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How One Man Decided to Approach the Slavery in his Past

Ryan Johnson* was asked by Chronos historians what he wanted to know about his ancestry. Regarding his father's African-American heritage, he knew that once we arrived to the 1800s, the documentation might be scant if any. And then there's the issue of the last name...

When Chronos interviewed Ryan Johnson, we asked him what he already knew about his ancestry. "Well, I know they were slaves." I asked Ryan if he had any documentation to support his statement, and this was despite the fact that it is very likely true since his father's family is African-American. He didn't know much except that his father and grandparents were from Virginia.

Chronos historians got to work, and they narrowed down the location of Ryan's ancestors to the independent city of Hampton, located near Newport News, Portsmouth, and Norfolk.

One question that Ryan had to answer was whether or not he was interested in DNA research that would connect him to other Americans who have also tested their DNA and share some genetic material with him. This meant potentially learning about the genetic relationship with the former slave owners' descendants since sexual relationships between owners and slaves were common, and unfortunately, often nonconsensual. Ryan had to decide whether or not he was prepared to learn this kind of information, and what such knowledge would add to his understanding of the history of his family and his country.

The second question that needed careful consideration was whether or not Ryan wanted to know anything about the family that might have been slaveowners to his ancestor(s). Some people see ancestry research spent on slaveowners to be "giving credit" or attention to a family that did not contribute anything positive to shape who the Johnsons were and are today. Why spend time learning about them? Others see this information as part of the big picture-- the context for the painful story of our American past-- and one that we should learn about in order to understand the practices and perspectives of the time, since contemporary racism is the social product of the institution.

In the end, Ryan decided to focus more on the African Americans and their geographical surroundings than on the whites that gave him their surname. At Chronos, we respect each individual's decision for how to approach ancestry research, and we direct our research efforts in line with your wishes. Ryan's ancestors were farmers in Hampton, and made a living and a community in small-town Virginia during a time that was not generous to African-Americans. The census records reveal abundant families, lives both short and long, generations living in the same town, and successful agricultural production.

*Ryan Johnson is a pseudonym.

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