Inconvenient Facts

As genealogists, we strive to gather any and all information we can that might have a bearing on the research question at hand. Sometimes that information includes conflicting data that must then be resolved. And sometimes that information includes evidence that, frankly, we’d rather not see or be aware of. While it may be tempting to overlook and omit that evidence, genealogists (at our best) do not do that. We analyze it as objectively as we can and incorporate it into the larger picture that is developing in front of us.

I was put in mind of this core competency when I came across a fact I wasn’t really prepared to discover. Earlier this month, NGS posted “A Message for Change from NGS” on its Facebook page. In comments to that post, one commenter included an image of a newspaper article from 1960.

Genealogical Group Gets Racial Issue

by Rasa Gustaitus, Staff Reporter

Is a Negro to join the searchers for the Nation’s family trees? The National Genealogical Society is in a tizzy.

Last March, a staff member of the National Archives who has helped many genealogists locate ancestors in musty old census and pension records, applied for membership in the Society. He is a Negro.

“This is the first time I know of that this has happened,” said William H. Dumont, president, “although someone did tell me that a few Negroes had visited a meeting 10 or 15 years ago.”

Hearing the news, about 50 members who felt “controversy threatened to engulf the NGS” proposed a racial restriction clause in their constitution.

Result: On Nov. 19, ballots will be counted on whether the Society is to “set aside its generally recognized practice, which has been in force since its organization in 1903, and admit members of the Negro race.”

Many of the 1300 members dig up the pedigrees required by the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Sons of the Magna Carta Barons, the Order of the Cincinnati and other patriotic organizations.

The Society publishes a quarterly magazine and holds informational meetings.

Negroes, say opponents of admission, in a mailout of pro and con views to Society members, have “nothing in common with us, genealogically speaking.”

But those favoring a change in policy point out that the Society is national, educational and scientific; that it is not to be confused with the patriotic organizations; that in the pursuit of science there is no room for discrimination.

The Society would not make public the applicant’s name.[1]

This is the epitome of an inconvenient fact, one that part of me really wanted to ignore. But I’m a genealogist; we don’t do that. Instead of ignoring, we follow up.

The article mentioned that members were to vote on whether or not African Americans should be accepted into the Society. What happened to that? I found part of another article that was supposed to be continued, but I’ve been unable as of yet to find the continuation. (If one of you can find it, please let me know.) Still, there was enough information in the first part of the article to answer the essential question.

Genealogists Ban Negro Membership

WASHINGTON – (ANP) –

The National Genealogical Society, which concerns itself with family trees, has voted against admitting Negroes to membership.

Society officers reported last week a nation-wide poll of its members ended in a vote of 497 to 246. There are about 1300 members in the organization and about 57 per cent voted, President William H. Dumont said.

The issue arose last March when a Negro staff member of the National Archives applied for membership. The resulting controversy. . . .[2]

I was hoping to read a different outcome, but there it was: proof that nearly half of the National Genealogical Society’s existence was spent barring African Americans from learning about genealogy and discovering their own family history. It’s even more jarring that the specific man they refused was an employee of the National Archives who helped others with their genealogy.

Thankfully, times and policies have changed. Though it’s not yet clear when NGS reversed their 1960 ban (research is ongoing), it is clear that James Dent Walker was elected the first African American Fellow of NGS in 1978, served as 2nd vice president 1978–1980, and was elected to the NGS Hall of Fame in 1999. Walker may be the same man whose 1960 application to NGS prompted the “controversy.”

Because some things have changed, it may be easy to think, “Well, that’s obviously taken care of. No need to investigate further.” But genealogists don’t leave gaps in their chronologies, don’t stop looking when there’s an obvious trail to follow. Only when all available evidence is uncovered can the complete story be understood. And yes, our past needs to be more fully understood.

It can be unnerving to delve into dark portions of the past, but don’t worry. In the end, the worst thing that can happen is that we take responsibility for our past, reassess our present, and change for the future.

 

[1] Nicka Smith, Facebook post to the National Genealogical Society, 8 June 2020; image of Rasa Gustaitis, “Genealogical Group Gets Racial Issue,” Washington Post, Times Herald (Washington, D.C.), 4 November 1960, page B7; ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[2] “Genealogists Ban Negro Membership,” Alabama Tribune (Montgomery, Ala.), 2 December 1960, page 6; image from Newspapers.com.

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