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Using Primary Sources to Explore Different Ways Families Come Together

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This post is by Sasha Dowdy of the Library of Congress.

December is here! It is the holiday season for many and thoughts may turn toward planning with family and loved ones. This already busy month is full of new experiences for me because I am a first-time mother to our adoptive daughter, 9-year-old Joy. We’ve had sweet moments mixed with growing pains and adjustments. Talk of family, especially the common assumptions about the biological makeup of families, can stir up many feelings.

In a classroom, this topic may open opportunities to talk about diverse constellations of families. Many of us seek stories that help us feel less alone; digging into family portrayals throughout history is one way to open the door to this discussion about the realities of family life. I found fascinating portrayals of adoptive families in the Library’s digitized collections, and below are some items to launch discussions.

Clark Griffith was a famous major league baseball pitcher, manager, and owner of  the Senators. His family consisted of many adopted members. What can you tell about this family from one photograph? What more would you like to know? How does this support or change your perception of a typical family? Encourage your class to learn more about the Griffith family and the role the adoptive sons played in Clark Griffith’s legacy.

Clark Griffith and Adopted Family, 1925


Mrs. Ella Watson, a government charwoman, with three grandchildren and her adopted daughter. Gordon Parks, 1942


Observe Ella Watson’s family. She is the woman behind Gordon Parks’ famous photographic echo of American Gothic.  What do you notice about this family? How is this photograph different from the photograph of the Griffith family?

A family of orphans. There is no father and no mother but the family is happy just the same. 1920

This photograph features a family without any adults. What do you notice about these children? What questions do you have about their relationships and their lives?  How might this family have created its own path? Direct students to the item record and allow time for them to read the full caption. What is the role of the American Red Cross in this family’s lives? Look into the stories of adoptive children through the lens of this organization.

Every family has its own story, which each member has their own power to shape. Exploring the stories of the families that are depicted in historical artifacts can not only help students discover the rich variety of families that have formed and re-formed throughout history. It can also help students become more accepting of the stories of the unique families that surround them, and more attentive to the stories of their own families. My goal is to continue sharing the story of our small family with Joy, and to keep her past family alive in her memories. I look forward to the ways our stories will spin and weave together.




Comments (2)

  1. One thing these images make clear is that what people by family has always included a wide diversity. Thank you for this thoughtful message at a time of year where so many dispersed American families reunite to celebrate or just to share time together.

  2. Congratulations Sasha and family!

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