Sunday, February 10, 2019

Family History on Film: An Oral History Project

I've been MIA for the past few weeks.

Work is - like always - busy; there's been travel with more on the horizon.

But my family history research has not been dormant! In fact, I've undertaken an exciting project.

Each year, family on my maternal side get together for a reunion that started decades ago to celebrate the birthday of my second great-grandmother Minnie Mabel (Hawks) Lumpkins-Barber. The reunion tradition continues - long after her passing - with the descendants of her eight children convening everyday in an online Facebook group and annually in-person at a Kansas state park.

Minnie Lumpkins-Barber (center) with her eight children at an early family reunion.

A Family's Matriarch

Minnie's life was emblematic of American history, rooted in the settling of the Great Plains. Born in a dugout on the Kansas prairie in 1881, Minnie was first married to John Lumpkins in 1897. Together, they had six children (of whom four survived to adulthood). Following John's untimely death on his 38th birthday in 1910, Minnie was left a young widow. In 1914, she married Joseph Barber and had four more children - all sons.

Minnie was the matriarch of a large family. Each of her children married and raised families of their own. Today, there are hundreds of living descendants.

In 2019, over 45 years after her death and nearly 14 years after her last living child passed away, Minnie's life story was becoming hazy. Time does that.

However, interest among her descendants about our shared family history remained strong. There was an appetite for the story of our ancestry. How could I tell it in a way that was compelling to younger generations?

New Technology to Tell Family History

Fortuitously, a small technical hiccup (after eight years of faithful service, my laptop recently died requiring me to buy a new one) gave me access to shiny new film-making software.

I had an idea for the family's Facebook group. What if I made short films that recounted both of Minnie's marriages and those of her children, and published them on the wedding anniversary? The script, narrated by different descendants, could succinctly introduce characters (family, really) who have long passed away, recall how they met and married, and introduce their children (helping the growing number of descendants identify their link to Grandma Minnie).

I plotted Minnie's two marriages and those of her eight children on a calendar and got to work connecting with descendants to draft scripts, and collect old film, photos, and documents. I also found talent (family members) willing to play my reindeer games record the script.

Coincidentally, Minnie's marriage to John Lumpkins - the one that began the family's story - occurred on January 6th. It would be the project's pilot. Lessons learned from the production of each film would inform the next.

Cue the House Lights!

On January 26th, the second film was released to mark the wedding anniversary of Minnie's son Vernon Barber.

This Thursday - Valentine's Day - will mark the 85th wedding anniversary of Minnie's son Marion Lumpkins, my great-grandfather.

Clearly, I'm not Spielberg. My purpose is to simply share our family's history using a different medium that may resonate and better stick with my audience.

The project is underway. Three marriages down and seven to go! It's going to be an interesting year, and one that I hope Minnie's descendants appreciate and learn from.

Have you made films to share your family's history? I'd love to see your concept. Please share your approach in the comments below.


  1. What a wonderful way to get others interested in your family history. The ladies who narrated these did a wonderful job. Even though they are not my family, I got goosebumps listening to them.

    1. Thanks a bunch, Cathy. I've been really pleased with how the narrations have turned out. For Minnie's children, I've made an effort to try and get a surviving child to participate. It adds to the experience to have an immediate member of that family recounting their parents' history.

  2. What is this software? I've made short film clips of photos for (3 so far) what would have been each of my Grandparent's 100th birthdays. I think through the loss of a computer I've used at least 2 different software programs. Yours are fantastic!

    1. Thanks a bunch for the praise, Laura. I appreciate it!

      On my old laptop I used Windows Movie Maker, which came pre-installed. My new machine didn't come with that software, so I downloaded a free version of Movavi Video Editor. However, after making my first film I discovered that the "free" edition stamped a watermark across my film. So I paid $40 for the personal editor edition, which I've been mostly happy with and has been pretty intuitive to learn to use.

  3. What an awesome idea! These came out beautifully.

    1. Thank you, Amy! I've been pleased with the end results. It's made me want to do more amateur film-making for my genealogy.

  4. You might have a business idea here....