Two Short Posts in One on Genealogy

Here’s another blog list item that I ended up adapting a bit to make work. I had said I wanted to do a genealogy project. I know a bit about the basic tools out there for genealogy, as I need to look up some things in the course of a number of history projects. I also took a Family Histories course in graduate school that included some genealogy research, taught by Dr. Kendra Taira Field. Dr. Field is a scholar of race, public history, and the role of families, kinship models, and genealogy in American life. I hadn’t done a project in which I traced one family for many generations, or done more than a cursory look at my own family, so my intention had been to do that and write about it for the blog. 

However, in the past year or so, I’ve been wrapped up in a genealogy-heavy project for work, and I’m sick of it. Today I’m going to tell you a bit about that project. As my blog list item, I watched several online lectures hosted or co-sponsored by the New England Historic Genealogical Society, so I’ll tell you about that, as well.

We’ve been calling the work project the “named spaces” project for short.  The museum where I work is part of a much larger, non-museum organization, and our parent organization has at least one building named after a local figure known to have been a powerful, influential proponent of racial segregation. They’re looking into how and when* to do something about that, including renaming the building, but they also asked the museum team to look into the lives of other people that buildings, auditoriums, etc. on campus are named for. I have a list of dozens of the organization’s founders, early leaders, and benefactors, and I’ve been tasked with researching their views and often, the source of their families’ wealth. The main things we’re looking for in the project are people who actively advocated against Black people’s rights or humanity, and big donors whose wealth was significantly tied to slavery. One of the first things I did was write a short overview to accompany our reports explaining how in early nineteenth-century New England, all the rich people had some ties to slavery, so our analysis will evaluate how extensive and how direct a family’s ties were. 

Some parts of the project have been fascinating, such as trying to root out a 19th century figure’s political views from a small set of clues. Some have been amusing, such as the incredibly frustrating loop I seemed to be going in as I was tracing one blueblood’s lineage until I realized that his mother and father were aunt and nephew. (The couple was only a year apart in age, if that helps?) However, some parts have become very repetitive. I have lost track of how many 20th century donors spent their careers at the law firm Ropes & Gray. Worse, much of the information available about these families were written by members of the families, all in the same laudatory style of people who think their forefathers were unique in their entrepreneurial and philanthropic spirit.

Part of a family tree in antiquated type
From Genealogy of Warren with some Historical Sketches (John C. Warren, 1854)

Not all genealogy is repetitive, of course -- there’s a wide world of family trees out there, and the New England Historic Genealogical Society, which has an extensive archive and research library as well as running the website American Ancestors, is a great resource for exploring it. Unfortunately for this blog post, I didn’t find that the three talks I went to had a lot that distinguished them as a set from other book talks and public history lectures I’ve been to. All were good but none stuck out. "Skip Finley — Whaling Captains of Color: America's First Meritocracy"was enjoyable but the speaker seemed to be less familiar with public speaking that I’m used to in this kind of talk."Daniel James Brown explores the Japanese-American experience and World War II '' was quite good. Each of the speakers had certainly needed to do some genealogical research in the course of their work -- presumably, the connection was that some of that research used the NEHGS collections. 

I should note that NEHGS does offer programs on doing genealogy, both free presentations and more in-depth paid classes, so it’s not like their series is devoid of genealogy-specific content.They seemed to fall into two categories, neither of which fit. One group is the workshops that are far too introductory for me, such as the one I attended, "Using the Wyner Family Jewish Heritage Center Archives for Family History Research.” It was good, but for the amount of information that was new to me, it felt like a webinar that could have been an email. The other group is workshops that are either too advanced or too specific for me, exploring a specific tool or how to solve a particular problem that some researchers encounter in their own projects. I have often run into this gap when looking for classes or workshops to build on basic skills I have. I think the way people typically get through that gap is that they spend more time actually practicing the skill. If I were in the middle of one in-depth genealogy project, instead of a couple dozen very cursory ones like my named spaces project, I’d probably be ready for those more specific workshops, or gain the skills that would help me follow the more advanced ones.

While genealogy requires a specific group of skills, and it is sometimes treated differently than other forms of history research because there’s a great number of passionate amateurs bringing their biases about their own families into the discussion, if I’ve learned one thing from the named spaces project and the lectures I’ve attended, I think it’s that genealogy isn’t a field off on its own. It’s part of studying history, and it’s no surprise that the events a genealogy society co-sponsors feel like the other history talks I attend, because they are very much like them.

*If I were on that committee, I’d be making the case for deliberate speed, but it's not the kind of committee one can join.