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Published: 1/3/2011

Century of Toledo funeral home records unseals history for black community

BY CLAUDIA BOYD-BARRETT
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Inside the expansive rooms of the Dale-Riggs Funeral Home at Nebraska and City Park avenues, tucked away in old boxes, filing cabinets, and on dusty basement shelves, there lies a veritable Toledo treasure.

Records -- thousands of them, written in ledgers, typed on index cards, and stored in paper files -- document the names, family ties, and biographical information of each person who has passed through the traditionally African-American funeral home since 1912.

It's information that holds the keys to unlocking buried histories of a section of the community that faces more challenges than most in piecing together its past.

"It makes for fascinating reading and it's something that will be valuable forever, especially when you're searching for family information," said Sheryl Riggs, the home's managing director. "To have a 100-year-old history in one place is huge."

Now, Ms. Riggs is working on making these voluminous records available to the public.

Together with the African American Legacy Project of Northwest Ohio -- an organization dedicated to education about the history and culture of African Americans in the area -- the funeral director hopes to raise enough money to create a computer database that would house all of the information in digital form.

The idea is to set up a site at the Legacy Project's offices on Upton Avenue where researchers could look at the data and to make the records accessible online.

Robert Smith, president of the African American Legacy Project of Northwest Ohio, and Sheryl Riggs of Dale-Riggs Funeral Home look over records in the funeral home's basement. The want to put the information on the Web and in Legacy Project offices Robert Smith, president of the African American Legacy Project of Northwest Ohio, and Sheryl Riggs of Dale-Riggs Funeral Home look over records in the funeral home's basement. The want to put the information on the Web and in Legacy Project offices
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"It's important for us that all this information not be stored in a warehouse somewhere when it can be put to so much use," Ms. Riggs explained, estimating that the initial cost to jump-start the project would be about $10,000.

"I would love to see the information that we've gathered over the last 100 years in a place where it will be lasting."

The records consist of ancient-looking ledger books, index cards, microfiche, paper files, and computer records.

They provide exquisite detail on the deceased, including the dates and places of birth and death, the names of parents and other relatives, cause of death, occupation, memberships in churches and other community organizations, and physician's name.

Many of the paper files include photos, obituaries, funeral programs, and other memorabilia.

On average, there are records on about 200 people for each year the funeral home has operated, Ms. Riggs said.

The oldest records are contained in the ledgers, which date back to 1912.

That's when the funeral parlor's original owner, Elvin Wanzo, opened the city's first black-owned funeral home -- The Wanzo Funeral Home, at 1412 Monroe St.

Mr. Wanzo moved the home to the Nebraska Avenue site in 1937 and later sold the business to Clarence and Genevieve Dale in 1946.

After that it became the Dale Funeral Home.

When the Dales sold the home in 1992, Ms. Riggs became managing director.

Because the Dale Funeral Home was at one time the largest black-owned funeral home in the city, Ms. Riggs estimates most African-Americans in Toledo will have some family connection to it.

Ms. Riggs said she didn't realize how extensive the records were until a few years ago, when the home's maintenance manager showed her a small room in the basement containing the ledgers. Already an avid history buff, Ms. Riggs said she was captivated by the find and stayed up many nights looking over the books. She was surprised to find that many of the family names in the ledgers were the same as those of some current customers.

Other data also caught her eye, especially the causes of death earlier in the century, which indicated a prevalence of tuberculosis as well as a high infant mortality rate.

"When you read the ledgers it's just fascinating," Ms. Riggs said.

"It's like reading a history book."

Robert Smith, president of the African American Legacy Project of Northwest Ohio, said the records are invaluable to people who want to research their family history.

He explained that African-Americans often hit significant roadblocks when trying to find out about their ancestry for various reasons.

These include shoddy record-keeping during the time of slavery, frequent separation of enslaved black families, widespread migration of African-Americans who sought to escape bondage or find economic opportunities in the North, and a long-held tradition of oral storytelling, which meant family histories were seldom recorded in written form.

One major obstacle for those who trace their ancestry back to slavery is a lack of census records. Prior to 1870, slaves were not named in the census but simply counted as the property of their owners, said Rhonda Sewell, a spokesman for the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, who has ancestors who were slaves.

"African-Americans would be counted just like the cattle," Ms. Sewell said. "It definitely makes it really difficult to trace the family tree because we just were not considered as citizens of this great country."

Donna Christian, a librarian in the Main Library's Local History and Genealogy Department, said another challenge is that after the Civil War, many freed slaves changed their names rather than keep the last name of their owners, the names listed in the census records.

Still, the library officials said there are many other ways for African-Americans to trace their ancestry.

These include using online Web sites such as ancestry.com, searching old newspapers, phone directories, court documents and church records, and visiting cemeteries and funeral homes.

The library's Local History and Genealogy Department contains many resources and references for those looking to conduct research into their family's history.

Those include a collection of recorded interviews with local African-Americans about their lives.

Many researchers also interview the oldest members of their family to glean as much direct information from the past as they can.

That's been the approach by some members of a genealogy group formed through the African American Legacy Project, Mr. Smith said.

The method is limited, however, to those who are still around, and much family history from the earlier part of last century remains buried, he said.

But more will be available once records from the Dale-Riggs Funeral Home become more accessible.

"It probably will form the basis for lot of stories for a lot of families. It will help define what our culture was like, what people did for a living, causes of death," Mr. Smith said.

"It's major what Ms. Riggs is doing. It's monumental."

Although the Toledo area was an important stop on the Underground Railroad, the ancestors of most African-Americans here today likely did not arrive as runaway slaves, Ms. Christian said.

That's because most would have escaped to Canada, where they were out of danger of being returned to their masters if they were discovered, she explained.

Instead, many African-Americans in Toledo are the descendants of those who migrated north in the early decades of the 20th century in search of jobs in the growing auto and glass industries, she said.

Ms. Sewell said the records at Dale-Riggs could reveal a lot about prominent African Americans from that time.

Many of them would have been buried through the funeral home, which has long had a stellar reputation in the community.

"I'm wondering if there were judges and doctors and people of note who selected that particular funeral home," Ms. Sewell said.

"This information is really going to reveal a wealth about Toledo history that really we didn't know before."

Anyone interested in donating to the Dale-Riggs genealogy endeavor can send a check to The African American Legacy Project of Northwest Ohio, P.O. Box 4602, Toledo, Ohio 43610.

Make checks payable to The African American Legacy Project and write AALP/software in the memo area.

Claudia Boyd-Barrett at: cbarrett@theblade.com or 419-724-6272.



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