As a subscriber since 2006, it was very disconcerting to learn in the article, “Beyond Romantic Advertisements: Ancestry.com, Genealogy, and White Supremacy” by Adam H. Domby for Black Perspectives on the African American Intellectual History website, that Ancestry.com has recently changed its search algorithms so that the results from the 1850 to 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedules intentionally return results for slaveholders with no record of the people they enslaved, concealing their ill-gotten wealth and the pervasive roots of racial inequality from the site’s three million subscribers. Ancestry.com is making it more difficult for people to find documents about their family heritage and continuing racial equality in denying contemporary Americans access to information about their full origins as the company maintains and perpetuates white privilege.
Ancestry.com is allowing white Americans and the company’s white American subscribers to disassociate their ancestry from white supremacy by hiding historiographic information in this database about economic circumstances and African American enslavement. I was also disturbed by the recent Ancestry.com advertisement which portrays an enslaved Black woman and a white man running off to Canada to marry, because of the misrepresentation it presented about the nature of most interracial relationships during the antebellum period which were not romantic and consensual. In both this and the database instances, Ancestry.com perpetuates false narratives about American history.
On the “Our Story” page of the Ancestry.com corporate page, it says the company’s goal is: “to provide people with deeply meaningful insights about who they are and where they come from.” Hiding slavery connections to individuals in their database does not fulfill this goal and creates a misunderstanding of Americans’ heritage and American history.
More thought about the social ramifications of the choices made for the search engine design needs to be incorporated into corporate decision making. One way to help this would be to have more diversity of input among advisors, management and decision makers. From looking at the company’s corporate webpage, there are no historians or African Americans on the corporate team of management, advisors and directors.
In a letter to the company, I suggested creating a “History Advisory” Board, alongside the current “Science Advisory” Board. This would help corporate management to move in a direction for more diverse input. Additionally, the company needs to have African Americans and other marginalized communities of color represented on this proposed History Advisory Board, the Scientific Advisory Board and on the executive team and board of directors.
As a professional historian I have used Ancestry.com to research people who are a part of the stories I have uncovered in the work I do to document and share the African American experience in California and the American West. On a personal note, my various family branches have also been piecing together our family history. Some of my ancestors and those of the people included in my professional research projects were born enslaved.
Although it has become easier in recent years, on Ancestry.com and in other resources, to find out information about African Americans before the twentieth century, it continues to be challenging to piece together the documents to learn their stories.
Since Ancestry.com is one of the go to resources for American heritage and genealogical research, the organization should be making database searches for family records easier rather than more difficult. Further, Ancestry.com should not be accidentally or intentionally reinforcing racial disparities by privileging one group’s search for their heritage over that of another.