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Digital technology and its impact on black genealogical research

Ubiquity, Volume 2001 Issue March, March 1 - March 31, 2001 | BY Jeremy E. White 

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Throughout Black America, there is growing interest in and advocacy for reparations for blacks who are descendants of slaves. Critics of black reparations claims generally respond in unison that blacks are not similarly situated to the 60,000 Japanese-Americans and Hawaiians who received reparations for their placement in internment camps during World War II or to certain Jewish groups and Israel who received reparations from the German Reparations Program on behalf of victims of Nazi war crimes during World War II.

The argument is that those groups were able to identify the actual victims of the crimes and the actual parties who suffered pecuniary damages. Although this argument does not have much merit with regard to actions against public entities, it does create an obstacle for instituting actions against the private sector (i.e., corporations that were the direct beneficiaries of the slave trade or even actively participated in it).

For black Americans who are either interested in confirming that their ancestors were in fact slaves, or in determining which corporations their slave ancestors worked for, one of the first and most efficient steps to obtaining this information will be to explore the increasing volume of vital records information and census data available in cyberspace.

Vital Records

Vital records information is now available to researchers online instead of having to go to a particular county courthouse to search through volumes of hardcopy records (see, e.g., http://vitalrec.com). On this site and numerous others, researchers can embark on their journey to find vital records information about their ancestors by using queries based on any limited piece of information they have (i.e., the ancestor's first name or surname). Obviously, the best place to start is by selecting the ancestor whose name you know (i.e., a grandparent or great-grandparent). Once the selected ancestor is identified and retrieved, in many cases one can obtain information related to (a) the ancestor's birth (which will include the name of the ancestor's parents), (b) the ancestor's death, (c) census records, which will include information on the ancestor's household and (d) the ancestor's land ownership and transfer, if any. Striking gold on any of this data will be a promising start. The initial access generally is free and there are nominal charges (as low as $5) for obtaining hard copies of the actual records or online access to the information.

Census Data and Social Security

Another good place for blacks to confirm the link to their slave ancestors is through census records, namely the 1870 census. Census information is now available and searchable online or by CD-ROM. For example, several Websites, including Genealogy.com and Ancestry.com provide online access to census data (See http://www.genealogy.com or http://www.ancestry.com).

Synthesis of Oral Family History and Technology

I have made significant progress toward identifying my slave ancestors (and their likely owners) in merely two days of research by accessing census and vital records information and using that information in conjunction with the oral history passed on from family elders. I qualify my early success with the fact that one of my friends in high school, who was white, had the same surname as my mother's maiden name, and, consequently, we determined years ago that many of our family members had the same given names (i.e., both of us had an "Uncle George Thomas" and an "Uncle Lucian"). Many blacks will find that they are privy to similar leads and they will be pleasantly surprised at their success once they leverage the information available in cyberspace to further flesh out their genealogy.

The "Digital Divide" and Its Impact on Black Genealogical Research

Unfortunately, a majority of blacks will not be able to conduct the genealogical research surveyed above because they do not have access to the Internet or to a computer.

A recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) study (updated in October 2000) (see http://www.cnie.org/nle/st-36.html) confirms that there is still a significant "digital divide" separating the American information "haves" and "have nots", as was previously discussed in the U.S. National Communications and Information Administration report, Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide. (See http://ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/fttn99/contents.html). For example, the CRS study found that black and Hispanic families are only 40 percent as likely as white households are to have online access. The study further found that economics is not necessarily the determinative variable: more than a third of white households earning between $15,000 and $35,000 per year owned computers, whereas only one in five African-American households with the same income level owned computers.

After analyzing these studies and the statistics contained in them, it is obvious that black genealogy research, the case for reparations and the Digital Divide are inextricable.

A major cornerstone of most claims for reparations (whether instituted against public or private entities) will be the long-standing effects that slavery and institutional racism have had and continue to have on blacks today. One may reasonably argue that the "digital divide" is one manifestation of this legacy and is one factor that further buttresses the case for reparations: the $553 billion black market (as well as the $490 billion Hispanic market) generally has been relegated to the periphery of the mainstream digital economy. Consequently, being on the periphery of the digital economy affects the competitiveness of black small businesses as well as educational opportunities for black children.

As I continue my online genealogical research, I cannot help but keep in mind that, unfortunately, I am among the mere eight percent of blacks who are able to do so.




Jeremy E.White, Esq. (jwhite@akl.com) is an attorney in the litigation practice group at Kritzer & Levick, P.C. (www.akl.com), an Atlanta-based law firm with offices in Chicago and New York City. White practices in the areas of general commercial litigation and corporate law.

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