A collection of funeral programs is helping to trace African American genealogy

African American Funeral programs
Posted at 9:42 PM, Oct 27, 2021

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — For a lot of people, it's not too hard to trace back their family's roots to different countries and backgrounds.

But that ease is not universal.

Theresa Gordon took her mother's unique hobby in collecting funeral programs and turned it into a way for African Americans to learn about where they came from.

The passion project for Gordon became a mission.

"I knew by looking at the funeral programs that my mom had, that just the little tidbits of information that was in the funeral programs could give someone a gigantic head start in genealogy," Gordon said.

She champions her mother, Joan Abernathy's, desire to hold onto pieces of history as a church musician to help tell the story of so many Black families in Tennessee.

Ms. Abernathy's programs became one of the first collections to arrive officially at the Tennessee State Library and Archives two years ago.

"I did speak with my mother. Before she passed away and told her 'oh mom, these funeral programs would be awesome in the library,' and she said, 'well, you can give them to them if you want.' So I did."

Now, you'll find boxes and boxes of funeral programs — all with their own family stories.

"They get a picture of their life, and they're able to see their personality and their gifts and their talents, their mannerisms, their hobbies. The things that they love to do," Gordon said.

Because of slavery and segregation laws in the South, many African Americans can't trace their roots back very far.

Gordon says she wanted to help change that.

"I think it's just important for them to know where they came from and their heritage and the things that they can carry from generation to generation."

The State Library and Archives is full of genealogy records, but these funeral programs make this collection unique.

"The funeral program, though, will give us a real look into their life. What did they do, who were their family members, what were they appreciated and known for? And so being able to add that personal dimension is very special," said Chuck Sherrill, the state librarian and archivist.

A friend of the Abernathy family, Sandra Fentress, also donated programs she kept.

You can donate funeral programs or see them for yourself at the Tennessee State Library and Archives in downtown Nashville.

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, the library is hosting a special program on genealogy.

Staff and volunteers will be on hand to help people get started on their family genealogy.

Doors open at 8:30 in the morning.