Genealogy research still painstaking stroll through paper records

Genealogy research still painstaking stroll through paper records
Carol Clay, Barry Sweetman, Liz DuClose and Alana Masters

More than 50 years after its founding, the Southern Genealogist’s Exchange Society isn’t as finicky about its membership. In fact, the Westside-based nonprofit opens its arms to anyone who wishes join and to volunteer their organizational and research skills.

On Sept. 20, 1964, a typewritten letter was sent by Aurora C. Shaw to a “select group” to organize the Southern Genealogist’s Exchange Society, whose purpose was to promote “genealogical endeavors in an area where there is none at the present time convenient to us,” and to hold workshops and classes in genealogy. Shaw also proposed to gather genealogical books, magazines, and materials in conjunction with the Jacksonville Public Library.

Shaw, who lived on Oak Street in Riverside, was a professional genealogist and began publishing “The Southern Genealogist’s Quarterly” in 1957. Learning of like-minded residents, Shaw organized the society, which began Oct. 5, 1964 and had 11 people at its first meeting in the Blue Flame Room of the Florida Gas Company. The society’s founder was 85 when she passed away in 1999 in Littleton, Colorado.

Typewritten invitation to join the Southern Genealogist’s Exchange Society from its founder, Aurora C. Shaw, noting the invitation was being extended to a “select group.”

Typewritten invitation to join the Southern Genealogist’s Exchange Society from its founder, Aurora C. Shaw, noting the invitation was being extended to a “select group.”

Liz DuClose joined the society around 2011 because she had “a huge pile” of family books to donate to its library and to research her own family history. A graphic artist, DuClose helped produce the society’s newsletter through December 2017. DuClose was born at Riverside Hospital, then the family moved to Lakewood, where she attended San Jose Elementary School. She was in the last graduating class of duPont High School, now a middle school, and moved to her Herschel Street home in 1990.

Despite the popularity of DNA testing, documenting one’s ancestry still requires a paper trail. Lakeshore resident Alana Masters became a member two years ago after DNA testing determined she did not, in fact, have any Cherokee Indian ancestors as she had been told. “It made me start digging and I wanted to learn how to research,” she said. “There was a book here with a paragraph that helped proved the death of a fourth or fifth great-grandfather who I had no evidence of except for disappearing off the census records.”

Volunteer Barry Sweetman has been doing ancestry research for the past 30 years, tracing his wife’s family of Baker County, Florida from Virginia in 1640, and has advice for beginners.

“An important step in starting the process is to write down everything, even if it’s family lore, because it may lead you in the right direction even if you can’t prove it,” said Sweetman, whose own family goes back to England before the Norman invasion in the 11th century.

Board member Carol Clay has been involved for four years and was a close personal friend of the society’s former longtime president, Jon Ferguson, who encouraged her to help with administration. Through Ferguson’s twin brother, James, who lived in North Georgia, Clay was able to meet relatives there and trace back nine generations of her mother’s side, the Earnest family from Heidelberg, Germany.

After the society and its materials outgrew its storage space, an optometrist on Blanding Boulevard offered a small unit for lease and there the society began amassing genealogy books and newspaper obituaries for its own library. After outgrowing that space, the society purchased a 1,500-square-foot house at 6215 Sauterne Dr. in 2000 for $57,500.

Visitors to the Southern Genealogist’s Exchange Society will find in nearly every room a warren of shelves containing more than 7,000 volumes of books from around the world, including genealogies, one-of-a-kind family history books, maps, newspapers, publications, immigration records, military records and more.

Aspiring genealogists can also look at the archives online, but “true researchers understand it’s not all online,” said Clay. “They know you have to have documentation to prove the line and the connections. We have so many books, we’re fortunate to have this amount of material.”

During the society’s 50th year, the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission recognized the nonprofit with a preservation award in 2014 for its devotion to “preserving Southern history through their collections, publications and internet resources.”

For more information on the genealogy society, visit or call (904) 778-1000.

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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