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Proving Lineage for Reparations? Concerns Loom Over Feasibility, Emotional Toll for Black Californians

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A close-up, over-the-shoulder shot of a woman looking at an old, black-and-white- photo of a group of women in sweaters and long skirts. A colorful photo album sits on her lap.
Alison Ford holds a photo of her grandmother while looking through family photo albums at her father's home in Berkeley on March 2, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

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lison Ford grew up on Parker Street in South Berkeley.

Her mother was a postal worker — everything from a mail sorter to a window clerk. When she had weekend shifts, she’d take Ford and her younger sister, Sabrina, across the Bay Bridge to their great-grandmother's house in San Francisco.

Winfrey Broadnax Ford, known as Granny Ford to the family, had Ford and Sabrina help tend the small garden in the backyard of the Marina-style home she owned in the Bayview neighborhood, a section of San Francisco where Black people once were a majority of the residents.

A Black woman wearing a jean, long-sleeved shirt and black T-shirt underneath sits on a couch inside a living room with her father to the right. He wears a gray, hooded sweatshirt. The two smile as they look down at a photo album together.
Alison Ford and her father, Algiin Ford, look through a family photo album in Berkeley on March 2, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Ford was always interested in her family's history, but it wasn’t until Granny Ford, her father’s grandmother, died in 2015 — at age 102 — that she really began seeking out information about the distant relatives she only knew vaguely from Granny Ford’s stories. She wanted more context about who she was.

Ford ultimately traced her lineage to generations of enslaved ancestors, all the way back to her great-great-great-great-grandfather, Isaac.

“[He] was probably a slave until he was my age,” said Ford, 44. “That is mind-blowing to me. And he then went on to sharecrop and have kids that did the same. But his grandkids were literate and landowners.”

“I’ve always felt connected to that part of my family history, because I spent so much time with my great-grandmother,” she continued. “Growing up, I knew that I was only a couple generations removed from slavery.”

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California's Reparations Task Force is examining the historic harms of slavery and anti-Black racism in California. Last summer, the task force released a preliminary report (PDF) detailing California's history of enslavement and its many decades of discriminatory policies — in housing, education, health care, criminal justice and other areas — that established the systemic racism that persists today. This summer, the task force will present recommendations on how Black residents should be compensated for this enduring oppression.

If the task force’s recommendations are adopted by the state Legislature, many Black Californians will have to prove their eligibility for reparations. To help with this, the preliminary report proposed establishing a California African American Freedmen Affairs Agency to “support potential claimants with genealogical research to confirm eligibility.”

In a 5–4 vote in March 2022, the task force voted in favor of lineage-based reparations that would be “determined by an individual being an African American descendant of a chattel enslaved person or the descendant of a free Black person living in the U.S. prior to the end of the 19th century.” But there’s still a lot yet to be finalized about what kind of specific documentation would be required to prove eligibility.

Eligibility has loomed over the first-in-the-nation statewide task force since it began meeting in June 2021. There’s a wide spectrum of opinion on how feasible it will be to document eligibility — and considerable concern about the emotional toll Black Californians will have to pay.

The task force will continue the debate on eligibility Wednesday and Thursday in Sacramento, including defining the parameters of a residency requirement.

Ford allowed me to observe a session with a genealogy consultant, offering a window into the process of documenting ancestry. Having a deeper understanding of what her ancestors endured brought the weight of their existence into sharper focus.

“Such a huge net of people had to go through so many traumatic things for me to be here having this conversation,” she told KQED. “I don’t think that there's an amount of money that would make it right, but I think that it serves to show that there has just been generational trauma that has very directly led to the financial disenfranchisement of African Americans in this country.”

If a person can track their ancestry back to the 1870 census, and their relative was living in a state that practiced enslavement, some genealogists feel it is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the ancestor likely was enslaved. The census tracked additional components, like whether a person could read and write; that could lend support to the likelihood the person was enslaved since enslavers often forbid the people they held captive from becoming literate.

Black people were not counted as part of the country’s population until the 1870 census (PDF), the first undertaken after the Civil War. That’s because, until then, enslaved people were considered property, said Sharon Morgan, who runs Our Black Ancestry, a Facebook genealogy group with more than 36,000 members.

“For people who were enslaved, we were not considered people,” said Morgan, a genealogist in Macon, Mississippi, who has served as a consultant for the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society. “You find them in property records.”

Many genealogists, including Morgan, said they were only able to access some records by sifting through physical archives. Morgan originally traveled to Mississippi, where the vestiges of enslavement show in glaring racial disparities, to do research on a distant relative who, she said, had 17 children fathered by the nephew of her enslaver. “I came to Mississippi to write a book about it, and I ended up staying. And my book still isn’t finished,” she said.

“You have to be lucky enough to find a will, a deed or some other family papers, farm records — something else that will identify your ancestor,” Morgan continued. “But there’s another problem, because those lists are generally only by first name.”

Kellie Farrish, a genealogist based in the East Bay, said the scavenger hunt described by Morgan is mostly a thing of the past because of the digitization of records.

A woman with shoulder-length dark hair and a navy business suit speaks with a microphone in hand at the California Ballroom in Oakland.
Kellie Farrish speaks about tracing genealogy and locating enslaved ancestors during a California Reparations Task Force listening session at the California Ballroom in Oakland on May 28, 2022. The session was sponsored by the task force and hosted by the Coalition for a Just and Equitable California. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“It used to be a lot of traveling,” said Farrish, who presented at a task force meeting in March 2022. “And [the records are] in boxes, if they’re even maintained at all. That world just doesn’t exist anymore.”

Farrish, who owns Reparative Genealogy, which helps Black people trace their lineage to the earliest ancestor documented in the United States, has been working in genealogy for more than 15 years. The first time we talked on the phone, she told me to think about navigating genealogy like navigating geography: Drivers used a road atlas before printing out MapQuest directions; now they use Google Maps on their phones.

“It’s the same with genealogy,” she said. “This is what ancestry has become. And the group that needs to realize that the most is African Americans. As we build out everyone’s [family] tree, this work becomes easier and easier and easier.”

As we dug into the past, details about Granny Ford’s life, like her leaving Arkansas as a young mother to escape what she’d described as an unhealthy marriage, are reflected in government records. Harry Broadnax, Granny Ford’s grandfather, was recorded in the 1870 census, though his surname was misspelled as “Brodinax.”

A computer screen shot of a Zoom conversation between three women. On the screen, a census record of Harry Broadnax from 1870. Broadnax was the enslaved ancestor of Alison Ford.
Kellie Farrish (top) goes over the 1870 census record of Harry Broadnax (misspelled as 'Brodinax'), the enslaved ancestor of Alison Ford (bottom), as reporter Mary Franklin Harvin (center) observes. To be eligible for lineage-based reparations, Black Californians will have to prove they are descended from a chattel enslaved person or from a free Black person living in the US prior to the end of the 19th century. (Courtesy Alison Ford)

Broadnax, who was Isaac’s son, was born in 1846 in Arkansas 15 years before the start of the Civil War. In 1860, a year before the war began, about a quarter of the state’s population was enslaved. “He got to experience a lot of life [after slavery], but then he also experienced a lot of life being a slave,” Farrish said.

In 1870, Broadnax was a 24-year-old farm laborer in Union County, Arkansas, most likely sharecropping on the land where his ancestors had been enslaved. Broadnax was illiterate, but records show the children he raised with his wife, Cloie, could read and write at a young age.

“[Broadnax] doesn’t have time to go to school, but they’re going to make sure that John and Wallace and Fred and M.H. and Clara go to school,” Farrish said as she scrolled through the records for the Broadnax children.

I asked Ford how she felt after combing through census records, draft cards and more.

“I keep going back to the literacy,” said Ford, who lives in Los Angeles and works in the finance industry. “My family is really big on words. My grandmother was, up until her last few weeks on Earth, [she’d] wake up in the morning and ask for her eyeglasses and the newspaper. And I would say, ‘Let me read it to you, Granny.’ And she’s like, ‘As long as these eyes work, I have to do it myself.’”

Cheryl Grills, director of the Psychology Applied Research Center at Loyola Marymount University and a task force member, voted against lineage-based reparations because of the trauma associated with searching for enslaved ancestors.

“Not every Black person wants to do this genealogy thing. It could be triggering,” Grills said. “It could be retraumatizing because [of] what the family had to go through, what the family suffered and endured.”

In addition to free and low-cost online genealogy community forums like Our Black Ancestry, Ancestry.com has an agreement with many public libraries that allows users to access the site for free. FamilySearch.org, which is funded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is also free. The Bay Area has more than a dozen physical FamilySearch centers, with many more throughout the state; the centers offer Zoom support groups that specialize in African American genealogy.

Some might be hesitant to use genealogical services offered by the Mormon church, which has a documented history of racism. But Farrish points out that there are few industries in the country that haven't been buttressed by slavery or racism.

“That’s your ancestry information, and they are holding it whether or not you seek it from them,” she said.

Hiring a professional like Farrish to do individualized genealogical research can be costly. According to the Association of Professional Genealogists, hourly rates for genealogical consultations typically start around $30 an hour and climb to over $200 per hour, depending on the experience level of the genealogist. A basic Ancestry.com subscription costs $25 per month.

Grills said some people will have a difficult time tracing family lines.

“I think it’s going to be very important that we have alternatives for folks who legitimately just cannot establish the lineage criteria,” she said. “We don’t want to further injure the African American community because we made a decision that seemed to be right at the time.”

Before settling in California, Granny Ford lived in Texas. A single mother, she raised four children in the home she bought on Athens Street in San Francisco. For generations, Ford’s ancestors owned land and homes.

A grandmotherly figure with curly, gray hair sits in a wooden arm chair smiling for the camera. Her hands delicately placed on her knees as she smiles for the camera.
Winfrey Broadnax Ford, known as Granny Ford to her family. (Courtesy Alison Ford)

Ford, who recalled the tomatoes and herbs Granny Ford grew in her backyard and at a community garden in the neighborhood, can’t afford to buy a house where she lives and works. According to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by the Public Policy Institute of California, the Black homeownership rate in the state is 36.8%, about 26% lower than the rate for white households. “To a large extent, the racial homeownership gap reflects persistent income inequalities,” the analysts note, while pointing out that the median income for white households in the state is 65% higher than Black households.

“I do believe that the fact that I have not yet bought a home is tied to my choice to remain in California,” said Ford, who once considered moving to Georgia, a state where the homeownership rate for Black people is 47.6%, according to the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization.

“I’ve chosen to remain in California, primarily, because this is where my family is,” Ford continued. “Sometimes I regret not leaving, but I wouldn’t want to be terribly far from my parents.”

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