Sunday, July 29, 2007

What do I Do Now? Moral Dilemmas in Genealogy

[Posted from Kansas City, Missouri]

I was doing a fairly simple chart for a particular family when I came across a public record of a somewhat recent birth that the family had not mentioned. There was no reason not to have mentioned it except to keep it secret. What to do? Should I put it on the chart and say nothing to the family about it? Or should I leave it off the chart and say nothing about it? Should I confront the family with the public record?

The first thing I did was to try to ascertain from record sources what became of the child. Did the child die shortly after birth (and for that reason had not been mentioned by the family?). I could find no record of the child except for the birth record. I then asked a mutual acquaintance how many children the family had--without mentioning that I was doing some genealogical work for them. This person gave me a number that would be one less than if the mystery birth would be included.

I decided that the right thing to do would be to tell the family about the record I had found and ask them directly about the matter with compassion and sensitivity. Before I could do that, the work was suspended for reasons not related to the mystery birth. So now I regard my discovery as confidential. I do not discuss it with others in a fashion that would make the family identifiable. Others who may research this family no doubt will make this discovery and they will have to make a decision about what to do next.

In another matter, I discovered that some members of a particular family had moved to another state where they were taken to be of a different race. I had not been engaged by those persons to do any genealogical work. I had made this discovery in the course of research on behalf of family members who had remained in their home state. I did inform those family members of my discovery. But would it be an invasion of the privacy of the "passing" family members to write about and publish the circumstances of their "passing"?

This is a difficult situation laden with emotions of all sorts. After much thought, I decided that I would mention their "passing' in anything I wrote about that family. I only write about deceased family members unless I have explicit permission to do otherwise. But here, although the initial "crossing over" was accomplished by now long-deceased family members, its effects are obvious in now-living members.

One of the reasons I decided to "expose" the discovery was that I began to see in various message boards and published genealogies certain falsehoods that had been created deliberately or assumed negligently in order to support the "passing." This was wrong, I believed, and anyone armed with the truth was obligated to set the record straight.

As they say, "There are no easy cases in genealogy."


Lee said...

Hi Craig,

On passing, and as one who is probably a descendant of someone who did, I say expose, expose, expose. Please.

When I told my 70-something year old aunt that it appears we probably do not descend from Cherokees but from an African American, I was afraid of what her reaction would be--keep in mind, my aunt is a pure to the bone Southern belle, the likes of which they don't make any more--and I was shocked, pleasantly so, when her reaction was one of positive acceptance. I think most of us just want to know the truth, whether we are willing to advertise it or not.

Whenever I am faced with similar situations today, I just stick with the truth. I can't say everyone receives it as well as my aunt, but I believe truth deserves its day.

BTW, I have enjoyed the peeks into your research trip. I have some collateral kin who moved into the same areas where your research is taking you, and I hope to make it out there someday.

Craig Manson said...

Thanks, Lee. Truth is the best policy--let the chips fall where they may.