A Genealogy Researcher Looks in the Shadow of Louis Armstrong’s Fame and Finds His Family History

Louis Armstrong was a wonderful, famous musician. His genealogical roots run deep. Our RecordClick genealogy researcher Joan Shurtliff finds lots of questions about his ancestors’ details because when you’re famous, the family sometimes remains in the shadows.

Every genealogy researcher has one some place–the shadow family member who appears briefly and then disappears. The online exhibit Hidden From History – Unknown New Orleanians on the Louisiana Division/City Archives web site piqued the imagination of this RecordClick genealogist. And the wonderful jazz musician Louis Armstrong came to my mind.

With a career that spanned several decades, Louis Armstrong has had a tremendous amount written about him. In the sleuthing of this professional genealogist, of course, the question of those who were in the shadows of his life came to my mind: Who were the members of his family?

Louis Armstrong died in July of 1971 in New York and is buried in Flushing Cemetery, Queens County, New York. His wife, Lucille, died in 1983. He wrote an autobiography, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, published in 1954. That’s a good amount of information for a genealogist to begin the search.

New Orleans was filled with sensory experiences in 1910. There was food, music and the grand Mississippi River, with its boats and cargo. Louis Armstrong, born in 1901, took it all in. Until Louis made his mark in music, he and his family were the “Unknown New Orleanians”. For the family history researcher, that is a challenge.

Biographical information says that his parents were William Armstrong and Mary (Maryann according to Louis) Albert. The couple had two children – Louis in 1901 and Beatrice (also known as Mama Lucy) in 1903. In his autobiography, Louis lists his family members as: father, William Armstrong; step-mother Gertrude; their children Willie, Henry and Gertrude; his grandmother Josephine Armstrong; and a number of cousins. His father worked in a turpentine factory. Grandmother Josephine Armstrong did laundry. According to Armstrong’s biography, his mother brought home a number of “step-fathers”.

A good genealogy researcher will look for information that verifies facts. Working with collateral lines is a big help. Louis’ sister, Beatrice, died in 1987. Her obituary in the New Orleans Times-Picayune (13 Jan 1987) lists her as the daughter of Mr. Willie and Mrs. Mary Ann Armstrong and the sibling of Willie, Henry, Selina and Louis Armstrong. From a records standpoint, this genealogy researcher finds that there is no indication that William and Mary Ann Armstrong ever were legally married.

Famous as he was, his family was quietly behind the scenes and our RecordClick genealogist finds them

Famous as he was, his family was quietly behind the scenes and our RecordClick genealogist finds them

Although family members seem to come and go, mother Mary Ann and son Louis can be followed in the census. Ward 3 and Perdido Street in New Orleans was a large part of their world. In 1920, they were boarding at 1408 Perdido Street. Mary Armstrong was 37 and Louis, 19. Mary lists her occupation as a cook for a private family while Louis was a musician in the theater. When he registered for the WWI draft, he lived at 1233 Perdido St. The 1910 Census is interesting. Mother and son are living in Ward 3 at 1303 Perdido Street. The household:

  • Lee, Thomas; head; 24; laborer, schooner.
  • Albert, Mary; companion; 25; laundress, at home.
  • Armstrong, Louis; son; 8.

This professional genealogist hasn’t been able to locate census records with which I am satisfied that match Louis’ father and sister. His mother, however, was born in about 1885 in Louisiana. A check of the 1900 Census in New Orleans Ward 5, 2nd precinct finds:

  • Marshall, Rosa; head; b. Jan. 1845; widow; 55; b. Louisiana; Washerwoman
  • Albert, Mary; granddaughter; b. Jan. 1885; 15; single; b. Louisiana; Servant
  • Albert, Samuel; grandson; b. Feb. 1893; 7; single; b. Louisiana; At school
  • Albert, Sarah; granddaughter; b. Dec. 1893; 6; single; b. Louisiana

There is only one Mary Albert that this professional genealogist has found who fits the description of Louis Armstrong’s mother. More work by the genealogy researcher is needed, but Rosa Marshall could very well be the great grandmother of Louis Armstrong. The Armstrong and Albert families of 1900 most likely have links to slavery. For these families, manual labor occupations were the norm and there is little formal education recorded. While the family struggled to get along in whatever ways they could during his lifetime and before, Louis used his musical talent to move up the economic and social ladders. His intellect also broadened his horizons. He was able to provide insight into the New Orleans of the early 1900s and leave the world on a brighter note.

Our professional genealogists at RecordClick will find your hidden family member. We work with many resources including archives from everywhere. A RecordClick genealogy researcher will develop your research strategy, find the historic documents and explain it all.