One of the nation’s oldest and largest genealogical societies, founded to help Americans trace their family ancestries, apologized Thursday for its history of racism, which includes a founder who was a eugenicist, and early resistance to integration.
“In order to be credible, we have to be transparent, and we have to fully discover what our past was, as so many organizations are doing right now,” said Kathryn Doyle, president of the National Genealogical Society, based in Falls Church, Va.
The society’s effort began in 2017 after complaints about the lack of diversity among the expert presenters at the society’s annual conferences. It gained momentum, she said, after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis in 2020 sparked a national conversation on race.
While the society members used their digging prowess to scour the organization’s archives, “we haven’t looked at everything yet,” Doyle said. “There may be more.”
The apology, which was made public at the organization’s conference in Richmond, comes five months after the American Society of Human Geneticists issued a similar apology and announced steps to rectify past harms, which also included the promotion of eugenicist beliefs. The ASHG is the largest group of human geneticists in the world.
Beliefs in biologically superior and inferior races — which contradict modern genetic knowledge — have permeated both the study of genetics and the practice of genealogy.
In a report issued with its apology, titled “Our Journey from Exclusion to Inclusion,” the National Genealogical Society noted that its founding in Washington, D.C., in 1903 coincided with the rise of the American eugenics movement, which was based on the long-discredited theory that humanity can be improved through breeding, with supposedly pure White people of European ancestry as the ideal.
One NGS founder, Joseph Gaston Baillie Bulloch, a physician from Georgia and president of the group from 1909 to 1912, was an adherent of eugenics, the report said. In a 1912 article he published in the society’s quarterly journal, he advised how genealogy should be used to protect the White race from genetic mixing and “tainted blood.”
Given the society’s decision to publish the article and its segregated membership, “it is reasonable to assume that other founders may have shared Bulloch’s beliefs in eugenics or racism and that those beliefs informed the exclusionary practices NGS maintained throughout its early years,” the report said.
In early 1960, James Worris Moore, an African American employee at the National Archives, attended a meeting of the NGS as a guest and was given a membership application, prompting an angry response among members and a rancorous discussion as to whether to integrate, the report says. On Nov. 19 that year, the society voted to both deny Moore’s membership and bar all Black people from joining.