Battle for freedom: the Findley family of Virginia

UPDATE 16 April 2014:  A search in Google Books yielded some possible answers as to how Henry Clay came to possess the two Choctaw children, Chance and James. Basically, the likelihood of finding one definitive answer is exceedingly remote. The book Kentucky Clay: Eleven Generations of a Southern Dynasty by Katherine R. Bateman covers this subject ( from Page 28 onwards) . The possible answers to this mystery the book provides have been compiled from witness testimonies and depositions in the various Findley court cases. Taken decades after the actual kidnappings of Chance and James, no two explanations as to how Henry Clay came to acquire the children are the same. Given this was a time before the Choctaws wrote their history down, it is unlikely there is an oral story that has been passed down through the centuries within that tribe. We would first need to know which Choctaw group the children belonged to and what part of the Choctaw territory they lived in. We’d also need to know their Choctaw names, which would not have been Chance or James  those were the names given to them by Henry Clay. Given this pivotal period of Choctaw history (the tribe’s dealing with Europeans) the story of two lost children would have easily been lost.

Once again it’s the ladies in my family’s tree who provides an incredible detour and a truly remarkable, if not disturbing, tale. The story of Chance Findley and her descendants in Virginia is a multi-generational saga of the fight for freedom from an illegally imposed enslavement.

An email from Rob F, a distant relation through marriage, sent me down another rabbit hole of discovery. His email introduced me to the story of Rachel Findley, an ancestor Mary Drew, my great-grandfather Daniel Henry Sheffey’s first wife (I’m a descendant of his second marriage to Jane White).

The family tree below charts my line’s connection to the Findley family. Please note, the Findley (aka Findlay) family is too large to include a full family tree featuring all of Chance Findley’s descendants. I’ve traced the direct line of descent for Mary Drew, noting the other children born within each generation of the Findley family for illustrative purposes.

Malinda Findley Cleaver Drew's family tree

Malinda Findley Cleaver Drew’s family tree - click for larger image


Rachel Findley: 12 years a slave – and then some.

So how did I come to learn about Rachel Findley?

Mary Drew’s great grandmother, Rachel Findlay, was recently honored by the Library of Virginia as part of their “Women in History” programmes. This is what Rob F wrote to me about in his email. Each year the Library of Virginia develops and distributes educational resources for Women’s History Month. The Library uses this occasion to honor women who have made significant contributions to Virginia’s history and culture. The Library honored Rachel Findley this month as one of those women. Rob F was kind enough to share the award ceremony information with me as well as particulars about the award evening.

Virginia's Women in History 2014

Why did Rachel Findley warrant such recognition? She was among a number of Findley’s descended from an illegally enslaved Choctaw Native American woman, Chance Findley, who successfully sued the Commonwealth of Virginia for their freedom.

Virginia's Women in History 2014

The hows and whys of Chance Fielding’s enslavement remain a mystery. All is known is that in the early 18th Century, one Henry Clay of Virginia brought back a Choctaw girl he called Chance and a Choctaw boy he named Frank. He enslaved both regardless of the laws of the land which prohibited the enslavement of Native Americans.

While other Findley’s legal fights for freedom were more or less straightforward – they sued the Commonwealth of Virginia, they won their cases and they were freed – Rachel’s road to freedom was a bitter one.

Rachel Findlay was born into slavery in the early 1750s in Virginia in an area that would later became Powhatan County. Her maternal grandmother was an illegally enslaved Indian woman and her mother, Judea Findley, possibly had an African descended father. Virginia law dictated that the children of enslaved women were also slaves, so Judy Findlay and her children were born enslaved. Early in the 1770s Rachel Findlay, her brother Samuel, and her young daughter Judy sued their owner, Thomas Clay, on the grounds that because their grandmother’s enslavement was illegal, they were also illegally enslaved.

This suggest to me that Chance remembered enough about who she was and where she’d come from in her early childhood to convey the injustice of what had been done to her and her children to convey this to her growing family. How her children and grandchildren arrived at the decision to sue for their freedom is unknown. Nor do I know how who counselled them. The General Court ruled in May 1773 that they were free. In a turn of events worthy of a Hollywood movie, the Clay family sent Rachel and her daughter Judy west before the court reached its verdict and in 1774. The Clay family cynically sold them to John Draper. Draper and his family held Rachel and Judy in slavery in Wythe County.

Bill of sale for Rachel Findley and Judy Findley


Rachel Findlay again filed suit in the Wythe County Court in 1813. Her suit was to obtain the freedom to which she had been legally entitled but had never known much less enjoyed. After seven years of delays and difficulties – and the transfer of the case to the Powhatan County Court- Rachel once again won freedom for herself on 13 May 1820.

Powhatan court verdict for Rachel Findely

The decades of the injustice of illegal enslavement undone with a simple sentence. This single sentence freed Rachel Findley and Judy Findley. Image courtesy of Rob F.

Chance Findlay’s approximately forty descendants- which included her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren – were therefore legally entitled to become free too. Freedom was not automatically granted to them even in the face of the illegality of their enslavement. Several of Chance Findlay’s descendants successfully sued for their freedom. Others may have never known about the suit and its outcome, or were prevented from also suing for their freedom; regardless, they remained enslaved.

Summaries of the numerous Findley suits against the Commonwealth of Virginia can be found here:


Malinda Findley Cleaver Drew: 19th Century Virginia adds insult to injury

There is another side of Virginia’s history of slavery, one that further impacts on the Findley family’s history. According to Virginia law, slaves freed after May 1806 were required to leave the state within one year or face re-enslavement. Newly emancipated slaves could petition the State to remain, however, approval for such petitions was by no means guaranteed. Virginia simply did not want a large population of free blacks.

And so it came to pass that Malinda Findlay Cleaver, the grand-daughter of Rachel Findlay’s daughter Judy, was sued by Virginia for not leaving the state upon the attainment of her freedom. It’s worth noting at this point that many from the extended Findley family had left Virginia for the mid-West when they won their individual freedoms from the courts. Rachel, Judy and Malinda chose to remain. Malinda’s full case paper is available for review here:


In the end it wasn’t the illegality of her childhood enslavement that saved Malinda from either imprisonment or a fine. It was the fact that the 1806 Act which decreed that freed slaves must leave Virginia within a year of their freedom wasn’t ratified until many years after she’d already been freed. In other words, it wasn’t ratified until after she had been freed. Therefore, she was not bound by its conventions. She remained in Virginia where she would marry Lewis Drew, son of an old, established family of free blacks, and presided over her family.

The court proceedings didn’t serve to further enlighten me on the nature of slavery nor the injustices or corruption that were rife within it. Nor its fundamental inhumanity. I’ve been well schooled on such things already. These court proceedings, as unfortunate and as unnecessary as they were, provided invaluable genealogical information. I would go as far as to say I wouldn’t have been able to construct the Findley family tree without them. I would have known by the family name that various Findley’s were connected to one another. These papers and proceedings told me exactly how the various family groups were related to one another.

More interestingly still is the emphasis on the women. Nowhere have I been able to find information about them men who fathered four generations of Findlay women’s children. It’s not surprising if my assumption that they were enslaved men of African descended slaves is correct. These men, the sons of enslaved Africans, could never have their status as slaves overturned and, as such, would be irrelevant to any court proceedings. So their existence is as much a void in the court papers as they are in the Findley family tree I’ve researched.


Filed under ancestry, family history, genealogy, Sheffey family, virginia, wythe

Hugh White Sheffey: a study in Northern ideals & Southern sensibilities

Hugh White Sheffey in the Sheffey family tree

Hugh White Sheffey in the Sheffey family tree - click for larger image

Hugh White Sheffey was a name I already knew and had become somewhat familiar with in the course of doing the usual family history research thing. That is to say I knew where he fell on the greater family tree. I knew he was a judge. I also knew he served in Virginia’s State Congress. I also knew that, like many of his Sheffey contemporaries, he was an educated and deeply religious man. That being said, I’d put him on the proverbial back burner – yet another Virginia-born Sheffey who was respected legal practitioner and a political servant as well as steadfast American Constitutionalist. I shouldn’t have been so quick to by-pass his story.

As with my more interesting finds, Hugh White Sheffey re-emerged on my radar due to an unexpected research result. I had spent an afternoon doing some casual research trying to track down portraits of 18th and early 19th Century Sheffeys in Virginia. Google gave me an intriguing result for dear old Hugh in an obscure book entitled Twelve Virginia Counties: Where the Western Migration Began written in 1937 by John Hastings Gwathmey:

There’s an entry for Hugh Sheffey. In writing about the various portraits of judges which hang in the Staunton Court House in Augusta County, Virginia, which reads: “The other portraits in the courtroom are likenesses of the following men, all judges and lawyers who practiced at the Augusta bar: …Hugh W. Sheffey (1815-1889)…”

This was pretty cool to find. As far as I know – and as far as many of my extended family members know – there were no known images or photos of this man. There wasn’t a single image of him online. No one on had one. And a flurry of conversations on Facebook yielded no results. Simply put, no one in the length and breadth of the Sheffey family knew what this man looked like.  So I sent an exceedingly polite email to the Clerk of the Staunton Court House asking, if at all possible, could he or she take a photo of the portrait of Hugh and email it to me. The Clerk not only took a picture of Hugh’s portrait…he emailed it to me the very next day (again, a huge thank you for that!) And here it is:

Portrait of Judge Hugh White Sheffey

The portrait of Judge Hugh White Sheffey which hangs in the courtroom of the Staunton Courthouse in Virginia. Image courtesy of the Court Clerk, who kindly took a picture of the portrait for me.

This image of him sent me down the rabbit hole. I wanted to find out more about the man behind the portrait. To say I hit pay-dirt is an understatement. I came across a self-penned biography he provided for his Alma Mater, Yale University.

Hugh Sheffey’s Autobiography

Hugh White Sheffey autobiographyin Yale Alumnus Magazine

The impression which struck me as I read the history that he relayed was one of a humble, modest and diligent man. Hugh was the grandson of German immigrants Johann Adam Scheffe (John Adam Sheffey) and Maria Magdalena Loehr (Madeleine Lohr Sheffey). Born in 1815, he was one of five children born to Henry Lawrence Sheffey and Margaret White. He was orphaned at a young age and, went to live with one of his uncles, Major Daniel Henry Sheffey and his wife, Maria Hanson at Kalorama, the name of Daniel Sheffey’s home in Staunton, Virginia. His siblings were sent to live with other aunts and uncles.

Kalorama - Daniel Henry Sheff's home

Kalorama (upper left in the picture) – Daniel Henry Sheffey’s home in Satunton, Virginia. This was Hugh’s adopted childhood home. Maria Hanson Sheffey, Daniel’s widow, founded The Virginia Female Institute here in 1831. The property was destroyed in 1870.

What emerges is a story of a loving and profoundly nurturing childhood household reflected in the terms of endearment he uses for his father-uncle and mother-aunt. The parents of daughters, Daniel and Maria treated Hugh literally like the son they never had.

This was a deeply political household. Daniel Sheffey was an old fashioned Federalist and had served in Congress from 1816 to 1817. He’d been an outspoken opponent of the War of 1812. Roughly speaking, as a federalist Daniel believed in a decentralized form of central government which he felt was necessary in order to safeguard the liberty and independence that the American Revolution had created and the American Constitution would enshrine (an interesting historical factoid: it took YEARS for the American Constitution to be ratified. It was largely ratified due to the ceaseless campaigning efforts of the Federalist Party). For more information about Federalism, see

Daniel was also a highly respected lawyer.

I believe the measure of regard Hugh had his for his Uncle Daniel is easily witnessed throughout his life; how he conducted it, his ideals and the concepts he fought for. He too became a legal practitioner, eventually becoming a respected Judge. He too became a politician. By his time, the Federalist political party had dissolved. Hugh was an American Whig. Let’s think of the Whig party as the son of the former Federalist Party. They fundamentally shared the same concerns, goals, causes and philosophies. Both parties tended to support protectionist tariffs, development of infrastructure, particularly canals, and tended to favor northern business interests over farming interests. William Blair’s book Virginia’s Private War: Feeding Body and Soul in the Confederacy, 1861-1865 gives a small insight into Hugh’s Whig beliefs:

William Blair’s book Virginia's Private War: Feeding Body and Soul in the Confederacy, 1861-1865,+slave+schedule&source=bl&ots=wSbMWBHZug&sig=3xg_tl5jZlEqI9zofJJsBVRsGKU&hl=en&sa=X&ei=s1A7U4qXG_DgsATRo4BI&ved=0CD4Q6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=sheffey&f=false

New England & The Civil War

Daniel attended Yale University where, by all accounts, he excelled academically. Indeed, he returned to lecture in law for a number of years. And here lays the basis of a fundamental question I would love to go back in time to ask Hugh.

Hugh was a southerner – and not just any old southerner but a Virginian – living in the New England heartland. He came from a family of modest wealth…but a slave owning family nonetheless. Now New England was never the bastion of freedom for free blacks that we’ve been led to believe from American history classes. Far from it. Slavery persisted in New England far longer than I was ever led to believe. And a system of apartheid existed between the end of the Revolutionary War and the commencement of the American Civil War. Yet, when Hugh attended Yale, there was a slow-growing abolitionist movement. There isn’t anything in his writing to indicate the subject of slavery troubled his mind while a student at Yale. What I do find interesting is there is no mention of slavery, or his own ownership of slaves in his short autobiography. It is a glaring omission and, I believe, hints at his own unease.

Hugh White Sheffey 1860 Slave Schedule

Hugh White Sheffey 1860 Slave Schedule - click for larger image

New England left an indelible mark on Hugh. When Civil war eventually broke out he was torn between his Old Dominion roots and his own family’s standing within that society, and his loyalty to the Union. I have no doubt that he understood and appreciated the southern complaint and perhaps supported parts of that complaint. He did not, however, agree or support succession. He was an outspoken opponent against southern succession. He went so far as to move from his beloved Virginia to West Virginia (Wakelyn, Jon L. 2002. Confederates Against the Confederacy: Essays on Leadership and Loyalty ) to illustrate his belief in the ideal of Union, which his grandfather and his uncles had fought to establish in the American Revolution. I don’t envy his predicament.

This doesn’t appear to have gone against him within Virginian society when the Civil war ended. Indeed, he fashioned himself something of a diplomat between the old Commonwealth of Virginia and the Union. He remained a resident of Staunton and Wythe in Virginia and was a prominent Virginian. He covers this with candour in his autobiography.

I keep coming back to the issue of slavery and how the institution of slavery was at odds with many of his fundamental beliefs and life experiences. I don’t know how he came by his slaves. My gut instinct – which, of course, requires verification – is that he inherited them. Given how much of his history I’ve read, I am surprised he didn’t free them before the close of the Civil War. I’d love to ask him why he didn’t– not in an accusatory way. This was a highly intelligent man of conscience, sense and sensibility. He possessed those classic Sheffey family traits: a free thinker who wasn’t afraid to swim against the populist tide. No, I’d much rather ask to understand his thinking. He had a reason.

My thoughts on this are pretty simple. I think that understanding Hugh’s conundrum will help me finally understand the reason behind the depths of the bonds which linked the African and European descended sides of this family over the two generations of its slave owning history. What was the bond which saw African descended and mulatto Sheffeys risk their lives to save European descended Sheffey family members and their property? And what was behind the custom of so many within the extended European descended Sheffey family bending over backwards to ensure that the slaves they owned (kinsmen or not) were kept together as a family generation after generation? What was the nature of that bond that would tie these two family groups together well into the 1940s?

I can’t help but feel that Hugh White Sheffey is a key to this enigma.

In the meantime, Hugh has introduced me to facets of American history I previously didn’t know anything about. I’m currently doing some extensive reading on the Federalist and Whig parties, as well as other American political parties that existed in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Did you know that at the close of the American Revolution there were over 100 political parties in the thirteen states? No? Me neither. Even more interesting is understanding that the issues, challenges, problems and ideals which were fought over amongst this myriad of parties at the dawn of the birth of the USA were never resolved and echoes down to us in the here and now.

What a rabbit hole.

More information about Hugh White Sheffey:

Waddell, Joseph Addison. 1866. Annals of Augusta County, Virginia: With Reminiscences Illustrative of the Vicissitudes of Its Pioneer Settlers ; Biographical Sketches of Citizens Locally Prominent, and of Those who Have Founded Families in the Southern and Western States ; a Diary of the War, 1861-’5, and a Chapter on Reconstruction

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Filed under family history, genealogy, Sheffey family, slave census, virginia, wythe

The Concepts of Race vs Culture Pt 2: Culture

In my previous post, The Concepts of Race vs Culture Pt 1: Race I touched on three things:

  1. How the concepts of Race and Culture have come to mean the same thing;
  2. How scientific studies of human DNA raises an interesting discussion point about Race; and
  3. Why I don’t believe that Race, as a modern concept, actually exists. As a man-made concept, the notion of Race didn’t exist before the 17th Century. There were socioeconomic foundation behind its conception and implementation.

So If I don’t think Race exists, what exists in its place?

An illustrative example of how the concept of Ethnicity has become related to 'Race'

An illustrative example of how the concept of Ethnicity has become related to ‘Race’

For the time being I am going to dodge the concept of Ethnicity; that concept that has come to be the kissing cousin of Race. Ethnicity is also a man-made concept, subject to human foibles to rationalize, justify and otherwise excuse any manner of atrocities and prejudices. Like Race, it suggest an ‘otherness’ within humanity which simply doesn’t exist. Again, I refer to genetic admixtures we all carry within us. A better understanding of human genetics, and admixtures in particular, will influence our concept of Ethnicity as well as Race.

Examples of masks from different Cultures from around the world

Examples of masks from different Cultures from around the world

What I do believe in is Culture. Culture is tricky because, as a concept, it too has become corrupted through misuse and something what I call ‘language laziness’ (where we think ‘oh that word will do’ when that word isn’t really applicable).  Everything has a culture today. Businesses apparently have a culture. They don’t, not really, they have an environment. Some will say this is semantics. So be it. We have so called gun cultures, gang cultures, mob cultures, academic cultures, liberal cultures, conservative cultures, etc. These are not cultures. These are environments.

What we do have is Culture…and culture. When I use the word culture, with a small ‘c’, I mean all of the arts and other expressions and manifestations of human intellectual achievement as a collective body (i.e. books, films, paintings, photographs, sculptures, ballet and other forms of dancing, music, etc).

When I use the word Culture, with a capital ‘C’, I refer to its anthropological and behavioral scientific origins. In this context Culture is the full range of learned human behavioral patterns.  English Anthropologist Edward B. Tylor was the first person to use this term in this way in his book, Primitive Culture, published in 1871.  Tylor defines Culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by [humans] as a member of [a] society.”

I emphasize the words ‘custom’ and ‘society’ to underline a basic point I’ll be making – added to the phrase ‘behavioral patterns’, you can probably guess where I’m going with this.

As an American-specific example, one could argue that there is a “White” Culture. Many have. My apologies for using a “Race” term that I don’t believe in. The concept of “Race is so embedded in our psyches and language that there is no other means of discussing this topic without referring to it. I’m using it as a kind of short-hand. OK, so back to the “White” Culture in America. Which “White” Culture would this be referring to? There are too many “White” sub-Cultures for a view as reductionist as this.

We can look at it this way:

Example of the “American “White” Culture”:

  • Sub-Culture Level 1: The New England “White” Culture and Southern “White” Culture are two very different things. I’d say it’s fair to argue that there are more differences between these two sub-Cultures than commonalities.
  • Sub-Culture Level 2: The “White” Culture of Virginia and the “White” Culture of Georgia or North Carolina, South Carolina or any other state in America’s South-east. Each state has its own history, set of shared experiences, traditions and ties that bind its citizens which separates it from its neighboring states.
  • Sub-Culture Level 3: The “White” Culture of Richmond, Virginia and the “White” Culture of Newport News, Virginia.
  • Sub-Culture Level 4: The white collar “White” Culture of Richmond, Virginia and the blue collar “White” Culture of Richmond, Virginia.

I’m sure I could drill this down another level or two but that would be overkill.  This example doesn’t even touch on educational attainment, religious affiliations or political beliefs, which add their own layers of complexity.

There is nothing to unite “White” Americans at that primary level except for lack of permanent melanin in the skin (it’s worth noting here that skin tones vary widely even within the Culture). In this example, there can’t be a singular “White” American Culture simply because there is no set of commonly shared experiences, history, customs or behavioural patterns to unite it. Instead, we have a lot of sub-Cultures. Some of whom compete against each other.

All peoples have their own Culture and those Cultures are just as diverse and as complex as the example I’ve given above. When Americans refer to “African-Americans”, which African-American Culture are they referring to? With a history and experiences as diverse as the American “White” Culture, the ‘African-American’ Culture is one that shouldn’t be spoken about with reductionist language. Asian-American, Native American, Latin-American: the same applies to all of the diverse Cultures that live side-by-side forming communities where we live.

I was raised within a rural, New England, middle class African-American sub-Culture. I would have never guessed that as a child. As an adult, I see and understand it. Historically speaking, one group of my ancestors were people of an African-American Culture who were southern, Virginian and enslaved. Some were free –most were not. The next few generations were people of the African-American, southern, Virginian, farming sub-Culture – before the great exodus from the south changed the various sub-Cultures they lived within.

Another group of my ancestors were part of the White, European, immigrant, southern, Virginian, land-owning, upwardly-mobile sub-Culture – many of their descendants entering into the White, southern, wealthy, Virginian, slave-owning sub-Culture. For many, many decades I was a member of the North-west London, executive, white collar, creative industries Culture – unlike any other Culture in Britain. This sub-Culture is unique as a ’racial’ qualifier can’t be added. It is a genially inclusive and diverse Culture.

Culture, it would seem, is not a fixed thing. One can move within a Culture’s various sub-Cultures. It’s one of the reasons why I say no Culture can be viewed, thought about or spoken of in reductionist terms. To do so doesn’t reflect reality. To do so doesn’t reflect the world we live in.

Culture, like culture, gives humankind a bounty of riches in the form of diversity. Understanding this concept in this manner hopefully will give rise to a better understanding between peoples of different Cultures and sub-Cultures, that group of people’s history and their collective experiences. The collection of sub-Cultures within a Culture are shaped by the experience and the history singular to the people who form that particular sub-Culture. Understanding this enables understanding of a Culture, and its sub-Culture’s forms of expressions – its culture, as it were. Hopefully, we stop seeing someone from another Culture as ‘wholly other’ or ‘alien’ to us – just someone from a different Culture than our own. No better and no worse than us. We can celebrate Cultural and sub-Cultural difference instead of reviling them.

No one overall Culture is better than any other.

Eradicating our concept of Race (and Ethnicity) levels the playing field for every human being on the plant. Eliminating the language of Race more or less forces all of us to accept that we’re a species sharing common DNA. The only difference being which combination of admixtures we carry within our individual genetics and how our genes choose to manifest themselves. No combination is better than another. They are what they are.

Refining our understanding and appreciating the concept of Culture will, hopefully one day, enable human beings to appreciate the diversity of the human experience in all of its positive manifestations and work towards eradicating the negative. Only fear and hidden agendas prevent this.

I believe it’s only when humankind understands and appreciates this that the difficult, painful, and (hopefully) ultimately cathartic - conversations  around the legacy of Empire, slavery, genocide and tyranny in all its forms can happen in an open, honest and frank way. That’s when respectful coexistence can start to happen. That’s when we move forward collectively as a species.

I know that’s the world and the legacy I’d like to leave behind for the generations that follow mine.

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The Concepts of Race vs Culture Pt 1: Race

I outlined an epiphany I had about the concepts of Race and Culture in my previous post The concepts of Race vs Culture – an introduction …and what prompted that epiphany. How did I even come to start thinking about these two powerful concepts in the first place? My DNA test results – an affirming and life altering offshoot of my family history and genealogical research.  If you haven’t done so already, you can read about my maternal and paternal DNA tests and the global cultures I’m directly connected to here:

A bit of background for some context

Map of the old silk road

Map of the ancient Silk Road (click for a larger image). Silk and other goods weren’t the only things to be traded up and down this ancient, popular trade route. Philosophy, culture, art, religion – and genetics/DNA – were also exchanged. The Silk Road is the most famous ancient trade route. It was far from being the only one. Many any ancient trade routes, wars and empire building witnessed the mixing of ancient peoples, cultures and populations.

I’m a deep thinker. This is probably why I’ve made such a good academic. I also question things and I like to delve into things fearlessly – throwing myself headlong into a topic. Ultimately, I just want to know about stuff. I wouldn’t have embarked on this whole genealogy adventure if I didn’t. And I’m not afraid of finding inconvenient or unsettling truths as well as the positive and affirming. That’s part and parcel of life itself and the human experience. My DNA tests results have made me think – a lot. You can read about my initial thoughts in my post DNA: Going beyond a single racial or cultural identity. where I discussed how I embraced all of the races and cultures embedded and hard wired into the most intrinsic essence of myself – my DNA.

So yes, I was already primed and receptive to going further down this road when I came across two gems. These gems covered how different cultures on our planet have connected men and women from different cultures which led to producing mixed-culture offspring. These children carried combined genes from their parents’ different cultures and cultural populations and passed this rich genetic mixture on to their descendants over huge swathes of time. The two gems were:

(1)    Wade, Nicholas. 2014. Tracing Ancestry, Researchers Produce a Genetic Atlas of Human Mixing Events, The New York Times. 13 February 2014.; and

(2)    A genetic atlas of human admixture history, An interactive historical admixture map and companion website for “A genetic atlas of human admixture history“, Hellenthal et al, Science (2014).

Race vs Culture

image conceptualizing race and culture

So…this whole admixture thing simply rocked my world. I can’t stress that enough. It was like driving along a picturesque country road, taking in the view and humming along to the music – and suddenly finding yourself hydroplaning. A light turned on and I suddenly had a profound insight into two concepts which have shaped my life and billions of other peoples: Race and Culture. Understanding admixtures was the key. Actually, it was understanding the implications of the existence of admixtures that did it. I’ll borrow one of my favorite lines from the movie Fight Club: “Ladies and gentlemen, please return your seat backs to their full upright and locked positions.”

I understood that somewhere in relatively recent European-centric history, and by that I mean middish 17th Century European-centric history onwards, ‘Race’ became a concept. And then ‘Race’ became a thing – a thing that could be defined, quantified and qualified. Especially in an commercially driven European dominated world fueled by colonial riches obtained through the life, death and efforts of millions of non-European peoples . It was a convenient concept to justify all manner of social-economic policies for those who held the power in and over these colonies, and again in America’s own Republic. Over subsequent generations the concepts of Race and Culture (I’ll address Culture in the next post) became synonymous. In modern times, they are indistinguishable. Not virtually indistinguishable. They have come to mean one in the same thing through either convenience or through linguistic short-hand so common within today’s language.

Race and Culture are not the same. They never were. I, for one, would like to reclaim the profound and fundamental distinction between the two.  Denying this one simple fact has done our species untold and needless harm and has caused all manner of unnecessary suffering. The mythology of ‘Race’ is one of the biggest lies the Western world and Western-influenced world has ever created…much less told.

The complex genetic structure of admixturesThe more I delve into the whole human DNA thing the more I come to realize one thing:  there is no such thing as ‘Race’ much less ‘Racial Purity’. I’m kind of kicking myself that I allowed my own country to brainwash me into thinking that there was such a thing as Race – and all that went with it. As an academic, I get how it happened and even begin to understand why it happened.

And for those who will immediately decry that I’m trying to ‘shame’ those with a European heritage, particularly in the US, I’ll remind them that in 18th Century America, German, Greeks, Spanish, Italian, Irish and Portuguese immigrants weren’t classed as ‘white’.  It was only as the number of ‘non whites’ began to increase that a tenuous olive branch was extended to these groups. These groups were treated as poor relations, almost like embarrassing cousins of lesser means. Google it. Those whom come from these cultures know what I’m talking about. If you’re in doubt, do a search in Google Books or read through some academic journal articles in Google Scholar.

And as readers of this blog will know, I also have ‘white’ ancestors. So as I write this, I have all of my ancestors in mind.

For those with a religious bent, even the Bible doesn’t mention ‘Race’. Men  interpret that it did in times past and that it still does. The word ‘Race’ does not appear in its pages. Not once.

So what is this crazy little thing called Race?

Image with people from different cultures

According to John H. Relethford, author of The Fundamentals of Biological Anthropology, race “is a group of populations that share some biological characteristics….These populations differ from other groups of populations according to these characteristics.” The key word here is perception. It’s a human-made and human-interpreted distinction. It’s not something that’s unbiased or reliable. Humans possess the superb ability to perceive things, including facts,  as they want them to be; which to means how they think things ought to be.

PBS have published a pretty cool microsite called What is Race: . It covers the introduction and the development of ‘Race’ as a concept and as an experience in the United States.

Trying to classify human beings based on one arbitrary criteria, skin color, is absurd when you start to think about it. Why not eye color? Or hair type? Or height? Birth within the human species is a pretty random process. By this, I mean where any one of us can potentially be born is incredibly random. Random too is the culture we’re born into. There’s one question I’d love to ask any racist. I mean I want to look them dead in the eye and ask: If chance had seen you born into a different culture with a different skin color, would that make you any less a person or human being than you are now?

Race is a myth. It’s time it’s consigned alongside stories of Valhalla, Mount Olympus, phrenology and other such myths.

Going beyond Race as a defining characteristic

flags from different culturesThe point is each and every human being on the planet has a rich inheritance in the form of admixtures. It’s plural – we all have more than one admixture in our DNA.  I have plenty. And I am not unique. Race doesn’t exist. We are a species composed of billions who carry within ourselves the genetics which our ancestors have passed back and forth within our species over tens of thousands of years. We are the rich and diverse walking, talking, thinking embodiment of universal, shared genetics which is expressed in us in any number of ways.  No one way of expression is any better than any another. It’s just that – an expression from a cocktail of DNA that goes back further than any of us can truly envision. To give preference to one form of genetic expression over another is absurd. We’ve seen where that’s led.

We’ve journeyed down that road quite far enough. It’s time to re-set the GPS or find a new map and forget the road that we’ve been on for centuries ever existed. Our ancient ancestors were nearly wiped off the face of the earth more than once (  The existence of human beings  – the fact that any of our human brothers and sisters are here at all  is a thing to be celebrated. Considering the human genetics that were probably lost for all time in those near-extinction events…I think the fact that we have the degree of diversity in genetic expression that we do is a miracle.

I have an extension of this belief. I’m just going to say it. When you reach a conclusion like ‘Race’ doesn’t exist…you understand the horrific implication of slavery. Any form of slavery. Both past and present and anywhere it was (and still is) practiced around the world.  And given my own American ancestors’ histories, I don’t say that lightly.

I’ll stop things here. I’m sharing a recent insight I’ve had after some days of pretty deep thinking. I don’t really fancy writing a book on the topic :O)

Well, just one more wee thing to make this topical. When it comes to admixtures…we are all mongrels.

Next up will be Culture. I hope the next point will illustrate why Race and Culture aren’t the same thing…and need to be separated as concepts, in terms of how we use them in our language and how we need to reclaim the word Culture and restore its meaning.

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The concepts of Race vs Culture – an introduction

The more regular visitors to this blog will no doubt realize I’ve gone a bit quiet over the past week or so. I’ve been grappling with a concept that I’ve been struggling to get a handle on…much less commit to print.

My genealogy adventures has taken twists and turns I could have never foreseen. How grateful I’ve been for the ride, let alone the journey! This is one of those times. I’ve had a very recent epiphany regarding the concepts of Race and Culture. I’m not capitalizing these words simply for emphasis – but to highlight their conceptual nature. That was part of my ultimate realization – these two things are just that…concepts. Man made concepts at that. And the intersection between these two concepts will form the basis of the next couple of posts.

I appreciate that what comes as pure and simple logic to me will more than likely prove controversial to others. I’m pretty nonplussed when it comes to push-back. Like any academic, I’ll welcome the conversation and debate. What I’ll be writing about isn’t meant to be controversial. I’m merely sharing an insight that I’ve had. Others will either think about it and have their own realizations – or they won’t.

So how did this light-bulb moment I’m grappling with come about? Two simply brilliant sources of information that discuss genetic admixtures. Yep, more DNA stuff :) Genetic admixtures happen when people from two different cultures produce children. For instance, say a Han man from China has children with a Yoruba woman from Africa. This scenario isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds! Their children’s DNA will have a mixture of Han Chinese and Yoruba African DNA – an admixture. That admixture gets passed down their descendants’ lines as per the usual rules of DNA inheritance. In other words, it gets passed down through subsequent generations. This is a simplification, but one that serves to explain a complicated fact in a very straightforward way. One thing to realize – every human being on the planet has all manner of admixtures in his or her DNA.


The two information sources which jostled me along this particular road of personal discovery are below. They’re worth investigating. On the one hand, they are both simply fascinating. I keep returning to them. Secondly, understanding them, and understanding their implications, will help you understand my epiphany about Race and Culture.

And if this is all sounding somewhat familiar? Well, I tentatively broached this subject in my post DNA: Going beyond a single racial or cultural identity. In my next post, I’ll be going much deeper. I’ve gained a far deeper realization over the past few days than the basic outline broached in that initial post.

If this subject interests you, these are the two sources that are worth checking out:

Wade, Nicholas. 2014. Tracing Ancestry, Researchers Produce a Genetic Atlas of Human Mixing Events, The New York Times. 13 February 2014.; and

Human Admixture events
A genetic atlas of human admixture history,
An interactive historical admixture map and companion website for “A genetic atlas of human admixture history“, Hellenthal et al, Science (2014).

Happy investigating!


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The true value of the NAACP’s archive – is it just for historians? What about family historians and educators as well?

NAACP logo

One of the national archives I would love to delve into online belongs to the NAACP. From a family historian and genealogist’s point of view, this archive ranks alongside the Freedman’s Records Archive in terms of significance for African Americans. Its contents, collected over its hundred-plus years of existence, is simply priceless.

It’s an archive I’ve looked for on both and FamilySearch. The archive isn’t available on either service. This, I have to admit, really surprized me. So I began to wonder if the NAACP had digitized its archive at all. Naturally, I took to Google to find out. And lo and behold, the answer was, well, ‘kind of’…and ‘no’.

I found this press release via ProQuest: “NAACP Archive goes digital” .

The short version of the story is that the NAACP teamed up with ProQuest in 2011 to digitize over 2 million documents (no mention was made of the images in its archive).   So I really got excited. 2 million documents – just think about all those names, historical context, information any African American family historian would love to peruse online! I know that ProQuest is a commercial venture targeted at the research community. The press release did hold out one glimmer of hope for public access to the archive; the Library of Congress. Could I find what I was looking for there?

Now part of this archive is available in the Library of Congress, saved on microfilm. I hoped that the Library of Congress might have digitized a substantial part of the collection. So I went to surf over to the Library of Congress’s site full of expectation.

Why all this interest in the NAACP’s archive  in the first place? Well, I have a few distant relations from the tangent branches of the Sheffey and Roane families – Carpenters, Hills, Fields, Bagbys and Meltons – who were quite active in the NAACP in its early years. I wanted to find out about their involvement. I wanted to see how they had fought the oppression which influenced their day-to-day lives and those of their respective communities. I wanted a more personal and informative glimpse into their lives. And, if possible, pictures.

NAACP: A Century in the Fight for Freedom page on the Library of Congress websiteA quick Google search on the term “NAACP archives Library of Congress” gave me this link: It’s a special sub-site on the Library of Congress website celebrating the Centenary of the NAACP. It’s a start – that’s what I told myself. But I have to admit a profound sense of disappointment at the lack of materials available. What’s there is historically significant, and kind of what you’d expect to find; information about the NAACP’s founders, the key players of its 100 years’ existence, and key moments in time in the organization’s history. And that’s about it. But then something tugged at the back of my mind about that ProQuest press release. The proverbial light came on and I had one of those ‘oh no’ moments.

I went back to the press release – the thing that had initially got me so excited in the first place – and re-read it. And two things hit me at once. The first was the realization that the archive had indeed been digitized and was available through ProQuest itself. The second was a key sentence in the press release: “This archive will provide a valuable service to historians and activists alike.”

And therein lies the essential problem for me. Yes, this is an archive of historical importance. But it is so much more than that. Why such a limited view? Why the assumption that only a limited audience would be interested in it? I wish the NAACP had been advised better before striking this deal.

This archive is a treasure trove for family historians, genealogists, teachers, sociologists, communities, African American history academics and students, political science academics and students – and more.  For every famous name that features in the archive, there are countless more who worked at the grass route level. I know my ancestors did. These documents evidence our ancestors’ contributions to the struggles for equality. That fact alone raises this collection above being merely one of interest to historians and activists. Under the current arrangement with ProQuest, the likelihood is that it’s very unlikely I can ever access the documents that reference my ancestors because I don’t have the academic ‘passport’ to access ProQuest’s online resources. The general public won’t be able to access it. That’s wrong.

I can’t share the NAACP-related stories about my ancestors for the simple reason that I can’t access the documents that would provide that vital information necessary to tell those stories. My feeling is that the more people who can access this archive and find out about their ancestors contributions to the NAACP, and write about them or share them in other ways – translates into a ‘win’ for the NAACP. Every mention underlines its importance. It’s a shame that this simply isn’t possible under the current arrangements for its digital archives. It is a genuine missed opportunity.

This archive also has an educational value. It would have formed a perfect basis for creating online courses and/or modules about the African American struggles for equality from the foundation of the NAACP to the present day. These would be courses and modules hosted online and geared to primary, secondary, university and post-graduate study. Again, another lost opportunity.

I’m a firm believer that the owners and curators of archives need to stop thinking of archives with such incredibly limited views and solely within a historical context – with an assumption that only academic historians will be interested or able to appreciate the value of the information.  It’s time for archives to be thought of in a much wider social context. It’s time to think about re-envisioning access to socially important document and image collections and to think of the widest possible audiences for them.

My main hope, at the moment, is that the NAACP’s deal with ProQuest isn’t exclusive. And that either ProQuest or the NAACP can make these records available, as a specialist collection, to the leading online family history websites. In addition to this, that a deal could be struck with the Library of Congress to develop online learning resources in the form of eLearning courses or modules.

I have a feeling that approaches like the ones I’ve outlined above not only ensure the sustainability of archives, through supporting a practice of widening public access to archives…but can bring in a rich mix of revenue from a myriad of sources.

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What’s the value of specialist historical archives – and why should we digitize them?

Image representing a digital archive

Back in December I had the pleasure of meeting up with Discover Roxbury ( )at an event at the historic Dillaway-Thomas House ( ) in the heart of Roxbury’s Historical District.

My sister had told me the month beofre that Discover Roxbury had an interesting archive. Naturally, I was quite interested in looking at it. And I’m pleased to say it looks like that will happen at the end of this month.

During the course of my chat, I explained that archives like this were important and should be digitized for a number of reasons. Top of my list, which should come as no surprise, documents with names have an incredible value to family historian and genealogical communities. These old snippets provide a glimpse into our ancestors and distant relations. These documents take us past ‘dry’ data like census returns, birth certificates, death certificates and marriage certificates. They provide glimpses into their lives. Old documents beyond the usual give us invaluable snatches, little glimpses, into the lives of those who came before us. This is the true value of such archives, both large and small. The truth of the matter is an archive like this is entirely unique, a complete ‘one off’. It will have information that can literally be found nowhere else. That has a powerful value in and of itself. In marketing terms, its very uniqueness is its unique selling point. 

As a collection, archives like these will have value to historians at the local level – and possibly national and international levels. And they will certainly have value to educators who are always hungry in the search for addition information and documents that further their understanding of the past.

Image showing audiences for digital archives

There is also the real possibility for creating a revenue stream through commercial and educational licensing options…but more on this in the next post.

As I increase my consultancy work in this particular are, turning archives and collections into digital resources, I am increasing thankful for my ‘out of the box’ thinking. And my enthusiasm and passion for family history and genealogy. Too many organizations under-value the importance of their collections or don’t see how their specialist collections could be of interest to a much wider audience. Names will always have a value- more so now than ever before. Information about communities will also always have a value.

For instance, a significant number of my Sheffey and Roane kin were missionaries and others were men of the cloth. I’d love to read their sermons and see their parish records. Such documents would provide an invaluable insight into how they viewed the world, their concerns, their passions, their interests and the day-to-day life of the communities they lived in. Much of this information probably still exists….somewhere. What a great legacy it would be, and tribute, to make these documents publicly available. These too have a value.

Most public services – orphanages, schools, fire stations, heritage organizations, historic homes, ethnic organizations and more – all have their own specialist archives that feature information for family historians, genealogists, historians and educators.

What an incredible thing it would be to see these precious archives digitized and available…and adding an additional source of income for them too to make the cost of digitizing them sustainable.

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