The Problem With Ancestory.comBreaking News
tags: slavery, genealogy, White Supremacy, Ancestory.com
Adam H. Domby is an Assistant Professor of History at the College of Charleston. He is a historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction as well as historical memory. He is the author of the forthcoming book, The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory (UVA Press, 2020). Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHDomby.
Ancestry.com has recently come under a lot of well-deserved criticism for whitewashing slavery with a new advertisement that portrays an enslaved Black woman and a white man running off to Canada to marry. These critiques led Ancestry to quickly pull the video, though they claimed the company “is committed to telling important stories from history. This ad was intended to represent one of those stories.” The video went beyond just misrepresenting the nature of most interracial relationships during the antebellum period, however. The individual story being recounted appears invented; a quick search on Ancestry’s databases shows that the marriage record shown in the advertisement doesn’t exist. This is, unfortunately, not the only way the company has erased the horrors of slavery and Americans’ ties to the institution.
In the past year, Ancestry changed its search engine to detach the history of slavery from basic genealogical inquiries. When searching for an individual’s name, Ancestry.com stopped including results from the 1850 or 1860 United States Census Slave Schedules. This means that someone searching for ancestors might discover a wealthy progenitor with no record of the foundations of that wealth, making it all too easy to claim, as many privileged white American families do, that their individual family earned its fortunes outside of slavery despite the central role slavery had in shaping the nation’s politics, economics, culture, and society. Before this change occurred, Ancestry.com subscribers would often have to face the uncomfortable fact that their family kept others enslaved. Indeed, my own family first discovered slaveholders in our lineage because of a rudimentary Ancestry search. Attempting that research today would hide this distressing (though important) aspect of my family’s history.
The search engine functions to hide both slave ownership and enslaved people from the eyes of contemporary genealogists. At this moment, an Ancestry search for the notoriously cruel James Henry Hammond, reveals a wealthy planter worth $70,000 in the 1860 census’s population schedule. But because a basic search no longer provides results from the corresponding slave schedule, which details the ages and sexes of the over 300 people he owned, the means by which he accumulated his wealth is hidden from view. Even if a casual observer did suspect a family history of slave ownership and had the inclination to then search the slave schedules themselves, they found the schedules no longer searchable by name on Ancestry.com. As difficult as it already is to trace African American genealogy, this new programing made it all the more challenging to trace Black families from the margins of historical documents.
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