The mysterious origins of that genealogy poem

This week, I came across this post and shared it, thinking this is so me.
French Canadian Heritage Society of Michigan

On closer examination, this quote is a photo of a door or window, and quite possibly posted on the offices of the French Canadian Heritage Society. But where did it come from? Like a good genealogist, I first turned to Google for some answers. And there were lots of answers… but perhaps not a lot of right answers.

The prose poem has been variously attributed to Tom Dunn (editor), Melody Hall (editor), Della M. Cummings Wright (author), Della’s granddaughter Della JoAnn McGinnis Johnson (rewritten), and that great provider of all works of literature we don’t know the provenance for, Anonymous. It’s been quoted in dozens of books because it so perfectly encapsulates how many genealogists feel about their obsession. It’s so good in fact that genealogists have taken time out from their genealogical search to find the provenance for this poem: see for example Harold Sparks and Anita May Draper.

Personally, I give kudos to Della JoAnn McGinnis Johnson, whose post here claim authorship, and whose work also includes A Grandmother’s TaleHere’s a version attributed to Tom Dunn.

But the year? That’s another question. Take this, for example:

We Are the Chosen –by Della M. Cumming, 1943; edited by Melody Hull

Or this:

Written by Della M. Cummings Wright

Rewritten by her granddaughter Dell Jo Ann McGinnis Johnson

Edited and Reworded by Tom Dunn, (in) 1943.

Bob Dunn aka “The Storyteller” of Houston, TX., Author

In 1943, Della M. Cumming was a year old, according to her family tree. Did she rewrite it later, or did Tom Dunn write the original in ’43? My take is the whole “1943” idea was a total guess, the way that families guess about dates they can’t remember.

Here is the whole poem, which I have edited for format and grammar.


We are the chosen. In each family there is one who seems called to find the ancestors – to put flesh on their bones and make them live again, to tell the family story and to feel that somehow they know and approve.

To me, doing genealogy is not a cold gathering of facts but, instead, breathing life into all who have gone before.

We are the story tellers of the tribe. All tribes have one.

We have been called by our genes. Those who have gone before cry out to us: tell our story. So we do. In finding them, we somehow find ourselves. How many graves have I stood before now and cried? I have lost count. How many times have I told the ancestors you have a wonderful family you would be proud of us? How many times have I walked up to a grave and felt somehow there was love there for me?

I cannot say.

It goes beyond just documenting facts. It goes to who am I and why do I do the things I do. It goes to seeing a cemetery about to be lost forever to weeds and indifference and saying I can’t let this happen. The bones here are bones of my bone and flesh of my flesh. It goes to doing something about it. It goes to pride in what our ancestors were able to accomplish. How they contributed to what we are today. It goes to respecting their hardships and losses, their never giving in or giving up, their resoluteness to go on and build a life for their family. It goes to deep pride that they fought to make and keep us a Nation.

It goes to a deep and immense understanding that they were doing it for us. That we might be born who we are. That we might remember them. So we do. With love and caring and scribing each fact of their existence, because we are them and they are us. So, as a scribe is called, I tell the story of my family. It is up to that one called in the next generation to answer the call and take their place in the long line of family storytellers.

That is why I do genealogy, and that is what calls those young and old to step up and put flesh on the bones.

American History · European History · storytelling

Leading with the heart – the Olympian story of Jesse Owens

James Cleveland Owens looked down at the track under his fingertips. His feet were in the starting blocks. He risked a quick glance to the side as his fellow runners positioned themselves into their starting positions. Then up, at the crowd, the Nazi flags overhead. He took a deep breath, The winner of the men’s 100 m dash is generally accorded the title of the world’s fastest man. Would it be him?

Above him, Adolf Hitler scowled down from his box.


James Cleveland Owens, aka “J.C.” was born in the southern United States. Oakville, Alabama, if you want to get specific. He was the smallest, youngest, and frailest of Henry and Mary Owens’s 10 children. Henry Owens was a sharecropper. He farmed the land that someone else owned, and most years, he didn’t make enough to do more than pay the rent. But he was doing better than his daddy – his daddy had been a plantation slave. It was Henry’s wife, Mary Emma, that really kept the family together. She was tough, and she wanted more for her family than to grow up poor in Alabama. All the kids grew up picking cotton and doing anything they could to bring home money.


J.C. almost didn’t make it out of childhood. He suffered from fibrous tumours, and the family had no medical insurance. When he was really little, his momma had to cut a tumour out of his leg. When he was five, another one started growing, but this one was on his chest. He tried to ignore it, but the tumour was growing faster than he was, and it was pressing painfully down on his heart and his lungs. Eventually, he told his momma.

He wasn’t supposed to hear them talking, his momma and poppa.

“What are we going to do?” said Mary.

“You cut one out of his leg before, Momma,” said Henry.

“But this one’s so big,” said Mary, “and it’s so close to his heart.”

Henry said, “He might…”

“DON’T…!” said Mary.

Henry said, “He might go, Momma. If the Lord wants him.”

Henry couldn’t bear to see it, when it all finally happened. Little J.C., lying on the kitchen table, a thick leather strap between his teeth, and his momma sterilizing her best kitchen knife. She cut out the tumour that was pressing on her son’s heart. Not a sound came from him, but the tears – and the blood – flowed freely.

J.C. remembered – or maybe it was a dream – getting out of bed one night, lightheaded from blood loss. He found his daddy on his knees, praying on the porch.

“Lord,” said Henry, “please, take me. Please don’t take him. He’s so little. And if he goes, Mary will go, and we will all go if she goes. Please, take me.”

J.C. went over to hug his daddy.

And maybe the Lord heard, because the wound stopped bleeding.


When J.C. was 9 years old, the family moved 700 miles northwest to Ohio. Mary and Henry’s daughter Lillie had moved to Cleveland years before, and she said there was work, and houses, and a better life. Henry took two of his sons up to check it out, and then moved his whole family in 1922. They were a part of the Great Migration – the tide of African Americans leaving the southern United States for the north. Between 1915 and 1920, 65,000 men, women, and children moved from Alabama alone.

The family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. It was as though James Cleveland Owens was finally coming home.

He got the name Jesse from his first day at school in Cleveland.

“What’s your name?” said the teacher.

“J.C., ma’am,” said J.C., in his soft southern accent.

“Jesse?” said the teacher.

“J.C., ma’am,” said J.C.

“Jesse?” said the teacher.

“Yes, ma’am.” said J.C.

It was at school where Jesse Owens met Coach Riley. Said Riley, “He wasn’t the fastest boy, or the best one, but he was the hardest worker. He was always the last to leave practice.”

It was Riley who taught Jesse not to run, but to float. To run as though the ground was on fire. And after such a rocky start, Jesse was built to run, as sleek as a greyhound, with the heart of a lion.


Jesse Owens followed his heart to Berlin, crushing the Aryan dreams of Hitler’s 1936 Olympiad. He set Olympic records and won 4 gold medals in the 100 m dash, the 200 m dash, the 4×100 m relay, and the long jump – a feat that stood unmatched until Carl Lewis took 4 gold medals at the Salt Lake City Games in 1984.

Jesse Owens at start of record breaking 200 meter race during the Olympic games 1936 in Berlin (photographic montage). Public domain. Available via
Jesse Owens, long jump, 1936. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R96374 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons


I told this story at my storyteller’s group on Wednesday night this week. The theme was Following your Heart, and as I write, I’m watching the Canadian women’s Olympic gold medal hockey game aganst the USA. I wanted a story that combined the heart idea with the Olympics, and when I read the anecdote of the tumour, I knew this was the right story to tell.

Weird trivia

At the Olympics, Jesse Owens was wearing handmade, leather athletic shoes made for him by Adolf Dassler.

“Adi” Dassler went on to found Adidas.

Sommerolympiade, Siegerehrung Weitsprung
Jesse Owens salutes the American flag after winning the long jump at the 1936 Summer Olympics. Naoto Tajima, Owens, Lutz Long. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-G00630 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons

Olympic Postscript

RATS! Shootouts suck.


10 things you may not know about Jesse Owens. Klein, C. (Sep 12 2013). Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from

1936 – Owens wins 4th gold medal. Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from

About Jesse Owens. Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from Jesse Owens Olympic Legend.

How Jesse Owens’ Childhood Made Him the Champion Seen in Race. Schaap, J. (Feb 19 2016). Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from Time.

Jesse Owens. Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from

Jesse Owens. Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from Wikipedia.

Jesse Owens Biography. Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from the Encyclopedia of World Biography.


Genealogical Research · Genealogy Basics · storytelling

How I went from a blogger to a guest lecturer

How do you know this stuff? Did you learn it at school?

There are so many answers to this question, but in the beginning, I learned my stories from my family.

The family stories

If you’re lucky, someone in your family is the family historian and the teller of tales. Our grandmother held that place in our family, and she liked to invite us for Sunday dinner. Each time, we’d ask her to tell stories – perhaps the one about the pigeons kept on the deck; or the one about the baseball cards and the chewing gum; or the one about the two day housewarming party; but mostly, stories about food. Eventually, I started writing these stories down. I don’t have them all, but I have a few. The trick to collecting family stories is to write them down exactly as they’re told. It doesn’t matter if this time isn’t the same as last time. They’re all true – perhaps not factually true, but emotionally true.

Family stories helped make sense of the world, and I was a curious child.

The family photos

I am fascinated by photography. A picture is not only a visual record of time and place, but also environment, society, people, and events. I have a storehouse of tens of thousands of pictures, a good chunk of which are family photos. Most are without identification, so I have spent hundreds of hours with them, using scanners, facial recognition software, logic, and a journal to record questions and answers.

Some are a mystery I’m still trying to solve.

The family tree

It may have been the photos that started it all – the questions of who what when why and how. Every family has people they don’t talk about. I began getting interested in family trees. On the one hand, my father’s family had access to a comprehensive family tree which detailed 800+ family members. On the other hand, my mother’s family tree was undrawn and largely unknown. I started drawing family trees by hand, then using MS-Visio,, and now I still draw and redraw the family line hierarchy when I’m trying to visualize generations through time.

My background

The idea behind raised more questions than it answered. While it was a handy way of building trees and identifying cousins, it was less useful in supplying documents. I collect facts like Smaug hoards gems. The history of my family – and to a wider extent, the history of the Chinese in Canada – is not so easily found.

I drafted timelines in Excel. I date ordered every fact I uncovered about my family: births, moves, graduations, deaths, marriages, enlistment, demobilization. I drew relationship trees to establish the birth order of coy aunts and uncles who said, “I forget how old I am.” I drew maps of neighbourhoods, mentally walking down the street to the neighbours’ houses. I collected resources: bookmarking web pages, building Excel sheets with links, downloading PDFs, scanning documents, and photographing sites.

It all felt like a big, ungainly mess until I built this website as a personal storehouse of data. What began as a passion project has led to a radio interview, a day with JJ Lee, and an invitation to be a guest lecturer at a university.

The legal framework

Every historian needs a way to see the whole picture. I see the world from a social / psychological/ familial/ economic/ political/ legal point of view. Eventually, I began seeing a framework from the facts, like seeing a body from studying bone fragments.

Here, in one graphic, are the laws affecting voting and immigration for the Chinese in Canada. I’ll expand on this graphic in my next post here.

Voting and Immigration laws, Canada
The federal laws re voting and immigration for the Chinese. © 2017. Past Presence. All rights reserved.


The classroom

It’s so ironic. I would love to go back to school to study history.

In September, I did, but with a twist: I was the guest lecturer, sharing my story along with a few facts, to a class of students in Asian studies.

Linda Yip addresses AAST Sep 27
The class of Asian-American studies at Indiana University, Bloomington – September 27, 2017

The future

How do you know this stuff? 

graphic re informed history

I’ve alway been a curious child. In the beginning, family stories helped make sense of the world. Now, original records and a powerful array of online resources fill out my understanding, provide a framework, and raise new questions. It’s a layer cake of stories and details that’s endlessly fascinating. How about you? What’s your family mystery? Want to find out more? PM me and I’ll help you get started.

Canadian Stories · storytelling

Canada’s history, the CBC, and me

Hey Canada! As you know, I’ve got this crazy hobby of digging into the unknown gaps in Canadian history. Today, I went on the radio to talk about it.

From this morning, Thursday, June 28 on CBC Radio Saskatoon, here’s my interview with CBC Radio Saskatoon. I’d like to say thank you to host Peter Mills, and also Happy Birthday, Canada!