Is Genealogy Racist?

“Is genealogy racist?” I typed into the search engine.

I had just received results from an ancestry DNA test. No surprises there — 99.9% northwestern European genetic heritage. I immediately wondered how many neo-Nazis use DNA tests to reinforce racism and claim racial purity.

As I typed my question in to the search engine that day, I was excited to find Coming to the Table. But it didn’t seem to apply to me. I come from a lower middle-class background: my ancestors were preachers, teachers, and laborers. None of my ancestors were slaveholders!

I later learned that I was wrong. Months later, once I knew where and how to look, I did discover slaveholding ancestors — among my working-class northern ancestors! But I didn’t make that discovery that day.

Image calls attention to a Resource Guide for White People in the study of 'Genealogy and Anti-racism.'

“Is genealogy racist?” I typed into the search engine.

I had just received results from an ancestry DNA test. No surprises there — 99.9% northwestern European genetic heritage. I immediately wondered how many neo-Nazis use DNA tests to reinforce racism and claim racial purity.

Continue reading “Is Genealogy Racist?”

Science May Enable Reparations

Reviewing a Book Review

beaconlogoA few days ago, I got an email from a friend who has become a leader in the field of researching African American family histories, up to and beyond the “brick walls” of slave lists that do not give names and the unwritten records of births, deaths and marriages. This email contained a link to something published by Beacon Press in “Beacon Broadside.”

With this double endorsement, I immediately clicked through.

alondranelsonWhat I found was Sharon Morgan’s review of Alondra Nelson‘s new book,  The Social Life of DNAfull of tantalizing information and pieces of Ms. Morgan’s own family research story. I learned that besides the documentary investigations she does so well online and in county courthouses, Sharon has long been researching DNA connections to her family’s roots in Africa. From Sharon’s overview of points in Ms. Nelsosociallifeofdnan’s book, I learned about an exciting and compelling new application of DNA research. The Social Life of DNA includes a discussion of how DNA profiles can be applied to making successful reparations claims.

Without hesitation, I bought the book!

Read the review.  Then read the book. And finally, come back here and share your comments!

 

Repairing the Breach of Slavery

What Linked Descendants Say About Making Connections Across the Divide

Reflections provided by participants of the December 2015 Coming to the Table conference call. Post co-authored by Sharon Morgan, Our Black Ancestry, and Prinny Anderson, Linked Descendants.

If you could have a conversation with a descendant of the people who owned your ancestors, or with a descendant of someone your ancestors owned, what would you want to say? What would you like to ask?

CTTT tree This was the starting point for a conversation when ten people recently gathered on a conference call sponsored by Coming to the Table — Bittersweet: Linked Through Slavery. The themes from what people shared on the call are presented below. Feelings – strong and uncomfortable — came up for everyone.

Continue reading “Repairing the Breach of Slavery”

Moved to Tears

Eva Robinson Taylor, courtesy Gayle  Jessup White
Eva Robinson Taylor, courtesy Gayle Jessup White

When I read Gayle Jessup White’s essay in a recent post on “The Root,” I had such strong identification with it that I was moved to tears:

Like most African Americans, oral history is my primary source for deep family roots. There are no birth certificates, marriage licenses or census records. Our great-great grandmothers, great-great grandfathers, aunts, uncles and cousins were items on manifests, bills of sale and plantation ledgers. Sometimes, our forefathers or their families owned our foremothers. This was apparently the case in my family. But I wasn’t to learn that for decades.

Like White, my forefather owned my foremother.  This oral history handed down in my family was confirmed working with my linked descendants.  It wasn’t so much the evidence as the experience of working with my linked descendants to uncover our shared history that was so meaningful to me as White so eloquently conveys. Click here to read White’s full essay.

Part I: Facing Slavery and Finding Amanda

This post is the first of three pieces on 1) how I discovered slavery in my heritage, specifically focusing on a woman named Amanda owned by my ancestor Thomas Jackson and his second wife Courtney Robertson; 2) what more that official county records tell us about Amanda’s life of enslavement and release; and 3) how I found and met one of her great great granddaughters in 1982, my first “linked descendant.”

*      *     *

Over thirty years ago, for my first sabbatical I set out to study pioneer women’s lives in Randolph County, Missouri. Having required my students to do extensive family history projects in a class on “The Social History of American Women,” I thought I should spend some time pursuing my own.  I was born in Missouri but we moved to California when I was eight and never went back, but still wondered about that place.  Because I was interested in genealogy, when my Grandma Neel died, I inherited her shoebox filled with locks of baby hair, letters, and obituaries so I knew the names of several generations of her people who lived in Randolph County. I wanted to know who these people were and what their lives were like.  I was particularly intrigued by the detail in the obituary of Courtney Robinson Jackson, my grandmother’s great grandmother who died from complications from a fall at  “74 years, 9 months and 20 days.”

In the course of examining the U.S. Censuses of Randolph County from the 1830s to 1870s, I was shocked to find out that ancestors of mine in this region of Missouri (which I soon learned was known as “Little Dixie” — hello!) had owned slaves – not on the order of Thomas Jefferson’s hundreds – but some of my ancestors in that time and place did own slaves, more on the order of five, ten, or fifteen people.  These particular ancestors were typical of white farming families in the upper South and Southern Midwest. Slaveholding for them was part of daily life, a legally sanctioned way to satisfy their labor needs in the effort to survive and “get ahead,” to make a yearly profit, and to accumulate even more property in a capitalist economy.  Slaveholding came with age and a modicum of “success” in large portions of this white dominated nation during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Continue reading “Part I: Facing Slavery and Finding Amanda”

Bittersweet Memories

When I was a small child, there was an old woman I remember seeing when we visited my grandfather’s house on the Southside of Chicago. She was extremely quiet, very tall (although slumped with age), with light brown skin and braided hair. My mother told me she was more than 100 years old.

Rhoda REEVES LESLIE (pre 1900 @ Opelika AL)It was not until I was a grown woman that I realized who “that woman” was… Rhody Leslie, my father’s grandmother. She migrated to Chicago in 1939 to live with her sons, Tommie Joe and Robert (my grandfather), after her husband of 67 years died in Alabama. When she passed away in 1954, at age 104, I was three years old. Too young to ever have a conversation with her, I do not even remember attending her funeral. And, until I became an adult, I had no idea that Rhody had been enslaved – along with her husband and mother.  Those in my family who knew her well say I remind them of her. A regal six feet tall, she smoked a pipe, swallowed an aspirin and downed a shot of whiskey each and every day.

Continue reading “Bittersweet Memories”