Genealogy Workshop Illuminates Past

The Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, housed in the CALS Roberts Library, hosted its annual genealogy workshop on Saturday, October 7, in the CALS Ron Robinson Theater. The Butler Center has been hosting this event since 2002.


The expert speaker this year was Ronnie A. Nichols, a descendant of a Black Civil War veteran and a scholar of the American Civil War, focusing especially on the role of soldiers of African descent. A native of Little Rock, Nichols graduated from Central High School and then the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with a bachelor’s in art and a minor in American history. He holds an MFA from Otis Arts Institute of Los Angeles, California.

For more than thirty-five years, Nichols has served in the museum and public history field. He was director of audience development at what is now the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, director of the Delta Cultural Center in Helena-West Helena, and director of the Arkansas Commemorative Commission, which comprises the Old State House Museum and Trapnall Hall in Little Rock. Nichols is currently the proprietor of Nichols Consulting, which provides planning, research, and technical services in Civil War, military, and African American history for films, publications, and public programs. 

In 1997, Nichols organized and founded the Arkansas Chapter of Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, Inc. In 2014, Nichols was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Arkansas Historical Association, of which he is a lifetime member. Nichols and his wife, Dr. Sandra Bruce, live in Delray Beach, Florida.

The workshop covered several areas of interest to genealogists:

Session 1: Basic Genealogy 
  1. “Who told you?”
  2. “Where did you find me?”
Session 2: Research Materials from the American Civil War
  1. The Enslaved and the Confederacy
  2. The Ex-enslaved Free Blacks and the Union
Session 3: Photography—Visualizing Your Heritage: In Black & White and Color: “A picture is worth a thousand words!” But what is the picture saying? 
  1. Brief history of Black photographic images
  2. Explanation of the different types of vintage photographic images
  3. Advice on using your photographs to tell visual stories from the past
Session 4: Westward and Northward Migration—”The Warmth of Other Suns”: An overview of how enslaved and formerly enslaved people, particularly from Arkansas, were sent out to as well as traveled on their own to new and more promising locations west and north of Arkansas prior to, during, and after the Civil War
The Warmth of Other Suns
“I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown…
I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil,
To see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new
And cool rains, bend in the winds,
Respond to the warmth of other suns
And, perhaps, to bloom.”Richard Wright, Black Boy, 1945


Watch an edited video of the workshop here:


Rhonda Stewart, the genealogy and local history expert at the Butler Center who is instrumental in organizing the workshop each year, discussed how the day went:

“Our second ‘post-Covid’ workshop had strong participation on site and online through Zoom. There were sixty in-person and 103 participants online. Considering all the options available for the public to attend events around the city during a day of sunshine and cool weather, it was a good turnout; we had several of our regulars while also attracting first-time visitors. Several Little Rock Central High School classmates of our speaker attended in support of him. One visitor from Strong, Arkansas, met a Little Rock cousin she’d never met after exchanging family surnames being researched during conversations in a break.

“Our opening slide presentation included a tribute to Bill Adams, a longtime genealogy researcher and unofficial volunteer in the Roberts Library Research Room who left the research room one day and exited the world. His focus was northwest Arkansas, Tennessee, and the Civil War, and he assisted anyone in the Research Room with their topics of interest.”

One of the participants, Jackie Thornton, is studying for her genealogical certification and had this to say:

“It is always a good experience to meet experienced genealogists while learning from experts. CALS’s annual genealogy workshop certainly presented that opportunity. In addition to participants appearing in person, others participated virtually via Zoom. The keynote speaker, Civil War scholar Ronnie A. Nichols, shared a variety of helpful information for genealogists of all skill levels. In addition to discussing how to research ancestors who served in the Civil War, attendees learned about the best way to use family photos to document family history. This included photo restoration and colorization of black-and-white photos. Attendees also learned that military pension records often include information about the person’s parents, battles fought in service, and other details not recorded in other documents. It is even possible to find passport records, including passport photos.

“While taking a brief break, two in-person participants realized they were cousins. Rhonda Stewart said this has also happened during past workshops. If you want to give a meaningful Christmas present this year, you can spend quality time with a relative researching and documenting your family history. Resources at CALS are free; there is no need to pay for—use it for free at CALS. One of the most valuable gifts to share with your family is your family history. Once it is documented, it can be shared with family members to be handed down from generation to generation.

“Thank you, Rhonda Stewart, for suggesting Ronnie Nichols to be the speaker for this event, and thank you to the entire Roberts Library staff.”

Find CALS genealogy research tools here and many other Roberts Library resources under the Genealogy tab here. Visiting information for the Roberts Library is here. Subscribe here to receive newsletters and info. about upcoming events.




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