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  • Writer's pictureJulie Wilmot

Historical Context Matters

Updated: Sep 14, 2018

Historical Context Matters

So many things have changed over time that it’s easy to forget what life was like in the past. Today, the world we live in is fast-paced and technology is ever-changing. This has been beneficial to genealogy as a field, because many collections have been digitized. However, sometimes our appreciation of modern life makes us ignorant of what our ancestors’ lives were like.

Why does the world in which our ancestors lived matter? The easiest way to explain this is to highlight a mistake I made early in my genealogy career. I was relatively new to the field when I began doing professional genealogical research, and I was not aware of how important historical context is to the field of genealogy.

I was tasked with writing a guide on how to locate information about an African-American woman who was murdered in Detroit in the 1920s. I began where most people would begin, with historical newspapers. I was sure that I would find information about her death there. Imagine my surprise when my search was fruitless. I searched by name and by keyword, but came up empty.

I finished the assignment and was taken to task weeks afterward by a private genealogist who used his expertise to bash me and the company I worked for. Why? He managed to find a newspaper article about her murder and her murderer’s subsequent trial and punishment-an article that I had somehow missed.

How did he find it when I couldn’t? He thought like a 1920s journalist would think. The keywords I used included: murder, crime, death, African-American. I never thought to search for the word negress.

In the 1920s, African-Americans were often referred to as negroes and negresses. The woman who was murdered was referred to as a negress by the newspapers in Detroit. I was completely unaware of this fact, and it caused me to make a grave mistake in my research. This is an example of why historical context matters.

We live in a world were being politically correct is of utmost importance. We forget that our ancestors lived in different times, and that they thought, spoke, and wrote differently than we do. We need to be aware of this when we search for historical records. Otherwise, we run the risk of missing something of importance. The lesson of this story is to always keep historical context in mind when doing genealogical research.


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