my journey into the past …

I began researching my family tree more than ten years ago, only partly due to curiosity about my ancestors. I was also bored, and just happened across an advertisement for a free trial of Ancestry.com. So I signed up and fiddled around on the genealogy website for a few weeks — I was hooked. Before I knew it, I was ordering documents from the Ontario Genealogy Society; requesting photos on gravefinder.com; following “Chatham-Kent Pictures of our Past” and “The East Renfrewshire Heritage Services” on Facebook; and sharing information and photos online with several newly discovered relatives. I should mention that my mother took part in an Elder Hostel (or something similar) program many years ago dealing with Ontario genealogy research, and passed on to me the publications she acquired there — very quaint by today’s standards — lists of farms, surnames, cemetery transcriptions — but this information most certainly helped me get started.

And then I took the Ancestry.com DNA test. The results of that test were eye-opening and have enabled me to become acquainted with twigs and branches of my family tree previously unknown to me, and have inspired me to search out and maintain better contact with all my relatives.

We all think of many things we wish to be when we grow up, but I never thought I’d be a blogger, (For several years, I did actually think I would be a ballerina, but that’s another story.) Oh, of course I know I’m not really a blogger, and I’m sufficiently technologically challenged to find this blog stuff pretty difficult. (For example, I haven’t figured out how to distinguish between posts about my mother’s family and my father’s family other than just in the text.) But over the last several years of compiling what I refer to as my family narrative, I have found it increasingly frustrating to add newly discovered information, to share documents, to keep my relatives up to date, and to share information consistently. Maybe this format will be easier to manage — so far I know it will be fun!

So my plan is just to examine my tree’s twigs and branches, a few at a time, somewhat randomly. So let’s go!



Garth Johnson Thomas, College Junior

37 Kanza

The year is 1937, and as the world teeters on the brink of World War II, the young students at Kansas State Teachers College (or at least their yearbook committee!) seem caught up in anxiety and uncertainty. Just look at some of the text from the 1937 Kanza – some pretty intense stuff for a college yearbook:

Garth college 2

Garth college 3

Garth college 5
























Garth college 6















In 1937, my father was a Junior at Kansas State Teachers College in his hometown of Pittsburg, Kansas. Is it just me, or was Garth a very handsome young man?

Garth College Junior

Clearly still on his mission to become a great scientist, Garth was the President of Sigma Phi Mu, the honorary fraternity of science and philosophy.

Garth Collerge 37 Sigma phi

I imagine that Garth spent many hours in the state of the art Carney Hall, “one of the best equipped buildings of its kind in the state.”

Carney Hall.jpg

And finally, from the 1937 Kanza, the yearbook of Kansas State Teachers College:






Garth, 1934, the High School Graduate

yearbook cover

One of the things I noticed looking though my parents’ high school yearbooks is that yearbooks haven’t changed very much over the last 75 years. Individual pictures of each student are followed by all the various clubs, sports and activities. Students sign one another’s books and promise eternal friendship. The seniors are quoted and predictions are made.  (Annoyingly, the student pictures in Garth’s yearbooks are not alphabetical and there is no index. And I notice that the building depicted on the cover of Garth’s 1934 yearbook is clearly NOT Pittsburg High School!)

Garth PHS 34

Eighteen year old Garth is bright and ambitious, and not particularly modest!

Garth 1934 indiv photo

He is, of course, a member of the Science Club, which has now become the Shulen Von Wissensehaft. (Garth did believe that German is the language of science!) All that surprises me here is that Garth is part of the photography department, but none of the disciplines represented in the club strike me as particularly up his alley.

Garth 34 science club

He looks quite serious!

Garth 34 science club


Garth was also a member of something called Hi – Y.


My favorite: Garth’s nickname is “Prof.” and his favorite expression is “Prove it.” Yep — that’s my father!

Garth 1934 yearbook prove it








I have learned that it can sometimes be a bit … unnerving … to snoop around in one’s family past. One never knows what information is just waiting to be discovered. One might find one’s self genetically linked to delightful African Canadian cousins and discover historical information about ancestors who were born into slavery. Or one might learn fun facts like that one’s own grandmother was several months pregnant when she married. One might come across intriguing hints about one’s father’s very young first marriage – stuff like that.

While I’m fascinated by the more distant past, I feel just a little detached from it. It is something else entirely to start poking around into the young lives of one’s own parents. It’s almost impossible to imagine “mom and dad” as young adults doing things like having crushes, participating in campus clubs, graduating from high school, choosing careers, getting friends to sign their yearbooks ….

Ancestry.com recently added American high school yearbooks (1900 – 1990) to their searchable database. (And that reminded me that I have in my possession several of Garth’s and Shirley’s high school and college yearbooks – I have never looked at them very closely, but I will now! What stories these yearbooks tell!)

Predictably, the new information offered on Ancestry.com reveals some information about the Kansas folks, but very little on Mona. That’s quite possibly because the Gees/Shaws bounced back and forth between Canada and the U.S., changing professions and religions (and sometimes even races!) for a couple of generations. I have never had a very clear picture of where my mother actually grew up – but now I know this:

In 1938, my mother, Mona Gee, was a graduating senior at Detroit Central High School.


Mona's hs
Detroit Central High School


And she was BEAUTIFUL!

 last try


Mona was a member of the Ellen H. Richards Club which was organized to promote interest in home economics, promote fellowship and contribute to the school’s social atmosphere, all noble goals at which Mona certainly excelled!

Ellen Club

Much to my disappointment, and probably Mona’s as well, she was apparently absent on the day the yearbook photo was taken!

Ellen Club 2 


Susan Jane Christian Gee – the Final Word

One might assume that when Susan made that fateful decision to live her life as a white woman, she severed all ties to home and family. But apparently, that was not entirely the case. While we know that many of her descendants knew absolutely nothing about her (and their!) African ancestry, some family relationships continued. We know that when Susan, after traveling and living abroad for more than ten years, returned to Canada with her English husband and four young children, they were going to join her brother, Thomas Christian.

Betty Kurkjian (daughter of Cyril Gee, niece of J. Ronald Gee, Mona’s first cousin) shared this memory of Susan:

My mom and my older sister and I had to move from Detroit to Windsor and we took up residence with my grandmother at 182 Lincoln St. in Windsor. My aunt Dorothy was living there as well. Prior to WWII, my family lived for a short time with Grandma Gee in Windsor.

My mother did not get along with Grandma Gee and said Grandma spent a good deal of her time in her room reading her bible. Well in a way I couldn’t blame her. I was around 4 years old and my sister was 9. I’m not sure we were entirely welcome. My mom was the one who told me most of grandma’s background, although I know she did not know of her African heritage.

My mom told me while we were living with her, she would occasionally disappear to visit a sister who had married an African Canadian.  So perhaps she wanted to maintain that family relationship.

Mom said Grandma had quite a temper. She remembered her chasing my dad around the kitchen with an iron frying pan when she was upset with him.

Cousin Jean Bridges, a descendant of Susan’s sister, Ada Vincent tells us that when she was visiting cousins in Cleveland:

I remember opening the door for a man who dropped by for a visit. It was later in the day explained that he was “a gone white relative.” It seems that when he traveled nearby, he did drop by to visit his cousins. Many have found it easier to find employment, education and opportunities if one could pass as white. 

Who that “gone white relative” was I can’t say, but I have a hunch that it was my grandfather’s brother Cyril – just a feeling.

So what would Susan think of us … researching the census records of three countries; examining ship passenger lists; tracing her travels through Europe; discovering her secrets that weren’t so secret after all; taking DNA tests; and eventually meeting cousins from a branch of the tree that some of us didn’t even know existed? (My grandfather, J. Ronald Gee, had 16 first cousins who at various times were described in census records as Black, Negro, colored, non-white and mulatto!)


susan's grave
Susan Gee is buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Walkerville.

Bill Gee and I

My mother’s first cousin Bill Gee, son of Ronnie’s brother Bruce, came to visit from Toronto. Bill and Joan took us out for a great lunch and then we returned to Park Street to swap stories and photographs.

Bill Gee

Bill Gee 2


It’s funny – I have to remember that just because I don’t know something – some bit of family  history – doesn’t mean others share my ignorance. Bill and I looked at several pictures of my mother’s brother, Bill Gee (“the other Bill Gee”). There are several photos of Mona’s brother Bill in which it his African ancestry seems pretty apparent, and there are several pictures of him with his grandmother Susan. Was he a favorite of hers? I have not seen any pictures of her with any of her other grandchildren. Anyway, I mentioned  that I “thought” my mother’s brother Bill died in a VA hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan. Oh yes, not only could my cousin Bill confirm that, but he added that he actually visited Bill Gee at that hospital.

“He is an interesting story. I saw him a few times in Romeo and a couple times after he came back from the war. On the first occasion, he knew he was going to die and was making the rounds of relatives to say goodbye. Can you imagine? In any case, he came waltzing into the house (only my mother and I were there at the time) with this breezy, happy attitude as though he didn’t have a care in the world. It was quite amazing. Shortly after, when I was about 12, I went with my parents to visit him at the veteran’s hospital in Battle Creek. He was laying in bed and still cracking funnies doing his best to make everyone laugh. I later heard from Jack that his mother never forgave Ronnie for not getting Bill deferred when he could have done so.”

Susan Christian and Bill Gee - Copy


The Adventures of Susan Gee

Susan before her travels


Somehow or other, Susan Christian, a small town girl of African heritage, from Amherstburg, Ontario, decided to “pass” as white and made her way to Detroit where she was employed by a very prominent American family by the name of Newberry. John Newberry, a well known and respected admiralty attorney, was one of the earliest inhabitants of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, where he and other wealthy industrialist types built costly mansions. He was elected to the U. S. Congress in 1879 where he served just one term. His son, Harrie Robinson Newberry was Secretary and Treasurer of the Detroit Steel & Spring Works and served on the City Council.  Harrie and his wife, Harriet Dudgeon, had a daughter Gladys, born in 1885.

What exactly Susan’s role was in the Newberry family is a little unclear. According to Betty Kurkjian, Susan was a “cook/governess” and travelled with the Newberry family to France where she spent enough time to learn to speak fluent French. Bill Gee describes Susan as a “travelling companion” to Gladys Newberry, who was 22 years younger than her. Whatever the relationship, Susan travelled extensively with the Newberry family!

Harrie Newberry served the United States Department of State as charges d’affaires (or consul – general) in Constantinople and Madrid. On Ancestry.com, I have found tons of passport and visa information for Harrie and his family, and although I have not found the same kind of travel documentation for our Susan, we know she accompanied her employers for some period of time between 1885 (when Gladys Newberry was born) and 1897 (by which time Susan was married and had had her first child).

Susan with Newberry
Susan Christian with her employer, Harriet Newberry during their time in Madrid?

So somewhere in her European travels, Susan Christian met a sailor named William James Gee. Again, there are a couple of versions of this story. Betty Kurkjian was told that Susan and William James met on a crossing to France on a ship on which he was a Chief Petty Officer. Bill Gee tells the story somewhat differently: “I’m more inclined to believe my Dad’s story that she was in Constantinople with the Newberrys when the British fleet came into port and the crew was given shore leave. We can only guess what happened next ….”