The National Genealogical Society (NGS), one of the country’s most prominent organizations for documenting family ancestry, has issued a formal apology and a report on “racist and discriminatory actions and decisions the society made” over the past century.
The move was several years in the making, says Kathryn Doyle, the society’s president, to Sydney Trent of the Washington Post. Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the society knew it needed to examine its history—and reckon with whatever it found.
“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,” adds Doyle, who is the first Asian woman to hold her position.
The news from the NGS comes only a few months after the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) issued a similar report documenting its early leaders’ involvement in the American eugenics movement, which was rooted in false theories about purifying the white race.
In its research, the NGS made troubling discoveries about one of its founders. A Georgia physician named Joseph Gaston Baillie Bulloch, who served as president of the group from 1909 to 1912, wrote openly about his eugenicist beliefs.
“In a 1912 article published in the NGS Quarterly, he advises how genealogy should be used to protect the white race from ‘admixture’ and ‘tainted blood,’” according to the report.
Racism within the society continued throughout the 20th century. In 1960, James Worris Moore, a Black employee of the National Archives, attended a meeting as a guest. When he applied for membership, fierce debate ensued over whether the society should integrate. Ultimately, the NGS voted not only to deny Moore’s membership, but to bar all Black applicants from joining.
“Negroes … have nothing in common with us, generally speaking,” one member told the Washington Post at the time, per the report.
After that, 12 years passed before James Dent Walker became the first Black member in 1972. A renowned genealogist, Walker also co-founded the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society in 1977; he was elected to the National Genealogy Hall of Fame in 1999.
LaJoy Mosby, the current president of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, commends the NGS’s move—as well as the organization's diversity-oriented goals. She tells the Washington Post that organizations must confront racist histories, even when such reckonings are uncomfortable.
“It’s a matter of having people come to terms with that,” she says. “It’s the present, not the past, and regardless of how painful it is, it is okay to confront it. Let’s accept it and move forward.”
In its apology, the NGS “acknowledges, regrets and offers its deepest apology for previously failing to confront the Society’s historical and organizational bigotry, racism and discrimination. These past actions and behaviors marginalized communities of American genealogists and family historians, especially African Americans.”
“At present,” the group continues, “NGS is actively atoning for its history of exclusion. NGS is committed to continuing its research, uncovering additional information, making its history transparent and leading change.”