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:
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.
We could see it coming…back in March of 2017, one of our first blog posts was about Ancestry.com’s new tool “We’re Related” (We’re Related app is a lot less frivolous than it first appears). It was a bit of a “hot take” about how it was less silly than it seemed and how it could be very powerful if it’s expanded to a tool that is predictive of your matches.
We’re Related is making suppositions based (apparently) on an algorithm that can draw the line between what you know, and what it guesses is true, to build a potential line for you. 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.
Before we take any victory laps…we have to admit, we were incredibly naive. We never guessed that Ancestry would take this powerful technology and use it to take it’s worst, most frustrating feature, and make it much more dangerous.
The new feature is the “Potential Father/Mother” suggestion, and I’m going to let Carolynn ni Lochlainn detail all the challenges of this new tool, and the risks, in her SPOT ON “From Paper to People” Podcast #27 (From Paper to People: What I Hate About New). Please listen, but her upshot is that this feature is an easy way for those new to genealogy to quickly build out their trees, and the tool forces you to create the ancestor without any sources attached.
One of the biggest drawbacks of Ancestry is the Public Trees that are so often inaccurate, and are often built solely on other people’s unsourced trees. Now, it’s a certainty that these trees are going to start to mushroom, and by design have NO citations attached to the new ancestor.
Ever wonder why Ancestry has delivered even more accurate admixture and even prettier graphs, but none of the tools needed to do serious genealogical research? It’s because there’s no additional revenue from genealogical tools.
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. We, as a community, can also make sure we NEVER use a Member Tree to support a fact. You can link the Member Tree ancestor to yours, but make sure all facts are unselected before you link them. They will see your additional work, and you them, but you will not perpetuate their unsourced facts.
But, Ancestry.com isn’t packed full of serious hobbyists/professionals and “Potential Parent” is going to take the problem of Member Trees and make it explode it beyond what we could have imagined. At some point, the tree feature in Ancestry is going to be unusable. Ancestry.com will continue to be a great source of primary research, but it will be nothing more than a data repository for those of us who are serious about this work.
And, back to our naivety…the most frustrating thing is that we should have known better. Again, going back to our vaults, we saw right away that AncestryDNA is here to support genealogy ONLY because it’s a good way to gather DNA tests (Dancing with the Devil: The Tradeoffs of Modern Genealogical Research). Once Ancestry realized that pushing pretty graphs and “ethnicity” was the best way to sell more tests, they pivoted and met their true goal with these tests: the largest DNA database that will generate a tremendous amount of revenue from drug companies, etc. who can leverage your tests to understand how their drugs might work. Ancestry now (or soon will) make more money from monetizing your DNA than it does from supporting our genealogical work.
Ever wonder why Ancestry has delivered even more accurate admixture and even prettier graphs, but none of the tools needed to do serious genealogical research? It’s because there’s no additional revenue from genealogical tools, but putting more effort into the graphs will drive more people to test, which will grow the database, and grow the revenue stream.
As a community we have to get ready to accept that Ancestry is not a partner in our work, and is not in business to support us or our needs. They exist to generate revenue, and as long as that interest and ours intersect, we’re good, but as they make more money from other streams they are going to sacrifice our needs to focus on revenue. You’re already seeing that with things like “Potential Parents”, more admixture, and their new collections consisting of public records gathered at great expense by groups like Reclaim The Records and putting them behind the paywall.
The genealogy features of Ancestry are still there, for now, but the bad Member Trees we suffer through today are likely going to be remembered as the golden age of online genealogy research.
Over the last year, we’ve probably spent half our genealogy time working on one project: cleaning up the sloppy work, especially with citations, we completed in our first years of assembling this family tree.
We had read Black Roots by Tony Burroughs (Black Roots) before we started, and beyond everything else he advocates a great genealogy process and has lots of advice on how to proceed building your family tree. He warns against falling to the temptation of just building out as fast as you can, and focusing on document collection instead of getting the things like oral family histories that you will not be able to get later.
We promptly ignored Mr. Burroughs’ advice, and clicked every shaky leaf we could see, we built out based on Ancestry User Trees, we accepted nearly every hint, and we ended up with a mess. A pretty solid, very useful, mess. The tree has good bones, but it probably causes more harm than good as a public tree some days. It’s why we’ve spent so much time going back and cleaning up our mess.
As we looked to clean up our main tree, and bring it into a much better, cleaner, accurate record of our family history, we started with one item which we don’t see many researchers publishing: attaching all sources as ours, with citations attached. This gives us a standard source format for all our evidence, and it gives us full ownership of the records and media, independent of what the original publisher chooses to do with it later.
The bulk of our process is taking all sources, online and offline, drafting a proper citation (following Evidence Explainedas best we can), attaching that citation to the media/record, and then publishing our extracted record as the evidence supporting various facts. For online records this means not just accepting Ancestry.com’s record entry and attaching it directly to our tree, it means downloading the media, crafting a proper citation, and manually attaching the record to our tree, while citing/linking to the online record.
There are many advantages to this approach (and we’ll blog in more detail on them next week), but the most important two benefits are this: we fully understand the quality of the record we are publicly attaching as valuable evidence before we do so, and we now fully own the record (and the media) regardless of what happens to the original digital source. For example, websites close, message boards with attached files get archived, Ancestry.com subscriptions lapse…but if you have followed this approach, the 1880 U.S. Census record for your 2x great-grandfather is still attached to your tree, still shareable, and still visible no matter what happens to the original digital record.
Today, we’re going to walk you through how we do this, and how we attach it to our tree.
Step 1 – Download the record
We’re going to use a record with media as our example, but this would largely hold with database-only or index records that don’t have media. First off, locate the record you’re interested in and download it from the holder of the electronic record. Most sites have a “Download” button, but if not, try right-clicking the image and select “Save image…”.
Step 2 – Create an MS Word document of the record, by inserting the picture
Open a blank Word document, and save it in the proper folder (we create a folder for every ancestor, and we would create it under their name and we would have copied the file from Step 1 into this folder). Adjust the “Orientation” to match the document (in our example, it’s a square shaped document, so we chose Portrait) and the “Size” (match the size as close as possible to the original size, so in our example we selected Ledger size to match the census sheet). Then select “Margins” and set them to “Narrow”. This will let you use as much of the sheet as possible.
Next, click “Insert-Pictures-Picture from file…”and select the image you downloaded in Step 1. Make the sure picture is selected, and click “Wrap Text-In front of text”. Now, you can move the image freely in the document, and you should resize it until it takes up most of the sheet…leaving enough room for text on the bottom.
Step 3 – Attach your citation
We’re not going to address how to craft a citation here, but we are huge fans of Elizabeth Shown Mills’ Evidence Explained and have done our best to follow that standard. For fellow adopters of the EE standard, we are using the “First Reference Note” as our citation for our images.
Create a text box below the image you inserted in Step 2 (Insert-Text Box-Draw Text Box), stretching it from end-to-end of the image above. As with the image, make sure the new text box is selected and click “Wrap Text-In front of text” to allow you to move the box freely on the page. Click in the box, and type your citation. When done, resize the text box to make sure it’s as close to the edges of the image as possible, and sized to keep the text as close to the bottom edge of the image as possible. Save your document.
Step 4 – Prepare for publishing
Now that the document is complete, save as a PDF file. This will make it easier to share later, and easier to print if needed.
Next, we convert this document to an image (.jpg) so that it appears easily readable in online trees. We use a free website to do the conversion (http://pdftojpg.me/) but feel free to do it however you’d like. Some people just do a screen capture of their final document, some people just save as .jpg from a tool like SnagIT. Once we have created the .jpg, we’ll take the opportunity to crop it tight to the margins of the image, keeping the citation visible.
Step 5 – Create the Source in your Online tree
There are many different ways to do this, but it basically comes down to two methods: Create the source Online or create the source in your genealogy software and sync the change to your online tree. Either way works, and it’s basically the same tasks for both approaches.
Create the source record, and draft it to the standard you follow for your sources. In our case we are using Family Tree Maker to create the source and attach to the facts, and we use the citation we created in Step 3 as the main citation for the Source. We also make sure to attach the web link to the record in the Source, so that you can click through to the original online record just like if you had attached it from the online source directly.
When you’ve completed creating the source, attach the image of the record created in Step 4, attach the source to your facts, and you’re done!
All told this exercise takes about 5 minutes per source, and you’ve ensured that you will forever own this Source material, no matter what happens electronically in the future. And, as you’ll see in our next post, you can lose very precious information when online sources are taken down unexpectedly…
During this recent Dr. Martin Luther King holiday weekend, we received one of those messages on Ancestry.com that you dream of. Through Felice’s paternal grandmother’s DNA, we had a 5-8th cousin reaching out to help try and draw the line between the tests, and while their theory probably doesn’t match up as she thought it might, it did highlight 3x great-grandparents we hadn’t yet identified. From that, we’re starting to piece together a theory that’s looking pretty strong about siblings of the 3x GGP’s, and with that a good lead on new direct relatives for my wife.
Genealogy for African families is very difficult because for much of our history they were only viewed as property and what we know from that time is largely based on who survived long enough to be considered a person.
These new relatives were all born as slaves in the South before the civil war, and so very little is known about them, very little was recorded, and even less survived. Good theories may be all we can ever piece together to explain the DNA connection we now know we share…and it seemed appropriate that this excitement, and struggle, should happen during the weekend we put aside to honor the struggle of our ancestors to be allowed to be human and citizens in the United States.
But like many lessons taught by Dr. King, there is a level even deeper than that which became apparent only after we thought about it and discussed it more.
By contrast, my genealogical line is much better defined, as most northern European/British lines are. In addition to being a Mayflower descendent, I have several lines that go back to the early 1630’s in the new world, and all of my relatives had arrived in the United States by 1850. This means I have a great deal of documentation on my ancestors, and it means I only have questions about the identity of 3 of my 32 3x GGP.
Felice’s line has only about 12 of 32 3x GGP’s identified, and since both of our relatives in that generation would have been born between 1800 and 1850, it’s surprising we have as many of her line identified as we do. It’s an obvious truth: genealogy for European
families is much easier pre-civil war because they were considered humans, even if they were largely disdained at times; genealogy for African families is very difficult because for much of our history they were only viewed as property and what we know from that time is largely based on who survived long enough to be considered a person.
While we were both excited and troubled (as you are when you discover new relatives who were born as property) by this new finding, there was another emotion: we have so much information about Felice’s father’s side of the family, and not nearly as much as her mother’s…and here’s another breakthrough on her father’s side.
As we talked, and thought about it, we narrowed in on why this was: the relatives on her mother’s side were subjected to the worst of the Jim Crow post-war South, and suffered for generations under economic conditions that not only led to very few records being created, it meant that there were no family historians that had the luxury of gathering stories, documents, and proof of their ancestors to pass down. They were just further victims of the social apartheid they were subjected to for another 150 years after gaining their “freedom”.
In contrast, her father’s side of the family had several relatives that broke that cycle in the late 1800’s. A few relatives owned property by 1880 and were able to work it independently and keep the profits/proceeds. Another owned a cotton gin in 1875 and used that buy property, and spread the wealth to his children so they could be above the lowest social rungs. Felice’s paternal grandmother’s parents owned their land in Arkansas, and so the descendent of the original slaveholder in the neighborhood, who now managed a massive sharecrop (read exploitation/subjugation) organization in Ashley County would come to her father at harvest time and ask if he would help harvest his crop. He would refer to her father as sir, and ask please. He would take “no” for an answer, and pay him market price for what he helped harvest…the same as his white help.
It’s not just chance that we have more information on this side of her family. They were not as impoverished, they had the luxury of history and time to collect the information we now have. Just as my great-grandmother on my father’s side was completing her DAR application, and gathering so much of the amazing material I have today in the early 1900’s, so too were parts of Felice’s family. Today, there are multi-state bi-annual family reunions on some lines, and books published, and for others there’s a network of researchers who capture new DNA matches and connect the historical dots for us.
But her mother’s side heartbreakingly illustrates the subtle effects of the brutal oppression they suffered, and the echoes of which linger for generations after…even after many of the children escaped North during the Great Migration. Her mother’s family was largely sharecroppers, at best, and we regularly see 50% child mortality in these lines. The mothers often had more than 10 children, and we can only imagine how they struggled to make ends meet. They were living in the worst of the deep south, in the parts of Mississippi that were still stringing up African Americans regularly well into the 1960’s.
For example, Felice’s mother was born in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi only 10 years after a young Emmett Louis Till was tortured and murdered in that county. At the time of her birth, no one had been convicted of that horrific murder, and it was still known as the “Free State of Tallahatchie County” since the white residents knew they could, and would, do whatever they wanted and damn what anyone else said.
This black hole of genealogy just so clearly demonstrated the devastating conditions her family survived through, that we both were speechless as it because clear to us the answer why one side was more documented than the other. While both her parents’ families survived horrible oppression in the Jim Crow South, one side had slight means and a slightly less aggressive apartheid to allow them a sliver of advancement out of Arkansas.
The other side was in Mississippi, which freely and deeply continued to destroy the identities and lives of black families to the point of there being few official records, and those records are still very inaccessible. The official policy continued to be to deny the humanity of African Americans even after the world tried to force them to accept these people as people. That side of the family could barely feed itself, and couldn’t even accuse white people of a crime for most of their existence. Family history couldn’t be less important in those circumstances, and we see that today by the complete lack of their history beyond a basic census every 10 years.
It’s another example of how what isn’t in your family history can be as valuable as what is, and it’s another way that we learn what our ancestors faced on their journey leading to our birth. And on this MLK day, it helped our family feel more acutely the struggle and fight of those who put everything on the line to free African Americans from the oppression of the American government and culture…which is exactly what we should do on this holiday.