Genealogy has a History, Race, and Gender Problem

Daniel Louis Duncan
5 min readJun 5, 2018

This post will ruffle many a feathers, but it is through dialogue and questions that we learn and grow. That doesn’t matter the venue or topic. So…how does genealogy have such a big problem? Let’s do a parallel comparison of a few important features of genealogy organizations and topics in general. I’ll stick to a few and hope that this will open a dialogue that can help us all move forward as genealogist, family history seekers, AND historians.

I will say this over and over again until enough people listen: History and genealogy study should always involve each other. I know….but I have to focus on a specific area! Yes you do, but it should not leave out either angle, nor be selective history. Dates, pension files, census records, archives, etc. help us understand our subjects to a point. Knowing historical context, and I mean digging deeply into historical events and people around our ancestors, is crucial to develop the best picture of our subjects, especially involving race and gender. Why?

Ok…let’s dig a little deeper. I descend from many Revolutionary War soldiers, I mean many. One, (possibly two-I’m digging into proving the other), served as an officer from Virginia under George Washington, died of his wounds from the battle of Brandywine. I qualify for membership in the Virginia Society of the Cincinnati (a big deal). (The Cincinnati Society is only open to “men-only” who descend from an officer of Washington). I’ve toiled over my reluctance to join for over 15 years. Why my reluctance?

Another, was at every major battle ( serving in Pennsylvania (from NJ), was even on a privateer ship in Philadelphia, moved to North Carolina via his land grant, sold it and moved to Tennessee. Nine others, that I won’t go into details about, but suffice it to say I qualify many times over to be in the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) in many states. Why do I not jump for joy and join these Societies?? Because I don’t feel right about it. I don’t feel like celebrating this heritage in that manor. Why should we? My Society of the Cincinnati Membership would be taunted with slave blood. Yes, that is part of my genealogical heritage, so I don’t feel much like excluding that part, and I don’t quite feel it should be just male descendants, but that was how it was set up.

We need to stop making this such a big deal, in my opinion. Why? It’s very white and very exclusionary, and really not that important over other ancestors and events, other than the historical significance. I know, feathers are ruffled!! There is great pride in that membership to many, Mayflower, Daughters and Sons of the American Revolution, Cincinnati Society, etc… So what? There are many, many descendants of these organizations. It’s great, but not that big a deal! Why would I dare say that? Because, most people I talk to who descend from people such as the Mayflower say things like, “oh…my genealogy is done. I’m a Mayflower descendant.” Or, “I’m done. I descend from Charlemagne!” It has an air of privilege. I usually give them a quizzical look and say, tell me about the history around those ancestors? All of your ancestry goes through Charlemagne or the Mayflower or the American Revolution? How convenient.

How many members of these societies are Black? Native American? How many conversations do you have about the history around these families?

DAR as late as 1984 barred blacks from membership. Read section “Segregation and exclusion of African-Americans”

Granted, this line of questioning alone doesn’t bond me to folks, but I try to follow it up with real information, such as “you know the 5 generations of the Mayflower descendants have been complete for some time, is there any interesting ancestors on your other lines that may not be so famous? Where did they live? What events in history surrounded them? Were they near towns where Lafayette had his American tour in 1825? Were they in the North or the South during the Civil War? Were they religious, members of the American Colonization Society or any of the numerous organizations around Colonization, Abolition, Women’s Suffrage? Have you ever thought of researching the slaves of your ancestors, if they owned them?

These important questions open up dialogue that turns into great investigations on both parties, if willing. I love what I can learn and possibly open up for others to research. Most of all, I love being able to change a persons view of genealogy and it’s importance to historical study. It’s VERY important. Do you know how many people think that their surname research is more important or only what they want to look into? We have numerous surnames, and every time you add a woman to your tree you add a new family and a new history to dig into. How awesome is that? I know you don’t have a lot of time, but this doesn’t have to be done right away. What it does is open your view to having more information jump out at you in libraries, bookstores, people you meet that have the same last name as your 5th great grandmother. Your world explodes with possibilities for dialogue, great conversations, and friendships.

The most divisive time in our history was the Civil War. Many, many of us were taught this history as it related to battles and precursory information about the complexities of slavery. Most importantly we are facing a factual challenge to the believe that it was all about states rights. The American Colonization Society was formed and organized by many who were adamant about the evils of slavery while being racist, i.e..believing that blacks were inferior to whites. Many in this same organization believed that blacks would never be treated well in this country, so it was best to remove them, many believed removing the free blacks would keep the slaves from uprising. This was just in one organization, and there were many, many other organizations. Many clashed over ideology. Was your ancestor an abolitionist that lived in the south? It happened. It’s complicated, discouraging, fascinating, enormously relevant to what is happening in this country today! If your interested in your genealogy how can you ignore history?

Sorry that I am coming down so hard on Genealogy. History as we have taught it, and are still in some areas, is misguiding, downright wrong, and sometimes at best, barely touches the surface of knowledge. Historians and historical publications, dialogues are really doing a great job today at facing these tough tasks. I have yet to see this really done in the genealogical field. If I am wrong, let’s discuss and point me to the conventions that are tackling these topics.

I just ask, next time you think about your pride in membership in a Society, who is left out, and what are you really celebrating? Who else in your genealogy may need just as much pride and celebration? My discoveries surrounding these same questions have been enormous! I only wish the same for you all!!

Originally published at historicalgenealogy.blogspot.com on June 5, 2018.

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Daniel Louis Duncan

Writer, researcher, lover of history, philosophy, politics and critical thought