Putting it all together – Part 2: The brick wall starts to crumble

Putting it all together – Part 2: The brick wall starts to crumble

One of the all-time best family history interviews we’ve ever conducted was with Felice’s Great Aunt “Ann”. Ann and Felice’s Grandmother Delia were well known for being pretty crazy in their younger days. They were clearly free spirits who came of age about 20 years too early, and too deep in the bible belt. They would have fit well into the Summer of Love in 1967, or the singles bar scene of any major city in the 1970s. Neither was single, but that was never an issue for them.

By the time Super Bowl XV kicked off that night we knew we likely had identified Felice’s mystery Grandfather. We also knew that we were going to be changing a lot of family history.

Ann, who is now 82, has always been a kind, happy woman. Never out to hurt anyone, but never too concerned about what others thought about her ways. She told us stories about how she married her first husband, Luther White when she was pregnant at 13 years old. They only briefly lived together and she “made him stay in the streets because he was a whore”. Ann said he would come over from time-to-time and she’d “let him do what he had to do”, which resulted in them having a child every year or two. Luther’s parents supported her and the children, and they went on to have 9 children together.

Ann eventually moved out of the White household, and soon found a man to move in with. She explained that she needed a “babysitter” so she and Delia could go out and enjoy themselves, and this man fit the bill. Ann says that Delia might have been a little crazier than her, but they were clearly partners in crime.

 

Putting it all together - Transcript 2
Transcript of Ann’s family history interview

One of the more telling stories Ann told us was from when Delia was living next door to Ann’s close friend Lilymae. Lilymae’s husband Jack and Delia were having an affair, but Ann wasn’t going to get involved. She didn’t judge her sister. Despite being friends with Lilymae, when she got in a physical fight with Delia over the affair, Ann sided with her sister. Ann told her best friend she’d “beat her ass” if she touched Delia again.

That interview was playing through our head that Super Sunday as the theory that Luther was Mary’s father dawned on us. There’s no reason to doubt that Delia might sleep with her sister’s husband. And, if she had gotten pregnant by Luther it could explain why Delia wouldn’t put the father on Susan’s birth certificate. She said she didn’t know who the father was, but it’s likely Delia knew exactly who it was. Susan’s Grandfather didn’t want her to not have a listed father. He filled out the Birth Certificate, entered the name of the man who fathered Delia’s other two children, and life moved on.

Since Delia passed away in 1999, and Luther in 1994, there would be no first-hand confirmation of this theory. We had only DNA to go on.

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Purported photo of Roman and Mary (Stewart) Jones

From our interview with Ann, we knew only that Luther’s parents were Ira and Eula White, so we started there. The work we did in “Casting a Wide Net” pointed to Roman and Mary Jones as our target Most Recent Common Ancestor. We identified 17 DNA matches who shared the Jones’ as their MCRA. If the link between Roman and Mary and Susan was through Luther’s family, either Ira or Eula had to be a descendant.

We first mapped out that Ira White was the son of Pleasant and Cora (Gordon) White. The White family was in the Northeast Mississippi area around the same time as Roman and Mary Jones, but not in close proximity. Pleasant and Cora were both born enslaved, but we were able to establish both of their sets of parents. None of them lined up with what we knew about Roman and Mary.

We then shifted to Eula’s line and discovered her parents, Joseph and Sarah Moore, were living in the same County as the Roman and Mary at the same time. From our earlier research, we knew the Jones’ listed a daughter Sarah in the 1880 US Census, who was born about 1873. As we researched Sarah Moore we found her in the 1900 Census, with her birth date listed as November 1872.

Putting it All Together Part 2 - Tree
If we can prove Sarah Moore was born Sarah Jones, we can establish the match to the 17 DNA lines we’ve linked, and prove that Susan’s Father was Luther White.

We had a solid lead that only got more firm as we looked further. When we mapped out the 17 DNA matches using DNA Painter using the theory that Luther’s Grandmother Sarah Moore was born Sarah Jones, it all lined up as expected.

By the time Super Bowl XV kicked off that night we knew we likely had identified Felice’s mystery Grandfather. We also knew that we were going to be changing a lot of family history. Ann is still alive, and if we were right her children would learn their Father had an affair with their Aunt, and their cousin also their half-Sister. For Susan discovering her long lost Father was not going to bring the happy reunion, we’d hoped for.

But, our disruption of the family history would stretch further than we knew at the time.

Putting it all together Part 1 – Our biggest brick wall breakthrough so far started with a forgotten tweet, a LOT of work, and migraine on Super Bowl Sunday

Putting it all together Part 1 – Our biggest brick wall breakthrough so far started with a forgotten tweet, a LOT of work, and migraine on Super Bowl Sunday

Super Bowl Sunday 2019 started like most of our Sundays. Felice got her breakfast in bed, the kids all got pancakes, and breakfast was complete. I sat down at the computer with a nice cup of coffee hoping to kick the mini-migraine that was resisting drugs and enjoy a few hours of genealogy.

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The Tweet that broke open our mystery

As I sat down that morning, for some reason a Twitter post we’d made 7 months earlier about Felice’s mother “Susan” popped in my mind. Susan matched her 1st Cousin “Charles” with 2122 cM…enough that he was almost a full sibling. It was a head-scratcher. We’d tweeted out our confusion, and a follower explained to us that it might mean he was a “3/4 siblings”. 3/4 siblings are where the same person parents children by two siblings, for example, when one man has children with two women who are sisters. But the tweet came during a busy time and it fell out of our minds…until this morning when it hit like a lightning bolt.

Susan’s paternity was THE big “brick wall” of our family history research. The man listed on her birth certificate, Roger Homes, was likely not her father. Family history held that Susan’s mom Dealia had at least 1 of her 2 other children with Roger, but Roger was on Susan’s birth certificate because Dealia’s father him on there. He didn’t want his Grand daughter’s Father left blank. Family interviews had given us a couple of leads on Susan’s father, but finding “Big Ed” from a neighboring town in Mississippi seemed like a significant long shot. DNA was always our best hope to solve this mystery.

Going into that Super Sunday we had recently finished our series about the tools we used to go from a handful of Ancestry DNA matches to connecting them in a tree. In the “Casting a Wide Net” series (Link) we took a group of over 5000 matches to Susan that were shared between themselves and built them into a mirror tree. Ultimately we mapped out 17 of those DNA kits to each other and identified the MRCA for them and Susa.

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Susan’s tree, as we had it originally

In of our research, we’d noted Susan’s maternal cousin Charles also matched the 17. This led us to focus on her mom’s side of the tree to find the link, but the evidence hadn’t lined up with that theory. We ended the series without being able to establish the direct link between the MCRA and Susan.

As the computer fired up that morning, the tweet, the MCRA, and the unknown father all slammed together at once: What if the maternal cousin wasn’t only a cousin? What if Charles’ father was also Susan’s, and what if the 17 matches were on their father’s line!

We’d never built out Charles’ father’s line because he was an Uncle who didn’t feed much information into our line. We’d added his parents, so knew their names and not much else. We’d interviewed Felice’s Aunt “Ann” and she explained about how she’d married Luther White at 13 years old and almost immediately kicked him out. Despite that, he would still go on to father each of her 10 children while Luther’s parents supported her and her children, including giving them a place to live.

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Susan’s tree as we imagined it as the Super Bowl kicked off

I was shaking a little as I opened up Ancestry and started to build out the Father’s line. This theory perfectly clicked together, but if we were right we were about to be swimming in deep waters. It was always our hope to breakdown the brick wall of Susan’s paternity and to help her fill out the picture of her life. We envisioned a happy moment where we put to bed a lifelong secret and expanded our family tree. Now, this was taking a very sudden turn and we were likely unearthing a painful family secret.

All of this before my first cup of coffee on a Sunday…and little did we know at the time how deep this would go.

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net

In early 2018 we made a series of posts on how to use the multiple “Shared Matches” in AncestryDNA to narrow down the DNA line that connects you to them. The challenge was that often they have no trees, or small trees that don’t come anywhere close to matching your (much more complete!) tree.

This strategy was a way to use mirror trees to match them to themselves, which should indicate a Most Recent Common Ancestor for them, and in all likelihood to be your MCRA as well. For this series we broke down a large set of matches (5000+) to Felice’s mother, to try and establish her first DNA link outside of the immediate family.

There were all of the challenges we all face with African American genealogy (fewer family histories to draw off of, smaller trees, difficulty with 3x/4xGGP’s due to the “1870 Wall”, etc.), and in this series we found the MCRA…but we failed to find the link between them and our family. However, about a year later we broke through that wall, and we’ll be following up on that shortly. In the meantime, here’s the complete series in one page:

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 1 – A crazy, desperate idea

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 2 – Identifying all “Matches of Matches” as a Group

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 3 – Building a single tree using all of our DNA matches Public Trees

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 4 – Proving the matches, and establishing a theory of connection

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 5 – Rolling up our sleeves and doing some genealogy

Matching unmatched DNA matches by Casting a Wide Net, Part 6 – Our crazy attempt to leverage 288 DNA matches to expand our tree comes to it’s conclusion

 

 

Ancestry’s “Inseparable” commercial is racist and a perfect example of the how white America continues to perpetuate racism

Ancestry’s “Inseparable” commercial is racist and a perfect example of the how white America continues to perpetuate racism

Soon after Ancestry.com pulled their racist “Inseparable” ad depicting an antebellum African American woman being proposed to by a white man who offers to take her a place where they can be together, someone in the genealogy community whom we respect quite a bit got into a Twitter argument over the ad. The person who was essentially trolling our friend was both not American, and trying to be confrontational, so it turned into one of those Internet lost causes. After further reflection however, it got us to thinking about how could this controversy be explained to someone who didn’t understand it, but actually cared enough to learn.

For full disclosure, and clarity, the voice/pronoun we use in this blog is “we” because no matter who’s at the keyboard, in a house full of children it’s a team effort when one of us gets 3 hours to put together a blog post. Plus, this is our journey as a family. But today, this is written by Michael’s father, a white American raised and living in the Midwest. This is written from this one person’s perspective, education, experience, and opinion.

Racism v. bigotry

Anyone who doesn’t understand the complete offensiveness of “Inseparable” is likely white. This is both understandable, and a huge barrier to any discussions about race in the United States. People identified as white in US have both a blind spot on race, and a defensiveness, which combines to make it almost impossible to discuss constructively. Their defensiveness is largely because they don’t have hate/prejudice in their heart, and thus they can’t imagine anyone else does. This seems like the culmination of the little black boys and little black girls being able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers, but instead the myopia of “I don’t see race, so there is no racism” is a corrosive force in American society.

Racism is much more about the systematic exclusion of African Americans from majority American culture, and the systems of maintaining that exclusion.

What is often missed in these discussion is that bigotry isn’t required in racism, and well meaning white Americans can fully participate in racist traditions/concepts/assumptions/systems, without being bigots, and in fact without carrying any ill will against anyone.

Bigotry is not the same as racism, in that bigotry is much more about the active hatred/subjugation of races by people who tend to define themselves as being separate/superior to others. Racism is much more about the systematic exclusion of African Americans from majority American culture, and the systems of maintaining that exclusion.

These systems are so deeply embedded in the United States, they are almost impossible to be seen/understood by white Americans. However, the African American members of our family understand these systems of control/oppression very well. They are obvious to them. But even as a person who understands many of these issues, it’s impossible for me, as a white American, to recognize just how deeply and completely these systems are ingrained in our country. It will never be obvious to white people.

Understanding that racism isn’t about individual acts of malice/prejudice, but about the blind acceptance by white people of the systems/beliefs in American culture that prevent African Americans from full freedom and rights in this country, helps explain why this ad is so blatantly racist.

So, what’s wrong with the ad?

This ad was horrible on so many levels, even accepting how invisible racial suppression can be to white America doesn’t help explain just how completely stupid it was that “Inseparable” was allowed to see the light of day. There are so many ways to understand how completely racist this ad was, it’s hard to see it as anything but intentional.

Our first reaction on seeing it was that there was a 99% chance she was owned, and that not only could there be NO romance there, it’s almost for certain she was either talking to her owner, or her owner’s son. She had no power in this, no agency, no decision making authority. She could only be told what to do, not choose. Entering into a “relationship” when you’re property, when you’re a prisoner, is always rape. Even if she was a freedman, her rights were so limited in southern culture there’s no way she could make a free choice with an equal of hers. This situation is so unbalanced, it’s almost guaranteed to be a story of a powerful man who is forcing a woman into a situation she can’t refuse. The can be no romance here, there can at best be someone doing what they needed to do to survive while being equal to a mule in the eyes of this country.

These are just the most obvious points, and we could list probably 10 more troubling messages in this ad, and all of these should have been so obvious that the commercial never aired. However, it’s not the most damaging, disgusting aspect of what Ancestry.com put out there.

Ancestry played into the narratives put forth by bigots, and legitimized their bigotry

On reflection, this is the point that really drives home just how disgusting Ancestry.com was in releasing this ad. Since 1877 (the end of Reconstruction), there has been an ongoing campaign of oppression against African Americans in this country by groups who are sometimes very overt (Klu Klux Klan, governments, etc.) and sometimes very covert (United Daughters of the Confederacy). “Inseparable” may as well have been written by them both.

Racism is about the systems that exclude African Americans from society in profound ways, and this country has found ways since the first Europeans arrived on this land to ensure that exclusion. Even after over 600,000 soldiers were lost fighting the Civil War to destroy the institution of slavery, the South spent the next 100 years effectively re-instituting slavery, and the North did next to nothing to stop it.

Jim Crow prospered in no small part by the work of the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s concerted efforts to change the notions of what the Civil War was fought over. Soon after they were formed in 1894 they set out to soften and legitimize the treason of the South, and through their “Lost Cause” campaign sought to portray slavery as a benevolent institution that cared for people not as able as whites to care for themselves. They first made up the myth of the Civil War as a fight over “State’s Rights”, insisted that the war was not about slavery, popularized the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia as the “Confederate Flag”, and built 100’s of monuments to the heroic leaders of the Confederate cause.

This subterfuge has largely worked to soften the view of the South’s renunciation of the United States and our Constitution. There are serious conversations about the ludicrous notion of States Rights being a cause the South fought for, we all know the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia, and we have 3 times as many of Confederate monuments as Union in this country. This whitewashing of history continues to this day to influence and justify the mistreatment of African Americans in this country.

So, when Ancestry.com produced this ad, it was another brick in this revisionist, racist narrative that the institution of slavery wasn’t so bad. It further papers over the truth of how brutal we treated African Americans over our history. White men who were intimate with African American women were rapists. African American women who were fighting to escape North weren’t going with white men, they were going with their black husbands. These escapes weren’t for love, they were for their lives and the risked their lives. There was NOTHING romantic about these moments, and their were born not out of choice but out of the deep human right to be allowed to make choices to control their own lives.

But Ancestry glossed over this brutal reality and concocted a totally false romantic narrative. Instead of this powerful voice in our culture helping foster a conversation on the lingering effects of slavery, they chose instead to further this racist notion that’s been so doggedly pushed by groups like the UDC and the KKK: that the antebellum South was something other than dehumanizing. Their ad not played into this bigoted rewriting of history they helped further mainstream it, normalize it, and allowed even more people to minimize the impact of the brutality that’s continuing against our fellow Americans. We continue to have issues with race today because enough people can raise doubt on just how deep our racism goes, and Ancestry chose to enhance that doubt.

Ancestry made this worse by not apologizing

Apologies are pretty simple if you regret making a mistake. It has 3 parts: honest regret, ownership of your mistake, and a commitment to learn from your mistake. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done what I did, and it won’t happen again. It’s easy, but incredibly powerful.

Ancestry had a powerful chance to make amends, but they instead issued a very complicated non-apology apology. Instead of just saying they regretted their ad, they instead said “we apologize”…which is a clever PR way to make us think they said they were sorry. One makes an apology, but saying they apologize perfectly avoids any statement of regret. Ancestry then followed that up with the classic “[we] apologize for any offense that the ad may have caused” which both avoids any regret or ownership of their actions. They shifted the blame to us if we felt offense, and they dodge even more by only admitting their ad “may” have caused offense.

We’ve written previously about Ancestry is straying from their partnership with the genealogical community, as they transition to a data mining firm sitting on the largest collection of DNA tests on the planet. So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised, but that doesn’t mean we’re not disappointed.

Links:

Ancestry.com takes another step away from its genealogical roots…

White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism

Ancestry’s new ThruLines feature is both a “killer app” and the start of the future of genealogy

Ancestry’s new ThruLines feature is both a “killer app” and the start of the future of genealogy

It’s rare that we can spot trends emerging, but we’re going to take a quick victory lap this week because we saw Ancestry.com’s ThruLines coming. We called it out…twice! And now that it’s arrived it feels like the “killer app” for genealogical DNA.

One of our first posts in 2017 was a discussion on how the Ancestry “We’re Related” mobile app was not just a silly diversion (We’re Related app is a lot less frivolous than it first appears) because of how it leveraged predictive relationships:

If this technology is ever leveraged against some of my brick walls instead a gimmick like linking me to Blake Shelton, Ancestry might really be on to something.

Over a year later we bemoaned the fact that Ancestry’s first major use of these predictive algorithms was the “Potential Mother/Father” tool. It was poorly implemented and presented so much risk (Ancestry.com takes another step away from its genealogical roots…), but we saw the power in this tool, if used properly:

The good news is that we as serious users can avoid the downfalls, and use the predictive part of this feature to do the research for us, but we must immediately attach the citations to any newly added ancestor.

Ancestry has finally harnessed predictive technology in a very effect feature with the release of ThruLines.

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At it’s essence ThruLines a new graphical way to show HOW you’re related to your DNA matches. This is long overdue, and while the old way of clicking on a direct match and seeing the path from your kit to the most recent common ancestor (MCRA) worked, it was limited (we had to dig into each match with 3 clicks to see the path) and it was totally devoid of any context. Was there a brother of this tester that also matches? Did they have a 1st cousin that also tested that in-turn matches our tests? You just had to click through each test to find out.

 

But, the real power in ThruLines isn’t the graphical change, it’s that it’s using predictive algorithms to scour both Public AND Private trees, to greatly narrow down where another DNA match is likely to fall in your tree. That’s right, those close relatives we see in our “DNA Matches” screens that are just dead ends because they have Private trees and don’t reply to Ancestry messages are now likely to be mapped in ThruLines.

Our first discovery

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“Lynne” is solid 3-4th cousin match (67cM) to Michael’s father, and through all of the techniques we’ve discussed previously, we’ve narrowed down that our MCRA is likely to be Wesley and Jane Tradewell. This is the same Tradewell line that is one of our large brickwalls, and so the more data we have for this branch the better. Lynne entered a small tree at some point, but she left all of her named ancestors living, so they appear “Private” and we have almost nothing to go on when trying to link her to our tree.

 

When we opened ThruLines for the first time, we understood right away that each of the photos we were seeing were MCRA’s, and clicking on Wesley Tradewell, we immediately understood the power of this tool. There was Lynne, mapped for us, with some information still private but it greatly narrowed down the line through which we matched. Knowing that she likely matches through William Humphry Tradewell removed 2 generations of likely matches, and narrowed down our search to children from William’s daughters. Even more powerful however is that we’re in regular contact with family who is likely Lynne’s 1st Cousin, Once Removed. We sent a quick email to that person, they confirmed Lynne’s lineage, and we’d filled in another DNA match. Actually, it was two, because we had the same issue with “Jonas667” (2 relative tree, both living/Private), and it was resolved in the same way.

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ThruLines leveraged Private trees and DNA tests to map out our connections to a MCRA, even though we can’t make a direct match. 

All of our efforts to shrub out William Humphry Tradewell’s children had failed up to this point (no census, no obituaries, no Public Trees, etc.), so we had only one daughter tentatively identified. It would have taken significant work to break down the matches to Lynne/Jonas667 by building out each of those trees, and since we’d already tried diligently and failed, it might never have been done. But ThruLines broke through on the first click.

 

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We now know where to search, to validate how “lynne” links to us

Now, this is cannot be stated more clearly: ThruLines are at best speculative “hints” that can guide your work in very effective new ways, but they do not create evidence nor can we be sure they even contain proof of anything. They are like user trees in that manner…and for good reason, they are built entirely on user trees.

 

We expect one day brickwalls will be broken down by these tools while we’re sound asleep.

But the way the tool narrowed down these matches makes it much easier to prove them out. We know exactly where to start now, where last week we were stumped.

African-American Research

ThruLines-7Half of our tree traces their roots to enslaved African ancestors, and the second discovery we made was that ThruLines would give us suggestions even if there were 2 generations separating supposed ancestors. In the example we saw as we clicked through Michael’s maternal grandmother’s MCRA’s showed us an African-American GGM that was born in 1879, and no evidence of who her parents were. This is very common…to get to/near the 1870 wall for those of African decent, but no good leads on the generation previous. In this case however, we have a new hint: two identified generations of European ancestors, and two unidentified generations after them, leading to a link to the known Fanny Johnson. This is a highly speculative connection, and it will take considerable work to prove/disprove it going forward, but it’s at least a lead and it’s based on at least a little bit of conjecture. It may not be anything, but it also could be one of those rare finds that links one of our African ancestors back a few generations closer to their enslavement, as well as identifying the slave owner that contributed to our genetic make up.

What’s next?

Going forward, this could literally revolutionize both genetic genealogy as well as standard genealogy. Artificial Intelligence and matching algorithms can not only see patterns much better than any human can, they can do it faster while analyzing more data than we can ever hope to review in our lifetimes. We can see that in the future, when a new AncestryDNA kit is processed and put online, the user will see a large tree of matches and MCRA’s as their first few of the results, instead of a list of 4000+ matches they have to map one at a time.

Also, imagine a day when they use these tools to validate evidence of each users’ Public tree for instance, looking for clearly incorrect data/relationships and flag it for users. At the very least they can rate that “source” tree as unreliable, and bring better sourced trees to the forefront. These tools could easily allow the power of individual trees, while also bring them all into line with known facts, and start matching them in ways we can’t imagine.

Going back to our Tradewell example, our brickwall is around Reuben Tradewell and the one piece of evidence that his father might be “Jakin” from Connecticut…but the trail goes cold. Tools like this, however, point to the power that’s coming where some other groups of genealogists and family historians have a mystery “Jakin/Jacob” from Connecticut that they have sourced generations back, but don’t know his disposition. We expect one day brickwalls will be broken down by these tools while we’re sound asleep.