As one of the "Experts" on Ancestry.com's new ExpertConnect product, I have the opportunity to bid for research jobs from folks who submit requests. In most of the instances, the projects are in areas in which I have little interest or expertise, and in other cases, there are several other Experts bidding for the same job. I refuse to participate in a bidding war, so I always gracefully exit stage left and leave the others to duke it out.
One project was posted last week that really piqued my interest because it involved a Texas county with which I was intimately experienced because just last year I'd researched that same family name in the same township, and based on migration patterns, I suspected that these two families were related.
When dealing with prospective clients, we can either post our results on the public board, for all other researchers to see, or we can communicate via private email and/or phone. I prefer the public approach, in case there's a dispute between the agreed-upon work and the work I deliver, Ancestry.com has a record of everything that transpired, since they're responsible for collecting monies from the client and delivering them to me.
For the sake of discretion, let's call the family the JOHNSONS. The Johnsons I'd research last year, once they left this Texas county, moved to Oklahoma for several years, and finally out to Fresno, CA where they now reside, though some of their relatives still live in that same Texas town. This prospective client's people, once the father died, moved to the same Oklahoma county as the other Johnsons I'd researched, and I posted this information on the public board. From my posting, the prospective client was able to find them in the 1920 census.
But, she wasn't happy with what she found. Turns out her ancestors are black, but she, and all of her cousins still living in that Texas town, are also white. She insisted that I'd found the wrong family, since there's no way her people could be anything other than white.
She was wrong. Her great grandfather's given name and surname are quite unique (remember, I'm using Johnson here just to protect her privacy), and in the ENTIRE U.S. Census, between 1870 and 1920 there are only four men in the whole United States with that same name (even considering alternate spellings), and three of them were black. The only white one was in KY and he lived there his entire life, seemingly never left the state. Of the three black ones, one lived in MS, the other two in TX ... one in the same township, same county, etc.
Using Ancestry.com, Heritage Quest, FamilySearchLabs.com, Rootsweb, and a few other Web sites, I found death certificates for about six of their children, and all were black. In the U.S. Censuses, he and his wife were listed as either black or mulatto, so they were probably light skinned and most likely eventually passed for white, then married white. It only takes two generations to fade to white or fade to black. By the time this prospective client's parents were born, for all intents and purposes, they looked white and identified with being white. That's fine with me. In the end, there's no genetic basis for race, anyway, so just live your life and be happy.
On that Ancestry board, I listed an extensive list of my findings, including the fact that many of their children AND the father had been buried in Negro cemeteries, military records showed they were black, and on and on. There is simply no way that I found the wrong family and there is simply no way that they were white. I also found out the maiden name of her great grandmother (one of the things she'd asked for in her project) so, despite the fact that this was just a preliminary search, I'm sure I did my job, pending additional research to work out the fine points, etc.
When I posted my findings, I explained that I'm sure this was quite a bit of a shock, and that this is not the first time that I've discovered that a client's ancestors were black. I realize that, rather than awarding me the $1,000 she had offered for this job, the last thing she's gonna want to do is to pay someone to research a family she may not want to claim. I even suggested that she might want to work with someone else and I wished her well. No other Experts had bid on this job, by the way.
Such is life. In the end, she'll probably just cancel the project and pretend the whole thing never happened.
As soon as I posted my results, I also contacted ExpertConnect to get their thoughts about how I handled this, what I might have done differently, if there was anything they could suggest I could do differently in the future, etc. Their response was that they'd like to speak with me about this, and I await their call.
So, I ask you, my friends, what would YOU do if, after living decades of life, you discover that everything you thought about your own identity was false? How would YOU feel?
And, in the same situation, how would YOU have handled this? Did I blow it?
I welcome your honest comments. I'm thick skinned, so don't be afraid of hurting my feelings.