Who’s Your Mamá? Documents and discrepancies from early 19th century Moca : Part 3

Title slide Who's your mama?

Part 3: Gathering Information & Pulling it all together 

Excerpt, Juana Nepomucena Caban, Acta de defuncion, 1888

Gathering Data: What the Acta de Defuncion tells us

Four key facts can be gleaned from Juana Nepomucena Caban’s 1888 death certificate:

  • Juana Nepomucena Caban was of advanced age
  • Juana was widowed  
  • she had 14 children with Carlos Mendez… and, 
  • Carlos’ death preceded hers. 

As Carlos Mendez is not in the Libro de defunciones, Registro Civil (Book of Deaths, Civil Register) for Moca or nearby municipalities, he probably died before 1885, the year this record set begins. 

However, Carlos Mendez appears in land rentals and deeds for 1851 in notary documents. In Caja 1444 for Moca, he is mentioned as a neighbor in Barrio Cruz in two documents. Still, this bit of information helps place the family in a specific barrio (ward), adds a date, and can help in finding additional documents. 

Steps

  • First, review the document in question– what information is there? 
  • What questions do you seek to answer? What’s your research question?
  • Create a detailed extract, so you can focus in on the relevant details. 

Make Your Own Extracts & Transcriptions

Given the handwriting across the documents in the Civil Registers, it’s often easier to refer to an extract than reread a document with difficult handwriting, so…

  • A good extract contains more than just a name and a date.
  • The informant (Declarante or Informante) is identified. This could be anyone from a relative, neighbor, doctor or local official, etc. depending on the circumstances. 
  • Witnesses (Testigos) may or may not be relatives. Sometimes they were locals entrusted with signing off on documents and not related to the persons listed. 
  •  The informant’s identity can be a clue as to how reliable the information in the certificate is. Depending on the years, a birth, marriage or death record can provide the names of additional family members, neighbors or officials involved in the reporting of the event. 
  • Officials- Before 1910, Juez de Paz (Justice of the Peace) Secretario  or Encargados del Registro Civil (Secretary or Clerk of the Civil Register) appear at the start and end of documents.

Knowing who was the official can provide context. This might be connected to the family in some way, particularly if we are studying rural areas. The further back in time, the more likely this is the situation.   

Additional observations: 

  • Note any discrepancy between the date of the document registration and the date of the event. This can make quite a bit of difference in birth registrations- some people finally had their birth registered as adults.  In terms of death records, the deceased is often buried the following day. It is unusual for the remains to be kept beyond 2-3 days prior to interment. 
  • In early church records, the cemetery surrounded the church building, and municipal cemeteries come later.  Later in the nineteenth century, cemeteries were moved out of the town centers, and established further away as a better understanding of illness and germs take hold and public health becomes a field of study. For Moca, the church was built in 1853, and the cemetery located a few blocks away. The old cemetery was moved about 1953.
  • Source the document, so you can locate the original (or its duplicate) in future. If it’s on FamilySearch, copy the Citation and paste it into your notes or genealogy program.
  • Reexamine the original document periodically– errors can enter when transcribing. You may find there’s a significant detail missed on the initial reading.
  • If you have access to original documents, learn to do your own transcribing and tackle that document. Just because a person is on someone’s tree, or it’s a database search result doesn’t mean it’s correct. Age, gender even surnames may be incorrectly noted.
  • Cause of death may point to health issues that run in a family, or mention of accidents, instances of deliberate harm, etc.
  • Older documents may list paternal and maternal grandparents in series of birth and death registrations. 

Here’s my extract, in Spanish. 

Extract, Juana Nepomucena Caban Nieves, (1808-1888) EFS 2.2022

This level of detail is helpful when you’re researching a brick wall, and notice most of this information doesn’t come up at all on the FS transcription, so definitely check out the document whenever possible.

Juana Nepomucena Caban [Nieves’] death certificate is available on FamilySearch ( & on Ancestry):

https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1-10454-2369-99?cc=1682798&wc=9376675

Information is knowledge: Reviewing what you’ve got

So, here is someone born near the start of the 1800s, a widow, identified as ‘white’, who had 14 children, ten of whom were still alive in 1888. We also have the name of her husband and the ward she died in.

Her son Jose Sertoris Mendez was the informant, and she was a widow. Note whether there is mention of a will— here, it’s not even mentioned.

Note that in this case, her son Jose Sertoris Mendez, like the majority of people who lived before 1900 in Puerto Rico, did not know how to write, and so, don Alvaro Lopez, signed on his behalf. This too has implications for records. 

Who are Juana Nepomucena Caban’s Parents?

Yet, there’s an issue here— Juana Nepomucena Caban’s parents do not appear on the death certificate, which helps to confirm whether she actually is a Caban Nieves. Since she died a widow in 1888, both her death and that of her husband Carlos Mendez predates the first US Federal Census of 1910. As a search of the Civil Registration and the Index up to 1888 didn’t yield her husband, so he probably died before 1885.

What kind of documents are available? There are parish records, municipal documents and newspapers. If possible, secure a parish record from the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Monserrate in Moca. Check other trees, as there’s a chance another descendant may have already obtained one (hopefully with citations).  

In this case, my cousin, Rosalma Mendez shared a set of extracts from the baptismal records that helped to fill in details that I’ve kept together with other early records. Working collaboratively, she is also a member of Sociedad Ancestros Mocanos. Before 2008, members of the group made transcriptions during appointments at the office of La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Monserrate that we shared with each other. These lists can still contain surprises years later.

Estimating Timelines 

Together with the birth year of the youngest child, a date range for Carlos’ death record can be figured out, and also a range for Juana’s childbearing years. Death records in Puerto Rico often have ages that are rounded up, and a largely rural existence paired with high rates of illiteracy meant many literally did not know when they were born.

Remember, since the person reporting is not the person named in the document (it’s a death certificate, right?), there can be errors in the information provided. 

Ok, so let’s see what we can find out from records for her immediate family.

Excerpt, Acta de defunción, Juana Nepomucena Caban, 1888: 14 hijos

According to this Acta de Defuncion, Juana Nepomucena Caban and Don Carlos Mendez’ 14 children in the death record were:  

Rita, Felix, Zenaida, Manuel deceased; Carlos, Sertoris, Marcelino, Nepomuceno, Margaro, Asenciano, Adelaida, Dolores, Ysabel y Nemesi[a] Mendez Caban. 

Thanks to two additional records for Gregorio and Ermenegilda Mendez Caban, the couple’s total so far is actually 16 children. If a child died young, they may not be included among those listed in the parent’s death record, their Actas de Defuncion.

I used FamilySearch.org to locate a number of the records for the children, as these results can be more easily searched than in Ancestry.com‘s Puerto Rico Civil Registration record searches. On the other hand, both sites have family trees, and the large database that Ancestry has may turn something up, so it’s worth checking whether there are sources on the tree.

More questions… questioning death records 

When I added the children’s information, I found was that their actual dates are much later than anticipated. This puts in question the 1808 year of birth from  Juana Nepomucena’s age on the death certificate as eighty.

According to records, her births happened between 1832-1865. Children who died at young age are often left off the death certificates of their parents decades later, so it’s good to search the surname to find anyone else.  Transcriptions for her children’s baptisms added very helpful details.  

Ultimately, it turns out Juana’s age in the death record is incorrect, as her last child, (unmentioned among the children in her death record), is Ermenegilda Mendez Caban, born about 1865. Given Ermenegilda’s year of birth, if we use Juana Nepomucena Caban’s 1808 date means Juana was about 57, which is a little beyond childbearing years. The children’s years of birth range from 1832-1865, with a young mother born at ca. 1815- 1820.

How does that extra aging happen? Ages in death certificates are often rounded up, so a person can have an additional 5 to 10 years or more added on to get closer to 80, 90 or 100 years of age. Add the notation that records someone signed on behalf of the informant, is another clue that age can be a relative thing in these documents. The focus in daily life then was not so much on holding written documentation, but was dominated by the rhythm of the agricultural cycle. Much of the population during the nineteenth century was illiterate. Also, there were centenarians— but their records have more consistency in terms of age across time.  

A maternal surname still missing…

We still need a record that will estabish Juana’s maternal surname, a big help when one is dealing with multiple families that share the same surname and a popular first name. Unfortunately, the records in the Civil Registers can fail to mention a maternal surname, or lack the name of a spouse or of parents. Depending on the time period, they can provide the names of parents and even grandparents. Having a single surname can be a clue to ethnicity and social status— POC in the earlier run of the Civil Register often appear with a single surname, for different reasons, because of former enslavement or birth to a single mother, or even father. 

Thanks to Rosalma, the cousin who shared those transcriptions of baptism records for two of Juana and Carlos’s children- Gregorio and Maria Cenaida (Zenaida) Mendez Caban — we now see conflicting surnames for their maternal grandparents. For Gregorio, the maternal grandparents are Juan Caban and Juana Hernandez, and for Maria Cenaida, they are Juan Caban and Juana Lopez.[1]

Whenever possible, check the original and cross reference to determine whether the error was made in transcription or by the recording secretary or, the informant.

As there are no documents for Gregorio Mendez Caban in the Civil Registration, he probably died at a tender age, and the baptismal record is likely all that’s available on him. 

It’s also possible that Juana Nepomucena’s potential mother, Juana Hernandez, has both surnames in question as Juana Hernandez Lopez. Women in records prior to the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century— could appear under either their mother’s or father’s surname, emphasizing the maternal line, or out of paternal recognition later on.

Still, even with the conflicting information, we have the names of Juana Nepomucena Caban’s father and her mother’s first name: Juan Caban and Juana —. As of yet, there is no further information regarding a possible second marriage for Juana’s husband Carlos Mendez. 

And here we are…

So, based on two baptismal records, Juana Nepomucena was not a Caban Nieves after all. There is a discrepancy, and whether she was a Caban Hernandez or a Caban Lopez still remains to be resolved. That’s ok.

And often, it can’t be done alone, and best done in community to share the bits that may hold the answer to the mystery. You don’t have to go it alone, so look for groups sharing information about a given geographic area or for Puerto Rican genealogy overall. Ask. Between the years 1850 and 1888, details can certainly change across documents, and that’s why we need to do exhaustive searches. 

If you’re related, or have info on Carlos Mendez or Juana Nepomucena Caban, please share!

References

[1] APNSMM Bautismos, Libro 15 21/MAR/52 nació: 6/p pg. 15 v; Maria Cenaira HL Carlos Méndez y Juana Caban; Abuelos paternos: Federico [Francisco] Méndez y Rosa Hernández; Abuelos maternos: Juan y Juana López; Padrinos: Silverio Aviles y Maria Adelaida Méndez;

22/MAY/1859 nació 9/MAY días pg. 49v Gregorio HL: Carlos Méndez y Nepoconucema Caban. Abuelos Paternos: Francisco Méndez y Rosa Hernández; Abuelos Maternos: Juan Caban y Juana Hernandez Padrinos: Juan de la Cruz Hidalgo y Maria Adelaida Mendez Transcriptions courtesy of Rosalma Mendez, 2006.

Part 1: https://latinogenealogyandbeyond.com/blog/whos-your-mama-documents-and-discrepancies-from-early-19th-century-moca—part-i/

Part 2: https://latinogenealogyandbeyond.com/blog/whos-your-mama-documents-and-discrepancies-from-early-19th-century-moca—part-2/

Who’s Your Mamá? Documents and discrepancies from early 19th century Moca – Part I

Title slide Who's your mama?
title slide - Document and map of Moca
Documents and Discrepancies from Early 19th C Moca

This blog post is the first of a 3 part case study that shows a process of resolving name discrepancies.  The sections offer Part 1: An overview , Part 2: Dealing with data and then Part 3: Making sense of the bits — gleaning details and pulling it together. 

Part One: An Overview

Today, searching for ancestor matches with DNA cousins involves a more intensive use of records that predate 1885. That’s before the 1910 census and the Civil Registration, which began  in Puerto Rico in 1885. Various documents cover births, marriages and deaths, three major life events marked by ritual and documents. 

Categories, gender, vital documents 

First, think about the ways that gender roles and social expectations can shape the information in these documents.   19th-20th C PR society was stratified, meaning that privilege came with white male property holder status at the top. This wasn’t guaranteed. Status could shift over time, often in response to changes in law and downturns in the economy. And it wasn’t just men. Note that women could own and inherit land and run businesses, so they too may appear in more documents.

Life changed in significant ways in the hundred years between 1800-1900. With enough information we may learn why a family’s fortune rose and fell over time. Some recently freed were able to purchase land and property. Yet laws that limited the ability of people to purchase property increased later in the century. This wasn’t necessarily linked to illiteracy, for in Moca, POC had higher rates of literacy in a largely illiterate society.[2] When tracing formerly enslaved ancestors one needs to review many kinds of documents to see where they may be mentioned.

Ultimately, many different ancestries blended on the island. Still, there can be problems in tracing descent along maternal lines, particularly if one is just focusing on male heads of household. There were many female headed households among African or Afro-Indigenous descended families. Laws enforced the use of single surnames and descriptive terms of color to distinguish free and unfree people from those in power.

Names can change over time. Among the reasons people changed surnames was as a result of parents remarrying, or to recognize paternity by using their father’s surname as a maternal surname. Some simply used a maternal surname to have another identity. You maybe able to find out why and add that story to your family history.

Knowing Where to Go Next

To all of these reasons for potential variations in sources, add the gaps in record sets. A range of techniques is needed to solve these riddles of identity and complete a reasonably exhaustive search.

One helpful book for determining the range of extant records for parishes across the island is Rodriguez-Leon OP’s La Microdemografica Parroquial de Puerto Rico. [1] Access to these records can vary. Some are microfilmed and while some parishes have refused the filming of their records, there is an effort underway to digitize and centralize records through the Archivo Diocesano in San Juan, and the SPG (Sociedad Puertorriquena de Genealogia) has transcriptions and books available for members (and some transcriptions for non-members).

Four parishes did not film their archives in the late 1980- early 1990s project by the LDS, yet several related sets of parish and municipal were uploaded to the FamilySearch.org site. They’ve reorganized the search page. Scroll down. Note how the database now clusters related resources beneath the search panel. Look at surrounding municipalities as they may have relatives there as well.

Protestant records begin after the Spanish American War. As I’m going to discuss the early to late nineteenth centuries, parish records will be for the Catholic Church, supplemented by available notarial documents. Next, to consider an 1888 death record for Juana Nepomucena Caban who died age 80 in Moca.

[1] Mario A. Rodriguez-Leon OP’s Los Registros Parroquiales y La Microdemografica Parroquial de Puerto Rico. Centro de Estudios Avanzados, San Juan, PR 1986.

[2] Antonio Nieves Mendez, Historia de un pueblo: Moca 1772 al 2000. 2008, Lulu.com

Cover of Mario A. Rodriguez-Leon OP’s Los Registros Parroquiales y La Microdemografica Parroquial de Puerto Rico
Mario A. Rodriguez-Leon OP’s Los Registros Parroquiales y La Microdemografica Parroquial de Puerto Rico
Cover of Antonio Nieves Mendez' Historia de un pueblo: Moca 1772 al 2000.
Antonio Nieves Mendez, Historia de un Pueblo: Moca 1772 al 2000.

2/3 – Part 2: https://latinogenealogyandbeyond.com/blog/whos-your-mama-documents-and-discrepancies-from-early-19th-century-moca—part-2/ (opens in a new tab)

“Y tu abuela, donde esta? An Introduction to Puerto Rican Genealogy”, Sat 9/25

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Y tu abuela, donde esta? An Introduction to Puerto Rican Genealogy, Saturday, September 25, 2:00pm – 3:00pm

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Lauderhill Towne Centre Library

Dr. Ellen Fernandez-Sacco’s introduction to Puerto Rican genealogy includes an overview of the challenges & opportunities researching ancestors enslaved and free.

Join us for this virtual program.

Y tu abuela, donde esta?: An Introduction to Puerto Rican Genealogy

Dr. Ellen Fernandez-Sacco’s introduction to Puerto Rican genealogy includes an overview of the challenges & opportunities researching ancestors enslaved and free, available resources and strategies for getting started. Bring your questions!  Handout available. 

Ellen Fernandez-Sacco works to connect people to their ancestors. One of her book projects highlights the connections between slavery, genealogy and family histories in nineteenth century Puerto Rico. She has published articles on American museums, genealogy, eugenics, and the history of mundillo— traditional Puerto Rican lace making.  Past President of the California Genealogical Society, she received her doctorate in Art History from UCLA. Her most recent article is “Reconstructing the missing Registro Central de Esclavos for NW PR.” Hereditas (2021).

Visit her website at https://latinogenealogyandbeyond.com

AGE GROUP: | Everyone | Adults |

EVENT TYPE: | Speaker | Online/Virtual | Discussion/Lecture |

TAGS: | Hispanic Heritage |

page from: http://broward.libnet.info/event/5279164

Who’s Your Mamá? Documents and discrepancies from early 19th century Moca – Part 2

Title slide Who's your mama?

Part 2: How to sort through data: Context

In this post, I’ll provide the context of a death record for Juana Nepomucena Caban as we start to unpack what appears in this 1888 Acta de Defuncion. Ultimately whatever information is collected, consider it together with any available documentation as you work your way to earlier generations.

Since one document leads to another, the civil registration can be tied to parish records, municipal documents, census, passports, etc. The information these contain, taken together can demonstrate some of the principles of the Genealogical Proof Standard, by examples in the next post. What details can a document provide to help understand an ancestor’s past?

We’ll start with the death certificate, an Acta de Defuncion created just three years after the Registro Civil begins. Will that document establish who are the parents of Juana Nepomuceno Caban of Moca, Puerto Rico?

Context: The Who & Where of Juana Nepomucena Caban’s Death

Barrios (Wards) of Moca, Puerto Rico Barrio Voladoras highlighted.

Early in the morning of 3 May 1888, Jose Sertoris Mendez Caban, a married farmer born in Moca, left Barrio Voladoras and went to the pueblo to report the death of his eighty year old mother, Juana Nepomucena Caban.  At 8AM, before the municipal judge Leon Lopez Diaz, and Juan Nepomuceno Miranda and Jose Maria Euche, the judge’s two agents, or actuarios, Jose Sertoris Mendez gave the committee her cause of death, the names of his father and 13 siblings. Locals Avelino Miranda and Jose Cosme Lopez, ‘cigarrero y el segundo panadero’ (‘cigarette maker and the second, bread maker’) served as witnesses along with Jose Quinones, panadero, and Jose F Maldonado, comerciante (businessman).

This offers a glimpse of the local community in Barrio Pueblo at the time. Often, many of the people mentioned are related, with ties to land, local production or commerce, revealed with further research. In the late 18th-early 20th centuries, Barrio Voladoras was a rural area with farms and plantations that provided subsistence crops in addition to luxury crops such as coffee and sugar.

Juana Nepomucena Caban Nieves, 3 May 1888 Registro Civil, Moca, Defunciones F66 #66 1 of 2 pg im 73 https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1-10454-2369-99?cc=1682798&wc=9376675

Juana Nepomucena Caban’s parents aren’t mentioned. The details in this document help outline her family, and leave significant questions about her parents.  Even the inked over surname seems to suggest doubt. Why didn’t Jose Sertoris mention his grandparents?

This is information that can change the ancestors that connect, and provide previously unknown branches as many learn via DNA cousin matches. With Puerto Rico’s high degree of endogamy, documents can offer clues to chart the connection, and if available, oral history may help to confirm details. Regardless, missing documents can leave one grateful that an ancestor made it into the Registro Civil, which starts in 1885.

If a family had resources, there’s a higher likelihood of locating them in notarial documents (wills, rental arrangements, land sales, enslavement, etc) newspapers (Library of Congress) or dispensations (dispensas) at the Archivo Diocesano in San Juan.  Some digitized series and transcriptions are available. These ancestors may be mentioned even if they were not the parties who filed for the documents with the local notary.

Microfilm Sources

When working with record sets and transcriptions, one wants to have access to original records, but the next best thing is microfilm.  Currently, the largest collection of documents on microfilm is on FamilySearch.

There are some problems seeing original primary documents in Puerto Rico: many parish records aren’t readily accessible, trying to make appointments at the Archivo General de Puerto Rico or Special Collections at UPR or InterAmericana in a pandemic for starters., Next are the significant gaps for some early nineteenth century records.

There’s a heavy reliance on transcriptions because of restrictions on other record sets such as notarial records. Unlike other countries, notarial documents have no expiration date in Puerto Rico. As the original documents disappear, transcriptions then become primary sources. That digitized microfilm may be the only copy of records that survived fire, weather, insects and heat over the centuries. It’s still better than having no sources at all.

You’ll want to keep track of your sources so any conflicting information can be traced back, and know its source to avoid repeating an error in the future.

Basically, researching involves cross referencing the information in records, tracking children and tracing collateral lines. Broadening the family tree has the potential to yield some answers, especially when there are several lines with the same surname in an area. In this case, Caban is a surname in NW Puerto Rico that has clusters in Aguada, Moca, Aguadilla and Isabela, made up of different families.

Identity, Names, Surnames

Born in Moca, a municipality in northwest Puerto Rico sometime during the early 1800s, Juana Nepomucena Caban lived through the island’s social and economic shifts. Over the eight decades of her long life, the farms that produced for subsistence and some luxury crops for export, shifted to the rise of coffee and larger sugar plantations . We can glean several facts from her death record of 1888, which i’ll list in the next post.

In the pages of the Registro Civil for Moca, Juana Nepomucena Caban appears as Caban Nieves in her death certificate– but is her maternal surname correct?

Given that there are several Caban lines across the northwest that can differ in terms of ethnicity, endogamy and/or origin, confirm identity with as many sources as possible. As errors do appear in official documents, earlier records may confirm her maternal line. Closer relatives can provide more details than say, a neighbor sent to register a birth or death. Sometimes the relationship is not mentioned, but becomes apparent as you build your tree.

Secondary sources: sometimes it’s the only resource

In this document, the 1888 information can be compared with a transcribed 1859 baptismal record for her son, Gregorio Mendez Caban. In it, Gregorio’s maternal grandmother, (Juana Nepomucena’s mother), is simply identified as Juana Hernandez, wife of Juan Caban— not Juana Nieves.

In fact, thanks to transcriptions by a Sociedad Ancestro Mocanos member Rosalma Mendez, information on another daughter, Zenaida, also lists a variation in an early baptism record. Since this is a transcription of an earlier document, it’s a reason to keep searching and find additional records to confirm her parents identities. More on this in the next post.

Naming patterns: clues in variations

What about Juana Nepomucena Caban’s given name? She can appear in records as Juana, Juana Nepomucena, or simply as Nepomucena, the female version of the name for Saint Juan Nepomuceno. Tracking name variations is helpful for searching. These can include middle names or even apodos, the nicknames used on a daily basis. At times a nickname appears in a record or oral history. First names can repeat in family naming patterns and offer another clue to follow.

2/4 – On to Part 3…

https://latinogenealogyandbeyond.com/blog/whos-your-mama-documents-and-discrepancies-from-early-19th-century-moca-part-3/

Seven Points for Teaching POC Genealogy

family photographs
Three photo postcards from Mayaguez Puerto Rico from the early 1900s, two toddlers flank a young girl.
Three photo postcards from Mayaguez, ca 1910.

It seems almost weekly, we see articles describing tone deaf and racist approaches to the teaching of slavery, on which the foundation of this country rests, and maintains today. Part of the problems rests on the disconnect between this history and how and what we learn, together with where and who delivers a particular narrative about the past. The Southern Poverty Law Center, in response to the recent spate of incidences in schools across the country, issued a report with seven common problems in teaching about slavery, which I rewrote here to apply to genealogy.

1. We understand that slavery is not a universal experience for POC, but it is the fact of how this nation was founded. We seek to research, learn and understand the roles and experiences of families and communities within these systems.

2. We acknowledge that flaws are embedded in particular understandings of American history, and that by understanding their role in impacting family history, we can also work towards change.

3. Enslavement is an American institution that crosses time and place. It existed in all colonies and states at the time of the signing of Declaration of Independence, and its principles continue to be bound with the economic fate of the nation today.

4. We speak to the ideology of white supremacy, and point to its outline and role of eugenics within the formation of genealogical practice. We also consider the perpetuation of slavery within forms of structural racism today, that connects past and present.

5. We deal with traumatic experiences as part of our history; the focus within our approach is on resilience and survival.

6. Genealogy and family history are contextual practices- we seek to incorporate the scope of POC experience by not divorcing it from the cultural currents and practices of the time.

7. Our focus on the lives of POC decenters white experience, and instead references a framework of relevant political and economic impacts in the time leading up to and beyond the Civil War. African American institutions provided structure and opportunity, thereby affording a way out of no way.

These two quotes, from a speech made by James Baldwin in 1980 still resonate today when thinking about family histories, genealogy and their use in interpreting the larger context of living and understanding the past:

“I want to suggest that history is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”

“You got to find out the reality which surrounds you. You got to be able to describe it. You got to be able to describe your mother and your father and your uncles and your junkie cousin. If you aren’t able to describe it, you will not be able to survive it.” “Black English: A Dishonest Argument.” Randall Kenan, ed. James Baldwin,  The Cross of Redemption, Uncollected Writings. 2010. 

Resources

Teaching Hard History: American Slavery. Tolerance.org PDF. SPLC, 2018. https://www.tolerance.org/sites/default/files/2018-02/TT-Teaching-Hard-History-American-Slavery-Report-WEB-February2018.pdf

Teaching Hard History: Podcast – Seasons 1 & 2 https://www.tolerance.org/podcasts/teaching-hard-history/american-slavery

Ellen Fernandez-Sacco, “Can Genealogy Be Racist? Identity, Roots & the Question of Proof.” Blogpost, 22 March 2018, Latino Genealogy & Beyond.com. https://latinogenealogyandbeyond.com/blog/can-genealogy-be-racist/

Resources on the History of Prostitution, Underground Economies & Family Histories

A supplement for Episode 89: Dangerous Liaisons: Jailbird Relatives and The Freaky Underside of Genealogy. Black ProGen Live! July 30, 2019

Lewis Hine, View of Red Light District on C. Street, N.W., near 13th,
Lewis Hine, View of Red Light District on C. Street, N.W., near 13th, with Griffin Veatch, who was showing me around. No. 6 Special Messenger Service, 1223 New York Ave., N.W.; he lives 1643 Cramer St., N.E. He said he commenced the messenger service at 11 yrs. old. Has worked all night a couple of years, and now works until 10 P.M. Is known to Truant Officers. Family has had trouble with him. Says he is 17 but doesn’t look it. Quite profane, but (apparently) not very wise about this district although he says he goes to these houses occasionally. Location: Washington (D.C.), District of Columbia. Library of Congress.

There’s no family history left untouched in some way by underground economies and prostitution. Prostitution or sex work, can be understood as a means of survival first and second, an avocation, either by choice or coercion. Beyond the economic question of support, there are questions about the nature of history that can exclude the marginalized worker, questions around ideas of gender, masculinity, power and the network of beliefs and the structure of law that declares it legal, illegal or a fusion of the two. So, if we think about family histories that deal with aspects of an underground economy, it means dealing with variables in time and place. For many this was a temporary connection or situation, a form of employment that was often unpredictable. Only for a select few, was it a situation under their direct control.

In art, prostitution is the subject of painting, literature, cinema and photography; it shapes the nature of urban, modern experience and informs the realms of tourism and the military. There are stereotypes that circulate in popular culture, in different societies, best viewed as means of defining ideas and assumptions around gender, race and various social boundaries. Looking further back, sexual slavery was also a feature of the transatlantic slave trade that used men women and children, and there’s the trafficking that continues into the present.. Columbus established a sex trade on Hispanola by 1490, with children as young as 9 years old serving as sex slaves.

Prostitution as an organized business arrived in Puerto Rico (and by extension to other colonies) with Spanish colonization in the sixteenth century. After the Spanish American War, for example, policing these boundaries of gender and race drew on discourses of eugenics and public health, so that women were subjected to moral judgements, incarceration, forced medical treatment and framed them both as a targeted category of control and as fulfillment of eugenic policies. Any behavior viewed as questionable by women living in poverty, or regarded as promiscuous, were targeted and swept up as a means of social control, even if they never worked ‘the life’.

Family, Context, Options and Motivation

Understanding how illicit businesses like prostitution, numbers running, and black market participation shapes your family history, can open up a history of different social networks, and is an opportunity to understand the various social constraints and options people faced to sell the only thing they had left to sell to survive.

Often there is an economic reason that leaves people in desperate situations, as with the women mantua makers of the 1840s whose poor pay for long hours hand sewing then-fashionable hooded outerwear. As they contended with rising expenses many were left working a sex trade in order to make ends meet. Some were persons who suddenly found themselves without other means of support; still others (a much smaller group) decide on it as a business, contending with the legal structures on the local and national level to keep business going. Employment by any means necessary was for some, key to survival. In Harlem of the 1930s, Stephanie St. Clair known as “Queenie”, “Madam Queen”, “Madam St. Clair”, and “Queen of the Policy Rackets”, ran a numbers racket that kept some 2,000 people employed during the Great Depression, despite attempts by the Mafia to take her empire over. When a young man in New York City, my paternal grandfather kept food on the table for his family by being a numbers runner, the person who brought the bets to the bookie.

Violence & social control

Depending on the age and racial designation, there may be no effort to help or investigate the murder of sex workers, denying justice as well as legal and medical support services to those who remain. Or, there is wholesale denial on offer, as with the so-called Korean ‘Comfort Women‘ forced to serve the Japanese Army during WW2, who went on the promise of factory employment and instead found themselves in harrowing conditions. Yet, acknowledgement and apologies from the Japanese government were not forthcoming. Oral histories are key to knowing and understanding what happened.

Violence, repression and incarceration are also part of the picture, adding to the complexity of understanding the past. Law enforcement was anything but consistent. Conditions vary, whether streetwalking, brothel, escort, and the legal stance per country can exacerbate or support those involved, and class made a huge difference. Military prostitution, child prostitution, trafficking and tourism are other aspects to consider when researching the past. The question of slavery, whether legal condition or condition of labor repeatedly comes up. Studies do show it’s better to have regulation and laws that protect the worker rather than have an illicit trade where it is not those who labor who gain the income.

Finding Information: Some Resources

Oral histories, photographs, police reports, newspapers, census and military records, are just some of the materials in various collections that may have information on a family member. As the essay from the Framing Resources site at GMU notes, there is no one class, cultural, religious or social perspective on prostitution, and it’s a field of study that has much to offer in terms of understanding the historical context of family histories involved with the practice, some of it very recent. Also the site provides a small area that lays out some questions helpful for working on genealogical research in terms of the nature of primary and secondary materials you’ll encounter in libraries, special collections both online and off.

Take a look at Tyler Schulze’s Black Sheep Ancestor pages “Search for your Blacksheep Ancestors in Free Genealogical Prison and Convict Records, Historical Court Records, Executions, Insane Asylum Records and Biographies of Famous Outlaws, Criminals & Pirates in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada” http://blacksheepancestors.com

I Dream of Genealogy has a cluster of 7 states (CA, FL, IL, IA, LA, NV, NY) with access to admittedly a small group of free Prison and Arrest Records listed in http://www.idreamof.com/prison.html?src=gentoday

The Internet Archive has over 1400 items in a search result, some of them guidebooks, others, legal statutes published during the 19th century, books and other related materials to download or borrow. See link below.

Also included are the links to special collections on Storyville, New Orleans from the Library of Congress website. Please scroll down towards the end of this post.

This list is not exhaustive, but intended to give a sense of the wide variety of materials and approaches that you can apply to your searches.

Resources

General

“Framing Resources Essay: Case study on prostitution” – Women in World History Website “These varied materials reflect differing class, cultural, religious, and social perspectives on prostitution, especially in the modern, Western world. They tell us what observers thought about prostitution and how their attitudes changed over time. Until recently, there were few personal accounts by prostitutes to provide clues about their varying motivations or their attitudes toward the governments, organizations, or individuals that sought to regulate the practice or abolish prostitution. Oral histories as well as the anthropological and sociological studies that document the lives of prostitutes, many of them from Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe and almost all of them poor, have begun filling this gap.”
http://chnm.gmu.edu/wwh/essay/essay.php?c=resources&r=case

Andy McCarthy, “Genealogy Tips: New York City Cops in the City Record.”
“…For the five boroughs, there really is no collection of historical “police records.…”
https://www.nypl.org/blog/2017/08/18/researching-nypd-city-record

NYPL Record Requests: FOIL
https://www1.nyc.gov/site/nypd/services/law-enforcement/record-requests.page

Cyndi’s List: Occupations: Prostitution
https://www.cyndislist.com/occupations/prostitutes/

Judy Rosella Edwards, “Genealogy of Communities: Prostitution” Genealogy Today.
https://www.genealogytoday.com/articles/reader.mv?ID=2916

“Researching the Oldest Profession.” Family Tree Magazine
https://www.familytreemagazine.com/premium/researching-the-oldest-profession/

“Prostitution in the Americas.” Wikipedia.
[Note the status of countries as legal, legal and regulated and illegal]
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prostitution_in_the_Americas

“Prostitution in the United States.” Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prostitution_in_the_United_States

“Prostitution in Paris” Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prostitution_in_Paris

Andrew Israel Ross,  “Sex in the Archives: homosexuality Prostitution and the Archives de la Prefecture de Police de Paris”, French Historical Studies, 2017 (free access)
https://read.dukeupress.edu/french-historical-studies/article/40/2/267/9914/Sex-in-the-ArchivesHomosexuality-Prostitution-and

Elizabeth Garner Mazaryk, “Selling Sex: 19th C New York City Prostitution and Brothels.” 3 Sep 2017
https://digpodcast.org/2017/09/03/19th-century-new-york-city-brothels/

New York State Prostitution Laws
https://statelaws.findlaw.com/new-york-law/new-york-prostitution-laws.html

William E. Nelson, Criminality and Sexual Morality in New York, 1920-1980. Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities.
https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1091&context=yjlh

LaShawn Harris . “Playing the Numbers Game: Madame Stephanie St. Clair & African-American Policy Culture in Harlem”. Black Women, Gender and Families (2008). (2): 53–76.

Bastiaens, Ida (2007) “Is Selling Sex Good Business? : Prostitution in Nineteenth Century New York City,” Undergraduate Economic Review: Vol. 3: Iss. 1, Article 8.
http://digitalcommons.iwu.edu/uer/vol3/iss1/8

Oral History of the Korean “Comfort Women”, Columbia University http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/ps/korea/comfort_women.pdf

Blackburn, George M., and Sherman L. Ricards. “The prostitutes and gamblers of Virginia City, Nevada: 1870.” Pacific Historical Review 48.2 (1979): 239-258
https://www.jstor.org/stable/3639274?seq=1/subjects

Fabiola Bailón Vásquez, 2017. “Reglamentarismo Y Prostitución En La Ciudad De México, 1865-1940.” Historias, n.º 93 (junio), 79-98.
https://revistas.inah.gob.mx/index.php/historias/article/view/10910

Revista Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña.
Carlos A Rodriguez Villanueva, “Amor licito e ilícito: un escape a los patrones amorosos establecidos [Historia socio-sexual en ella Caribe Hispanico, siglos XVIII-XIX: Cuba, Santo Domingo y Puerto Rico]”; Jose E Flores Ramos, “Vida cotidiana de la prostitutas en San Juan de Puerto Rico: 1890-1919”;
Nelly Vazquez Sortillo, “La violencia dentro de la violencia: un caso de violencia domestica en una hacienda esclavista en Puerto Rico (1871).”. 2006 vol 13, 2nd series. Issue downloadable from issuu.com
https://issuu.com/coleccionpuertorriquena/docs/segunda_serie_n__mero_13

348 Dra. Nieves de los Ángeles Vázquez Lazo “Historia de la prostitución en Puerto Rico, de 1876 a 1917.” Angel Collazo Schwarz, La Voz del Centro http://www.vozdelcentro.org/2009/08/23/la-historia-de-la-prostitucion-en-puerto-rico/ Podcast: http://www.vozdelcentro.org/mp3/Prog_348.mp3

Isabel Luberza Oppenheimer, ‘Isabel la Negra’, Madam & owner of Elizabeth’s Dancing Club, Ponce, PR. Wikipedia.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isabel_Luberza_Oppenheimer

Juan A Vera Mendez “Legalización de la Prostitución” (slide presentation has helpful overview on prostitution in PR)
https://studylib.es/doc/6024328/la-prostitución—universidad-interamericana-de-puerto-rico

“1970s New York City: The dangerous & gritty streets during a decade of decline.” NY Daily News. Photographs of NYC’s sex workers included.
https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/gritty-new-york-city-1970s-gallery-1.1318521

Basin Street brothels, New Orleans, 1908. Wikipedia

Books

Timothy J Gilfoyle, City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920. (1994)

Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860. (1987)

Shirley Stewart, The World of Stephanie St. Clair, An Entrepreneur, Race Woman and Outlaw in Early Twentieth Century Harlem. Peter Lang Publishers, 2014.

LaShawn Harris, Sex Workers, Psychics and Numbers Runners: Black Women in New York City’s Underground Economy. U Illinois Press, 2016.

Shane White, Graham White, Stephen Garton, Stephen Robertson, Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars. Harvard UP, 2010.

Karen Abbott, Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America’s Soul. [Chicago] Random House, (2008).

Laura Briggs, Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science and US Imperialism in Puerto Rico, University California Press, (2002).

Eileen J Suarez Findlay, Imposing Decency: The politics of sexuality and race in Puerto Rico, 1870-1920. Duke UP (1999).

Donna J. Seifert, Elizabeth Barthold O’Brien, & Joseph Balicki, “Mary Ann’s First Class House: The Archaeology of a Capital Brothel.” Robert A Schmidt & Barbara L. Voss, Archaeologies of Sexuality. Routledge, (2000), 117-128.

Wild West Book Review: Jan McKell’s Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains UNM Press, 2009
https://www.historynet.com/wild-west-book-review-red-light-women.htm

Heather Branstetter, A Business Doing Pleasure: Selling Sex in the Silver Valley 1884-1991. Wallace, Idaho. (author blog)
https://abusinessdoingpleasure.com
Race & the Houses
https://abusinessdoingpleasure.com/2017/08/17/race-and-the-houses/
Files at the Shoshone County Sheriff’s Office
https://abusinessdoingpleasure.com/2014/10/02/aboutthescsofiles/

Isabel Luberza Oppenheimer (1908-1974), colloquially known as ‘Isabel la Negra’ Madam & Owner, Elizabeth’s Dance Club, Ponce, PR

Reports

“Garden of Truth: the trafficking of Native Women in Minnesota.” Minnesota Indian Women Sexual Assault Coalition.  Report (2011)
https://vawnet.org/material/garden-truth-prostitution-and-trafficking-native-women-minnesota

“Prostitution: A violent reality of homelessness” (2001) report
https://www.issuelab.org/resource/prostitution-a-violent-reality-of-homelessness.html

Historical resource
Medievalists.net list of posts on prostitution, various locations during the medieval period 
http://www.medievalists.net/tag/prostitution/

Mapping

Hell’s Half Acre, 2017 [Victorian Los Angeles]
https://la.curbed.com/2017/11/17/16654292/history-prostitution-los-angeles

Selected Items from the Internet Archive, Archive.org items

Search results: simple search, prostitution yields 1400+ items 
https://archive.org/search.php?query=subject%3A%22Prostitution%22

US Congress, House Committee on Interstate Commerce, Memorandum on white slave trade. 1909
https://archive.org/details/memoranduminrewh00unit/page/n6

Rosine Association, Reports and realities from the sketch-book of a manager of the Rosine Association, December 1855.
https://archive.org/details/reportsandreali00pagoog/page/n7

An ordinance relating to houses of ill fame and prostitution Salt Lake City, UT, 1877
https://archive.org/details/ordinancerelatin03salt

Special Collections

KC History Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library Results – 60 objects
https://kchistory.org/islandora/search/Prostitution%20?type=dismax

Annie Chambers, (1843-1945) 19 results 
https://kchistory.org/islandora/search/Prostitution%20?type=dismax&islandora_solr_search_navigation=0&f%5B0%5D=kcpl_mods_local_subject_ms%3A%22Chambers%2C%5C%20Annie%22

Modern Pornography & Sex Work Collection, 1960-1990. University of South Florida 
https://digital.lib.usf.edu/SFS0050529/00001

CSUN, The Oldest Profession (Collections overview)
https://library.csun.edu/SCA/Peek-in-the-Stacks/prostitution

Dr Bonnie Bullough Collection, 1954-2000. CSUN, Oviatt Library, Special Collections
https://findingaids.csun.edu/archon/?p=collections/controlcard&id=445

Reverend Wendell M Miller Collection, 1928-1988.
Citizens independent Vice Investigating Committee (CIVIC)  CSUN, Oviatt Library, Special Collections
http://findingaids.csun.edu/archon/?p=collections/controlcard&id=102

Prostitution Collection, 1834-1954., Five Colleges (MA)
http://asteria.fivecolleges.edu/findaids/sophiasmith/mnsss108.html

Prostitution at Brigham Young University, 1997
https://findingaid.lib.byu.edu/viewItem/FA%207/Series%2010/Subseries%204/6.10.5.6.2/

Minnie Fischer Cunningham Papers, Standard Statistics on Prostitution Syphilis & Gonorrhea (1919)
https://digital.lib.uh.edu/collection/p15195coll33/item/224

Guide to Shelley Bristol Papers UNLV
https://www.library.unlv.edu/speccol/finding-aids/MS-00398.pdf

The Real Rainbow Row, Charleston Hotel
College of Charleston, Special Collections
https://speccoll.cofc.edu/the-real-rainbow-row/charleston-hotel-200-meeting-street/

New Orleans

The Library of Congress’ page on Storyville has several special collections from New Orleans which I have included below.

Storyville: A resource guide to commercialized Vice in New Orleans. Library of Congress
https://www.loc.gov/rr/business/storyville/books.html

IAL COLLECTIONS
Storyville: a resource guide to sources about commercialized vice in historic New Orleans.
February 2018
Table of Contents
Overview
Selected Book Titles
Newspapers
Special Collections
LC Subject Headings

Archives of the City of New Orleans. New Orleans Public Library.
http://nutrias.org/~nopl/inv/synopsis/synopsis.htm 
This includes ordinances related to prostitution.

Louisiana State Archives. Baton Rouge.
https://www.sos.la.gov/HistoricalResources/Pages/default.aspx 
See Research Historical Records  section.

Louisiana and Special Collections. Earl K. Long Library, University of New Orleans.
http://libguides.uno.edu/special 
Includes the following collections: New Orleans Chamber of Commerce Records, MSS 66  and Josie Arlington Collection, MSS 270.

Louisiana Research Collection. Howard-Tilton Library, Tulane University.
http://larc.tulane.edu/ 
Search in the following collections:
Al Rose Collection, RG 606  : Although listed as a jazz archive, Storyville was the place to hear jazz musicians. Search:  Prostitution.
Master Rolls, Battalion Washington Artillery: 1861-1865.  
New Orleans Travelers’ Aid Society Papers, RG 365.

New Orleans Records. New Orleans City Archives, Louisiana Division New Orleans Public Library.
http://nutrias.org/spec/speclist.htm 
This collection includes arrest records, arrest index, ‘Jewell’s Digest of the City Ordinances’, etc.
Note: this collection is also available on microfilm at the Library of Congress.

New Orleans. Ordinances, etc. Jewell’s Digest of the city ordinances, Rev. ed. New Orleans, 1887. 
LC Call Number: Microfilm 21895 JS
LC Catalog record: 47035734

Williams Research Center. Historic New Orleans Collection.
https://www.hnoc.org/ 
Blue Books in the Williams Research Center’s collection, probably the largest extant, is available for research. View one of the digitized Blue Books here. Please contact the center for more information.
Last updated: 02/09/2018

Beyond Transcriptions: Jose Antonio Caban Nieves and his five wives

Detail: Barrio Naranjo. Centro Geográfico del Ejército, Itinerario de Moca a Añasco, 1893

What’s in a name?

How many Jose, Maria and Juans have you come across in your tree? Frequently repeated first names can reflect religious preferences, as in Saints Day names or Marian names. The repetition of names can also be a simple preference due to precedents within families or by popularity.
 Sorting out whether a name that keeps cropping up are made up of one or multiple first and last names requires caution as one seeks the supplemental evidence that adds weight to a proof. Even better is locating a document where the informant knew quite a bit about the deceased, to the point of citing several marriages, parents, children or grandparents. There are documents that just begin to knock some brick walls down– and this 1904 document provides just such a moment. 

The son who remembered 

When Jose Antonio Caban Nieves died in 1904, his son, Lorenzo Caban Babilonia was able to recite the names of all the women in his father’s five marriages. Now both of Lorenzo’s parents were gone, as his father  contracted a severe intestinal illness, that resulted in his rapid demise.  How long Jose Antonio’s condition lasted went unmentioned in his death certificate.  Such details are included in more recent certificates, after 1935.

Wives, children and memory 

Jose Antonio Caban Nieves lived long enough to be a 70 year old man who had 16 children, most of whom survived to adulthood. His marriage with Pascasia Babilonia,  was likely the longest of all. Remarkably, his son Lorenzo Caban Babilonia (1866-1946) listed the  names of the children from each marriage.  This also reflects an oral practice of transmitting names and committing them (successfully) to memory, so Lorenzo’s feat was part of learning one’s own family history. We know it’s oral, because at the end of the document, is stated “..firma el Comisonado y los testigos por el declarante no saber firmar, le hace a su ruego..” the Commissioner and witnesses signed on his behalf, because the informant does not know how to write. His father left a will, so there’s additional documentation in the Protocolos Notariales at the Archivo General de Puerto Rico.
As it turns out, NONE of the additional 14 people linked  to Jose were indexed in FamilySearch— another reason why it’s worth checking the original document. 

Detail, Acta de defuncion, Jose Antonio Caban Nieves, F186 #12   1904 image no 1236. Registro Civil, Moca, FS.org
  • Parents:  Marcelo Caban & Ynes Nieves
  • First Marriage: Pascasia Babilonia [Quinones]
  • 10 children, only 8 mentioned: Lorenzo,  Juana, Bibiana, Calista, Ricarda, Anastasio, Juan y Segundino Caban Babilonia.
  • Second Marriage: Felipa Marrero [Hernandez]
  • 3 children: Cleofe, Adelaida & Antonia Caban Marrero 
  • Third Marriage: Juana Babilonia [Perez]
  • 1 child: Juana Nieves Babilonia
  • Fourth Marriage: Evangelista Ortiz [Perez]
    No children
  • Fifth Marriage: Sinforosa Soto [Hernandez]
  • 2 children: Luis y Marian Caban Soto 

What this also tells us is that childbearing proved deadly for some partners. With so many little ones, a widower’s impulse to find another wife was imperative. Here potential mates seem to be in the area of Barrio Naranjo, where farms and plantations of relatives and associates were nearby. Most people were born at home, and infant mortality was high. These births were not for the most part, attended by doctors but comadronas or midwives, used their knowledge to bring the next generation into the world. By the 1930s, comadronas (midwives) had formal training, although the knowledge of delivering babies was known among women long before. The difference was a decline in the number of mothers lost to infeccion puerperal – puerperal fever.

For his first marriage to Petronila Pascasia Babilonia Quinones (1846-bef 1886), my research revealed there was at least one additional child. Petronila, as she mostly appears in documents, was the daughter of Francisco Babilonia Acevedo & Maria Bibiana Quinones Vives, owners of Sitio de la Ranchera during the time of her birth.

Multiple connections emerge from these marriages and children. His siblings also tended to have large families, without additional marriages. HIs older sister, Evangelista Caban Nieves (1818-1916), who married Jose Soto (ca 1813-1906) and had 15 children with him. His brothers Marcelino (1833-1914) and Manuel de Jesus Caban Nieves (1846-1886) married two sisters, the daughters of d. Antonio Perez Gerena and da. Manuela Babilonia Lorenzo de Acevedo. Marcelino married Cirila Isidra Babilonia Perez ( 1834-1911) with whom he had 11 children. Manuel de Jesus married Damiana Babilonia Perez (ca 1835-1888) they had 6 known children.

If you’re related to them, you’re related to me via Manuela Babilonia Acevedo, my GGG aunt and her parents. There are probably additional links via the Caban and the Nieves lines, as well, however that connection remains to be determined, partially caught in gap of missing records for first decade of the early nineteenth century. Going beyond the transcriptions in search results can definitely offer a researcher advantages.

References

Centro Geográfico del Ejército, Itinerario de Moca a Añasco, 1893. Archivo Digital National de Puerto Rico, https://archivonacional.com/PL/1/1/1385

“Puerto Rico, Registro Civil, 1805-2001,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QVJD-F8D7 : 17 July 2017), Pascasia Babilonia in entry for José Antonio Caban Y Nieves, 27 Jan 1904; citing Moca, Puerto Rico, oficinas del ciudad, Puerto Rico (city offices, Puerto Rico).

Ellen Fernandez-Sacco, “Don Miguel Babilonia (1743-1823) and his Descendants: From Mallorca, Spain to Moca, Puerto Rico.” Hereditas, 16:1, 2015, 6-47; 35-36. https://bit.ly/2Y31yiT

Can Genealogy Be Racist? Identity, Roots & the Question of Proof

Eugenics Congress Logo

Cover, Alex Haley, Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Image: Wikipedia.

Oral history, Alex Haley’s Roots and the question of proof

Change takes time. It can feel glacial when looking at the time frame for the development of genealogy for people of color in the US. As Nicka Smith recently reminded us in the video of Ep20b of BlackProGenLIVE on Talks Diversity in Genealogy and Family History, our path is difficult because a fundamental building block is oral history. [1]  As she pointed out, ‘the problem of the color line‘ remains a very real one in genealogy.[2]  I’m into understanding that context, and want to take an opportunity to look back at another decade’s work where the push for truth served to reinforce a boundary.  The question of proof in genealogy always looms large.  For examples of practice, don’t miss the list of blogs at the end of this post.

A quote from a 1983 article that contained a relentless takedown of Alex Haley’s book Roots: The Saga of an American Family, reveals the seams along which professional genealogy developed, some eighty years earlier. This split posits the document against the voice in oral history as the legitimate source of data. Thirty-three years ago, this genealogical work was an endeavor that missed the boat in its insistence on paper as the ultimate proof, and perhaps the location there is significant, as it came out of the deep South.

“History Professor finds fraud in Haley’s Roots.” Tuscaloosa News, AL, Sunday Feb 23, 1993. Note page’s placement of headline below concerning a monument that Haley’s family wanted to erect near Florence, AL.

Facts, Claims and the Logic of Proof

The claim that ‘No ethnic group has a monopoly upon oral tradition or documentation, literacy or illiteracy, mobility or stability'[3] ignores the fact that enslaved people counted for chattel, that various populations were brought to labor in oppressive conditions here, and key is that most people of color were not party to creating documentation on their own behalf reflective of them as equal people with equal rights. This goes well beyond “superimposing racial divisions upon all aspects of life…”[4] and ignores that the struggle for civic recognition reaches back to the founding of the country. The fear expressed then, was that Haley’s book could constitute a ‘…delusion that encourages mediocre scholarship in the nascent field of Afro-American genealogy and relegates black family history to the academic dark ages from which Caucasian genealogy has already emerged…’.[5]

The problem is that this logic of ‘documentary proof as the only valid proof’ is part of the problem of structural racism, inadvertently or deliberately serving ‘to perpetuate social stratifications and outcomes that all too often reflect racial group sorting rather than individual merit and effort.’[6] To continue to claim this kind of proof as the only proof is an exclusionary exercise, in effect, one that insists on documentation within a context where one side holds the power, and is also one that perpetuates the gap between White Americans and Americans of color.

The following chart shows the interlocking parts of this system:

Chart: Structural Racism produces Racialized Outcomes. Aspen Roundtable on Community Change

In essence, what we are witnessing today is a gradual process of desegregation within genealogy practiced in the U.S.

Strategies and Projects: Restoring Visibility & Developing Methodologies

Within the last two decades, genealogists in the field of African American genealogy have developed strategies for working with oral histories and published accounts and have successfully incorporated them within the Genealogical Proof Standard.[7] It follows the growth of historical, sociological and cultural work on various dimensions of the experience and process of enslavement, the development of various communities of color and difference as legitimate fields of inquiry.  Now there is a growing awareness of combined efforts that defy simple ethnic or racial classification as with Marronage, those hidden and open maroon communities where people of African, Indigenous and varying admixtures stole themselves to, to gain self-determination. These historic episodes do not fit neatly into traditional genealogy and require new modes of recording, interpreting and disseminating data on the families of these communities.

Given the location, this work has neither a smooth or clear path to acceptance; for instance, one can look at the changes in the narratives offered by Monticello in the 1990s to the 2010s, with the recent Public Summit on Race and the Legacy of Slavery (Sep 2016) and the recent conference (Mar 2018) Interpreting Slavery    Also important are the in-place interventions by Joseph McGill of The Slave Dwelling Project, and Michael J Twitty’s rising recognition as a culinary and historical authority with his blog Afroculinaria and his important book The Cooking Gene are gaining wider regard.

The summit, “Memory, Mourning, Mobilization: Legacies of Slavery and Freedom in America” would not have been possible without the oral histories along with the genealogical and DNA data collected by the Getting Word project at Monticello. As a result, descendants now have the opportunity to stay overnight through the Slave Dwelling Project. McGill continues to expand to new sites, to have important conversations as a group participates in a simple, visceral experience of sleeping in slave cabins.

On Episode 315 (Mar 15 2018) of Research at the National Archives and Beyond, Bernice Bennett interviewed genealogist Kenyatta D. Berry, on her work with a consortium of 30 US universities currently researching and dealing with their involvement in slavery. Within their discussion the question of data, access and interpretation by descendants, genealogists and historians is in a process of development.  The variety of needs range from establishing a historical narrative to understanding context, creating macro and microhistories that can recombine with documentation to create  larger interdisciplinary spaces that can accommodate community. This is a coming to the table on a large scale, that holds the promise of shifting how we see our past and our future as a nation. Our family trees reach long and far indeed, with many finally linking their past to places beyond borders using documents, oral history and DNA.

Genetic genealogist Shannon Christmas is co-administrator of the Hemings-Jefferson-Wayles-Eppes Autosomal DNA Project and blogs on new tools and technologies for genealogy at Through the Trees. Robin R Foster has been blogging since 1985 at Robin Saving Stories.  There are incredible collections of records and articles on Toni Carrier’s Lowcountry Africana, which covers the rice growing region across South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Or look at the work of my cousin, Teresa Vega in Greenwich, Connecticut regarding the Historic Byram African American Cemetery on her blog, Radiant Roots, Boricua Branches.  (Scroll down for latest news)

Also consult the blogs of members of Black ProGen below (scroll down) to see more projects that take on various facets of genealogy to see examples of this broader change, and join us at  BlackProGen LIVE twice monthly on YouTube.

Weighing what matters

I’m not saying that Alex Haley’s work cannot be analyzed for the errors it contains, but instead, that the weight of its context and the moment of its production mattered. Cited in The NY Times  (and unnamed in a later article) was eminent Yale historian Edmund Morgan, who recognized that Roots was “a statement of someone’s search for identity… it would seem to me to retain a good deal of impact no matter how many mistakes the man has made. In any genealogy there are bound to be a number of mistakes.”[8] Morgan was the author of American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975), a title that points to the persistent contradiction in the founding of this nation. Overall, historians were not alarmed. Ultimately, Haley’s book proved more novel than fact, but more importantly, it captured the imagination of millions, inspiring many to pursue their own genealogy and family history. The stakes were high for claiming a rightful place as part of US history.

What Haley achieved at the time of the National Bicentennial was to tell a story of national import from a black perspective, as he hoped “his story of our people can help to alleviate the legacies of the fact that preponderantly the histories have been written by the winners.”[8]. One early reviewer of his work noted, “And so, he did write his entire story from the Black perspective which is sorely needed to connect the institutions and fill the void left by the omission of ‘objective’ white historians, the winners in the war of human degradation—slavery…. it is the cultural history laid bare upon the canvas of time devoid of the misconceptions and misinterpretations of a people rationalizing their sins against humanity.”[9]

Roots and its subsequent miniseries did not omit the range of violence perpetrated on a fully human people and claimed a historical place in the narrative of America. It countered a dominant historical and legal framework of being partially human at best, and defied the weight of stereotypes from popular media. Roots is not a pretty picture of inheritance, but instead one that spoke to audiences the realities of enslavement, resilience, continuity and survival in a vivid, cinematic fashion, from a narrative with an origin in the spoken word. That challenge and denial of oral history as a legitimate basis of the experiences of people of color is slowly eroding…. Slowly.

Quote,  Audrey Lorde, Sister Outsider, 1984 #CiteBlackWomen

There is an equivalence in the genealogical field that is beginning to be dismantled, an implicit claim whereby scholastic levels of genealogy equates to whiteness. Yet to paraphrase Audrey Lorde, one cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.[11] This work is done as the field opens up to POC more broadly, who bring a different set of experiences, lineages and techniques that draw upon contexts both within and outside of traditional genealogy.[12] It is also up to genealogists who are not POC to weigh what that legacy is and how it impacts the who, what and where of their practice.

In order to see the connection between genealogy and the ideology of whiteness more clearly, one has to go back to the 1880s, when genealogy was part of the toolkit for the pseudoscience of eugenics. This was a conduit for previous ideas about racial inferiority from the previous century, now cloaked in respectable ‘science’. It was buttressed by social and institutional dynamics that maintain racial hierarchies and racialized public policies and institutional practices, a shifting framework that is still in operation today. [13]  It is a discourse of social division and superiority emergent after the election of November 2016, thrown into relief by the events at Charlottesville, Virginia.

Eugenics: technologies of segregation, genealogy & policy

Second International Eugenics Congress logo, 1921, held at the American Museum of Natural History  in New York City. Image: Wikipedia. note the role of genealogy

At its most basic, eugenics is a set of beliefs and practices about how to improve the human population. There was ‘positive eugenics’ aimed at promoting sexual reproduction among those with desired traits and ‘negative eugenics’, which sought to limit certain populations from reproducing. The movement started in the UK and spread to many countries, including the US and Canada in the early twentieth century. This instigated the formation of programs intent on improving the population, that led to marriage prohibition and forced sterilization programs.[14]   These experiences are part of thousands of family histories tied to experimentation, social policies, with roots in settler colonialism.

Historias, a 1992 performance/installation by Merian Soto and Pepon Osorio, engaged the issues of violence and mass sterilization of women in Puerto Rico. One third of PR women were sterilized between 1907-1930s.

Genealogy was important to eugenicists, because it was a map that traced the transmission of ‘defective germ-plasm’ through families, which contrasted with the legacy of white western men with genealogies of ‘quality’. This ultimately translated into policies that generated thousands of sterilizations, destroyed families with the fear of miscegenation, and transformed poverty into a problem of the individual, not society. Yet many states passed laws,  as did Virginia that led to over 7,000 people being sterilized– and increasingly as archives make these documents available to the public, a better understanding of the high cost of eugenic policy emerges. Many paid, and continue to pay with their lives.

#PublicRecords become #history. Tweet, Library of Virginia 3.17.2018 for Sterilization Register, State government records collection.

 

Paul Popenoe & Roswell Hill Johnson’s Applied Eugenics (Macmillan, 1918) is an appalling and unapologetically racist book. In it, the authors suggest that genealogy become the study of heredity and the legacy of traits in a family.  It denies the backdrop of colonialism and slavery to blame peoples of African descent, immigrants and those living in poverty for the conditions that result from exploitation. Conveniently, context does not come into their analysis:  “The historical, social, legal and other aspects of genealogy do not concern the present discussion. We shall discuss only the biological aspect…”[15] Genealogy was seen as the way to accomplish the goal of identifying certain lineages as social problems to be dealt with via policy decisions.

Consider the backdrop for the publication of this text- in 1915, Popenoe  presented his paper on eugenics at the First International Congress of Genealogy, sponsored by the California Genealogical Society and held during the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. That same February that this world’s fair opened, also saw the release of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, 3 hours of racist propaganda that fired up the Lost Cause, the KKK and stoked racial violence.  None of this is lost on myself as a colonial subject, a Taino woman of ethnic admixture with a disability, who was elected and happened to be the first POC to become President of the California Genealogical Society just a century later.  I worked with the board to change our motto to “Connecting people to their diverse family heritage.” I imagine Mr. Popenoe is spinning in his grave.

Over three decades, eugenic explanations went over big in the US. The authors pointed to the centrality of genealogy in delivering eugenics as a means to controlling populations ‘scientifically’:

“The science of genealogy will not have full meaning and full value to those who pursue it, unless they bring themselves to look on men and women as organisms subject to the same laws of heredity and variation as other living things. Biologists were not long ago told that it was essential for them to learn to think like genealogists. For the purpose of eugenics, neither science is complete without the other; and we believe that it is not invidious to say that biologists have been quicker to realize this than have genealogists. The Golden Age of genealogy is yet to come.” [16]

Medicine, law, sociology and statistics were seen as the beneficiaries of genealogical information collected at centers in the US. This led to some 60,000 Americans being sterilized in the US between 1907 and the 1970s. [17]

Popenoe’s book offers justifications for segregation, and falls back on phrenology’s racial hierarchies for explanations of inferiority as intrinsic to the body. In terms of the black body, the book conflates the limitations of resources with a lack of progress, noting that “If so, it must be admitted that the Negro is different from the white, but that he is eugenically inferior to the white.”[285]

Depiction of the Casta system in Mexico. Ignacio María Barreda, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18378593

Those who did better on the tests were surmised to have “more white blood in them” and proceeds to determine a racial quantum based on percentages as did Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781), and the eighteenth century Casta paintings of Mexico. [288]. You can revisit some of Jefferson’s ideas about African peoples excerpted here .

It follows that Papenoe and Hill Johnson proposed to prohibit interracial marriage, and their chapter on ‘The Color Line’ culminates with recommendations to put this into law as four states did (LA, NV, SD, AL) by 1918, before turning to immigration. [296]

Across the text, begins to appear the familiar language that Nazi Germany put into operation— the idea that the colonizers of North America were of the Nordic race appears on p 301, and proposals for implementing sterilization to stop those  ‘whose offspring would probably be a detriment to race progress.” [185] The plan is to remove people to a colony, tracts of land with large buildings to separate out the unwanted [189] [17]

From Applied Eugenics. Photographs facing p. 192, show the formation of colonies for those deemed unfit. Note most of the adults depicted are people of color.

The idea of separation and segregation was one endorsed by law across the US and funded by various non-profits that discovered ways to ‘elevate’ those with ‘Nordic’ ancestry, while subjecting the poor, infirm, immigrants and people of color to identities and practices such as sterilization that reinforced their subjugation. As historian Edwin Black noted, “California was the epicenter of the eugenics movement” that had “extensive financing by corporate philanthropies, specifically the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Harriman railroad fortune. They were all in league with the some of America’s most respected scientists hailing from such prestigious universities as Stanford, Yale, Harvard and Princeton.”

Charities were paid to seek out immigrants in “crowded cities and subject them to deportation, trumped up confinement or forced sterilization.” The Rockefeller Foundation even funded a program that Josef Mengele worked in before he went on to Auschwitz. It comes as no surprise then, that such organizations propagandized for the Nazis, and funded them in Germany. If one fell beyond the gentrified genetic lines such as those persons who worked, researched and enabled the legal structures of these programs, those deemed weak or unfit were subject to extraction.

In August 1934, California eugenicists arranged for a Nazi scientific exhibit to be shown at the LA County Museum as part of the Annual Meeting of the American Public Health Association.[18] Such exhibits legitimized what circulated in American popular culture through the 1920s and 1930s at state fairs and even world fairs.[19]  Similar ideas are circulating today within Far Right channels and from members of the US Government today; internationally, we see the growth of this ideology spread within sites of settler colonialism.

Eugenics hit its nadir within a decade through its association with Nazi Germany, and later testimony at the Nuremberg trials, where human rights abuses carried out as eugenics programs were claimed to be little different than the US. [20]  What is problematic is that wherever such programs are employed, the criteria of selection are determined by whatever group is in political power. [21]

It is precisely this history that the field of genealogy has to recover from.

Conclusion

As a field, genealogical practice has expanded beyond the accumulation of facts and details to encompass the social histories of those overlooked or at risk of falling into obscurity. Cemeteries are being restored and along with that, the local histories of suppressed, exiled or earlier occupants of towns and cities are coming into visibility- and let us include and embrace our diasporic connections and activities within this circle.

Documentaries, podcast series like those of Angela Walton-Raji’s African Roots podcast and Bernice Bennett’s Research at the National Archives and Beyond help to disseminate new information, findings and work through social media channels. These sources have reached audiences well beyond the journal publications of various genealogical and historical societies.

There is an opening up towards acknowledgement of past harms done to various communities, that acknowledge pain while transforming it into knowledge and sites where people can come to the table and support each other in unpacking the past. This is not a kumbaya moment, but one where the aftermath of enslavement and its social and institutional reach into the present can be faced.

DNA adds another dimension, revealing past relationships that range from the coercive to the consensual that happened, and when augmented by oral history and documents, the process literally brings into visibility parts of ourselves through enslaved ancestors, free and freed people and slave holders. There are many of us who seek the receipts that establish this more contentious family history, fraught with scars and triumphs, that confirms and grounds a movement toward freedom and self determination.

The fears of the last century about the reach of one book that captured the imagination of millions as a faulty model for genealogical research were ultimately unfounded. After Haley’s book was published and the program series Roots aired, “letters of inquiry and applications to use the National Archives rose 40%.[22] General interest in genealogy continues, as it offers a path to situate personal history in the larger context of national history, and to continuing education.

Recently, course offerings for genealogists are focused on writing family histories, and now, genealogical societies are taking it one step further and offering seminars on writing historical fiction based on family history. What the Abolitionist movement of the nineteenth century knew was that an audience had to hear not just facts, but a narrative, conveyed by a powerful voice or on the page, and if possible, to offer visual proof through photographs— all media used to convey their urgent message.

Ultimately, our task is to make visible and thereby end the historical erasure of difference (ethnic, race, gender, class) in the historical and genealogical record, and thereby honor those who came before us, our ancestors and their struggles.

References

1.    BlackProGen LIVE, 11 October 2016. Ep.20b Talks Diversity in Genealogy and Family HIstory. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G1Z7Anc4Fj8&t=2s
2.    Nicka Smith, “The Problem of the Color Line”, Who is Nicka Smith?.com http://www.whoisnickasmith.com/genealogy/the-problem-of-the-color-line/
3.    Elizabeth Shown Mills and Gary B. Mills. “The Genealogist’s Assessment of Alex Haley’s Roots.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 72 (March 1984): 35–49. 35-36. Digital image. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Historic Pathways. http://www.HistoricPathways.com : [9 Oct 2016].
4.    “Although some Americans have been conditioned to superimpose racial divisions upon almost all aspects of life, such academic distinctions cannot exist in the science of genealogy.
It is true, at the same time, that certain procedures in the pursuit of black genealogy do differ from those in the pursuit of English genealogy, that the pursuit of ancestral research among white Creoles of Louisiana is different from that among the Pilgrims of Massachusetts, that research in Virginia differs from research in Tennessee, that research on black families in Alabama differs from that on black families in New York.” Elizabeth Shown Mills and Gary B. Mills. “The Genealogist’s Assessment of Alex Haley’s Roots.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 72 (March 1984): 35–49. 35-36. Digital image. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Historic Pathways. http://www.HistoricPathways.com : [9 Oct 2016]
5.    Gary B. and Elizabeth Shown Mills, “ROOTS and the New ‘Faction’ a Legitimate Tool for Clio?.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 89:1, Jan 1981, 4. Digital image. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Historic Pathways. http://www.HistoricPathways.com : 15 Oct 2016.

6.    “The structural racism lens allows us to see more clearly how our nation’s core values— and the public policies and institutional practices that are built on them — perpetuate social stratifications and outcomes that all too often reflect racial group sorting rather than individual merit and effort. The structural racism lens allows us to see and understand: the racist legacy of our past; how racism persists in our national policies, institutional practices and cultural representations; how racism is transmitted and either amplified or mitigated through public, private and community institutions; how individuals internalize and respond to racist structures. The structural racism lens allows us to see that, as a society, we more or less take for granted a context of white leadership, dominance and privilege.” The Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change, Structural Racism and Community Building. June 2004, 12. https://assets.aspeninstitute.org/content/uploads/files/content/docs/rcc/aspen_structural_racism2.pdf Accessed 9 Oct 2016.

7.    See the steps and bibliography for James Ison’s syllabus “Using the Genealogical Proof Standard for African American Research” presented at two national conferences in 2010 https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/Using_the_Genealogical_Proof_Standard_for_African_American_Research  Accessed 15 Oct 2016
8.    Edmund Morgan quoted in Israel Spencer, NYT, 10 Apr 1977; in Mills, “ROOTS and the New ‘Faction’, 4.
9.    Alex Haley, quoted in Nancy Arnetz, “From His Story to Our Story: A Review of “Roots”. Journal of Negro Education, 46:3, Summer 1977, 367-372. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2966780, 367
10.    Arnetz, “From His Story to Our Story: A Review of “Roots”. Journal of Negro Education, 367-372, 368.
11.    “Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between and individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences or the pathetic premise that these differences do not exist. Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucible of difference— those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older— know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only means of support.” Lorde’s title and her question remain pertinent: “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” It is important to note that this seminal essay was written in acknowledgement of the lack of participation of Third World women of color at NYU’s Institute for the Humanities Conference. Audry Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley Press, 1984. http://muhlenberg.edu/media/contentassets/pdf/campuslife/SDP%20Reading%20Lorde.pdf Accessed 16 Oct 2016.
12.    Consider the development of networks of genealogical organizations AAHGS and institutes, such as MAAGI, the AAHGS’ Afrigeneas.org project, the explosion of genealogical groups on Facebook, and efforts such as the transcription of the Freedmen’s Bank papers on FamilySearch among many others that point to the blossoming of the field. There remains more to be done in terms of acceptance and incorporation of difference for genealogy by POC.
13.    “Structural Racism Produces Racialized Outcomes.” See Chart, Structural Racism and Community Building. The Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change. June 2004, p12. https://assets.aspeninstitute.org/content/uploads/files/content/docs/rcc/aspen_structural_racism2.pdf

14.    “Eugenics.” Wikipedia.org  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugenics Accessed 12 Oct 2016.
15.    Paul Popenoe & Roswell Hill Johnson, Applied Eugenics (Macmillan, 1918) 339. 
https://archive.org/details/appliedeugenics00popeuoft
16.    Christina Kennedy, “Invisible History of the Human Race.” Huffington Post, 5 Jan 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christine-kenneally/genealogy-eugenics_b_6367344.html? Accessed 11 Oct 2016.
17.    Popenoe & Hill Johnson, Applied Eugenics.
18.    Edwin Black, “The Horrifying American Roots of Nazi Eugenics.” History News Network, Sept, 2003.  http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/1796 Accessed 12 Oct 2016.
19.    Steve Selden, University of Maryland. Eugenics Popularization. http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/html/eugenics/essay_6_fs.html  Accessed 12 Oct 2016.
20.    Black, “The Horrifying American Roots of Nazi Eugenics.”
21.    “Eugenics.” Wikipedia.org
22.    ERIC, “ERIC ED 462329: Discovering our Roots: Making History Meaningful. A Guide for Educators.” 2001. https://archive.org/details/ERIC_ED462329 Accessed 12 Oct 2016.

Resource List: Blogs

Check out the blogs of the professional genealogists and researchers on Black ProGen below:

Bernice Bennett: Research at the National Archives and Beyond   http://www.blogtalkradio.com/bernicebennett

Linda Buggs-Sims: Mississippi Rooted  http://www.mississippirooted.com/

Toni Carrier:  Low Country Africana: African American Genealogy in SC, GA & FL http://www.lowcountryafricana.com/

Shannon Christmas: Through the Trees http://throughthetreesblog.tumblr.com/

Melvin J Collier: Roots Revealed: Viewing African American History Through a Genealogical Lens http://rootsrevealed.blogspot.com/

Vicki Davis-Mitchell: Mariah’s Zepher: An Ancestral Journey through the winds of time planting seeds in Harrison and Grimes County Texas  http://mariahszepher.blogspot.com/

Ellen Fernandez-Sacco: Latino Genealogy and Beyond https://LatinoGenealogyandBeyond.com

Robin R. Foster: Saving Stories: People gathering around family history  http://www.robinsavingstories.com

George Geder:  Geder Writes http://www.gederwrites.com/

True Lewis: Notes to Myself http://mytrueroots.blogspot.com/

Dr. Shelley Murphy: Family Tree Girl https://familytreegirl.com/

Drusilla Pair:  Find Your Folks: A Journal about Family and History http://findyourfolks.blogspot.com/

Renate Yarborough-Sanders: Into the the LIGHT  http://justthinking130.blogspot.com/

Nicka Smith: Who is Nicka Smith? http://whoisnickasmith.com/

Michael J Twitty: Afroculinaria  https://afroculinaria.com/

Teresa Vega: Radiant Roots, Boricua Branches http://radiantrootsboricuabranches.com/

Angela Walton-Raji: African Roots Podcast  http://africanrootspodcast.com/

Monticello
Getting Word Project:  https://www.monticello.org/getting-word

Coming Home with Slave Dwelling Project:  https://www.monticello.org/site/blog-and-community/posts/coming-home-slave-dwelling-project

NY – NJ Archives: Notable Latinx & Caribbean Resources

View of New York and New Jersey from airplane. Wikipedia

Following up on BlackProGen LIVE’s Episode #31: People of Color in the Northeast and New Jersey, I offer a brief compilation of archival websites that can be helpful for locating additional details for genealogy and family history of Latinx & Caribbean POC in New York and New Jersey.

First, a little background….

Over time, as archives develop along with the growth of communities, a variety of materials can be located within state and city library systems, universities and institutions. New York and New Jersey have a number of significant archival repositories,  of which some collections can be searched on line, and to gain the most, arrange for an in-person visit. Plan to check them out after exhausting initial sources such as census and vital records.

Why this matters for your family history…

Migration occurs in waves: interviewing elders and others within your family network may ease the process of where to look for records, and determining when ancestors turn up in a given location. During the nineteenth and early-mid twentieth centuries, voluntary migration began, and metropolitan areas offered opportunities for work, housing and education that many moved to, in hope of bettering their family’s situation, if not simply to resolve issues of flat out survival. This cycle was driven by the needs of labor and industry, and people clustered in small overlapping ethnic communities. Upheaval of a system, whether due to war, political instability or economic collapse can be part of the larger context of why ancestors moved to New York, New Jersey and other locations.

Understanding this larger context will help you as you write your family history.

Outward migration for the Dominican Republic from the MigrationPolicy.org site- note that locations are worldwide.

As Jie Zong and Jeanne Batalova note in their article on “Caribbean Immigrants in the United States”: “In 2014, approximately 4 million immigrants from the Caribbean resided in the United States, accounting for 9 percent of the nation’s 42.4 million immigrants. More than 90 percent of Caribbean immigrants came from five countries: Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Haiti, and Trinidad and Tobago”[1.] Some movement to the states was due to restrictions on immigration instituted by British government on former colonies. The Haitian diaspora began in the 1920s-1930s, and New York City has the largest and oldest concentration of Haitians in the US. [2]

Each country’s history varies in terms of who and why different groups of people arrived and departed its shores. The reasons why can give additional clues for tracing your family’s movement across the globe.

Note that diasporic movement of populations means potential family connections can extend worldwide.  Take a look at the interactive map on Migration Information – it provides information on contemporary migrations by country, depicted on maps, along with reports on different populations.

http://www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/data-hub/charts/immigrant-and-emigrant-populations-country-origin-and-destination

New York
FamilySearch Wiki
A Preliminary Guide for Historical Records Sources on Latinos in NY State (2002)
Although dated, this 112 page guide provides details on archival holdings around the state. Also has appendices organized by topic, includes correctional facilities, various institutions. Check against more recent listings as a number of collections were augmented since it was compiled, and may also have websites.
Dominican Archives & Library, City College of NY
CUNY Institute for Dominican Studies
160 Convent Avenue, Room N/A 2/202
    T:  212.650.8865
    F: 212.650.7225

Hunter College: Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños

The Lois V. and Samuel J. Silberman School of Social Work
2180 Third Avenue at 119th Street, 1st Floor, Room 120
New York, NY 10035
Largest repository of primary and secondary source materials and collections about Puerto Ricans in the United States.

Has Online Public Access Catalog: https://centropr.hunter.cuny.edu/

Records of the Offices of the Government of Puerto Rico in the United States, 1930-1933

https://centropr.hunter.cuny.edu/sites/default/files/faids/pdf/OGPRUS.pdfThis 88 page guide in English and Spanish, includes community organizations, education programs 1943-1989, applications for Certificates of Identification 1930-1989, needed for Puerto Ricans to work in NYC.  Note: the application records can include photographs and thumbprints.

As discussed on the program, if there are activists among your ancestors, then it’s likely that there are records from government agencies such as the FBI.

Also at Centro: FBI and Puerto Rico

Ramon Bosque Perez’ testimony before Congressional Briefing gives an overview of the archival material held at Centro, which covers four decades. (The URL is long, so you may have to cut and paste into your browser.)

http://aclu-pr.org/ES/VistaFBI/PDFs/Statement%20of%20Professor%20Ram%F3n%20Bosque%20P%E9rez.pdf

FBI vault- Cointelpro on Puerto Rican groups- 11 file groups

https://vault.fbi.gov/cointel-pro/puerto-rican-groups

NYPL- Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture,

Manuscripts, Archives Rare Books Division
515 Malcolm X Boulevard (135th St and Malcolm X Blvd) New York, NY, 10037
(917) 275-6975
“The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of The New York Public Library is generally recognized as the world’s leading research library devoted exclusively to documenting the history and cultural development of people of African descent worldwide.”

Also, there’s a 1938 digitized manuscript, “Influence of the Haitian Revolution on N.Y”., also at the Schomburg, along with other archival materials from the Caribbean.

https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/2a8fa3a0-6eb4-0133-01eb-00505686d14e

Lapidus Center for the Study of Transatlantic Slavery

Also has Livestream events for new books, and a podcast.

https://www.nypl.org/about/locations/schomburg/lapidus-center

NYU – Caribbean Studies – has section on Guides to Regional Archives
Caribbean Studies: Guides to Archives
National Archives and Records Administration, NYC
One Bowling Green, 3rd Floor
New York, NY 10004
Toll-free: 1-866-840-1752 or 212-401-1620Has historically relevant archives for federal agencies and courts of New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands dating from 1685 to the present.

 

Guide to Puerto Rican Records at the National Archives, NYC– 94 pages

Note: some items are on Ancestry (RG85- Passenger Lists Airplanes arriving San Juan, RG 186- Foreigners in PR 1815-1845, see below on FS), some are not.

https://www.archives.gov/files/nyc/finding-aids/puerto-rican-records-guide.pdfAlso see:

RG 186- Puerto Rico Records of Foreign Residents, 1815-1845

 

New Jersey

New Jersey is home to the seventh largest Latino population in the US, which increased nearly 40% between 2000-2010.

Library of Congress: Resources for local history and genealogy:

New Jersey
New Jersey Hispanic Research & Information Center
http://www.libraries.rutgers.edu/scua/genealogical-resourcesPDF of guide, Archibald S Alexander Library (Ethnic identity not specified)

BYU Guide on NJ (Ethnic identity not specified)

http://files.lib.byu.edu/family-history-library/research-outlines/US/NewJersey.pdf

General resources, but helpful:

dLOC: Digital Library of the Caribbean

http://www.dloc.com/

A great overview on Afro-Caribbean Immigration in NARA’s Prologue:

Damani Davis’ “Ancestors from the West Indies: A Historical and Genealogical Overview of Afro-Caribbean Immigration, 1900-1930s.”

https://www.archives.gov/files/publications/prologue/2013/fall-winter/west-indies.pdf

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division

West Indian Ladies Aid Society, 1915-1965

Benevolent society open to ‘all female Virgin Islanders; provided assistance with medical and funeral expenses.

http://archives.nypl.org/scm/20904

Background information on history of sugar in Dominican Republic and Haitian workers, which contextualizes the impetus for migration:

“History.” Visions of Haiti: Documentaries of the Dominican Sugar Industry

https://sites.duke.edu/sugardocumentaries/history/

Cyndi’s List- Caribbean/ West Indies

Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Cayman Islands, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Montserrat, Netherlands Antilles, Puerto Rico, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, Virgin Islands

http://www.cyndislist.com/cyndislistsearch/?q=caribbean

References:
[1.] Jie Zong and Jeanne Batalova, “Caribbean Immigrants in the United States.” 14 September 2014. Migration Information Source. Accessed 25 Apr 2017.  http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/caribbean-immigrants-united-states/
[2.] “Haitian diaspora, 2.3 New York City” Wikipedia. Accessed 28 Apr 2017.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haitian_diaspora
Some recommended titles for context:

Felix Matos-Rodriguez & Pedro Juan Hernandez, Pioneros: Puerto Ricans in New York City, 1892-1998.  Images of America series, Arcadia Publishing, 2001.

Virginia Sanchez Korrol & Pedro Juan Hernandez, Pioneros II: Puerto Ricans in New York City, 1948-1995. Images of America series, Arcadia Publishing, 2010.

Virginia E. Sanchez Korrol, From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Ricans in New York City, 1917-1948. Greenwood Press, 1983.

Jesse Hoffnung-Garsof, A Tale of Two Cities: Santo Domingo and New York after 1950. Princeton University Press, 2007.

Regine O. Jackson, Geographies of the Haitian Diaspora. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Original post 8 May 2017; revised 1 Dec 2017

Revisiting Lyman Platt’s record list for documenting family sources

How old is too old?

Lyman D. Platt, Puerto Rico: Research Guide. Cover. (1990)

 While reading one of Lyman D. Platt’s research pamphlets on Puerto Rico, I came across his list for documenting family sources. Published in the pre-internet days of 1990, it’s still a great reminder of the variety of information one can use to reconstruct family relationships and fill in timelines with helpful detail.
I clustered the documentary items below according to their utility. Some sources may  tell you more about a person or family than others, which can lend insight into the context of a particular time or place.  Photographs are incredible resources, if the individuals depicted can be identified; at the very least, one can determine a time and place, often within a decade.

I clustered the documentary items according to their utility.  Some sources can offer more about a person or family than others, which can lend insight into the context of a particular time or place.  Photographs are incredible resources, if the individuals depicted can be identified– at the very least a time frame can be established for the image.  There are increasingly more collections on line, which I’ll write more about in future.

Thanks to migration and time, you may be left with vital records and the possibility of discovering these items at the homes of elders, relatives and friends of the family, via FB groups.. or even eBay.

Periodically revisiting your collection of family documents is a good idea– some details may have escaped notice the first time around.  For instance, i’ve gleaned information from my grandfather’s passport several times, realizing more detail was applicable than I initially thought regarding his first marriage. It’s also an incredibly rare image of them at a crucial moment as they voyaged to South America.

Ramon Fernandez, U.S. Passport, 1925. Personal copy.

So, think of these general categories as applicable for different countries– not just Puerto Rico.

Vital records & Notices

  • family civil booklets (for marriage registrations issued in Spain or Latin America)
  • newspaper clippings [U Florida has the Gazeta de Puerto Rico 1837-1902]; searchable on Library of Congress website.
  • baptism notices
  • death notices [Puerto Rico Obituaries 2005-2008 (Newsbank); try Legacy.com for recent obituaries and notices]
  • marriage notices
  • marriage invitations
Family
Networks
  • school records
  • work records
  • diplomas
  • photographs / picture albums
Some resources are available in special collections at universities and other institutions.
Don’t forget to look at Hunter College’s Centro for Puerto Rican Studies, the NYPL’s fabulous Schomburg Collection and there are additional repositories listed in my post on NY-NJ Archives: Notable Latinx & Caribbean Resources.

Suerte en su busqueda!  Good luck with your search!

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