Genealogy Wise

The Genealogy & Family History Social Network

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.

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Lisa, I personally think you handled your research and contact very professionally. Not everyones' ancestry is picture perfect (according to them, only) and tied with a nice ribbon. I feel that if we are searching for our family's history, we must be ready to accept what that history was, skeltons and all. I was recently told that, after 5 years of research, that my mother was adopted. What with fradulent records and no records available, I would gladly give the money for any proof of my grandfather! Personally, I would be very grateful to know who I really am! You were very kind after doing all the work, to wish them well. Very professional, in my book. Ellen Healy
Ellen;

I'm speechless after reading your reply. Talk about rug being pulled from underneath ... how did you find out your mother was adopted? This is a fascinating story ... perhaps you'll consider writing a book about your experiences?
No, Lisa, I'm not a writer, but a big reader.Lol! About the adoption,- I was told this by a cousin who had promised her mother not to tell, but I had pestered her with questions about my family. I don't think it is really true- my family were the kind who hid ages, divorces, out-of wedlock children- but it is very convoluted. Anyway, the other ladies have said so well what I was feeling when I read your post. We all think you were very professional. So, don't worry. My feeling is that your family is your family, right or wrong, Black or White, Catholic, Jewish, Lutheran, or whatever. My husband's family "Bible" says "Do Not Remove from Cork County Jail"! So, at least we know they came from County Cork!!! But I also know, sadly, that not everyone shares that feeling. So, just my $.02.
Goodness Lisa!! I haven't found any big surprises in my family research but have talked to friends who have... first cousin who turned out to be a half sister; unknown parental/grandparental marriages with half sibs popping up; illegitmate births. Big surprise at first but what the hay... calm down. You find Chinese, Cheyenne, black, a grandfather in the slammer... you are what you are! That's what my friends finally felt & that would be my opinion, too.

I suppose you could have told Ms. "Johnson" up front about your suspicions but after your research, you might have been wrong. I'd be curious about other people's opinion on this.

I would be ashamed of myself if I were in her boots & refused to pay you for the job professionally done. Would I not pay an MD because I got a report I didn't like?!
Great point, Margot. Yes, doctors would be in a bad way if they only got paid when we got good news.

I'll keep you posted as to what ends up with this project (fingers crossed). Thanks for writing, my friend.
Hello Lisa,

From the description of your actions, I don't see how you could have handled it differently. And I think that you went the extra mile by suggesting that she might want to work with someone else. Others in your position might not have been so courteous.

I haven't been in Ms. Johnson's shoes, but I would hope that, regardless of any shock I might feel, I would still be gracious to someone who had done the job so thoroughly. Plus, if I agree to pay someone to do research for me, and that person does the work, then I pay that person.

No one gives us a guarantee when we come into this world that everything about our families will be to our liking. If you’re going to research your family origins, you need to accept that.

-Kathleen
Kathleen;

I all fairness, this potential client (pc) had not agreed to pay me. The way Ancestry's ExpertConnect works, she can submit her project and I can bid on it. Only AFTER she accepts my bid is she obligated to pay me. The problem came in because I'd indicated that my preliminary research had located them and I needed to do more research. It was the preliminary results to which she objected. In order to show her that there was no other, logical alternative, I ended up doing a whole lot more research, at which point she could choose to award me the project ... or not. It's kind of a backwards system that ExpertConnect has, because you really DO have to do some research just to get the job. And I've found out from another pc that if you give too much information, they can choose to just take what you've given them, cancel the project, and walk away scot-free.

It's like walking a genealogical tightrope. Don't give enough information, don't get the job. Give too much information, don't get the job. Hey, seems like I can't win either way. That's why it's like a tightrope ... balancing just ENOUGH information to pique their curiosity and incentify them to want to pay you for your efforts.

The saga contines.

Thanks for writing.
That is a difficult position to be in! Still, I think that I would be uncomfortable walking away without any payment. Even if I decided not to go forward, I hope I would come to some agreement with the researcher for work already done.

Keep us posted.
I agree with previous replies that there really isn't anything you could have done differently. She has to decide whether she wants to have an accurate genealogical record or not.

In my research recently, I discovered that two of my grandparents are illegitimate children, so the surnames we've always identified with are not paternal lines but maternal. For a day or two, I felt a disconnection to those names, thinking that by rights we should be something else. I have relatives who knew the fathers, so although I can't document it, I know the names we should have gone by.

In the end, I realized that those grandmothers must have gone through a lot to raise children alone in a predominantly Catholic country (Mexico), during the revolution no less. I think that's enough for us to take pride in their names.
Patricia;

Genealogy is a funny thing. When I first got started, way back in 1970, I was just coming into my own as a young black woman during the American Civil Rights movement. Though I was raised in a predominantly white town and many of my friends were white, by 1970, it wasn't "cool" for me to have white friends. Then, when I started researching my family and discovered I had white ancestors ... EGADS!

It took me a LONNNNGGGGGGGG time to accept my Irish, Scottish, French, British and other Caucasian ancestry.

Years.

But, in the end, I learned to not only accept them but to embrace them and all that I am. Being black is easy, I can do that in my sleep. But Irish? Scottish? Canadian? Suddenly, I have all these other cultures to explore and digest. I hope that my potential client will, someday, come to find out that having this unexpected ancestry only makes life that much more interesting.

Thanks for your response. I'm glad that you were able to find out all you were about your family.
Lisa --- I concur with the responses you've received so far. You were extremely generous in offering the client a graceful way out of the situation, considering you had already invested considerable research time. We can only hope that the client would respond in an equally generous way. She can, to use the medical analogy, deny the doctor's diagnosis --- even in the face of valid medical evidence --- and go to someone else for a second opinion. What will she do, however, when the second physician returns with the same diagonsis? My maternal grandfather was left by his birth mother in the vestibule of the New York Foundling Hospital in 1892. That discovery flew in the face of everything my mother had ever been told about her beloved father (he was killed when she was 10). We no nothing about his birth mother --- she could have been a prostitute, and unwed mother, a woman too poor to care for a child. At this point I absolutely don't care. Her actions made it possible for my grandfather to have a chance in life, and I'd cherish any scrap of information about her identity. You did the right thing.


Katie Wilkinson
Katie;

For you to say you don't care about the conditions that brought you to be here is so very wise. None of us can change the past and if we reject it, we end up in turmoil. I admire your strength and your courage to just move past it. You know, it's this very attitude, in my humble opinion, that tends to bring the forces of the universe to support us. What I mean is that whenever I get to a spot in a research project where I seemingly cannot go any further, I just say, "Universe, if I'm meant to find the answer to this question, let me find it." Then, I just let it go (I even throw my hands up to the sky, as though I'm releasing this energy) and move on.

In EVERY SINGLE CASE, the answer always comes to me. I don't have to do this very often, but the times I have often resulted from months and years of seemingly fruitless research, turning up every stone but finding nothing. Then, once I let it go, the answer comes, and it's usually a simple step that either I'd "assumed" wouldn't lead to anything, or a resource suddenly made available that had been previously hidden.

At any rate, I wish you well in your research. Please try this LETTING GO thing and let me (and us) know when the answer finds YOU.

Much love, my friend.

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