Self-taught genealogist enjoys the chase
(pictured above: James Gist poses with some of his research.)
City native James Gist is an addict.
His vice? Genealogy.
“It’s fun. You have to play detective sometimes, but that’s okay,” he said of researching his family’s history.
The Atkins High School alumnus’ love affair with genealogy began more than three decades ago when he discovered a family Bible at his mother’s Winston-Salem home.
“I found this page that had all this family information on it, but there were some blanks in it,” recalled Gist, who is retired from the U.S. Air Force and Lockheed Martin Aerospace in California. “I started talking to my grandmother – she was still living at the time – and she just kind of blew my mind.”
The historical tidbits his grandmother provided sparked a curiosity that Gist says set the course for his genealogical journey. He learned that his great-great grandfather was a slave in Anderson County, S.C. at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation. Among his first acts as a freeman was the selection of a surname.
“Instead of taking the name of the family (that had owned him) when he was emancipated, he took the name of the town, which was the Martin Township,” Gist explained.
Gist’s fascination with that story led him to search further.
“I started digging around trying to figure out who my ancestors were, and I found out that I had ancestors all over the country,” related the 74 year-old, whose younger brother is former Winston-Salem Fire Chief John Gist.
From the beginning, tracing his lineage was difficult, as it is for many African Americans.
“The thing that really got me going was how hard it was because there were so many mistakes in the census records,” he said, noting that his great-grandmother’s name was listed as everything from Della to Bella to Isabella and his own surname appears in five different variations in official documents. “When the people went out to take the census, the people that they were interviewing, many of them couldn’t read or write, so they couldn’t correct the spelling, and the census takers just wrote down what it sounded like.”
To make matters worse, former slaves were not counted on the census until 1870, Gist said. Prior to that, the age, sex and number of slaves owned by a plantation owner – but not their names – were listed on a document called a “Slave Schedule.”
Despite the setbacks, the thrill of unlocking the secrets of the past has kept Gist on the hunt, which has taken him to historic cemeteries like the Odd Fellows Cemetery off Shorefair Drive, where two of his siblings are buried, and Rose Hill Plantation in South Carolina. The plantation was one 16 or 17 properties owned by the family of former South Carolina Gov. William Henry Gist, from whom Gist believes he got his surname. He has yet to pin down from which of the Gist plantations his descendants hailed. He did strike gold in Rose Hill, though, when a park ranger, recognizing his familiar last name, granted Gist access to the plantation’s records, where he was able to find the names of some of his family members on a slave schedule.
With the help of the family historians – a cousin and a niece – Gist has been able to trace his family back to 1832, when his great-great grandfather was born. He is constantly updating his own family tree – which now includes more than 2,400 names – with new births and marriages. He displays his work, which stretches close to 20 feet in printed form, when his family gathers in South Carolina for reunions.
“The hardest part is just getting started,” he declared. “One you get started, it gets addictive because you’ll go on the internet and you’ll find a clue and then you’ll find another clue, and before you know it, it’s 2:30 in the morning.”
Gist often shares his knowledge and his passion for the work with others. On May 6, he addressed members of the Forsyth County Genealogical Society. His topic was “African American Genealogy Roadblocks.”
Carolyn Marshall, president of the Society, said Gist’s insight was beneficial to members of the predominantly white organization, which is working to diversify its membership.
“He was just so well versed in everything and I was really taken with his background and all that he knew,” said Marshall, a retired Wachovia employee who has traced her own family back to the 1700s with the help of her sister, FCGS board member Peggy Taylor. “We in our society have not had an African American program, so to speak. We have people who do that research, but it’s harder, so we try to learn how to do it, how to help people of all kinds.”
Marshall said Gist’s talk was a success, drawing close to 40 attendees to the Central Library.
“He had a lot of helpful information as to how to go about it, other places to look, and the experiences that he had,” she related. “His research story was extremely interesting to everyone.”
Gist has also led a class on the basics of genealogy for members of the Active Adults group at United Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, where he and his longtime wife Prestina are members. When it comes to his favorite hobby, Gist said he doesn’t plan to give up the habit anytime soon.
“I’m going to keep digging,” he said, noting that some of the younger members of the Gist clan are among the most enthusiastic supporters of his work. “… When you see the kids’ eyes light up, that makes it all worthwhile.”
The Forsyth County Genealogical Society meets at 6:30 p.m. on the first Tuesday of the month in the Central Library Auditorium. For more information, visit www.forsythgen.org. To request Gist as a speaker, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.