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Genealogy Research on the Front Page

New York Public Library, Room 121, U.S. History, Local History, & Genealogy.

Genealogy and local history research is not often headline-making news.  The U.S. Census is not clickbait and no one “likes” 18th century probate records.

Yet a brief examination of three current social issues shows that the subjects and resources which librarians in the Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History, and Genealogy routinely recommend to patrons, use to answer research questions, and explore in monthly free public classes, are highly relevant to the controversies and brouhahas that have been flashing big across the news ticker. 

U.S. Monuments.  Debate over Confederate statues in public spaces is rooted in the vulnerability of memory and the protean nature of truth in United States history, and the research collections and reference acumen of the Milstein Division equally informs the subject of genealogy as the history of the United States.

Birth Certificates.  A 2017 North Carolina law would make it illegal to use a public restroom that does not match the gender listed on one’s birth certificate, which is the first vital record issued in the life of a human being.  The Milstein reference desk is approached daily by patrons looking for birth, marriage, and death certificates, in addition to visitors asking directions to the restroom. 

Voter Records.  Accusations of voter fraud in the presidential election have cast the subject of voting in the public spotlight.   For genealogy research, voter records provide age and birthplace information, address and length of residency, and, if the voter is a foreign-born citizen, details of naturalization.  For local history research, voting records might yield statistical data that indicates the social character and political patterns of a subject locale. 

World's Fair
1939 World's Fair. Opening Day.

U.S. Monuments

Though the Milstein Division answers reference questions related to both U.S. history and genealogy, these are two subjects that traditionally have found a difficult kinship; historians and academics usually do not take genealogists seriously, while genealogists have a generic reputation for voiding historical context in their family research.  “Each tends to regard the other with bemused contempt.”

Prison Ship Martyrs Monument
Prison Ship Martyrs Monument.  Fort Greene Park. Brooklyn.

A public monument functions as a visible modality of history, and the recent controversy confirms the power that the forms of the past can have on the minds and behaviors of society, in addition to the frailty and spite of a populace at the mercy of a 24-hour news cycle and regurgitated misconceptions of the history of race in America.

Statues and public monuments are likely the most ignored and least regarded form of popular art in the United States.  Coloring books designed for adults and blinking game apps far surpass classical monuments for the capture of contemporary popular attention.  Monuments are old and stagnant.  They reflect an artistic vernacular long bygone and unfamiliar. 

Often, U.S. monuments are symbolic of forgotten events.  Those who support the Stars and Bars to continue to adorn the flag of Mississippi, or those who find it a civic honor to celebrate Confederate Memorial Day, seem worried that the public might have forgotten the Civil War, while at the same time seem to forget that the symbols and heritage they are defending draw inspiration and derive meaning from hate, discrimination, and fear.

The antagonisms triggered by monuments and statues hailing the defeated Confederacy in the Civil War are less controversial because of those leaders who desire them to be removed, like Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy in Charlottesville, or Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, than because of the offended personalities whom have decided to champion that the statues remain.

Broadly, this has raised the significance and consequence of public monuments in civic consciousness. 

Monuments yield identity, preserve memory, and induce debate.  These are things which a civil society requires if it strains to claim to be “democratic.”

With swift dispatch, American cities are hauling off Confederate monuments because they are symbols of murderous racism, as if this connection had only just been realized since President Obama left office.

George III

Mayor Jim Gray of Lexington, Kentucky has urged the transferal of Confederate figures John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge from spots of public prominence to Lexington Cemetery, where both men are buried. 

In New York City, a 1912 marker and 1935 plaque which memorialized the time General Robert E. Lee spent at Fort Hamilton were removed from a tree in Bay Ridge.

Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles has removed a 1925 plaque in memory of the 37 Confederate dead buried in the cemetery, which is more known for the last resting place of legendary performers like Rudolph Valentino and Dee Dee Ramone.  Notably, a marble memorial stands in the plot where the first African-American performer to win an Oscar, Hattie McDaniel, for Gone With the Windintended to rest in peace in 1952 by the terms of her will.  But because the cemetery enforced a whites-only policy, McDaniel was interred at the non-segregated Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery in West Adams, near Downtown L.A.

At the University of Texas at Austin, four statues of Confederate leaders were removed from the Main Mall, because, writes the school president Gregory L. Fenves, “erected during the period of Jim Crow laws and segregation, the statues represent the subjugation of African Americans.”

Hollywood Cemetery.  Richmond, Virginia.
Confederate monument, Hollywood Cemetery.  Richmond, Virginia.

Two years earlier, the Task Force on Historical Representation of Statuary at UT Austin published a report supporting the removal of a Jefferson Davis statue on campus, arguing that “the memorial was a celebration of a new Southern patriotism in which a neo-Confederate or Southern nationalist approach was posited as the basis of that national unity through principles of white supremacy.”

At the 1924 unveiling of the Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, the three-year old great granddaughter of Robert E. Lee pulled away the Confederate flag covering the defeated General and his horse, Traveller.  The opening invocation by a local Reverend dispelled prior criticism that the pedestal was too small by asserting that “the planet as a pedestal would be too small for Robert Edward Lee.”  Academic and religious leaders joined Confederate veterans groups in attendance to applaud the monument.

The 1996 registration for the National Register of Historic Places concluded that the statue “remained undisturbed in its original location.  Sentiment in Charlottesville will undoubtedly keep it there, for the monument is a unique memorial to the most eminent Confederate hero of all.” 

Such are the reasons now given for having the thing removed.

Civil War Envelope
Civil War Envelope.

Birth Certificates

The Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act (HB2) sought to deprive transgender individuals the right to use public restrooms that match the gender with which they identify, but do not match the gender on their birth certificate.

The assertion of “rights” in the history of civilization is relatively new, especially in America, where democracy evolved as a unique economic experiment that hinged upon a concept of property ownership that included human slaves.  So it is no surprise that America is having a hard time with not only gender identification, but the identification of identification.

Zeus gives birth to Athena.
Zeus gives birth to Athena.

Because the Tar Heel state anticipated a fallout of up to $4 billion in business losses as a result of HB2, the bill was dropped in favor of replacement legislation that eliminates the birth certificate requirement, but which the ACLU claims is equally discriminatory.  

Vital records are fundamental resources in genealogy research.  Birth certificates are one of three vital records about which Milstein patrons continually inquire.  Librarians conduct classes on vital records; numerous U.S. vital indexes are available online and in subscription databases; and Milstein collections include a bulk of alternate vital records materials, like baptismal rolls, marriage registers, burial records, tombstone inscriptions, and newspaper death notices.

The emerging recognition of trans populations, and the option to legally correct the sex on one's birth certificate, will have a very interesting and evolvable effect on future genealogy research.

Voter Records

The feverish boredom inspired in the popular mind by the subject of voting might be equally proportionate to the political importance of the popular vote.  It is a subject that, at the same time, is highly consequential and utterly stultifying.  But it seems to increasingly become an incendiary topic—whether Paris Hilton advocating to vote against George W. Bush, to the Supreme Court opinion in Shelby County v. Holder arguing that current successful protections against voter discrimination, created by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, have “no logical relation to the present day,” while maintaining “at the same time, voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that.”

Twice in less than twenty years, a candidate has won the U.S. presidency but lost the popular vote.  This is an outcome that angers, puzzles, and alienates Americans from voting again. 

Broadway on Election Night

While the threat of voter fraud is used to distract from the threat of voter discrimination, an Advisory Commission on “Election Integrity” has been created by the Executive Office.  When the Commission recently requested bulk voter data from each U.S. state, more than half of the states refused, from California to Kentucky, which confirmed the expectations of the Commission’s Vice Chair, Kris Kobach, who, as the Secretary of State for Kansas, denied his own request according to Kansas election law.  Like Kansas, most states have laws against the release of sensitive personal data like Social Security Numbers. 

imprisoned voters
New York City -- imprisoning alleged illegal voters on election-day. 1876. 

For genealogy and local history researchers, individual voting records can be tricky to access because they are often arranged by election district, which number is not always readily findable for different periods in history.  Librarians in the Milstein Division are seasoned in helping with this, and welcome the inquiry.

Reference librarians of the future can only hope that the data requested by the “voter fraud panel” will find a second and more productive life as a resource available to genealogy researchers in either free or subscription databases 100 years from now, when political parties are nonbinary, and today’s news is history.

1939 World's Fair.  Futurama exhibit.



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