Black history and lineage dating several generations into the past can be found in the Augusta-Richmond County Public Library’s collection of black funeral programs.
The effort has acquired more than 3,000, with one of the oldest dating to 1962, said Dotty Demarest, local history and genealogy librarian.
The collection has been growing through the years as more people contribute their loved ones’ last tributes.
“A lot of people are reluctant to let us have them (the programs),” Demarest said. “With African-Americans, they have a more difficult time tracing their ancestry because of the Civil War and other events like that. There is information in the programs like where they were born and educated, things that are quickly lost.”
One of the oldest programs in the collection began by detailing a woman’s life from birth on a plantation as a slave.
“A very long and useful life came to a close for Mrs. Emma Harris Fletcher Johnson of Belvedere, S.C. on September 27, 1972,” it read. “… born to a pair of Southern Slaves Mr. and Mrs. Ben Harris on Butler Plantation.”
Others simply listed living relatives of the deceased and a soft Scripture or prayer, what many were designed like because of cost and what was appropriate for that time.
Although some of the programs through the years have become more detailed and elaborate compared to those of the 1960s or ’70s, with multiple photos of family and friends and page-long obituaries, they all seem to have a common thread: They all leave a record of the past.
“The programs at least offer some clues about the person, including the church and who buried them,” Demarest said. “People can go to the church and connect the dots so to speak.”
Demarest said there is not a much of a formal process to chronicle the past lives of those who have died, but collecting funeral programs is an excellent way to access history and genealogy. She said she has been encouraging other libraries in other locations to begin collections as well because of the great historical value.
“You can know where to look and piece together parts of history. For the generations to come, they won’t know who these people were. By the information in the programs, they get a good feel for who they were. It’s invaluable.”
In addition to the paper programs available at the library, there is also online access to the African-American Funeral Programs via the library’s Web site. According to Demarest, the programs online were scanned and chronicled electronically when the collection was half the size it is today, via Georgia HomePLACE (Providing Library and Archives Collections Electronically).
Unfortunately, she said, because of funding issues the electronic process is no longer active so no more programs are being added to the electronic collection, but those already scanned and uploaded are available to view.