Reclaiming (Her)Story: Drawing Strength from the Past

Contralto singer Mabel Ritchardson in San Francisco, circa late 1930s.
For the past two years, I have been researching the history of my family. I have spent hours rummaging through old photographs and documents, constructing family trees, and scouring the internet for information about my ancestors. What an incredible journey it has been! The more I learn about my family's past, the more I long to know. The stories of the women in my family are particularly compelling. I am fascinated by the story of my great-grandmother, Mabel Ritchardson, who was a noted contralto singer in San Francisco during the 1930's. She performed pieces by Bach and Brahms, as well as spirituals, all while raising her six children in the city's Western Addition neighborhood.

A review of Ritchardson's performance in The San Francisco Spokesman reads, "Mrs. Ritchardson scored another triumph in her career when she was presented in an intimate musicale, by a group of artists at the fashionable Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill. Mrs. Ritchardson, the only colored on the program was introduced as a cultural leader of her race. The audience was spell-bound while she sang "Come Let Us All This Day" by Bach. For encore she sang "Vittoria Mio Core" by Carissima in Italian. She appeared later on the program with a group of Negro spirituals which were enthusiastically received."

I found this review of her work, along with programs, letters, and photos Mabel saved from her singing career. I was inspired by her dedicated pursuance of her craft, especially since this was an era where a woman's "place" was considered to be in the home. In spite of the obstacles facing all women, and especially Black women, she made her dreams a reality.

Tom Ella King on her farm in Kingfisher, Oklahoma 1955.
While searching the internet for more information on Mabel, I came across an interview with my great-grandfather, Franzy Lee Ritchardson. In 1976, The San Francisco Public Library interviewed him as part of an oral history project called Afro Americans in San Francisco Prior to World War II. I was thrilled to read his accounts of how he came to California (a place he referred to as "God's Country") and his recollections of the vibrant African American community in the Fillmore District.

The stories of my ancestors have changed the way I look at the world and my place in it. Learning about how my family members lived, created, and thrived gives me courage to for my own life's journey.

The history of one's family is deeply personal, but it is also so much bigger than one family. The stories, photographs, and documents that are saved and passed down through generations are an important part of history. It is especially important to uncover and preserve the stories of women. So often the lives and achievements of women throughout history have been minimized or overlooked altogether, and their stories are lost.
Sylvia King (seated, center) with her pupils at the Pleasant Valley one room schoolhouse in Kingfisher, Oklahoma

I urge every woman to look into her past. This can seem like a daunting task, with so much to sort through and piece together. It also brings up painful memories for some. Recently I watched African American Lives, a program in which Henry Louis Gates, Jr. helps prominent African Americans trace their family history. Gates spoke of how much of the African American legacy has been lost because it was simply too painful to talk about. documents and photos were thrown out, people closed up when asked about the past. And as family member pass away, that history can never be recovered.

Hazel King (center) receiving an award in Washington, D.C. for "Outstanding Service in Cooperative Extension Work", 1952
One need not be a professional like Mr. Gates to conduct this kind of research. I am certainly not. I've made amazing finds digging through forgotten boxes of photos and papers at my mother's house, and asking family members to tell me what they can remember. There are also helpful websites like which are especially good for finding family records and documents. The public library is also an incredible resource, so much has been preserved there. And as libraries enter the digital age, it's even easier to search library databases anywhere in the country. It's important to take advantage of this resource now, as many libraries face cuts and complete shutdowns.

When women share their own stories as well as the (her)story of their ancestors, the history of our world is enriched, and others will be inspired to speak their truths. I hope anyone reading this feels empowered to research their own family's past, and share what they find.