Reflections on Researching Racism in America

Thomas Bivins Probate Inventory (1857), Marion, Inventories and appraisements 1852-1904, “Georgia, Probate Records, 1742-1990,” FamilySearch.

I have agonized over what I would say in a blog post that would speak to the gravity of where our nation is today. I question if it is my place to say anything or if this is even the forum to do so. The more I debated in my head, the more convinced I became that I needed to write something, if only to amplify the voices of those speaking out against the racism they face every day.

I am a white woman who has spent my academic and professional career working with people of color. I am a public historian, oral historian, and genealogist whose projects, research, and lectures have involved Native and Black communities. In doing this I am constantly reminded that I have the privilege to study racism without having to experience it.

I have sat for hours with descendants of slaves listening to their life stories, filled with the challenges imbedded in systemic racism and sexism. I have witnessed the simultaneous joy and pain in the eyes of a client when we finally found their direct ancestor listed in the probate inventory of their slave owner. As a mother myself, I have wept over the pages upon pages of registers of babies born into slavery, separated from their mothers, generation after generation.

It is emotional work. It is uncomfortable work. On multiple occasions I have presented my research in front of an entirely black audience that questioned my decision to pursue this work. Why would I in all my white privilege want to study racism, slavery, and colonization? Am I just trying to exploit their communities for my own gain? Valid questions I reflect upon daily that help keep me focused on finding ways to promote voices coming from Native and Black communities without making them my own.

While I have expertise in the methods and
theories in all these fields, I do not feel it is my
place to educate the Black community about
their history – they know it well.

While I have expertise in the methods and theories in all these fields, I do not feel it is my place to educate the Black community about their history – they know it well. I see my role as a negotiator, to listen to the community to determine how I can use my knowledge to best serve them.

The most important lesson I have learned while pursuing this work is to listen. Discussing a troubled and painful history which has shaped the systems at work today is hard. It’s hard as a white person in that space because it is uncomfortable. But through that discomfort there are many rewards that bring forth more dialogue and understanding. In every instance I have found listening to be the most powerful way to connect. Something so simple yet so powerful.

I am so grateful to work for an institution that has made great strides in promoting the voices of the Black community. I hope to continue use my knowledge to help our members and patrons amplify more of those voices in the future.

About Meaghan E.H. Siekman

Meaghan holds a Ph.D. in history from Arizona State University where her focus was public history and American Indian history. She earned her B.A. in history from Union College in Schenectady, New York, the city where she grew up. Prior to joining the NEHGS team, Meaghan worked as the Curator of the Fairbanks House in Dedham, Massachusetts, as an archivist at the Heard Museum Library in Phoenix, Arizona, and wrote a number of National Register Nominations and Cultural Landscape Inventories for the National Park Service. Meaghan is passionate about connecting people with the past in meaningful and lasting ways. She enjoys finding interesting anecdotes about an ancestor to help bring the past to life.

20 thoughts on “Reflections on Researching Racism in America

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful and important perspective, Meaghan. Listening is an important tool toward change.

  2. Thank you, Meaghan, for this beautiful and thoughtfully written post. I appreciate you sharing your perspective on this important topic.

  3. I think you are right to speak about the work you do searching for black family history. It’s time we all thought a lot more about the crimes we mainly white anglosaxons perpetrated on a people we kidnapped and sold as slaves. It’s high time we were ashamed of our ancestors’ part in this abomination. Recovering family history is a step in the healing process. And the reforms people are demanding when they march must happen now.

  4. You are doing such important work, Meaghan. What an honor to be able to listen to this community. Thank you.

  5. I keep thinking about the fact that I may have black “cousins” I’ll never know. I have several slaveholders in my family tree, mostly in Maryland and Virginia but one as late as 1840 in Kentucky. I figure the odds are pretty good that at least one of my ancestors fathered a child with a slave. Did that/those children survive, I wonder? If so, I would love to meet them.

  6. Hi, Meghan, I always enjoy your posts. It’s good to see you continuing your great work. This post was particularly poignant and well-done. Thank you for daring to “go there.” We all need to fact racism head-on now. Keep well, Trinkle

  7. Meghan. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings. Your work will only become more important as stories need to be told.

  8. Meaghan, thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings on this. It will become so much more important to share all people’s stories.

  9. Thank you Meghan, I think your thoughts on bringing light to black family history are valid. I am currently on a quest for a family friend and I have found some astonishing facts. Grandparents that both had Masters Degrees. And as best I can tell, one line started out with a Free man of color in Virginia. So not all the history is full or woe, but they do tend to be reluctant to share personal stories. Any suggestions for me to research black genealogy would be appreciated.

  10. I dread the day that I find that link to an ancestor of mine who owned slaves. Fortunately, most of my ancestors seemed to have been too poor or too principled. My favorite discovery was an abolitionist family that moved from Illinois to territorial Kansas to prevent it from becoming a slave state. I’m continuing to pursue that family and trying to find their role in the Underground Railroad in Illinois.

  11. In exploring indigenous and black history and memories do we not as whites or people of privilege become more emphatic and prepared to make changes now?

  12. I found your article thanks to Gail Dever’s crème de la crème list. Thank you so much for tackling and persevering with this subject, and for your expertise. I think that until the true history of all immigrants is known to a country’s citizens, we cannot see our history clearly. I’m in Canada, and I’m old enough to have been through a school system that spent years on French fur traders and no time on the Chinese Immigration Act, the expulsion of the black population from Acadia, Japanese internment camps, the 60s scoop / the residential school system, or the eugenics program. At work, I have shared my personal discoveries of Canadian history that shocked and appalled a highly educated group of coworkers (lawyers) who made it through degree programs without learning the effects of race. I think we need all voices to amplify our less-known collective history, and expertise in all directions. Because once we see the system, we can’t unsee it. But first we need to see it.

  13. Thanks for your article and remarks. I have discovered thanks to DNA and paper genealogy a whole new family of Black Cousins. I have met many of them, become friends with them, had Thanksgiving dinner with them, stayed at their house and they at mine. It has been a wonderful journey. Thru the power of zoom and email I am now active in research and events relating to the Black history of Dallas even though I live in the NW

  14. Meghan:

    You may find this 2017 blog post of interest:

    In it I have found 120+ people enslaved by my ancestors and their children from the mid-1600s until the1860s.

    I think more European Americans need to actually look at the records and think about what they show about the making of America. This applies to anyone with European ancestry in both North, Central, and South America between 1492 and 1865. Some of my relatives in Spain are descendants of Cristobal Colon.

  15. Meaghan,
    Thank you for your thoughtful response to this timely topic. While it is easy to view what we are going through as a uniquely American experience, history tell us all nations have shared the same experience at some level. Our nation is unique because it was founded upon principles identified in our founding documents, but it was much later that some of these principles took root in amendments. Still, we underwent a Civil War, a war where Americans fought Americans, brother against brother. Even then, it has taken decades to resolve our problems as a nation. While black history may be the current focus, the challenges and obstacles people overcame apply to many groups, Italian, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, various Spanish-speaking groups and others. As Benjamin Franklin aptly put it when asked what kind of government was created he said, “A republic, if you can keep it.” It is our responsibility to do so.

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