The Process

Yay, archival research! Readings books and getting a feel for context is great, don’t get me wrong, but my favorite part of the project has been exactly what this post will be about: The Archival Research *cue ecstatic music*. I’ve been using databases like, Google Books, and most frequently of all Readex, which provides me with newspaper articles. 

There are scads of different spaces online to find information about a person, so it’s important to look at as many as you can and research as many different variations of a person’s name as you can. It’s been a lot of fun so far, despite a few setbacks. There’s a lot of detective work that goes into thoroughly looking someone up online. Take last names, for example. A woman’s maiden name is just as important to research as her married name. Initially, researching her maiden name with her first name is important, but after a marriage occurs, you’ll also need to search her first and married name, as well as terms like “Mrs. *insert husband’s name here*”. Going further than that, did she marry more than once? Did she go by her middle name at any part in her life, or perhaps a nickname? There are so many different names to search.

Washington Herald, Washington, District of Columbia, January 21, 1911, pg. 2

After finding all the information on the person as I can, using several different variations on their name, I then start searching for information about their family. Take Helen Moss, for example. She had died at just 23 years old, less than a year after her graduation from the Washington Conservatory of Music. Her mother was the only person listed in her funeral announcement in the papers, so I looked her up on Here, I found out that her husband (Helen’s father) had died around 1893, and that she raised Helen and two other daughters alone. Both got of Helen’s sisters married, and one of them, Evelyn, named her daughter after Helen, likely because of Helen’s early death. It was a touching piece of information that I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t looked into

United States of America, Bureau of the Census; Washington, D.C.; Seventeenth Census of the United States, 1950

her family. The meticulous searching can be tedious, yes, but I’m having a great time being thorough and trying to look under every possible stone and pebble.

The Fruits of my Labor

Helen Moss

I’ve started research on seven graduates of the Washington Conservatory so far, but I’ve only finished looking into one of them: Helen Ann Moss, who I mentioned previously. I’m sure you never would’ve guessed, but lots of people had the same first and last names back in the 1900’s. It’s crazy, I know, but it’s a fact I’ve had to come to terms with many times in my research so far. A first, slightly less aggravating example of this is Helen. A young woman who grew up in Washington D.C., Helen Moss, a 1910 graduate of the Washington Conservatory of Music, seems to have never left the city. But before I knew that (or was positive she grew up in Washington D.C) I was so excited to find loads of newspaper articles about Helen Moss from Annapolis, Maryland who lived on Shipwright street. Helen of Annapolis was very popular, visiting friends in different states,

Baltimore American, Annapolis, MD, December 8, 1907, pg. 33

attending surprise parties, and going to social functions with midshipmen. I knew that her graduation announcement lists her as being from Washington D.C., but I was confident that her and her family could have moved to D.C. when she started school, or maybe she had family in both cities and moved back and forth between the two. I continued on in my search. I went through a lot of articles that mentioned her and her exploits before finally I reached articles from years after 1911. Now, at first this seems to be a completely arbitrary year. But when investigating Helen Moss of Washington D.C., I found an article that invites the public to her funeral in January of 1911. This meant that Helen Moss of Annapolis, who’s articles extend beyond 1911, could not be the one I was looking for. So the 13 articles I had found up to this point about Ms. Moss from Annapolis weren’t relevant to my research at all. A major setback!

Kate Smith

Cumberland Evening Times, Cumberland, MD February 24, 1933, pg. 10

You would think that I learned from this experience and wouldn’t make the same mistake again–but you’d be wrong! I also researched a woman named Kate Smith. Kate Smith was a wildly popular name in the early 1900’s, but I was confident that if I only looked at articles from her home state and Washington D.C., I would mostly be looking into the correct graduate. I couldn’t have been more incorrect. While looking into Washington D.C.’s Kate Smiths, I was seeing a lot of articles about a radio personality. She was a contralto who sang the blues and played traditional songs from the South. With my 1913 graduate Kate Smith being from Arkansas, I was sure I had found the right woman. Nicknamed “The Songbird of the South”, I got excited when I saw that she had appeared together with the Ink Spots. I knew that this group was popular at the time, (thanks, grandpa) so I figured if I looked their two names up online I might find pictures, or more information that didn’t make it into that article I was reading. That’s when tragedy struck. I found out that Songbird Kate Smith, who I had just spent all morning researching, was a white woman born in 1907. I had gotten so excited as I was reading through tons of articles, sure that I had found a jackpot of information about a Washington Conservatory graduate who had led an extremely public and successful life post-graduation. But, it was not to be. I was back to square one. Now I’m back to debating if the articles in Washington D.C. from 1894-1898 are about another Kate Smith, or if they really are about her. Given that her commencement announcement places her hometown in Arkansas, and that there seems to be a third Kate Smith in Washington D.C. who married into the name and also sang, I’m thinking it’s probably not.

J. Cleveland Lemons

But don’t worry! My newspaper research has not been all failures! There have been plenty of other successes, J. Cleveland Lemons being my favorite. Because he’s a man with an uncommon last name, it was far easier to find (correct) information about him. Post graduation, he started up the Columbus, Ohio branch of the National Associations of Negro Musicians (then known as the National Association of Colored American Artists and Musicians). At the same time, he was playing organ for his church. He became a professor of organ, piano, and voice and taught many students. His wife was in the Program Committee for NANM in later years as well. For more in-depth information on Lemons, take a look at my post detailing his reconstructed biography!


I’ve compiled all this information from the seven graduates I’ve researched (birth/death dates, draft registration cards, newspaper articles that mention a graduate, house addresses, etc) into spreadsheets that we’ll later create maps with. I’m very excited to see how all of these spreadsheet cells look on a map in ArcGIS, something I and my team will produce later on in the summer.