History and Genealogy

Just as history is filled with colorful stories and tidbits, so too is every genealogy. I have yet to find the person whose family doesn’t have some engrossing story. Some tale that is curious, funny, sad, shocking, and/or thought provoking.

I met a woman whose father had been an engineer on the Panama Canal (in the 1940’s, long after it was built) and she told how she grew up like a princess in a giant plantation house with a raft of servants. My great aunt told jaw-dropping stories of her life as the daughter of a sheriff in Kansas during the 1920’s. These types of stories are everywhere.

History and geneology

The original groundbreaking ceremony at Lincoln Center provides a roster of famous names. From left, John D. Rockefeller III, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, David M. Keisor, Robert Moses, Hulan Jack, Robert F. Wagner and Malcolm Wilson. PHOTO BY BOB SERATING

One I like is of my wife’s great grandfather, Edward Casey, a man reputedly as wide as he was tall, and active in the well-known Tammany Hall political machine of New York City. He served with Hulan Jack, a Tammany leader who in 1954 became the the highest ranking African American municipal official up until that time, when he was elected Borough President of Manhattan.

During this period, the Manhattan borough president’s role was vastly more important than it is today, because it automatically gave the officeholder a seat on the NYC Board of Estimate. The board, made up of the mayor, comptroller, council president, and five borough presidents had sole authority to decide New York City’s budget and make land use decisions—and that says all you need to know about its clout.

Courts later found the board violated the one person, one vote rule, since large boroughs like Brooklyn and Queens had no more weight than the comparatively tiny Staten Island. The board’s power was stripped away and divided between the mayor and newly expanded city council. Yet during Hulan Jack’s time, the Board of Estimate was everything.

Eddie Casey was high in Jack’s organization and also served as superintendent of the NYC public pools. Tammany, like many political machines operated on the currency of jobs and favors. In the 1980’s—and to this day, for all I know—the Suffolk County (Long Island) pools were a highly sought after source of summer income for high schoolers serving as life guards. It was commonly understood that, to be eligible for employment, your parents needed to be registered to vote with the Republican Party. No doubt the same was true for NYC during Tammany, but in this case registration would have been with the Democrats.

I’ve noticed a thread through my life, which is a fascination with old stories and aged things: history and genealogy, archaeology, antiques, dilapidated homes and hotels, fading daguerrotypes and old postcards with messages written in an almost-familiar hand. These are things that give one a voyeuristic experience of distant lives. To me, it’s easy to imagine we’re constantly walking through the phantom after-images of the departed and it’s a fertile playground for the imagination.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *