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Tell Us a Story

Tell Us a Story

An African American Family in the Heartland

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Shirley Motley Portwood


NLEB (Other formats: Paperback)
272 pages, 6 x 9, 24 illustrations


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About the Book

Illinois State Historical Society's Certificate of Excellence (2002)

Supplemented by recollections from the present era, Tell Us a Story is a colorful mosaic of African American autobiography and family history set in Springfield, Illinois, and in rural southern Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas from the 1920s through the 1950s.


Shirley Motley Portwood shares rural, African American family and community history through a collection of vignettes about the Motley family. Initially transcribed accounts of the Motleys’ rich oral history, these stories have been passed among family members for nearly fifty years. In addition to her personal memories, Portwood presents interviews with her father, three brothers, and two sisters plus notes and recollections from their annual family reunions. The result is a composite view of the Motley family.


A historian, Portwood enhances the Motley family story by investigating primary data such as census, marriage, school, and land records, newspaper accounts, city directories, and other sources. The backbone of this saga, however, is oral history gathered from five generations, extending back to Portwood's grandparents, born more than one hundred years ago. Information regarding two earlier generations—her great- grandfather and great-great-grandparents, who were slaves—is based on historical research into state archives, county and local records, plantation records, and manuscript censuses.


A rich source for this material—the Motley family reunions—are week-long retreats where four generations gather at the John Motley house in Burlington, Connecticut, the Portwood home in Godfrey, Illinois, or other locations. Here the Motleys, all natural storytellers, pass on the family traditions. The stories, ranging from humorous to poignant, reveal much about the culture and history of African Americans, especially those from nonurban areas. Like many rural African Americans, the Motleys have a rich and often joyful family history with traditions reaching back to the slave past. They have known the harsh poverty that made even the necessities difficult to obtain and the racial prejudice that divided whites and blacks during the era of Jim Crow segregation and inequality; yet they have kept a tremendous faith in self-improvement through hard work and education.



Shirley Motley Portwood is a professor in the Department of Historical Studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.


“Portwood has proved once and for all that some historians are indeed masterful storytellers… Portwood’s work adds much to the growing discourse on the African American experience during the era of segregation. Simply put, it’s a must-read.”—Journal of the Illinois