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.
These changes insulate the more than three million subscribers to Ancestry.com from being exposed to the extent to which slavery shaped American society. This contributes to a larger problem regarding Americans’ knowledge about slavery. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently released a report detailing how little Americans understand slavery. The City Council of Charleston, SC, only barely passed a largely symbolic resolution apologizing for slavery. Despite being the port of entry for around forty percent of enslaved Africans transported into the United States during the trans-Atlantic slave trade some city councilmembers refused to apologize “for something they did not take a part in” ignoring the way that inherited wealth and racial privilege from the antebellum period continue to create racial inequality today.
With calls for reparations increasingly in the news, inaccurate belief’s about hereditary ties to slavery become all the more relevant to contemporary discourse. Claims that “my family didn’t own slaves” are common among white Americans, and are often used to argue that whites should not be asked to sacrifice anything to make amends for the past sins of the country. In the face of this resistance to addressing contemporary inequality, Ancestry.com could choose to be a powerful tool that forces users to confront their own personal ties to slavery.
The difficulty searching the slave schedules is not just about genealogy. Exaggerated claims that only a tiny percentage of Confederate soldiers owned slaves are constantly heard by those defending Confederate monuments. At the University of North Carolina, these inaccurate claims are being challenged by a group cross-referencing UNC’s Confederate dead—most of whom came from families in better than average financial situations—with census slave schedules. Their work has been slowed by Ancestry changing the search engine.
Ancestry has offered a phenomenal resource to which many contemporary historians pay to subscribe, but its usability was greatly reduced by this modification. Alerted to this issue, Ancestry representatives noted in March that a keyword search could help researchers find individuals in the 1850 and 1860 Slave Schedules but this only worked if the name was spelled and transcribed correctly. A keyword search is simply not as powerful a tool for researchers.
Unlike with name searches, keyword searches do not detect similar results. Any misspelling, transcription errors, or the use of initials instead of a first name can cause a keyword search to miss results that would previously have been discovered.
While Americans who are descended from enslavers are now less likely to discover the full truth of their family histories, this change also presented similar difficulties for professional historians. The 1860 Slave Schedule represents the gold standard among Civil War historians wanting to establish whether someone owned another human being. One of my students, seeking to discover what percentage of College of Charleston students came from slave-owning families, struggled this past semester to find each individual, a task that used to only take a few minutes per person. Instead, researchers now must often go page by page looking for individuals.
These issues remain unresolved. In early March, Ancestry promised to work on fixing the issue. Though it took about two months, Ancestry updated their search engine again last week. If you go to the 1850 or 1860 censuses, you can now search by slave owner name. While this is an improvement, issues remain. For starters, the search engine still lacks much of the capability to find similarly [mis]spelled names that the old name search held. More importantly, when a general name search of all ancestry databases is done, the results from the slave census are still not included. Only those in the know, who go seeking information of slave ownership, will learn of their family’s ties to slavery. While Ancestry asserts the change was in response to complaints that under certain conditions saving a document to a family tree overrode data, the consequences, intended or not, was to make it harder to discover slave ownership.
These recent issue with the census slave schedules do not appear to be a conspiracy to hide slave ownership, but instead the byproduct of trying to please a small group of customers without thinking through the societal ramifications of those choices. One way to perhaps prevent similar problems is to bring more historians and people of color into the process of designing their databases and search engines. The corporation says they “consider diversity to be an integral part of our business,” but as Nike and Ancestry have both demonstrated in the last few months, hiring diverse employees including people with humanities degrees and nonwhite staff members just might save companies a lot of pain. The tech world is overwhelmingly populated with white men. Diversity isn’t just about doing the right thing morally—although perhaps that should be enough. It is also about making certain that products function well and don’t accidentally reinforce racial disparities by privileging one group’s search for the past over that of another.
The impact of a lack of diversity in search engine design is tied to a larger cultural fight over how the past is remembered. How extensive and horrible slavery was—and let me be clear, slavery was atrocious—is not just a historiographical debate but a political one as well. Tales about loyal slaves and kind masters were used during the Jim Crow to reify and justify segregation. Today, whitewashing the horrors of slavery continues to help maintain privilege for whites. While earlier versions of the Lost Cause openly justified racial hierarchy, today those same tales have evolved; neo-Confederates now sometimes claim Confederates were not even racist. One neo-Confederate website even claims Nathan Bedford Forrest was “the first true civil rights leader.” While earlier versions of the Lost Cause overtly and openly justified white supremacy, some modern variation of the mythology deny that discrimination existed. In the last 50 years individuals who were once presented as loyal slaves have increasingly been cited as evidence of Black Confederate soldiers fighting for the Confederacy, despite repeated debunking by historians. If one accepts the historically inaccurate belief that African Americans were so happy and well treated that they fought for the Confederacy, then arguments for reparations or assertions the Confederacy was devoted to white supremacy make less sense. Bad historical knowledge can lead modern inequities to appear as solely the fault of the impoverished and not the product of centuries of discrimination. In this twisted world view, affirmative action can be understood as reverse discrimination because historically created inequality does not appear to even exist. Denying the existence of institutional racism, produced by a long history of oppression, serves to maintain inequality today. The danger of hiding slavery’s extent, horrors, and legacy is that it leads Americans to fundamentally misunderstand why racism remains such a problem. And you can’t solve a problem if you do not understand its roots.