Genealogy Wise

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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 --- thank you, thank you for the beautiful advice. Your words have the sound and movement of a mantra --- one that I wil use. I'm drawn to its spiritual quality.

Katie
Hi Lisa. I think that you were very professional and courteous in your response to the potential client from what you've posted here. I feel a bit sorry for the potential client's naievete. In reallity there is always someone or something in our family tree that we aren't going to like. That's just the way life is. I think that 'Johnson' should've had some expectation of hearing something that she may not have particularly liked. But like you I am thick skinned too, but more than that, realistic.
However, is being descended from African people really that bad? I quite enjoy and appreciate my African ancestry! And if it weren't for some of my white ancestors as well, I wouldn't be here today. So it takes all kinds to make a family!
Having a black president has changed the whole paradigm for many people. Regardless of the merits of Barack Obama, his being president makes the oft-ignored topic of race and racism something that can no longer be ignored. For those who have been in power for eons, this is so unsettling and many fear a backlash from blacks in retribution for the centuries of enslavement, oppression, injustice and other societal ills that have been such a part of this county's history.

That said, perhaps she's buying into all the fear and lies that are making their way across the air waves (reverse Jim Crow, white slavery, other crap ...). Fear is an incredible motivator, and politicians love to stoke the emotions of the voting public by using fear of all sorts of stuff.

Perhaps she's just afraid. When I discovered my white LEE cousins several years ago, and confronted them with the fact that we shared common African ancestors who'd settled in Canada during the Revolutionary War, one of my cousins asked me, "What does this mean? Am I black now?" All her life she'd been "white" but she always suspected her ancestors were black. Family photos were obvious, to me, but for those who chose to not see the obvious signs, their ancestors simply had "olive" skin and "curly" hair.

My response to her was, "You are who you choose to be. Who cares what the world thinks? Just keep being you." Since then, my white cousins have fully embraced us and they couldn't love us more if they tried. They are truly wonderful people and I'm thankful that I found them. I think they all always "knew" but were afraid of what it would mean if they accepted their black ancestry. In the end, nothing has changed ... the world still spins in the same direction, gravity still works, and life goes on.

I hope my potential client will find the courage to proceed with this project, with or without me. I just hope that, if she chooses someone else, she finds someone with the integrity to do the job properly, regardless of the outcome.

Thanks for your comments, my friend. Be well. Much love to you, too.
- L
I agree with all the others that you did the correct thing. I also agree that any researcher should expect the unexpected during their research.

There is a children's picture book about genealogy (about 40 years old) which ends on the order of "They were not rich and famous, but they were strong and good." (from They were Strong and Good by Robert Lawson). I keep this in mind in my search. Most of us will find that is true of the majority of our ancestors no matter what their race or ultimate country of origin. When we do find an ancestor NOT "good" consider both the surrounding situation and also the small part of the ancestral line this "not good" person is. MOST of them were "strong and good."
Since I started my own family genealogy a few years ago, I've been presented with one surprise after another. Not only did I stumble across a current Black branch to my father's family (up to that point completely unknown) but at this point I'm not certain that the family name reaches further back than my grandfather.

I think family skeletons in the closet are much more numerous than people realize.

Like others, my feeling is that your approach was warranted and professional. I'm a strong believer in ferreting out the truth no matter what.

noblehorse
Dear Lisa, I hope all of these comments have eased your worries a bit. Helping researchers is a gift, so please don't let this sour episode affect you. As one poster said- Keep on keepin' on!

Best,
Ellen Healy
Lisa,

I'm not a professional in this field, only trying to track my own family, and I think you handled the entire situation very professionally. On a personal level, I've always wanted to know who helped in my creation. Their background never mattered to me and personally I don't mind telling their story, both the good and the bad. I know not everyone in my family feels that way.

Hi, I think you did an amazing job!  I want someone like you to help me so I am going to have a look at Ancestry Expert! 

I have hit so many brick walls in discovering my family but what I have discovered has freed me - I know now the type of people from whom I descend and who helped shape me - now I know where a love of words came from; where staunch beliefs came from.  I am from New Zealand and live in Australia but we have excitingly discovered our father's family came from the USA.  Because we don't know it very well at all (and yes we do have Google) it has been difficult to research things like born in Virginia in 1795 - okay that's great - but where?  No idea...oh and then there are no records - oh....but we do have his Probate, - great, but no will. 

People like you deserve appreciation - you are amazing!

Hi Lisa,

This reminds me of the book, The Sweeter the Juice, which is about a family that separates into those who can "pass" for white and those who can't.   It's a true story, about sisters who were separated for about 70 years.


That being said, some people are going to be surprised by what they find.   This client didn't find her surprise pleasant.   You didn't mention her approximate age--my guess is that age makes a difference.   I think those of us born after Civil Rights era would be less shocked than those born before.  

Give her some time.   She may come around.

I think you are handling things very well.

WOW, well I'm sorry you're going through this.

 if I could afford to pay a pro to research my family, I would be happy with any info you found. 

doing family tree research, its needs to be accepted that what you find may not be what you expect or want to hear..but if its accurate info then there's not much you can do about it. 

personally I feel you handled the situation as a true professional, and I do not see how it could have been handled differently. If the potential client is not appreciative that you took the time and did this research already and found this much information, with out being paid. maybe remind her that A LOT of people especially with african heritage can barely go back that far. 

I haven't found and confirmed any skeletons in my closet,( I heard from a 2nd cousin who told me a story of my g-grandmother being an illegitimate child of an affiar with a teenage girl, but no records to confirm it just yet )  but if I do, hopefully i react a bit better than the clinet did. 

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