How Family History Opens New Archives

This post is part of our forum on “The Significance of the Black Family in the US.”

Mother preparing dinner, 1942, Southwest Washington, D.C. (Library of Congress)

Coming of Age in Jim Crow DC: Navigating the Politics of Everyday Life centers the voices of young Black people in D.C. during the 1930s, listening closely to their musings about their lives and futures. This book sits at the intersection of the field of Black childhood studies and D.C. history. By engaging  in “reading against the grain” methodologies, it spotlights young Black poor and working-class people as “thinkers, theorists, commentators, and critics” in the racial and rival geographies of the Jim Crowed U.S. capital. It also challenges notions about whose lives, voices, stories, and ideas mattered, thus building on the expansion  of what has been included in the Black intellectual tradition.

As part of a national study on Black adolescent personality development, Howard University sociologist, E. Franklin Frazier interviewed some 200 D.C. young people and their families. In Negro Youth at the Crossways, as in his famous, or infamous, Negro Family in the United States, Frazier framed young Black people, especially those in poor or working class families as politically apathetic, and socially and developmentally deficient—even as he indicted Jim Crow. One of those young people was Myron Rudolph Ross, Jr. Because so much of Myron’s interview remained in Frazier’s papers, Myron and his family figured prominently throughout Coming of Age in Jim Crow DC—his stories about his siblings and parents, his dreams and plans, and his adventures as a boy scout. But it wasn’t until February 2020, when Catherine Nelson, Myron’s cousin, through the magic—but actually the hard and mostly invisible work— of Black genealogy, found me and reached out, that so much more of not only Myron’s but the Ross Nelson family’s life and history was revealed. Through conversations with Catherine and Myron Ross Jr.’s nieces, “the privilege of family history,” as historian Kendra T. Field calls it, added important components to the story: specifically, the ways in which Black life defies the confines, but also the historical narratives, of racial segregation and its violence. And the ways that Black families, in some cases, can serve as the conduit for this refusal.

As Field outlines, the questions historians ask of archival materials are sometimes at odds with a family’s own investigation into its history and often have different objectives. Engaging with family history—bringing together “professional history” and family memory—can open up spaces of knowledge professional history alone not only misses, but sometimes unintentionally erases. As Field says, it is a “privilege” when these dovetail, offering an opportunity to “appreciate the stakes of these divergent perspectives.”

Myron Rudolph was the eldest of nine in a family that included siblings Norman, Evelyn, Wayland, Bernard, Doris, Hortense, Yvonne, and Roland. He was also part of a larger extended family that included his mother’s siblings. Catherine Nelson was a baby when Myron, and her aunt and uncle, Laura Evelyn Nelson Ross and Myron Ross Sr. were interviewed for Frazier’s study. Catherine’s father, Willie Nelson, was Laura’s younger brother. Over the last two years, Catherine Nelson, who emerged as the Ross Nelson family historian, and Myron Rudolph’s niece, Donna Payne Wilson, graciously exchanged emails with me, talked with me via phone, and gathered other nieces—Robyn Payne, Constance Ross, Sheila Ross, and Kimberly Gross, via Zoom. Much of what follows comes from those conversations. Through both Catherine Nelson’s genealogical work and the “memorial work” of nieces/granddaughters, I came to learn so much more than the snapshot rendered of the Ross Nelson family in Coming of Age.

As a teenager, Myron Rudolph expressed his long dream of becoming an engineer. He attributed it to his work with his father on a ham radio built in their home. Myron did indeed become an engineer. After graduating from Armstrong High School, Myron went on to Howard University and earned a degree in electrical engineering. He taught pre-engineering students at Tuskegee Institute in the late 1940s, living in Alabama with his wife, Lee Gillard Ross, and their son, Myron III, who went by the nickname Oogie. Oogie, like so many of the Ross Nelson family, went by a nickname or middle name rather than their given name, which in some cases made Catherine’s genealogical work more difficult.

Myron taught at Tuskegee long enough for his younger brother, Bernard, to join them when he got out of the service. Bernard, who was barely 8 years old when Myron was interviewed, and part of what the interviewer described as an unruly gaggle of Ross children, became a professional bricklayer in Ypsilanti, Michigan, marrying Oogie’s babysitter, and becoming dad to Connie, who he named after his younger sister, Constance.

Myron Rudolph, Lee, and Oogie later moved to Rahway, New Jersey. Myron’s experience and education landed him a job with Federal Telegraph and Radio, a major communications company in early radiotelegraphy and international communications. It was a job he held until he retired. Tragically, the family lost Oogie in the American War in Vietnam.

Myron Rudolph often visited back home after he moved away. The Rosses by then lived in Northeast where Myron Sr., or “Chief” as he became known, owned rental properties. (Despite Myron Rudolph’s concerns, expressed in his teenage interview, that his father could and would never get a promotion because of segregation in the D.C. fire department, Myron Sr. became a lieutenant.) Myron Rudolph’s nieces and his cousin, Catherine, shared fond memories of his visits. Myron was an avid and enthusiastic chess (and backgammon) player. Catherine remembered that he was “always looking for someone to beat because when he asked you to play [chess], he was assuming you would lose.” She also recollected her own youthful enjoyment watching the Ross siblings greet each other: Myron and his younger sister Yvonne had a particular ritual, while Doris and Bernard had their own, exuding the joy and excitement they felt in seeing each other. Catherine said Myron and his siblings were “the most important people in my life when I was growing up,” and she remembers her summers at her aunt’s house as “so much fun.”

Myron’s youngest niece, Kim, remembers his bright red socks, his zest for life, and the way he always made sure family get-togethers were fun. Most fondly, Myron was Kim’s first ski instructor! She recalled visiting him in New Jersey and the time they spent on the slopes.

For Frazier’s study, Myron reflected on the big family gatherings that were the norm, of pushing tables together, and of always eating well. His younger sister, Hortense, who may not have yet been 6 years old when Myron was interviewed, confirmed this in her tribute to Catherine’s mother, Eleanor Nelson, at the celebration of Eleanor’s 80th birthday in 1992. Hortense recalled the closeness of the Rosses and the Nelsons. Catherine’s parents, Willie Nelson and Eleanor also had nine children, as Myron Sr. and Laura did. And Hortense asserted that Laura and Eleanor were “calculated” in trading them off from Sunday to Sunday. “As you can envision,” Hortense said in her tribute, “with just these two families with an army of eighteen children, getting a picnic together on the spur of the moment was indeed a cinch.”

The cousins who assembled in July 2020 over zoom: Sheila, Donna and Robyn, Connie, and Kim, represented four of “the Ross 9,” as the siblings came to call themselves, respectively Norman, Doris, Bernard, and Yvonne. They all confirmed that the family tradition of lively gatherings had continued, filled with good food, lots of jokes, serious vetting of boyfriends, and a tradition of performing the 12 Days of Christmas. Hortense’s speech at Catherine’s mother’s momentous birthday, a printed copy of which resides in the family collection, is evidence of the long history and depth of joy and love shared in the Ross and Nelson family.

The Ross 9 were in Connie’s words “raised with a strong sense of self-esteem and confidence,” which they instilled in their own children, in contrast to the portrait of them as out of control and overly rambunctious children. Donna and Robyn reflected on their mother, Doris, who had been 7 years old when her brother was interviewed. After graduating from Howard University, Doris earned a master’s degree from New York University and became a child psychologist for D.C. public schools. The Ross 9 had all grown up to be “well-educated, successful,” making “phenomenal achievements,” said Donna. And their bonds were solid—they often traveled together annually, documenting their adventures with at least one photograph of the sisters “lined up [in the same order] with one leg stuck out,” their sorority stance.

The cousins credited much of this to their grandmother, Laura Evelyn Nelson Ross. Willie (Catherine’s father) had begun calling his older sister “Nelson” when she married Myron Ross Sr., as an act of resistance to her wedding. Laura Ross had also been interviewed and observed for Frazier’s study and, along with other mothers, sisters, and grandmothers, was the center of my examination of Black women’s lived experiences and epistemologies outside of Frazier’s problematic framing as emasculating or generally neglectful “Black Matriarchs.” “Nelson,” like her sister-in-law Eleanor, was a fierce presence in the lives of her children and her nieces and nephews: respected, but also sharing a certain camaraderie with them.

While Frazier described Laura Ross as “country,” her grandchildren and her niece Catherine remember Nelson’s physical beauty, her long hair, that she “covered her mouth when she laughed,” and had a pocketbook full of candy at the ready. And that even when Garfinckel’s Department Store prohibited her from trying on the white gloves she wore as an usher at Mt. Moriah church, her granddaughter, Donna, who was 4 or 5 at the time, remembers that her grandmother walked away from the experience with grace.

Myron Rudolph’s cousin, Catherine Nelson has become the family historian, researching, collecting, and producing a book filled with documents, photographs, and narratives. She, Myron, had her own bold ideas of Black futurity when she was growing up. Catherine challenged her father’s idea that women could only be nurses or teachers. When Willie Nelson refused to pay for his daughter’s school because she wanted to go into finance, Catherine found her own way. She became the first Black woman audit manager for IBM, where she worked for 40 years.

Conversations with Catherine Nelson and Myron Rudolph’s nieces have been a boon and a privilege. Myron’s life beyond Frazier’s interview reveals that as a young person, he had a very accurate assessment of his family life, his home, his community, his capital city, and his prospects. In Coming of Age in Jim Crow DC, Myron comes through as astutely aware of the conditions of his life, both the joys and the structural obstacles, and with those in mind he mapped his way forward. He, like other young Black people, was a social visionary with a radical imagination.

Myron cultivated his own vision of the possibilities for his life, in spite of or despite the impositions and violences of the capital’s racial segregationist policies and practices. The Ross Nelson family history and remembrances reveals and highlight how Myron Rudolph’s family provided a bulwark against structural inequalities: it was a space and community in which Myron, his siblings and his cousins could nurture full and dynamic lives—something they passed down to the next generations.

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Paula C. Austin with Catherine Nelson and Donna Payne Wilson

Paula C. Austin is Assistant Professor at Boston University and author of Coming of Age in Jim Crow DC: Navigating the Politics of Everyday Life (New York University Press, 2019). Catherine Nelson was born and raised in Washington, DC.  She received her Bachelor's degree from Nyack College in Nyack, NY and spent the majority of her career working for IBM Corporation, primarily in the Finance department, where she achieved the position of Internal Audit Manager. Catherine also spent four years in Tokyo, Japan as assistant to the treasurer for IBM Asia/Pacific Group. She is currently retired and lives in Virginia Beach, VA. Donna Payne Wilson is one of the two daughters of Myron Rudolph Ross Jr.'s sister, Doris.  Donna and her sister Robyn were born and raised in Washington, DC.  Donna graduated from Georgetown University Law Center and is a practicing attorney in Metropolitan DC; Robyn graduated from Harvard with an MBA, works in finance, and lives in Florida.  While working in New Jersey, Donna had the privilege of living with Myron’s widow, Lee G. Ross.