This Started WAY Before Ferguson

If we’re going to open the door to dialogue about issues of race in genealogy, it’s gotta kicked wide open instead of just cracked.

This week, Pat Richley/Dear MYRTLE posted one of the most important genealogy blog posts that I have read in a LONG time. In “What Does Ferguson Teach Genealogy,” she addressed concerns made by my geneabud, George Geder, in a recent post he made to LinkedIn regarding the lack of speakers of color and topics regarding minority groups featured in the upcoming 2015 Legacy Family Tree Webinar schedule.

One of the most poignant things she said was:

“Last night, via cell I wrote to 13 eminent genealogists, most of whom I have known for many years. We have seen national and regional genealogy conference calls for papers come and go. I’ve sat in on society board meetings where annual conferences were planned, and it was like pulling teeth for someone on the board to obtain permission for an African American or a Jewish track. YES! This is happening in the supposedly enlightened 21st century. Regarding these 13 dedicated professionals, who happen to be People of Color, I wrote:

With each of you, I’ve witnessed first-hand the insights shared in your presentations. It pains me to see this divide, and I don’t know how to impart this to the typically European-ancestored program chairs for nationally-ranked genealogy conferences.”

I truly believe that now that someone of her stature is speaking out, the folks in charge will finally begin to listen.  If they are listening, I’d like to add a little seasoning to the gumbo that is being prepared.

Representation is a Start

I’ve been in the genealogy game for nearly 16 years. I’ve too witnessed people of color being marginalized when it comes to speaking opportunties at conferences, representation during online trainings/webinars, being passed over for opportunities to work on some of these “hit shows” the public is watching. Yes, that’s a big part of the issue, but it’s part of a much larger problem.

Let’s Be All the Way Real – This is Institutional

If you’ve been doing genealogy research for a while, you are well aware of the conundrum I refer to as “The Black Hole,” or the time period between 1881-1899 that does not have a federal US Census.  This affects all researchers from all walks of life equally. On the other hand, are you aware of the conundrum I refer to as the “The ’65 Paradigm?”

What exactly is “The ’65 Paradigm?” It’s that dreaded model that the genealogy community suffers from and has yet to get over or even fully acknowledge publicly.  It sounds foreign, but if you’re an African ancestored researcher, I can GUARANTEE that you have dealt with one, more, or all of the following at some point:

“Don’t Look There, You Ain’t In It”

You head to a historical or genealogical society library to do research. They’ve got amazing record sets but hardly any to NONE of them feature African Americans in them because the folks who indexed or compiled them didn’t find it necessary to include African Americans. This is even prevalent online when you find census or other document indexes labeled “WHITES ONLY” like we still have separate bathrooms, water fountains, or I’m still considered to have a lack of average intelligence based on phrenology.  We’ve existed in the United States since before it’s inception…but yet, on paper, based on what this society has, it looks like we weren’t here until AFTER 1865…or even 1965…it’s still a 65.

My Solution: While adding new record sets is fabulous, if a society, library, or repository calls itself progressive or inclusive, their board or governing body should consider allocating a certain amount of funds towards a diversity expansion budget or line item.  This budget would be used to update their older exclusionary records OR to obtain record sets that are specific to minority groups that exist in the U.S. Not only will it appear as though they care about being inclusive (which would likely help to increase membership), but it would also send a message to other similar groups that they need to get on the bandwagon.

For more on how the Cumberbatch descendants reactive negatively to the depiction of their ancestor, Benedict, in 12 Years a Slaves, visit this link.

“I’m Proud of My Ancestors, But They Could NEVER Be Your Ancestors Too”

You’re hot on the trail of a former slaveholder. Through oral history and DNA testing, you’ve discovered that a former slaveholder is ALSO your ancestor or what I call a “slavecestor.”

Soon, you start to dig for info on this slavecestor online and you find trees and/or DNA results galore from adoring descendants who could be or are your relatives. You reach out to some to see if they know of any family papers or documents that could possibly name your formerly enslaved ancestors or mention slaves. You either:

  1. get a bounced email,
  2. receive a reply that states that no records exist even though you’ve found evidence online that they DO but they just don’t want to share it with you as a descendant of the formerly enslaved and they share eagerly it with other adoring descendants,
  3. receive a reply that states that their ancestor did own slaves but it was impossible for them to have fathered any children with them, or;
  4. receive a flat out denial that you’re related even though the two of you have clearly spit your own saliva in a tube, sent it off to a lab who has analyzed it, computed results back and sent them to you, and the both of you are ALREADY reaching out to other discovered relatives using the SAME results.

My Solution: Slavery is hard topic. I get that. But guess what? There is no way that we who are living now know the reasons, motivations, etc. of why a slavecestor (either male or female) engaged in sexual contact with our ancestor of African descent. Yes, it could have been rape. It could have been a legitimate love affair. They could have been “cut buddies” or even, a perhaps a Alfre Woodard situation from 12 Years a Slave. Regardless, none of us chose our ancestors or the DNA they left us. The best thing we can do with the situation is to be real about it, help each other as research buddies, and decide from there what we want to do. The information is ALREADY coming out and as DNA testing gets more popular and it’s going to get even more crucial we move past this.


Taxation Without Representation

So, you’ve moved from just being in front of your computer doing research and connecting with other family history researchers online and you’re now attending conferences.  Awesome! You check out some of the larger ones and they have absolutely NO classes or tracks geared toward African American research. Like none. But yet, they’ve got tracks and classes on things such as German, Polish, Jewish, Dutch, or maybe even Alaskan (know that I’m joking here) research.

Perhaps you ask some of the planners why this is. They’ll usually say

“Oh, we USE to, but the turn out just hasn’t been good so we did away with it.”

Or, let’s be REAL and get to the bottom line: if there aren’t enough of us paying to attend which increases the planner’s income generation, there’s no need to even look at or address a minority community. I mean, there just “isn’t the audience, right?”

My Solution: If you are in charge of planning a conference, you NEED to have if not tracks at least sessions for people of color.  Period. It is absolutely unacceptable to call yourself a premiere organization or consider yourself one of the industry’s front runners if you are not doing this at this point. There is NO excuse.  Many can’t say that they “just don’t get submissions for speakers” either. You ARE getting submissions, but it appears as though you are just placing them in the garbage in favor of doing something else.

I speak at conferences that have attendance that is 95% people of predominately European descent, but that doesn’t mean that all the attendees at my sessions are African American. I have A LOT of researchers who appear predominately European who have African American ancestors. There are also session attendees who have bi-racial grandchildren or families with a plethora of racial backgrounds who want to be knowledgeable about conducting genealogy research those backgrounds as well as their own. We all come together to learn together.

One of the MAJOR issues I see is the lack of advertising that some of these organizations do to attract persons of color to their conferences. I notice that some of them partner with major names in the industry to have them serve as official bloggers at the conference, perhaps footing the bill for registration, travel/accommodations, and more so they can get these luminaries to speak positive about their event and thus drive more foot traffic that way.  I have seen VERY FEW of these conferences do this with folks of the same caliber who are people of color in the industry.

You can’t simply sit here and tell me there is no market. That’s a crock. (Sorry Ma LOL) There are nearly 21,000 people in Our Black Ancestry on Facebook. There are over 6,300 in the AfriGeneas group. There are over 8,800 in the DNA Tested African Descendants group. Combined, that’s a total of 36,100 people just between those three groups. And that’s JUST on Facebook.

You can’t sit here and tell me that we don’t spend money.  If our buying power is supposed to reach $1.1 trillion next year, we DO have money to spend, especially when it comes to television viewing and mobile phone usage, as the article suggests.

Bottom Line: If the genealogy community at large remains silent about issues of racism that exist within it, it is in fact supporting exclusionary behavior.  Period. Recently, I’ve said that I feel like the public at large expects African Americans to remain in a “perpetual sit-in” when it comes to how we react to being marginalized or treated unfairly; expecting us to take being beaten, having coffee, sodas, sugar and etc. dumped on us and not reacting to it since the world has been watching re-runs of this happening to us for fifty years through news clips. It’s almost like it’s ingrained in the collective cultural psyche and our cries are “unjustified” or if we DO speak out or fight back.

My cousin didn’t willingly get arrested for integrating that Trailways bus station in Jackson, MS in 1961 for this. Neither did her sisters, or my grand uncle, or many other people in my family and those not even related to me who were killed or fought for years to end discrimination against people. 

What are practical ways you think this divide can be bridged in the genealogy community? Is it a lost hope or do you think we’re at a point for it to be really addressed? Sound off below.

6 thoughts on “This Started WAY Before Ferguson”

  1. Excellent post, Nicka! You’ve said it all. Now, we just need to decide in which direction to collectively put our dollar-power!

    Thank you for taking the time to so eloquently put all of this into words!


  2. Nicka, thank you for writing this article, expanding on the article that George (Geder) wrote. I am glad that it has been brought out into the open.
    I DO believe there IS hope and the genealogy community can work together to become inclusive. After George’s article, I also read one by Lisa Y. Henderson,
    and have seen yours. I had no idea that numerous submissions had been made in the past and only a select few were chosen.

    After reading your article, I sat down and came up with a list of 32 people of color who are more than qualified to present at major conferences and events!
    As I’m typing this, I can think of several more.

    I cannot think of a definite idea at this moment; however, if there is anything that any of us as individuals can do to assist, I would be more than happy to oblige. I feel that calling attention to the issue and opening lines of communication, is a first step. I have seen a post that Angela Walton-Raji posted, that leads me to believe that there will be changes made — that Geoff Rasmussen is working to have some webinars in 2015 which will involve people of color.

    I do have faith that this will happen and thank George, Lisa, you, and Angela for your voices.

  3. Thank You Nicka for being that VOICE for a lot of Folks who Research POC’s and Slavery. This was so on Point! It needed to be said. I’m all for all the advancements we are making but there is something to be SAID to the Overall Genealogy Community. I STAND firmly behind this. I’m still trying to figure out who the “Eminent 13” are? When I see on a daily basis over 20,000 people a day who are qualified in so many fields of research, food historians, re-enactors, different States and other areas of from A to Z topics, they all play a part of our Research and helping keep our History alive. So much has been destroyed and that gap from 1880 to 1900. WE have different research skills from the average American researching. There are so many things to be said. I hope to have more of a Discussion on this. All the money we spend yearly researching and by Products, Memberships. It has to mean something. I hope and I’m waiting to see WHO will put their Hand out and Welcome and Support what you said to make a HONEST CHANGE for 2015. Totally in Support of this. We need to be in the FOLD. Inclusion. Accepted. Without OUR History included, so many other’s History will mean nothing. They go hand in hand. One with the Other. Thank You for allowing me this Opportunity.

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