A Conversation with Morris on MDAH Genealogy Fellowships
Jackson’s Michael Morris is the Director of Public Engagement at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH). He was appointed to this position in June 2020 after serving as Director of Public Relations at MDAH. He joined the ministry about six years ago as a public information officer.
A lifelong resident of Jackson, Morris graduated from Calloway High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Jackson State University in 2011. While a student at JSU, he worked at the Margaret Walker Center and Fannie Lou Hammer Institute.
A member of the Mississippi Historical Society, Morris said he enjoys connecting Mississippi stories to everyday people, whether a Mississippian or a tourist visiting the state. “I love studying Mississippi history and sharing some of the most fascinating stories,” he said.
What are Mississippi Family Genealogy Scholarships?
“The Mississippi Department of Archives and History is offering 10 research grants of $2,000 each to assist individuals wishing to locate information related to their family history, using resources available at MDAH. Scholarships are brand new.
“This year, the Department of Archives and History’s theme is ‘The Great Migration’ and we are partnering with the Mississippi Museum of Art on The Great Migration initiative. The scholarships are part of a year-long initiative in 2022 to expand understanding of the Great Migration, which was the largest internal migration of people in United States history, and its impact on Mississippi and the nation.
How did scholarships come about?
“The idea grew out of work we did with our Great Migration Community Advisory Board. We created it in 2021 and met primarily on Zoom. The group is made up of individuals from across the country, from California to Chicago and Detroit They gave us ideas of things we could do to spread awareness about the Great Migration.
“We started talking about barriers to genealogical research. One of the problems is having the necessary funds to come and do research. We started to think about how to remove this obstacle. Our board thought the scholarships were a good idea.
Who can get one of the scholarships?
“We are looking for regular, everyday people who want to research their family history. You must be 18 years old and have family ties to Mississippi to qualify for one of the scholarships.
“Scholarships require an application process. For more information, go to mdah.ms.gov/greatmigration.
“Our selection committee is looking for families that we can help research their history. We want to match people’s needs with the resources in our collection.
“The deadline for this round of applications is January 18 at 5 p.m. We have already received 150 applications from individuals in Mississippi and across the country since the program was announced in late December. Due to overwhelming public response, we hope to announce next summer that we are accepting applications for additional family scholarships.
What can the $2,000 allowance be used for?
“The stipend may be used to cover travel, accommodation, and other expenses incurred during the researcher’s stay at MDAH, such as the cost of copies.”
Are you surprised by the response you have received so far?
“Yes, we were surprised. Luckily for us, there were people on social media and Twitter sharing scholarship information with their audience. We have definitely spread the word.
When will individuals know if they have received a scholarship?
“Our internal selection committee will meet and review the applications. It will take some time. We plan to notify each recipient at least four weeks prior to the date they offered to research. Selected applicants can schedule their scholarships during the months of February, April, May, June and July.
Why did the Great Migration take place?
“The Great Migration is the largest internal migration of people in US history and took place between the 1910s and 1970s. About 6 million African Americans went north. They did it for two reasons. They were fleeing the Jim Crow era, but they were also looking for job opportunities in places like Detroit and Chicago. Some members of my family are part of this story.
“It is important to note that a number of white people have also left Mississippi for job opportunities and the ability to live in new places. Many families who left still have strong ties to our state. The scholarships are an effort to bring them home and help them find their roots.
“We will raise awareness of the Great Migration and the importance of doing family history. It will be exciting to present the state archives. I’m excited about the idea of someone from Chicago who has never been to our state museums and introducing them to the two museums in Mississippi, the Mississippi History Museum and the Civil Rights Museum of Mississippi.
Does the MDAH plan to have programs focused on family genealogy scholarship research?
“We could have public programs where individuals are interviewed on stage about their experience. We hope to collect the oral history of each family. The advantage for MDAH is that it allows us to reach a new population of people in terms of collecting information for the archives.
“One of the things we’re doing is bringing the special exhibit, The Negro Motorist’s Guide to the Green Book, to MDAH in July. The Mississippi Museum of Art has scheduled the exhibition, A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration, from April 9 through September 11. They have exciting African American artists enlisted to show off their work.
“We’re partnering with the Mississippi Museum of Art in September to bring in a top speaker.”
Why did the MDAH partner with the Mississippi Museum of Art on the Great Migration initiative?
“Collaboration makes our two institutions stronger. I think we have a bigger impact when we do it together. I am proud of the work of Betsey Bradley, Director of the Mississippi Museum of Art, and her team.
How are the MDAH archives useful to someone who wants to research their family history?
“We tell people, ‘This is your state archive.’ We have documents dating back to the 1500s in our archives. These records are what people use to trace their family history. We have mainly government records and a number of pre-war Mississippi plantation records. If you have family who moved to Mississippi before Mississippi became a state, you will also find papers relating to when the French occupied the area.
“Our reference librarians are there all the time to help anyone who comes along. They work with researchers, whether they are experienced or beginners, throughout the year. We offer a genealogy workshop for beginners. I encourage anyone interested in learning more to go to mdah.ms.gov where there is a list of programs on our calendar. We charge a small fee for the genealogy workshop.
Why is in-person research necessary when so much information can be found online?
“A lot of documents are online, but there are a lot of documents that have not been scanned. You have to be there to see them. One of the things that our internal scholarship selection committee will do is to s make sure they select the families that we have the records to help.
What is the value of knowing more about one’s family history?
“I think tracing your family history can be a powerful experience. It gives a deeper understanding of your roots and gives a better sense of who you are. Many people do genealogy research in hopes of finding famous people they are related to.
“Many African Americans cannot trace their family history past the 1870s through the US Census, but because we have plantation records in our archives, they can go further.”
What impact has the TV show “Finding Your Roots,” which Louis Henry Gates Jr. hosts, had on genealogical research?
“No one has popularized tracing your family history more dynamically than Louis Henry Gates and his PBS show. It’s fascinating to watch him talk about family history.