Mary Turner’s Family Tree: Research for History Unscripted, Ep. 121

Detail, Warrick Fuller's Mary Turner memorial

Mary Turner’s life ended 19 May 1918 in Lowndes County, Georgia at the hands of a lynch mob, as a result of vowing to hold those responsible for killing her husband, Hazel Turner. She was arrested once she spoke for justice, and the town leaders retaliated. Mary Turner declared that Hazel Turner’s killing “..was unjust and if she knew the names of the persons who were in the mob who lynched her husband, she would have warrants sworn out against them and have them punished in the courts. This news determined the mob to “teach her a lesson”…” [Walter F White,“The Work of a Mob.” The Crisis, NAACP, Sept 1918, 221-223’]

Walter F. White’s published investigation of the racial terror in Brooks & Lowdnes County. White, “The Work of a Mob”, The Crisis, Sept 1918

What followed was her lynching and that of her unborn child on the Folsom Bridge that connects Brooks and Lowndes Counties. Its important to know that the area wasn’t immune from violence. Some twenty-four years earlier, in Christmas 1894, five African American men were lynched by local whites in what was called the ‘Brooks County Race War.

Also lost in May 1918 were the lives of 16 other persons, including her husband, Hayes Turner, who died the day before. That she and her unborn child were executed was held up as some kind of boundary violation, obscures the fact that three times the number of enslaved Black women were executed in antebellum slavery as in colonial slavery. While far fewer women were executed during Reconstruction, mostly in the South, terrorizing communities was a means of control used in many locations across the US after the Civil War. [ Meyers 2006, p5] Ten women were lynched in Georgia between 1880-1930 [Meyers 2006 224]

What is notable is the participation of the white business community and law enforcement in these series of murders. According to a witness, those who participated in the mob were led by Samuel E McGowan, an undertaker and William Whipple, a cotton broker and merchandise dealer, both of Quitman. Ordley Yates, post office clerk, Frank Purvis, employee of Griffin Furniture Company, Fulton DeVane,  agent for Standard Oil Company, Brown Sherill, worked for Whipple, George B Vann, barber from Quitman, the farmers Chalmers, Lee Sherrill, Richard DeVane, Ross DeVane, Jim Dickson, Dixon Smith (father of Hampton Smith) Will Smith (brother of Hampton Smith) and two other brothers of the victims all participated. [Meyers 2006 221; Walter F White, 1918]

Their names are known because of the investigation undertaken by Walter F White, on behalf of the NAACP, and the testimony of George U. Spratling, an African American man who was an assistant to the undertaker McGowan. Spratling was forced by McGowan to go to the lynching, where none wore masks to evade identification.

Eighteen people total died between that Friday and Saturday. Hayes Turner was caught on Saturday, captured and taken to the Brooks County Jail in Quitman, then transported to Moultrie, where Sheriff  Wade and Roland Knight, clerk of the county court were waylaid. Turner was taken by the mob and murdered.

NAACP: Intervention, Investigation & Recommendations

Governor Dorsey ordered militia troops to the area, but it was too little, too late. He questioned his authority to arrest those involved. However, aware that the African American migration out of the state had begun with some 500 people departing Lowndes County shortly after the mass lynching occurred, the state was set to lose workers as the Great Migration intensified. Among those able to leave the state were members of the Turner family.

Dorsey’s reply to the NAACP letter notifying him of the events in Lowdnes is reprehensible. He basically blames Black people for the lynching rampage: “I believe that if the negroes would assert their ultimate influence with the original element of their race and stop rapes that it would go a long way towards stopping lynchings.”

Governor Dorsey’s response to NAACP, 18 Nov 1918. Mary Turner Project, http://www.maryturner.org/images/Dorsey.pdf

The NAACP made the Turner case a central concern and pursued investigating the event soon after. They made an offer to assist George Spratling with relocating to the North,  help with gaining employment there and support him until the hearing was completed and he was able to go to work. But he couldn’t just leave- he had 5 young children to care for along with a wife and an elderly lady, and ‘a great many relatives (aunts uncles and first and second cousins)’ in and around Quitman. [Letter from Walter White to NAACP Secretary concerning lynching witness George Spratling, November 12, 1918 (from NAACP Papers Collection)

Walter White to NAACP Sec. describing George Spratling's situation
Excerpt -Letter from Walter White to NAACP Secretary concerning lynching witness George Spratling, November 12, 1918 (from NAACP Papers Collection

White notes that “since May eight people were either lynched or went missing; they committed no crime but were relatives of some of the victims of May.” Clearly, racial terrorism was a tool that the NAACP focused on dismantling or at the least, ameliorating its spread by revealing its inner workings and demystifying the feeble excuses offered by local and federal government to a broader public through its publications and newspaper articles. 

NAACP, Letter to President Woodrow Wilson requesting support in matter of Turner & other lynchings, 25 July 1918. Mary Turner Project http://www.maryturner.org/images/WhiteHouseLetter.pdf

The organization wrote to President Woodrow Wilson to urge him to act and spelled out why this should be a concern:

“8. The loyal response of the Negroes of the nation to every opportunity to serve as contrasted with the failure of local authorities to act when Negroes are lynched by mob. 

9. The opinion of the Attorney General that the federal courts have no jurisdiction to deal with ordinary cases of lynching, and he opinion generally accepted by competent legal authorities that federal anti-lynching legislation under the Fourteenth Amendment is or is likely to be regarded by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. 

10. The ardent desire of  great masses of Americans white and colored, that the stigma of lynching be removed from America. 

11. The heightened prestige at home and abroad which American institutions would receive if energetic efforts were made really to stop the lynching of Negroes. “

What is interesting is the insistence that this event and other incidents of terrorism is not America- ‘this is not who we are’.  Essentiality it is a failure to live up to the expectations by citizens and the world, right after participating in the first World War. 

White sent the investigation on to President Wilson, who basically did nothing to stop the perpetrators.

After the lynching of Claude Neal in Florida in 1934 [Ep. 83], the NAACP circulated the story of Mary Turner, complete with an illustration of the lynching, in the NY Amsterdam News and Philadelphia Inquirer

Economics, Kin, Networks

The Turners labored incessantly and suffered beatings as part of being in a debt peonage system.  Hampton Smith (whose death marked the start of what was called a ‘holocaust of lynchings), was the owner of the large plantation in Brooks County that they and others worked on, had a terrible reputation for violence and terrorizing his workers.  As a result, he had difficulty securing workers, and went to the courts and whenever a Black man “was convicted and unable to pay his fine or was sentenced to serve a period on the chain gang, Smith would secure his release” and put them to work on his plantation, until the amount in question was paid off. [White, “The Work of a Mob.,” 1918, 1] Apparently workers never made enough to satisfy the debt and according to accounts suffered beatings at his hands, and one young man resisted and decided to kill him. 

The issue of debt peonage was never addressed, and was a huge problem across sites in Georgia, Florida and Alabama. 

The disruptive effects of this mass lynching impacted the future of the families. If they could, they moved to other counties or across the state line to start over. 

Aside from this, each family had female headed households that helped their children survive the transition from enslavement to emancipation. By design, there were insufficient resources to keep people laboring rather than able to pursue their own path, and sadly, some family members were unable to escape the trap of debt peonage and the prison convict system. 

Mary Turner- Mary Hattie Graham (1884-1918)

Mary Turner’s full maiden name was Mary Hattie Graham, daughter of Perry W. Graham and Betty Johnson (1872). 

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, “Mary Turner: A Silent Protest Against Mob Violence.” (1919) Wikipedia.

 Her story inspired artist Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller to create Mary Turner: A Silent Protest Against Mob Violence.  This is an early anti-lynching memorial, which also incorporates genteel standards of womanhood of the time. Still, this is a figure beset by trouble, her face almost hidden and body that tries to keep to itself. Hands appear on the lower third, with a face sunk into the crowd, which suggests more horror as one spends time with the work. 

Faces & hands, base of Warrick Fuller’s Mary Turner memorial, detail.

Mary Hattie Graham was born in Quitman, Brooks County in Dec 1884 to Perry Graham and Betty Johnson Graham. Her father’s mother was born in Virginia, according to the 1910 census. By that time Perry Graham and Betty Johnson Graham were married for 29 years; they married in Lowndes County on 18 Nov 1880.

By 1910, her brother, Perry J Graham had set up his own household alongside their parents in Briggs, Brooks County, GA.  With Dora Stoker, he had 16 children. By 1930, both generations lived together in Briggs. As their family was large, mobility was limited, and the next generation would migrate out of the state. I haven’t yet found them in the 1920 census, which may mean they avoided the enumerator or changed names to stay safe. 

By 1940 at least one son of Perry and Dora, Melvin J Briggs b. 1908 had moved to Miami, Dade County, Florida from Valdosta after 1935. He worked as a bell hop in a hotel, rooming with a group of people who also came from Georgia.  While he may not have traveled north, he was part of a larger migration out of state by African Americans who sought self determination.

Betsey or Betty Johnson

Turner’s mother, Betsey or Betty Johnson b. 18 first appears in the 1880 census, in the home of her mother, Phoebe Briggs, b. 1848.  At that time Ms. Johnson is working as a servant, and has a daughter, Viola Washington. She is 21, older than listed in later census,  born about 1859.  If the dates are correct, Phoebe had her very young-  she is 31 while her daughter is 21. The household comprises three generations.

In 1880 Phoebe Briggs works as a farm laborer, and one of her young sons, Richard Stephens works as a laborer at 11 years of age; there is no occupation listed for his brother Washington Stephens age 8. Different states are listed for their fathers, which raises questions about the difficulties of Briggs’ situation with her partners post-Reconstruction 1869-1872 in the Valdosta district of Lowndes, Georgia. Also in the household is her 2 year old granddaughter from Betsey, Viola Washington and her grandson, Samuel Green, just a month old. 

1880 US Federal Census, Valdosta District 668, Lowdnes County, GA. 28 Jun 1880 p72D. FS.org Note the associated Johnson family members living in close proximity to the Briggs household on Line 5.

What is important to note, are the other Johnson females who live in adjacent homes— Harriet age 17 [Line 4] a lodger in the next house to Phoebe Briggs, and two doors down, Fate Johnson 13 [Line 21], lodger. There’s a Millie Johnson 24 [Line 36], and a Fannie Green 41, b.VA [Line 43], Mother in law to the McKays (in fact much of her family is lodging in the home of her daughter Josephine’s husband).  It seems reasonable that the month old son may be tied to this family. They work as farm laborers, and some are close enough in age to be Betsey Johnson’s sisters, if not kin.  This raises a few questions as to their relationship to Phoebe Briggs and her daughter, Betsey Johnson, and whether they are kin or blood relatives from the same community in this area of Valdosta. Just a few months later, in November 1880, Betsey Johnson married Perry Graham.

I was unable to locate  Phoebe Briggs in the 1870 census.  However, the 1860 Federal Population Census and Slave Schedule for Lowndes, GA- right at the start of Valdosta, shows a Henry Briggs with 13 enslaved people, including a 10 year old female, who could potentially be Phoebe Briggs. 

1850 US Federal Census, Slave Schedule, Henry Briggs, Troupville, Lowdnes County, GA – Line 14 – 10 year old enslaved female listed

The location of his plantation was at the end of Troupville, and Valdosta is the next town that starts just a few lines down. Additional probate and insurance documents can help identify the people he held in bondage, and confirm whether this number, is indeed Phoebe Briggs. 

A page on the early history of Troupville also reveals a history of a settlement that begins with bloodshed as the new arrivals sought to displace the Creeks from their territory. Native peoples had lived in the region for 11,000 years, and during the early 1800s, many were farmers, and among the ‘Five Civilized Tribes’ depended on enslaved labor before displacement in a series of Indian wars that culminated in the Trail of Tears. A Dr. Henry Briggs was among the early settlers of the town, which benefited from its location on the border with Florida. This was historically part of a Native American trade network that extended north to present day Savannah. Settler colonialism is an important part of the larger context of this history.

Conclusion

It’s over a century since the deaths of Mary Turner, her husband Hazel Turner and 16 others.   Extrajudicial murders continue with 20,000 dying at the hands of the police in the last two decades. The EJI notes that the dehumanizing myth of racial bias needs to be confronted, and reveals it as part of a continuum: “This belief in racial hierarchy survived slavery’s abolition, fueled racial terror lynchings, demanded legally codified segregation, and spawned our mass incarceration crisis.”   https://eji.org/racial-justice/ This is incredibly toxic stuff. 

Lynching shaped the geographic, political, social, and economic conditions that African Americans experience today. Critically, racial terror lynching reinforced the belief that Black people are inherently guilty and dangerous. That belief underlies the racial inequality in our criminal justice system today. Mass incarceration, racially biased capital punishment, excessive and disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities, and police abuse of people of color reveal problems in American society that were shaped by the terror era.

NAACP, Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1918 Apr 1919

What stood out most was the continued disruption of lives because of racist terror, and the way the system worked to extract as much value from these people without acknowledging  their humanity and a right to access justice, fairness and the ability to live without attack. They were forced to repeatedly start over, and their survival is a testimony to their resilience.  To get beyond the narratives of their deaths to their family histories isn’t easy. 

Since the 2000s, there has been a sustained effort by the community to shed light on these events, to come to a reckoning so that this terrorism can end. The Mary Turner Project succeeded in placing a historic marker that names the victims, maintains a website that continues to pull together newspaper articles past and present that documents a long process of healing. 

Restoring the visibility of these families helps in understanding the dynamics that sought to constrain the lives of millions, all hidden beneath a thin veneer of American exceptionalism. 

Update: 11 September 2020. The Mary Turner Project had to remove the historical marker because of the damage it sustained from being repeatedly shot to the point the metal was stressed so much it cracked. Regardless of this vandalism, that still doesn’t change the need to remember this event as part of our national history.

Read more:

https://www.wtoc.com/2020/10/11/mary-turner-lynching-marker-removed-after-recent-vandalism/

https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/georgia/articles/2020-10-12/georgia-lynching-marker-removed-after-recent-vandalism

I want to express deep gratitude for The Mary Turner Project’s efforts on keeping this history current, providing resources on events and for their work on racial justice and healing on both a local and national level. And thanks to Nicka Smith for the opportunity to participate in Ep 121 of History Unscripted: Profiles in Racial Justice, Part 1.

References

The Mary Turner Project, http://www.maryturner.org/mtp.htm

The Mary Turner Project, Documents http://www.maryturner.org/documents.htm

Kerry Seagrave, Lynchings of Women in the US: the Recorded Cases 1851-1946. McFarland & Co, 2010. 

Walter F. White, “The Work of a Mob.” The Crisis, NAACP. 221-223

Christopher C Meyer, ”Killing Them by the Wholesale”: A Lynching Rampage in South Georgia.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, 90:2 (Summer 2006) 214-235. 

Letter to President Woodrow Wilson, July 25, 1918. NAACP http://www.maryturner.org/images/WhiteHouseLetter.pdf

“Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller”, Wikipedia. https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Meta_Vaux_Warrick_Fuller

NAACP, “History of Lynchings.” https://www.naacp.org/history-of-lynchings/

EJI, Racial Justice. https://eji.org/racial-justice/

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

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