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Honoring Women’s History Month: Stories Preserved With Ancestral Heirlooms

Tanzy Ward

The powerful stories connected to our ancestral heirlooms are not only primary sources for studying history but also significant to our narratives. March is Women’s History Month, and preserving the materials connected to their lives is essential to protecting the legacies of the women we love and honor in history. We uplift their names, stories, and memories and study their journeys. Protecting the sentimental heirlooms belonging to women throughout history is vital to historic preservation and accurate representation. When we collect and preserve archival records of women throughout history, we can emphasize their stories without inaccurate distortions. For example, Black Victorian women photographed in their elegant dresses and jewelry debunks the exaggerated caricatures that plagued 19th and early 20th-century societies of Black women. It is essential to uplift their stories and memories; their sentimental heirlooms were a significant part of their lives.

Photograph of two unidentified Victorian Women and a 19th century Era sentimental sweetheart bracelet. Pictured on the far left is a memento mourning stickpin of a Victorian-Era woman; on the right is a 19th-century daguerreotype of a Victorian woman. Courtesy of Zanathia Jewelry- Tanzy A. Ward Collection 

Precious ancestral heirlooms are a vast and fantastic category. Yearbooks that showcase a woman’s academic journey, her wedding dress, the beautiful jewelry she loved to wear, the photos that emphasize her lovely smile and style, a journal that she wrote daily, a quilt she created, and any material that is connected to her life are all essential materials to preserve. If the memories that are part of heirlooms could talk or replay moments, imagine what would be heard or seen. Every woman living in a previous period or era is a significant part of history, and their fascinating collective defines Women’s History Month. It is up to us to preserve their legacies and meaningful stories.

 Photograph of an unidentified Victorian woman and antique and early 20th Century jewelry. Accessories courtesy of Zanathia Jewelry; Antique photo courtesy of Tanzy A. Ward Collection

Thankfully, there are many professional resources to assist with the research and preservation of family genealogy. However, everyone should consider themselves preservationists and archivists responsible for their ancestors' storytelling. Their stories and historical experiences need a modern storyteller. Modern storytellers are accountable for emphasizing their stories' accurate representation and narrative. If preserving their stories, we should also be gatekeepers of the material culture connected to their lives. 

As an African American historian, I am very familiar with the misrepresentation that has plagued Black Women throughout history. This is why updating the poster-child image of Black Americana is an important ongoing project for me. The poised and beautifully powerful antique photos I preserve of Black women are the opposite of what society tried to emphasize. Preserving their heirlooms is a part of authentic storytelling and celebrating the non-distorted image of the 19th and early 20th-century Black woman in history. I am honored to uplift and preserve the fantastic women in my family lineage and those of other family trees.

Photograph of an unidentified Victorian woman in an ornate gold frame. Photo courtesy of Tanzy A. Ward Collection. 


Photograph of two early 20th Century Edwardian Era women, possibly relatives. Photo courtesy of Tanzy A. Ward Collection 

When I preserve a portrait of a woman whose identity is anonymous, I wonder about her descendants and story. She is a significant part of historical events; her existence during a historical period means so much, yet often is not celebrated enough. In honor of Women’s History Month, we uplift and honor their important stories and legacies. If we commit to being gatekeepers and storytellers, their memories and precious heirlooms will never be forgotten or lost. 

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