John D. Watkins was well known in the Augusta area as an attorney and civil rights activist before he died July 4, 2012.
What some might not know – and what his funeral program reveals — is that Watkins considered his defining moment a speech he arranged for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in March 1968 at Beulah Grove Baptist Church, in addition to enjoying golf and driving “nice cars.” These sorts of personal tidbits can be found in the vast collection of funeral programs at Augusta-Richmond County Public Library to document the genealogy of African Americans rooted in the Augusta area.
This is a benefit Joyce Law, program manager of the Lucy C. Craft Laney Museum of African American History, finds “unique” about the Eula M. Ramsey Johnson Memorial Funeral Program Collection at the Augusta-Richmond County Public Library.
“You’ll be amazed at what a funeral program may tell you that an obituary might not,” she said. “It certainly allows us to place the individuals being represented in the funeral program properly within the context of the community.”
The collection will soon bring more than 10,000 digitized pages of African American funeral programs.
“You get the understanding that one individual made a contribution to the larger society and so we get an opportunity for them to become a vivid part of the local historical record,” Law said.
A record that now fills a void researchers once considered normal, historian Corey Rogers said.
“One of the things we often noticed over the years as a researcher is that because of societal norms often times research is skewed depending on who’s doing the writing or the time period of researching,” he said. “With the funeral program we are able to put all the pieces together and kind of aptly describe who this person was.”
The bulk of the collection was donated in the early 2000s by local historian Gloria Ramsey Lucas, whose aunt Eula M. Ramsey Johnson, had been collecting for more than 30 years. Each funeral program provides a photo of the deceased and details their life and documented death. There are more than 3,000 African Americans funeral programs in the collection which spans from 1933 to present.
The expansion of the digital collection ensures easy access and available space to collect more programs and information on those who have deep roots in the community, Law said.
“Here at the museum they’re used as an additional point of reference,” she said. “They’re also very important in showing more inclusive individuals. So it becomes a more holistic view of a person; not just their job, not just where they live, but also how they are more deeply connected.”