Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Racism and Genealogy (or The Musings of an Ignorant White Man)


Illinois National Guard questioning a black man, Chicago, 1919

A black youth dies as a result of an angry outburst of abuse from a white man. His crime? He was black. His encroaching presence within an unspoken and predominantly white area made people nervous and uncomfortable. When the police were summoned, they arrested a black man on a minor complaint of a white man, while letting the perpetrator of murder go free. This was the spark that ignited eight days of rioting and the death of dozens. While blacks protested inequitable treatment by the police as well as that experienced in employment and housing, disenfranchised white men looted and destroyed and burned African American businesses and neighborhoods, while also setting fires in neighboring white neighborhoods to incite violence against blacks. The National Guard was called. The police arrested predominantly black participants. Formal charges were almost exclusively brought against blacks, while whites were allowed to go free.

Sound familiar? This scenario has played out over and over and over again with a cast of different characters yet with only minor plot twists. But this isn't George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, or Eric Garner in New York in 2014, or even Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991.

It was Eugene Williams in Chicago in 1919.

White people have been writing the same script for well over a century while casting unwilling and unwitting black people to play the foil ‒ over and over and over again.

How does any of this affect a middle-class white male genealogist in Indiana?

I grew up in a racist household. No, we didn't have Confederate flags hanging in the living room, nor did we engage in white supremacy rhetoric at the dinner table. This is an important distinction, as those who love to exclaim, "I don't see color!" really do. The stereotypical skinhead with his myriad swastika tattoos is easy to spot. Those who are filled with passive racism are not.

My grandmother was born in 1917 and raised in Kentucky. Although she moved to northern Indiana shortly after high school and married an Italian, her new name and new home belied her Southern heritage. She and her sisters would tell stories of their father, who even as a coal miner was obsessed with his personal appearance. Prematurely graying, he dyed his hair when men doing so was unheard of. He loved fine clothes, and he took great delight at impressing the ladies with his presentation, even though as my grandmother said, he'd come back home from the mines "black as a n----r."

My grandmother had an illustrated version of The Story of Little Black Sambo. Although meant to be a story about a South Indian boy when it was first published in 1899, later American editions -- and the copy my grandmother owned -- had changed the portrayal of the main character into an unflattering stereotypical black boy.

When my grandmother recited eeny, meeny, miny, moe, she didn't catch tigers.

I was a teenager before I knew they were properly called Brazil nuts.

Was my grandmother a racist, or can we just brush these examples off as she being a product of her time and place? The latter is the excuse used most often amongst those casually dismissing their racist remarks and attitudes. I look back at my grandmother, and I don't see a racist. But sadly the signs were all there. She used inappropriate terminology when it was something ingrained within her psyche, like within a rhyme or a story, but in her day-to-day life she called black folk "the coloreds". She used to laugh when I would respond, "well what color where they?" Nevertheless, I do recall the big annual summer garage sale we'd have at my grandmother's house. She lived on a major thoroughfare that would invite more buyers, so we would lug all our used and worn-out garbage to Grandma and Grandpa's for the weekend. For three young boys, this was a chance to spend a weekend at our grandparents' house, but it also meant two tedious full days of pricing, placing, hauling, cleaning, and interacting with strangers. With my mother, my grandparents, and occasional other relatives involved, there was always someone to man the card table set up for purchases, but invariably it would occasionally be left unattended with everyone darting about.

I recall making iced tea in the kitchen with my grandmother while she surveyed the sale from her window. The cigar boxes neatly labeled with the names of yard sale participants were lined up on the table for deposits of money to be placed upon a sale. These were all sitting unattended when my grandmother stiffened a bit while gazing outside, and casually exclaimed, "Oh, I best get outside and watch things! There's some colored people here!"

It is virtually impossible to say within modern society that we have not all been exposed to that kind of casual and passive (and not so passive) racism. We are raised with the underlying message that White is Good and Black is Bad. The racial doll study often repeated since its inception in the 1940s shows that children as young as four years of age identify dark skin tones with being bad, ugly, dumb, and undesirable -- even amongst African American children. It means we have to start far, far, far earlier  in the lives of those who come ahead of us to turn the tide of subtle, silent, passive racism that has infected our society today.

Unfortunately, not all the racism I was exposed to was passive. My father was an officer with the Mishawaka Police Department from 1968 to 1988. Sadly, my father was an entrenched member of the Good Ol' Boy Club. He abused his power by garnering sexual favors in trade for ignoring crime, helping himself to criminal evidence if it suited his fancy, inflicting physical harm upon those who questioned his authority, and getting his kicks out of terrorizing black people.

Mishawaka was a sundown town. There was no law on the books, nor was there any signage to identify it as such. But black people knew that they were not welcome in Mishawaka after dark. In 1970, Mishawaka had a population of 35,517 people, of which only 107 were black. Many times I recall my father laughing with glee after pulling a night shift. Any black person was stopped after sundown.

"Hey you! Where's your passport?"

For obvious reasons, this would garner only a quizzical look of confusion.

"Boy, you better have a passport to be in Mishawaka after dark, because n----rs belong in South Bend."

This would often follow with detention, placement into the squad car, and transportation to Logan Street, where the east side of the street is Mishawaka, and the west side is South Bend. They were instructed to cross the street and not come back, regardless of what their business was in Mishawaka. I never heard what punishment was meted out if someone was found in Mishawaka twice in the same night, but I have a sick feeling it wasn't terribly pleasant.

He too was a product of his environment. Raised by his Italian immigrant grandfather on Eddy Street in South Bend, he grew up in a home that was purchased in a working-class white neighborhood in the 1940s, but was becoming largely African American in the 1960s. By all accounts, my 4'11" ex-convict Italian great-grandfather would sit on his porch with a gun to "shoot any n----rs that caused him any trouble." This racism was far from passive.

Yes, I heard that word a lot growing up.

Even when I joke to friends that I come from a long line of poor, white trash, I invoke the the silent racism behind the origins of the phrase. Yes, many of my ancestors were poor with few resources and lived a meager existence, but they were white trash. The adjective implies that even though they may have been on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder, it was a ladder built for whites only. They were still superior to blacks.

Do I still have racists in my family? Oh yeah, definitely. How did I escape it all relatively unscathed? I can't answer that. I certainly wasn't exposed to black culture growing up. By the time I entered high school, Mishawaka could boast a whopping 10% black population, yet in my graduating class of 315 students, I only recall two people, neither of whom I was close to, being black. I went to veterinary school at Purdue University with sixty or so white colleagues. I took a job in Granger, Indiana, in 1991, where I live today, that according to the 2010 census is only 2.54% African American.

Perhaps growing up gay in white suburbia allowed me to develop a degree of empathy for those who don't follow the societal norms. Don't get me wrong. I am a white male, and I know full well what privilege that affords me. I know I've worked damn hard to get where I am from roots entangled amongst blue collar workers and high school dropouts. But I also know that a black man in the same circumstances would have never gotten where I am. Societal roadblocks would have been thrown into his path at every turn. As a gay man, if I happen to show affection to another man in public, regardless of how minor or innocent, I am suddenly aware of who is watching, what the level of risk might be, and how to best escape if confronted with hate. It is minuscule compared to what a black man or woman experiences on a daily basis. My tiny taste of persecution is nothing compared to the smorgasbord of hate awaiting people of color when they awaken each morning. I can hide my perceived "flaw" under my white skin, and if I were killed for being gay, it would more likely be from a religious zealot and not from the people paid to protect me. I often think LGBTQ folks side with Black Lives Matter because we get it at the most basic intrinsic level. We came of age hating ourselves so thoroughly for something we had no power to change, that we have empathy for those whose hate is also received through no fault of their own other than their mere existence.

I am a flawed person, but I am cognizant that change really needs to happen. And it needs to start in a million different ways. But I am a privileged white dude. I have read numerous articles lately from black activists indicating they don't want to hear from white allies who can't possibly understand what they are protesting. I've read essays from black people exhausted from placating the guilt of their white friends. "Yes, you're a good white person. Yes, I appreciate your concern. No, you don't really understand." Jimmy Fallon, recently called out for his use of blackface in 2000, is yet another stupid white guy like me.
"I'm not a racist. I don't feel this way."
"What I kept getting advised was to just stay quiet and not saying anything. And that was the advice because we're all afraid. I took the advice and thought, 'God, I'm going to do this wrong. You're right. I'm going to say something and get myself into more trouble.'"
It is long past time to cease the silence. That includes silence in voice as well as silence in action.

Nicka Sewell-Smith, a genealogist of African descent and the driving force behind BlackProGen LIVE!, wrote about racism in the world of genealogy in 2016 in her blog post The Problem of the Color Line. I loved that post. It certainly wasn't love borne out of its content. It boggles the mind that as recent as 1960 the members of the National Genealogical Society nearly lost their collective minds when a black man had the audacity to apply for membership. It is ironic that Alex Haley's 1976 book Roots: The Saga of an American Family, a compelling narrative of his slave ancestors that was turned into a 1977 television miniseries, touched off a near-hysterical renaissance of American genealogical research that has culminated in a billion dollar industry today. As Sewell-Smith pointed out in 2016, it's a revival tailored for white people. Four years later, still most national genealogical conferences offer just one African American track -- four to five lectures -- out of four days and nearly 200 lectures, banquets, workshops, and events. Less than three percent of conference time devoted to 14.6% of Americans of African descent.

Society does enough to strip black Americans of a meaningful future. We must be better as genealogists to offering them a gateway to their past.

The Farmer, George Washington
Lithograph, 1853
Who knew slavery was so idyllic?

I have given a lecture numerous times using my ancestor, Thomas Daniel (1740-c1809), as a genealogical case study. It is a methodology lecture on problem solving and analytical thinking as well as utilizing the knowledge of social history to better understand your ancestors and thus your research. Thomas married well, and upon his marriage to Elizabeth Stith in 1770 he was given a slave woman named Frank as a wedding gift by Elizabeth's uncle. I show my audience that following a man with a very common name like Thomas Daniel through Virginia and Kentucky can be tied together by following Frank and her children.

Thomas acquired Frank in Stafford County, Virginia, in 1770. He argued in court in Caroline County, Virginia, for his right to own her and her two sons, Reuben and Humphrey, "and all her increase" at the settlement of his uncle's estate in 1782 and 1783. Thomas was taxed on slaves Frank, Reuben, Humphrey, Clary, Sally/Celia, and Jude in Louisa County, Virginia, in 1782 and 1783. In 1795, Thomas Daniel of Jefferson County, Kentucky, sold Reuben, aged about 25; and Humphry, aged about 24; to Robert Breckenridge.

In 1797, Thomas Daniel divested his fourteen slaves in Jefferson County, Kentucky, to his children.  Apparently Reuben and Humphrey were back in his possession, as Frank and Reuben were given to his son Thomas Daniel Jr., while Humphrey went to son, Stith Daniel. The bottom line: where you find Frank, Reuben, and Humphrey, you will find the correct Thomas Daniel roaming around Virginia and Kentucky.

Sound research, yes. But I really hate this part of the lecture. Every time I give the lecture, I scan the room for black men and women in my audience before I start. I don't know if I should make eye contact with them or look away when I talk about Frank, Reuben, and Humphrey. Does this bother them as much as it bothers me? Do they care on a deeper level about what I am teaching other than methodology? Can anyone ever lecture about slavery casually? I sweat a little too much at this point in the lecture, and my face flushes. Like Jimmy Fallon, I am the dumb white guy who thinks he's going to say something wrong, or insensitive, or stupid. So I don't address the elephant in the room, and I move forward. Do I apologize for the deeds of my ancestors? Or do I continue talking knowing these ancestral attitudes are not mine and assume the audience knows this? What do I owe to the descendants of Frank as a descendant of the man who owned her?

I am uncomfortable. And it took me a while to be at ease with my discomfort, or at least understand that discomfort is an appropriate feeling. More problematic are those who don't feel or see or understand the far reaching negative impacts of slavery and the Jim Crow south on the African American community today. It's not my story to tell. It is my place to listen and read and research and understand. I can't say it any better than the woman featured on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on 7 June 2020. Although I recommend the whole clip, I cannot begin to fathom the pain and anger and frustration shared by Kimberly Jones at the 31:25 mark. If that doesn't move you closer to understanding, buddy, you have more hate and blind privilege in your soul than I can address in one blog post.

What can I do? What little part can a white male Midwestern genealogist do that can make a difference? I can do what I have been advocating to genealogists for decades now. Tell your stories. Tell the stories of your ancestors. Tell the stories of your community from a black perspective. Help your black friends discover their pasts and tell those stories. Only by understanding the adversity overcome by men and women of color in our country's past, can we begin to humanize and understand the generations of power imbalance and repression in this country that needs to change today. Only by seeing history's events unfolding with the eyes of African Americans can we even hope to grasp the white privilege people like me are granted, and to which many are blissfully unaware.

I deal in history and the deeds of the dead. As statues of Confederate generals are dismantled in this country, and the statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston is thrown into the River Avon in Bristol, England, I constantly hear the defiant refrain, "You can't rewrite history!"

Ummmm.... yeah, you can.

And it's about damn time.

Anyone who has read my blog from the beginning should know by now, history is constantly being rewritten. Personal histories are turned upside down by DNA findings. New documents or discovered artifacts may significantly alter long-held historical dogma and change historical "fact". History has always been fluid in its telling and retelling. It has to be. There is no right nor wrong way to tell the stories of those who came before us as long as we adhere to the facts, because the stories that need to be told arise from dozens of different points of view.

Let us circle back to where we started. How does the story of the Chicago Race Riots of 1919 read if told by Eugene Williams' mother? What does the story sound like if told by the black men who were beaten or lost their homes? What about the story of the sharecropper who fled the Jim Crow south in the Great Migration to find poorly paying work in the Chicago meatpacking plants, who then had to make the decision to continue struggling to feeding his family or standing up to the Irish mobs burning his neighborhood and risk arrest by the Chicago police? These aren't revisions of history -- they are completions of it.

It's time for white folk to shut up and listen, to think and reflect, to understand and empathize, to read and to educate themselves. It's time for white men and women to immerse themselves in a black history that is currently impossible for them to grasp.

There are stories that have been begging to be heard for 400 years. My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother was born to a Dutch man and a black slave in New York in the 1670s. I may never know her mother's name, let alone her story, but that tiniest fragment of African DNA still shows up in her descendants today. Were it not for her story, I would not be here to tell my tales, so I will do my best to tell hers, and those of the Franks, Reubens, and Humphreys I find along the way.

Black Lives Matter.

Black Lives have always mattered. For many, that awakening is long past due.