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Carolyn Earle Billingsley (1948–2018)

Carolyn Earle Billingsley was a noted historian and author who worked to connect the fields of history, anthropology, and genealogy. The founding editor of the journal of the Saline County History and Heritage Society, she received the Booker Worthen Literary Prize in 2005 for her book Communities of Kinship.

Carolyn Earle was born on August 5, 1948, in Dallas, Texas. Her parents, Robert Shelton Earle and Lillian Jean Young, were both Little Rock (Pulaski County) natives. In 1966, she married James Lloyd Billingsley, and the couple settled in Alexander (Pulaski and Saline counties). They had two sons and two daughters.

Billingsley was a founding member of the Saline County History and Heritage Society and the first editor of the Saline when it began publication in 1986, and she served as editor through the March 1991 issue. After her children had grown up, she enrolled at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UA Little Rock), graduating in 1994 as a Donaghey Scholar. She studied at the University of Graz, Austria, as a Fulbright Scholar for two years and then pursued doctoral studies at Rice University, where she earned a PhD in American history and anthropological kinship theory in 2001. During her studies, she co-authored with Desmond W. Allen the books How to Become a Professional Genealogist and Beginner’s Guide to Family History Research (both released in 1997) and published articles in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly and the East Texas Historical Journal.

Her doctoral dissertation was published in 2004 as Communities of Kinship: Antebellum Families and the Settlement of the Cotton Frontier by the University of Georgia Press. A multi-generational study of a single family, the Keesee family, from the colonial period into the nineteenth century, the book examines the extension of the cotton kingdom from Virginia and the Carolinas west into Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas as a process of kinship migration. Billingsley offered the thesis that the settlement of the Old Southwest and the pushing of its cotton-dominated slave economy westward occurred largely via the migration of kinship networks.

Communities of Kinship was well received, with a number of historians noting its significance as a methodological bridge connecting the fields of genealogy and history. As Robert Kenzer of the University of Richmond noted, “Her focus on a single family and its thousands of descendants not only traces the role kinship played over an extended period of time and over an extended area, but also provides a valuable methodological bridge between genealogists and historians.” James D. Miller of Carleton University wrote, “Her case for the extensive character of the kinship connections and patterns that helped frame the lives of the white southerners is persuasive, as is her argument that serious genealogical work can effectively reveal connections and patterns likely to remain hidden in other kinds of historical research.” In 2005, Communities of Kinship was awarded the Booker Worthen Literary Prize.

Billingsley taught as an adjunct faculty member the history department at UA Little Rock, served on the board of directors of the Association of Professional Genealogists in 2008–2009 and the Arkansas Genealogical Society from 1989 to 1996 (including serving as board vice president in 1989–1990 and president in 1991–1993), and was course coordinator for the Research in the South program of the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research from 2007 to 2010.

Billingsley died on January 2, 2018, and she is buried in Pleasant Grove Cemetery.

For additional information:
Billingsley, Carolyn E. Communities of Kinship: Antebellum Families and the Settlement of the Cotton Frontier. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004.

Miller, James David. “Review of Communities of Kinship.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 64 (Winter 2005): 434–435.

Obituary of Carolyn Earle Billingsley. Saline Courier, January 4, 2018. Online at http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/bentoncourier/obituary.aspx?n=carolyn-earle-billingsley&pid=187746469&fhid=40002 (accessed January 31, 2019).

William D. Lindsey
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated 1/31/2019

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