Jean Byrd Lee Bowen Rollins

Process for documenting a life

Jean Byrd Lee Bowen Rollins 1913-2020

While it is best to gather oral histories and document during life, the event of a person’s death is a poignant time to gather the story of a person’s life.

Not only is this a way to honor the person, it can be a part of the grieving process. It also reminds us of how every life touches other lives.

To illustrate how I record a person’s life upon there passing, I will show what steps I took after the death of Jean Byrd Lee Bowen Rollins, who recently died at the age of 107. I did not know Jean and learned of her death via a newspaper I regularly monitor, The Atlanta Inquirer. 1

A life of passion

Her friends knew her as “Mimi.” Her life was long and is was full of love and care for others. She was a teacher and an activist. She engaged with friends and foes, whether it was politics or a game of bridge. We learn all of this through her obituaries and what others say about her.

My goal is to bring all the available documentation together where it will be preserved. Most websites should be considered ephemeral – there are only a few sites that I trust to be long-lasting and openly available to anyone online. The challenge is to collect the currently-available information and post it onto these more-reliable websites.

What’s available?

There are many places to start when researching the life of a person. The documents found on genealogical sites are generally the best place to ascertain basic facts, such as when and where they lived. I decided instead to start with more public records, partly because I knew nothing about her other than that original article. A basic Google Search on her full name produced a wealth of results.

Obituary

I found copies of her obituary from the AJC newspaper, with a copy on the obituary archive at legacy.com and even on a Facebook page. While the obituary was quite short for a person of her age (and the photograph was not particularly flattering), it was a solid obituary that captured many important details and essence of her life. It included her birth date and parents, her education and career outline, her involvement in civic organizations, and her passions of traveling the world and playing bridge. The obituary mentions her surviving daughter and the number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It is notable that her parents and both of her husbands who preceded her in death are included, since too frequently these family members are omitted. Overall, a very good obituary with much information to build upon.

The more extensive obituary in The Atlanta Inquirer included more personal details of who she was, such as that she was the second of three children, and that she “never lost the spirit of youth.” It also included photos that seems to give a better sense of her character and personality.

What was missing from those obituaries was any mention of her funeral service. I finally found the funeral details and a “tribute wall” that was placed on a website by the funeral home. The funeral service was streamed online, and I archived a copy of the video.

Other mentions found online

Considering that her most active years would have occurred before the emergence of the Internet, Mimi has many reference online, although hard to separate out from the many results of people with similar names.

I found an interesting thank you to Mimi in the acknowledgments of a book by author Wayne James, who mentioned Mimi’s granddaughter as “my dear friend Kimberly Alexander.”

There are the almost inevitable entries that are difficult to confirm, such as the donor “Jean Rollins” listed in the Athens Area Humane Society’s 2011 Annual Report. Although there’s confirmation that her body was cremated, there is a memorial page for Mimi on FindaGrave.com.

Newspaper Articles

I found more references in a commercial newspaper archive, such as where Mimi and her first husband were attendants in the wedding of friends (more details). I also found obituaries for her first husband, Dr. Hilliard Bowen, who died in 1977, his mother, Ladye Bowen, and Mimi’s second husband, Fletcher Rollins, who died in 1991. Ladye Bowen was featured in several more articles, giving a rich insight into the family that Mimi married into.

All of this information needs to be brought together with other documentation and saved in reliable storage where it is available to future generations.

Family Documents, Letters, Photos, etc.

This is a vital part of the overall process. Anything the family has might be valuable to preserve. As scanning is now quite easy, anyone can digitize records. Even a simple digital photograph of a document is better than no preserved record at all. These digitized records can be saved to the site as describe later under “Family Tree.” As I was not working with Mimi’s family, we weren’t able to gather her information. Keep in mind that people of note in public life often donate their papers to a library – such repositories usually show up in an online search.

Oral Histories

Recording people talking about their lives can be a huge gift to future generations. Asking people to reflect on the lives of their loved ones can also be cathartic and a valuable part of the grieving process. This too, was a step I could not do for Mimi’s family as I was not working for them. Oral histories are almost always best done sonner rather than later. There is also to possibility of being a part of the largest oral history project, the world-wide StoryCorps project.

The technical steps are beyond the scope of this article, however free smartphone apps do a great jobs of recording these histories into a ready-to-upload format. StoryCorps also has an app that allows remote interviews!

Family tree

To make information about people easily available into the future, I place everything I find on FamilySearch.org. This free website allows everyone to edit the common, shared family tree. Someone had already created a page on that site for Mimi back in 2016. They had incorrectly assumed she had already died, so the page was open to anyone logged in to the site. They had already connected the 1920 and 1930 Census records to her page. Her marriage to Hilliard Bowen in 1937 was also documented. I added photos, newspaper articles and her obituaries (free account login required).

This record allows others to build upon it by searching their huge repository of digitized records. It connects to her ancestors, unfortunately, only 2 or 3 generations, for now. It allows easy searching of other genealogical websites for more information. While there is some of a learning curve to accessing all the information, it is a great website that is a gift to all of us from the Mormon Church.

We have made at least a start on documenting Mimi’s life.

Mimi’s Life

All of these steps in this process of a person’s life can be overwhelming, which is why I coach people on the work, or will do the work for them (contact me to see what I can do for you!).

There is also the risk of losing sight of the person in the midst of all these facts and details. If it’s a person you knew, then you can get to know them better through this process. If it’s a person you did not know in life, you can get a picture of their lives and how they affected others. You can also preserve the stories for future generations, which is a major objective of genealogical work.

In the end, I think Mimi’s life is best summed up by the author Wayne James, who spent 21 months writing as an invited guest in the home of Mimi’s granddaughter, Kimberly Alexander. James gives thanks to Mimi, “the grandame (and then some!) of the family, for her lively conversations, refreshing outlook on life, and effortless expressions of elegance.”

That’s a life, documented.

P.S. – Challenges

Women are generally difficult to research in historical records. Prior to the mid-20th century, women are often referred to as “Mrs Husband’s Name.” The stories that were included rarely portrayed women’s accomplishments or anything that challenged the patriarchal order. 

People of African American heritage present an even greater challenge. There are scant records, none conclusive, that connect formerly enslaved persons to the white people who are frequently biologically related. Last names were fluid, generally assigned by the white people who held them enslaved, and sometimes, after emancipation, chosen by the persons using those names. When newspapers did print stories about people of African descent in the 19th century, they were usually fastidious about labeling people as “negro,” and the stories are overwhelmingly negative. With the rise of Black-owned newspapers and a more enlightened mainstream press, news reports have gotten better and are still improving. In addition to the issues with the press, churches and government agencies often did not keep or preserve records as well for communities of color. One bright area is the tradition of meaningful funerals with detailed funeral programs or bulletins with photos and extensive biographic obituaries and stories.

Footnotes:

[1] I know the editor, John B. Smith Jr and provide some technical support for the website. I have done some work trying to get their archive online.

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