“3-D Genealogy: Tools for Uncovering the Roots of Wealth and Privilege”
Robert G. Williams conducted research at the Brookings Institution before moving to Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he has taught as an economics professor since 1978. Taking traditional genealogy as a starting point, Williams digs deeper into the social and economic context of his Deep South roots, subjecting family narratives to empirical tests. Taking from the official family tree the two-dimensional lists of ancestors as well as their life accomplishments, dates of birth, marriages, and deaths, Williams fills in the gaps using a combination of easily searchable digitized records (federal land patents, population censuses, and slave schedules) and harder-to-locate county probate and deed book archives.
To visualize in 3-dimensional space the process of his ancestor’s land acquisition, Williams uses Earthpoint software to project land patent data onto recent satellite images via Google Earth. By excavating the fuller historical record of his Alabama and Mississippi ancestors, Williams has discovered the suppressed truths of his own privilege. The accounts reveal how lands taken from Choctaw and Chickasaw peoples and labor taken from enslaved African-Americans produced the wealth his ancestors used to ensure their children’s prosperity from 1817 to 1865. Williams concludes, “I am the fortunate (6th generation) recipient of this tradition, along with all my siblings and practically every white person I knew growing up.”
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