This is NOT Genealogies Dark Side

The blog I write today was not the one I planned and I want to make clear this is my OPINION.  

I blog about genealogy because it is my passion and I have found that it pairs wonderfully with my first interest, psychology.  I often start the day reading the news and today was no different.  Having just about finished my second cup of coffee, I was flipping through the stories on The Washington Post when I came across an article published yesterday, “The Dark Side of our Genealogy Craze” by Honor Sachs, an assistant history professor at the University of Colorado – Boulder. 

I beg to differ with the author’s main premise.  In paragraph 1, “…But the rise of genealogy may also, paradoxically, exacerbate the virulently anti-immigration fervor propelling President Trump’s policies and increase racial inequality…”  As the thesis statement, the article continues to present the author’s justification of  her views that researching one’s family history is dangerous for the future and the interest in learning this information is short-lived, per her word choice in the title. I strongly disagree.

To prove her point, the author cites the beginning of the growing interest in finding one’s lineage to Alex Haley’s Roots.  The book and television series without a doubt, gave rise to genealogy in the late 20th century.  Yes, the story was about an African American whose ancestors were enslaved and those of European ancestry did use the methods Haley outlined to begin their own research.  I am one of them with two of my European lines entering through Ellis Island.  I am also a Boomer. 

How the author connected Roots, Boomers and Ellis Island to this statement, “The exploration of this heritage provided a language through which the baby boomer generation could safely distance themselves from the mandates of the Civil Rights era without sounding explicitly racist.” is unclear.  

As a historian, I would think the author would know that the Boomers were deeply affected by the Civil Rights era since we were born in the 1950-60’s and were the product of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.  Boomers are of all races with many of us attending integrated schools as a result of the Supreme Court decision.  While some of us are racist, most of us are not.  Racism is not tied to a generation; it permeates all ages and races. Many Americans of European descent supported (and still do) Civil Rights.  Some even died because of their involvement. Many Boomers raised children to be global citizens in integrated schools.

I believe the real threat to a rise in racism is not genealogy but through online usage and I’m not talking about a subscription to Ancestry.com.  Check out the study, “Measurement invariance of the perceived online racism scale across age and gender.”[1] 

Racism today is not the result of the Boomers or any other generation of Americans with European ancestry interested in genealogy.  Unfortunately, racism will not die with the Boomers but will continue to grow as youths buy into the propaganda they are reading online.

Here’s another problem I have with the Post’s article; the author states “While European immigrants faced significant historic struggles, their descendants mobilized such hardships to dilute the claims of historically persecuted groups that remained marginalized with their own narratives of past immigrant oppression.”  She then goes on to cite Richard Nixon and his “coded language.”  While I agree that Nixon’s word choice were coded for his base, so are every politician of every party in every nation.  Generalizing that all descendants of Europeans who researched their heritage resulted in marginalizing persecuted groups  and “resonates with our modern-day genealogical revival” is just wrong.  Show me the data!

The author continues that although genealogy can benefit those members of historically persecuted groups, it can also “empower those who seek to divide, deny and disenfranchise.”  DNA with the Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” debacle is mentioned, along with others of primarily European descent attempting to gain access to programs for underrepresented people.  Let me be clear – it is wrong to try to gain entry to a privilege that was not established for you.  In my genealogical experience, people who have taken DNA tests typically do not take them for the purpose of undermining the system.  Most take them because they want to know who their birth parents were for health reasons, where their immigrant ancestor originated, or to compare their results with family members to determine which got what genetic material from each parent.

Native American ancestry is a family story for many Americans of all races.  I wish I had a buck for every time I hear it!  My own family had a version but long before DNA, I was able to prove what the true story was;
distant cousins were kidnapped by a tribe and held for several years.    One escaped and the other was released after a truce.

Knowing that information does not make me want to hold an indigenous group today responsible.  It was wrong to steal children then, just as it’s wrong to separate children from their immigrant parents today.  Learning this occurred in my family’s past makes me even more vehemently opposed to what is happening at our border.  Understanding what my immigrant family members were fleeing in the old country makes me more empathetic with today’s people who are seeking asylum.  Remembering that
my grandparents were targeted by the KKK  and
my father’s WWII Army placementwas made due to his German sounding last name (DNA now shows more French then German but who knew back them because there was no DNA tests!) allows me to listen to the message from historically disenfranchised groups to gain their perspective.

Historian George Santayana got it right, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Correlating genealogy with racism is wrong.  I know my family’s past because I am a genealogist.  My ancestors made mistakes just like every human does every day.  I strive to learn from their mistakes and follow their examples for what they did correctly.  

No one inherited a racism gene.  Racism’s root is fear of not being in power, of losing privilege status and therefore, of becoming indigent.  My definition of poor has nothing to do with money; I define poor as those who lack a moral compass.  I’ve met poor wealthy people and rich poor people, as I bet you have.  Interesting that the fear of having no money sometimes results in those who have it in become overly controlling at the expense of others to keep it and those that don’t have it, trying to differentiate from another group to make themselves feel superior.  Those kinds of people unite in their shared biased worldview and make it bad for all the rest of us.  It leads to a closed mindset and a regression to what we see happening with leaders across the world – derogatory name calling, ostracizing, categorizing, and segregating.  Communication ceases which only separates us further.

Please, let’s stop dividing ourselves by age, race, gender, place of origin, religion, sexual orientation, education level and career choice.  The Human Genome Project showed that we all share humanness, we are all one.  Our search for our ancestors isn’t the problem.  Finding your family’s story and relating it to the world today to make for a better tomorrow is imperative.  

[1]Keum, B., & Miller, M. (2018). Measurement invariance of the perceived online racism scale across age and gender. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 12(3), article 3. http://dx.doi.org/10.5817/CP2018-3-3.

The KKK Strikes – Reasons Behind the Cross Burning in Gary, Indiana

Originally published on genealogyatheart.blogspot.com on 18 Jul 2015.

One of my mother’s most frightening memories occurred when she was 6 years old.  It was late autumn and the family had just finished dinner.  Hearing the sounds of cars and voices my grandfather, Gramps, went out to investigate as typically, there was not much traffic at that time of night. Peaking out the window, my mother saw men in white and many cars lining the street.  Gramps soon reappeared and ordered everyone to turn off the lights and to quickly go down into the basement.  My grandmother, Non, asked him what was happening but he just shook his head and grabbed his young son, my Uncle George. The outside noises grew louder – car doors slammed, men spoke loudly and then it became quiet.  The children were told to remain still.  My mother recalled how cold and damp it was in the fruit cellar as the family had not had time to grab a sweater and this part of the house was unheated. My mother didn’t understand what was going on but she knew her parents and grandmother were frightened. Then the sounds of cheering and what sounded like singing, though muffled, was heard. In the dark, mom’s siblings fell asleep but she felt, as the oldest, she needed to remain alert so she pinched herself to stay awake.  After several hours of quiet my grandfather decided to investigate.  He soon returned  and said the Klan had left, the charred cross was not glowing so the fire must be cold. The family could return to their beds for the night.  My mother had a fitful sleep for many nights after as she was sure those bad men were going to return and cause harm.

Why did the Ku Klux Klan choose to burn a cross in front of her home?  Why did they hate her when they didn’t even know her?  Why did they wear hoods and capes?  Where were the police?

My mother went to her grave never knowing for sure why her family was targeted.

I thought I knew the reasons but in researching this family story I discovered I was very, very wrong.

Some background information is necessary to see how my initial reasoning was flawed. I’ll highlight some of the key parts of the saga:

After my grandmother, Non, emigrated to the US in July 1913 with her mother, Granny, and brother, my Great Uncle Joe, the family resided in Glen Park, a suburb of Gary, Indiana, while her father lived in nearby Chicago, Illinois working for the Pullman Company as a laborer.  My great grandfather thought it best if the family lived in a more bucolic setting than the nitty gritty urban environment they weren’t used to.  Non’s first residence was an upstairs apartment on West Ridge Road between Adams and Jefferson Streets.  The building below the apartments held a church and a paint store.  Non and her brother briefly attended school in the neighborhood to perfect their English and she fell in love with the community.  Looking for ways to increase the family income, however, my great grandmother, Granny, decided to apartment hunt in Chicago, locate a larger apartment and then sublease to other immigrants, providing them with room and board.  So off to Chicago the family moved.

In January 1917, my grandparents wed at St. Salomea’s Roman Catholic Church in Chicago and they remained there until after my mom’s birth in April 1918.  The family seriously discussed moving to Bethlehem or Alquippa, Pennsylvania as there was rumors of steady income with the steel mills but they decided to remain in the Chicago area.

Family outside Granny’s Pullman area apartment Left-Right, A neighbor, Great Uncle Joseph Koss, Non, my Mother Dorothy and her Godmother, a friend of Non’s.

My great grandpa did not live long, dying as a result of the Great Flu Epidemic in January 1919. The family unit consisted of widowed Granny, her 3 children – Joseph (who is missing from the 1920 census), Barbara (born in the U.S.) and my Non, Non’s husband, Gramps, and their 2 children, Dorothy, my mom, and Anne Marie with a third, George, on the way.  The only breadwinner became Gramps.  By late 1918, Gramps and my great grandfather were hired as laborers in the steel mill in Gary.  The family rented a house at 2626 Harrison Street, not quite in Glen Park but close.  My mother recalled that the house often flooded from the nearby Calumet River, there was a grape arbor in the back but lots of snakes so the children played on a hill across the street.

Times were tough so Non learned a lot from her neighbors who had moved to Gary from Mexico and Louisiana.  Being a young mother with 3 small children, her Black neighbors, the Gilkeys, taught her the value of Vicks Vaporub and shared a secret family recipe to help the children recover from scarlet fever, sore throats and earaches.  Even though the city had placed the family under quarantine for the scarlet fever, the neighbor woman would sneak in the back door to bring food and the homemade medicine.  Non learned to cook in new ways and corn meal mush, fried chicken, hot sauce and greens became commonplace. The family had a garden with chickens and rabbits.  In the fall, the children would stomp the grapes to a pulp so the family could make vino, a family tradition, which they began to sell locally.

1920-census
1920 Census – Note that one of the “Black” families were of Mexican Hispanic descent

The only problem was that the home was considered so far out from the city limits of Gary that there was no streetcar so my one legged Gramps re-learned how to ride a bike to get to the last stop of the streetcar line on Broadway, about a mile away, to get to work in the mill.Around 1923 another tragedy struck the family.  Breadwinner Gramps had to have his right leg amputated due to a steel mill accident.  With the settlement money they received the family decided to buy a home in Glen Park, 1 block west of the apartment that the family first lived in when they emigrated.  Non wanted her children to attend Glen Park Elementary School that was known for providing a good education and St. Marks, the brand new Roman Catholic Church, was only 1 block away.

The farmhouse was large enough to once again take in boarders for extra cash.  The family continued to raise chickens and rabbits, a vegetable garden and of course, grapes so that they could produce more vino to sell.  My mother recalled that in the fall, her feet were often purple due to the stomping of the grapes.  The fruit cellar where the wine was stored was in the basement, directly under where my mom (Dorothy) was standing:

1926
L-R Anne Marie, Dorothy, Non, Boarder, Friend of Non’s with her son

Shortly before the cross burning, my mother experienced another frightening event.  On Saturday nights, Gramps would play cards with his friends while Non went to the movies with her girlfriends.  Granny remained at home watching the children.  One Saturday night the Gary police arrived at the door inquiring about sales of alcohol.  Granny, with her limited English, had my mother translate.  The officers searched the house, found the vats in the fruit cellar and with backup, removed the wine.  When my grandparents returned home they were questioned and then arrested.  The next morning they appeared before a judge who told them they would be contacted about an upcoming court date.

My grandparents were arrested because of the laws of Prohibition.  “While the manufacture, importation, sale, and transport of alcohol was illegal in the United States, Section 29 of the Volstead Act allowed wine and cider to be made from fruit at home, but not beer. Up to 200 gallons of wine and cider per year could be made, and some vineyards grew grapes for home use.”1  The problem was my grandparents had sold wine.

The court date never occurred as the evidence seemed to have disappeared.  Perhaps the officers lost it, sold it or drank it.  According to the Gary Police Department, there are no records of arrests from that far back.  Searching court records, none could be found since there never was a court date.

Who turned the family in to police?  My mother always thought it was a teacher who had repeatedly questioned her about the purple stains on her hands and feet.  Perhaps it was a card player associate of my Gramps who was disgruntled after a losing game.  Maybe it was a neighbor who witnessed cars coming and going.  Most likely I will never know how the police were tipped off.

In researching this story I also contacted the Gary Health Department for records on the quarantine.  I was informed that there were no records from that time period, however, I did find online that there was a smallpox epidemic in Gary in 1920 but no record of a scarlet fever outbreak.

I also investigated newspapers for records of quarantine, my grandparents’ arrest and cross burning in Glen Park.  Nothing appeared.

For years, I thought the cross burning was because my relatives were the perfect poster family for Klan hatred – as immigrants, these Roman Catholic foreigners who had friends of people of all colors had taken jobs away from the good ole boys and now were living the American Dream by owning a house in the country.  I now believe it is most likely that the cross burning occurred because of the wine arrests.

Recently I learned that “After Prohibition took effect in 1920 until its demise in 1933, it opened up a financial bonanza for criminal activity, especially underground bootlegging and the smuggling of liquor into Chicago, Gary, South Bend, Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, Evansville and other thirsty cities. Enforcement was haphazard; the Anti-Saloon League was more of a lobbying agency and never rallied community support for enforcement.”2  “The KKK called for punishment of bootleggers and set up the ‘Horse Thief Detective Association’ (HTDA) to make extra-legal raids on speakeasies and gambling joints. It seldom cooperated with law enforcement or the state or federal courts. Instead (it) gave enforcement a bad name. Arthur Gillom, a Republican elected state attorney general over Klan opposition in 1924, did not tolerate its extra-legal operations. Instead, ‘He stressed the dangers of citizens relinquishing their constitutional rights and personal freedoms, and emphasized the importance of representative government (at all levels), states’ rights, and the concept of separation of church and state.’ When Rev. Shumaker proposed that ‘personal liberty had to be sacrificed in order to save people,’ Gilliom replied that surrendering power and individual freedoms was a slippery slope to centralized government and tyranny.”3

The arrest may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back with the Klan – we put up with you and now you’re making wine.  Enough already!  Perhaps because the police didn’t press charges, the Klan used the event to make a point to law enforcement – we know you didn’t pursue the case because you “lost” the evidence.  Who knows what the real reason was.  Unless a diary of an officer or Klansman involved miraculously appears mentioning these occurrences I probably will never know for sure.

This is one reason that I love genealogy, the unexpected discoveries!  I attended 12 years of schooling in Gary and never once did I hear about the Klan going after bootleggers and gamblers in the area. Although as vigilantes they were wrong to take the law into their hands, ironically, they were right in making a point that a crime had been committed and the enforcers of the law ignored it.

I realize my grandparents were the guilty ones in this story – they broke the law by selling wine and should have paid the price for their actions.  They got lucky in getting off – no evidence, no proof of sales, no case.

Unfortunately, it was an innocent victim, my mother, that was most affected.  I do know that the cross burning left an indelible mark on her


  1.  Prohibition in the United States Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 05 July 2015.
  2. Thomas R. Pegram, “Hoodwinked: The Anti-Saloon League and the Ku Klux Klan in 1920s Prohibition Enforcement,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era(2008) 7#1 pp 89-119
  3. Ann Gilliom Verbeek, “The League and the Law: Arthur L. Gillom and the Problem of Due Process in Prohibition-Era Indiana,” Indiana Magazine of History(2011) 107#4 pp 289-326, quotes at p 297 online