Living in New York has proven to be more of an eye-opening experience than I could ever imagine. It has allowed me to gain immense knowledge through this fellowship, as well as from my own family.
My father’s side of the family resides in the Bronx; only a few stops away from Yankee Stadium. There is where my family has been for over five decades with three generations of Aviles children. Throughout my childhood, I spent many summers and holiday breaks traveling to the bustling city to see my grandmother and other family members. I admired the stories she would tell, accompanied by the many photographs lining her apartment. These special visits instilled in me a strong family connection and perhaps ignited my desire to research about the people and places she often mentioned. Recently while watching an episode of Dancing with the Stars, she told me about my grandfather auditioning for a dancing role in West Side Story in the early 60’s. I laughed as she continued to explain how he would practice the jazz steps in their apartment but ultimately didn’t receive a role. A story that seemed so distant and small to her, had captivated my interest in what other stories or people were in our family that I didn’t know about.
I decided to follow this interest and start an Ancestry.com account; something I have contemplated doing for many years. The website was fairly easy, prompting me to add my personal information to begin the lineage of my family. After entering my own demographics, the website provides “leaves” or “hints” to assist in finding other family members along your journey. Excited about the possibilities, I mentioned my findings when I arrived at the archives to Ricky Riccardi, Director of Research Collections for the Louis Armstrong House Museum. During our conversation, he stated that it would be interesting to see the lineage of Lucille Armstrong because there were many photos found throughout the house of her side of the family. I agreed and immediately began a separate family tree on Ancestry.com using Lucille Wilson Armstrong as the primary member. To ensure that the information I found was accurate, the website provides digitized Census Reports, Death Certificates, Birth Certificates, and other federal documentations.
Beginning with Lucille’s date of birth, hometown, and death, there weren’t many hints being added by the website. I then added Louis Armstrong as her spouse with his demographics and received many hint notifications. One after another, new connections were being made for Louis’ lineage including his mother, father, sister, and previous wives. Ricky helped me utilize the archive’s database to find the marital certificates for his previous wives and birth certificates of Lucille and her siblings. Although my quest was initiated by Lucille, I found myself falling deep into a rabbit hole of research as new members of Louis’ ex-wives’ families were presented.
Lillian Hardin was Louis Armstrong’s second wife from 1924 until 1938. When her information was added, it opened up a large amount of documents from her family. It was interesting to find that her father’s side had numerous white members who owned land in the south and also fought in the Civil War. Louis’ third wife from 1938 until 1942, Alpha Smith has been a mystery for researchers because her date of birth and death were unknown. As I uncovered more documents, I stumbled upon a Passenger List from 1932 for The Majestic; a ship traveling from Southampton, England to New York. Listed as passengers were Louis Armstrong, Alpha Smith, Mary Collins, and John Collins. Each name included their dates of birth, age, place of birth, and current address. According to Ricky, this document is essential because it not only shows Alpha’s date of birth but also Louis’ previous manager John Collins’ information. I was elated that I had discovered such pertinent information to Louis’ narrative and continued to dive into the resources on the website.
Uncovering this new information about Louis’ family has opened my eyes to the complexities of preserving my own heritage. Now more than ever, I feel a necessity to continue my search about my family roots. I want to ensure that generations after me understand where they come from and cherish their lineage. In the meantime, I will continue to work diligently on Louis and Lucille’s family tree. My hopes are that Lucille’s lineage will begin to blossom with more hints, helping to tell her narrative as well.