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The Burnette Bugle.

The call came at nine the morning of April 29, 1999. It was our niece, Chris, from Chicago, telling us that her mother had died quietly during the night. Myrtle Bailey, my husband's younger sister at age 74, had battled hypertension with limited success for a number of years, but this event was an absolute surprise. Although her death was the precipitating factor that thrust me abruptly into the oral history arena, in truth, several meandering threads of my life converged at this time leading me to this place, at this time.

It all began earlier when an interest in genealogy led me to take a class at the local junior college, then join a newly formed organization focused on genealogy for black Americans. Next came the coordination of two reunions for the Burnett(e) family over a five year period, at the same time writing and editing the family newsletter, The Burnett(e) Bugle. Finally, the discovery of and participation as a panelist in Temple University's African American Family Reunion Conference, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, brought the circle to a close. Myrtle's death energized me and caused me to take the next step.

With the entire Bailey clan still in the city, I began to interview family members the day after the funeral. There were children I'd not seen in years, babies, grandchildren, and new wives I'd never met. So I introduced myself, or refreshed their memories, took out paper and pencil and went to work! Perhaps they thought I was crazy, but an older aunt is to be respected at all costs, thus the interviews went smoothly. I'm sure it helped to know that their biographies would grace the next issue of the family newsletter, and after a few cautious beginnings, everyone got into the swing of things. It was a very rewarding day for me, and so began a feature in The Bugle entitled "The Burnett(e) Time Capsule."

But with the 1999 family reunion just eight weeks away, I knew something had to be done to gather the biographies and stories of the three remaining elders of the Burnett(e) family. At that time, the only bit of family history in our possession was a 1981 audiotape of Mamma Minnie, matriarch of the family, (now deceased), recorded by a son and granddaughter while on vacation to the homestead in Arkansas. In the meantime, two older brothers had died, and tamely pictures were the extent of our archives. I immediately engaged a videographer, and letters (with guidelines) were sent to an older brother and sister requesting their participation in an oral history presentation scheduled for Saturday morning. To involve the children, I developed a short questionnaire and they were asked to interview an older relative from a different branch of the family prior to the Saturday morning program. Following the presentation by the family elders, the children spoke briefly about their interviews, followed by a snippet of personal information regarding school and hobbies.

Our cup runneth over! The Saturday morning project was the highlight of the 1999 reunion, and since that time biographies of the majority of the family have been recorded in the Burnett(e) Bugle. An excerpt from the Burnette Time Capsule reads:
   For this issue, The Detroit Burnett(e)s share the spotlight and were
   interviewed following Thanksgiving dinner, 1999, at the home of Blanche
   Thomas in Buffalo, NY. Although everyone was stuffed to the eyeballs, and
   the small children on a dedicated rampage, we got the job done.


And so it continues. As we travel throughout the country to family reunions, visits to children, friends and vacation spots, we have pad and pencil at the ready, and family know it is their duty to be interviewed for The Bugle. We have yet to capture and profile the Ohio and Dallas Burnett(e)s, as well as nephews in Colorado Springs, CO., Miami, FL., nieces in Maryland and Washington, DC, but we are headed to Baltimore in March, 2002, for the African American Family Reunion Conference, and those nieces know they are next on the interview list.

For the 2003 family reunion in Buffalo, New York, I hope to establish marathon interview sessions to obtain anecdotes from the older members of the family previously interviewed, and/or conduct an initial interview from the few who may have escaped the questions of the "inquiring reporter." To assist me in the planning of this grand scheme, I'm seeking assistance from an experienced professional, Mr. Michael Frisch, of S.U.N.Y. at Buffalo. Indeed, can all this be accomplished? Perhaps not, but we have to give it the old college try. To date, we have not been able to convince younger family members of the importance of interviewing the elders of their immediate family, and we're racing to beat the clock!

Beyond the Burnett(e) family, I have interviewed individual members of my family of origin, the Lowe's, in addition to several group sessions involving four elderly aunts. An 80-year-old cousin was interviewed just prior to open-heart surgery and a lengthy, complicated recovery. He died eighteen months later.

In August 2001, I held a reunion of male friends from my adolescent days. It was called "A Gathering of Old Men," giving credit to the 1987 book of the same name by Ernest Gaines. These old men (average age of 74 years) had, as boys, formed a social club called "The Webeloes." Of the initial twenty-one members, six remained, and four were in attendance. It was truly a trip down memory lane. Cocktails, dinner, a group interview, pictures and fond farewells brought the evening to a very satisfying close. Biographies had been collected via interview several months prior to the August gathering. Plans are underway to submit the project to the Afro-American Historical Association of the Niagara Frontier, Inc.

For 2002, interviews of "The Old Buffalonians" are in the planning stage. This was a committee of Afro-American senior citizens who twenty years ago organized and launched an extravaganza for long time members of the black community. Former Buffalonians came from near and far, including Hawaii and many of the Caribbean Islands to renew friendships and visit again with former classmates. It was an elegant weekend affair, requiring black tie and tails for the men and evening dresses for the ladies. We enjoyed cocktails, dinner and entertainment, followed by brunch the next day, when guests were encouraged to attend in African garb. Luncheons, parties, picnics, excursions and special church services rounded out the festivities. However, due to lack of interest by younger members of the community, as the committee aged and died, the gala was discontinued.

This celebration was an important episode in the history of black Americans in Buffalo, New York and it is my wish to capture the essence of the committee and the festivities before all have passed on. Then it's on to The Veteran's Project, with interviews of WWII soldiers from the Afro-American community, and here I am again, racing against the clock!

Georgia Burnette is a retired Nurse Administrator and Educator. She writes a monthly healthcare column for The Buffalo Criterion, the city's oldest Afro-American newspaper, and is writer/editor of the family newsletter, The Burnette Bugle.
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Title Annotation:practice of oral history
Author:Burnette, Georgia
Publication:The Oral History Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2002
Words:1202
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