When I started my family research back in 1980, I thought that my family were all “good.” My impression from family stories was that my family was primarily Northern, English, Scottish, Irish, German, and New Amsterdam Dutch. That meant that they were always on the right side of history, they fought for the North. They could not have been enslavers.
With the advent of online genealogy services, most particularly Ancestry, I learned differently. As my research methods became more standardized and sophisticated, I learned to skim away the dross of other people’s unsourced trees and pay attention to the real, solid historical record. What I found was dismaying.
I have ancestry deep into both sides of my family, from both the North and the South, that enslaved other human beings.
This realization was, initially, completely shocking. I remember finding my first enslaving ancestor, or rather, the first evidence that I had an enslaving ancestor, when researching Richard Chenoweth of Kentucky. I didn’t know what to do with that information in terms of my own psychology and emotions. And I absolutely didn’t know how to make that information available to black researchers who might well be descended from Richard Chenoweth.
As I researched him, I realized that it’s probable that Richard Chenoweth had children by forcing himself on enslaved women. He certainly had a lot of children by white women in the neighborhood. These were referred to by his own wife and children as “cousins.”
For a while, I indulged in classic white guilt, which achieved absolutely nothing. I didn’t think to become activist about my enslaving ancestors until a few years later. I made that Chenoweth discovery in 2011. By then, I was already two years a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As a people, we are consumed by our genealogy. It is a point of interest, pride, and most important, a focus of worship.
As I continued to perform research on my own family, branching backwards and sideways (what I call “shrubbing,”) I came upon evidence of more and more slaveholders on both parents’ sides of my ancestry. My mother’s New Amsterdam Dutch ancestors left behind wills in which they gave human beings with names to their children, on the same page that they listed out furniture, land, farm animals, and other possessions that they would leave to their descendants.
It disgusted me.
In 2015 or so, I learned that my church performs genealogical research on all “famous” people. On the FamilySearch website, owned and maintained by my church, there is a one-world family tree – with one electronic representation of every person who lived on earth as its goal. So it’s easy to learn about Cary Grant or Marilyn Monroe, and even use tools to find one’s own relationship to famous artists, authors, and royalty.
Recy Corbitt Taylor, a woman who inspired Rosa Parks and Oprah Winfrey – as well as the author of this post. (1944 photo from the collection of Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University)
But it doesn’t work so well for researchers of color. Often, they are shut out of the fun because their lineage represents an entirely different American story. This angered me.
In late 2017, when Oprah gave a speech about Recy Corbitt, a black woman who prosecuted her white attackers when black women simply didn’t do that, I got curious. A search for Recy Corbitt Taylor on FamilySearch yielded nothing. This hero in Black American history had died recently, yet there was no trace of her in a one-world tree. She wasn’t important enough to my church to research her for this project. I became even more angry.
Anger drives me. It’s the energy that gets me up in the morning. My fury at injustice, my passion to set things right, this is what drives me. And this was an opportunity to research this courageous woman’s life, to do it correctly using best evidence and best practices, and place all of that data on FamilySearch.
After years of feeling frustrated, not knowing what to do or how to do it, I had finally found a way to raise up the names of enslaved persons in the United States.
In Mrs. Taylor’s case, this dated back to ancestors born in Virginia in the 18th century.
This inspired my primary work, what I call reparational genealogy.
In my own practice, reparational genealogy has a few prongs – one is free genealogical research and teaching for anyone descended of enslaved persons. I use best evidence and best practices to build an online tree in Ancestry, transfer the entire thing over to FamilySearch, and then, if the client wishes, I teach him or her how to do further research online. I give homework, lists of actions to take in brick-and-mortar institutions where records unavailable online are kept. And I serve as a lifetime research consultant to my reparational clients.
The second prong of my work is something that I do along with a few other genealogists who are interested in the work. We research victims of lynching, from 1619 to the present day.
The process is the same. We collaboratively research a tree as completely as possible using Ancestry and then cross it over to FamilySearch. More importantly, we next contact living descendants and let them know that this work has been done. If they need help, I teach them how to join FamilySearch, so that they can access their family’s data without having to pay a white-owned company for the tools.
The fact that genealogy is more difficult for African Americans because of the world that my ancestors created for them is shameful. I don’t feel guilty. I do feel morally bound to share all of the information that I can possibly find. This is why I have started a new blogging effort, #blog2020, in which I write blog posts on my own website documenting married couples who are my direct ancestors and who are proven to have enslaved other humans.
Furthermore, in my podcast, From Paper To People, I encourage other descendants of enslavers to do the same thing. There are a lot of ways to share data with African American researchers, but not many that aren’t dependent on Facebook. There are some terrific groups on Facebook that serve black researchers who are trying to trace their lines fully, including their European ancestry. One is called I’ve Traced My Enslaved Ancestors and Their Owners.
It’s a very good idea for descendants of enslavers to join this kind of group, and to provide names, dates, places and documentation of their enslaving ancestors. This assists researchers of enslaved ancestors, helping them to identify their ancestors, and their ancestral migratory patterns.
I encourage you to do the same. Find ways to share information about your enslaving ancestors on social media. Post on Instagram, Twitter, and in Facebook groups. Blog about your ancestors.
Approaching recreational genealogy with a reparational spirit can’t make up for what our ancestors did, but it can help researchers to stitch together that which was torn asunder.
It is social justice at its finest.