims.  He was particularly able to recall these great-great-grandparents' names because of a family story that was passed down by his father.  That story told the tragic tale of two brothers – sons of Ned & Julia Sims – who were in a gun shoot-out that led to one brother killing another brother over land disputes.  This family duel allegedly occurred sometime in the 1920's in Rockdale County, Georgia. 

Equipped with their laptops, notebooks, pencils, and a handout, the workshop participants were divided into eight groups.  Each group contained people of various levels of research experience.  Experienced researchers served as group leaders who were also responsible for explaining the basic steps of genealogy to the beginners in their groups.  Using and other online sources, each group was assigned the following same questions:

1.     What did you find in the census records?  How far back were you able to go?
2.     Are there any clues about tracing his enslaved ancestors?
3.     What did you find from other online sources?  What were those sources?
A.    Who was the brother who got killed? 
B.    Where is the family buried in Rockdale County?
4.     What is your research plan? Write out your plan on the tablets on the easels. This plan should include what other records and strategies that can be employed to trace Bruce’s family.

The groups were given an hour and a half to answer the questions.  Each group assigned a reporter to relay their findings and their research plan to the audience. Collectively, many research strategies were learned from all of the eight groups, enabling the participants to gain valuable knowledge about research methodologies to utilize when researching their families.  Also, the participants were able to learn about a plethora of records that can be sought in conducting a reasonably exhaustive genealogical search for finding one’s ancestors, solving family mysteries, knocking down brick walls, and proving (or disproving) oral history.  The short video below contains pictures of some of the research plans. 

Nonetheless, the most riveting aspect of this genealogical puzzle was finding something to document the oral history about the Sims brothers’ shoot-out.  What on earth could they possibly find online that documents the story?  Of course, I had already located an online document to prove it, with high hopes that the workshop participants would find that same document. Brilliantly, some of the participants searched through online databases of digitized newspapers, including but not limited to:,,  Indeed, searching through microfilmed or digitized newspapers about the incident is a great idea and should be part of the research plan.  However, the findable online document that corroborated the story was the following record that four of the eight groups found: 

The death certificate of Edd Sims, Rockdale County, Georgia
Cause of death: "Gunshot wound -- died in few minutes"
Date of death: May 4, 1921

This death certificate was found in the “Virtual Vault” on the Georgia Archives’ website.  Containing many historic Georgia manuscripts, photographs, maps, and government records that are housed in the state archives, the Virtual Vault also contains digitized death certificates from 1919 through 1927. The digital collection also includes a number of death certificates from 1914 – 1918. Edd Sims’ death certificate documented the name of the Sims brother who was killed (Edd Sims), the date of the shooting (May 4, 1921), the approximate time of the shooting (Edd had died within minutes of being shot around 2:00 PM), the county of the incident (Rockdale County), Edd’s place of burial (Sims Cemetery), as well as other genealogical information, such as Julia Sims’ maiden name --- which ironically was Gunn.

Short video of the workshop


  1. That's a great death certificate find. I love the details in it!
    Theresa (Tangled Trees)

  2. Melvin, you continue to show your excellence as a genealogist, presenter and now as a teacher!! I love this post!!! Keep it up!


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