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Monday, July 25, 2005

The History Defectives Strike Again

By all rights, I should be happy with tonight's episode of History Detectives on PBS. After all, it was devoted entirely to genealogical research, and even included a case involving someone bearing my own surname—Daniel Dunham, a Loyalist fugitive to Canada.

I can't, though, ignore the horrible advice given tonight to those researching their African-American heritage. At the close of the story about a banjo once owned by an emancipated slave, one of the Detectives explained that tracing enslaved ancestors before the Civil War is so difficult that one should expect to rely on oral tradition. He went on to hold up Alex Haley as a role model for African-American genealogists, and urged viewers to follow Haley's example in exploring and proving their own ancestries.

Problem is, Alex Haley's research methods and conclusions were thoroughly discredited long ago (see Roots Revisited). Oral tradition should not be relied upon except as a last resort. African-American genealogy does require special skills, and knowledge of sources which may be safely neglected by others. Records of property are of merely historical interest to many of us; but to descendants of slaves, whose ancestors were considered property, these can hold vital information on their lineages.

AfriGeneas is a good place to start one's African-American research. See also Cyndi's List of African-American resources, and the following instructional articles at Ancestry.com:

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