As 2021 comes to a close so too does our fifth year of family and local history talks. Over the course of six talks, we explored how power relationships—be they social, cultural and/or political—can shape one’s family’s success and destinies. This way of looking at genealogy is called critical family history, a term coined by Dr. Christine Sleeter, Professor Emerita at CSU Monterey Bay. With this theme of critical family history more prevalent than in years past, there was no doubt that Dr. Sleeter had to be our first speaker for 2021.

Screenshot from first virtual talk of 2021 with Dr. Christine Sleeter.

In her presentation, she defines critical family history as locating one’s family within historical contexts shaped by membership in socio-cultural groups, and conflict over power and resources; and it is informed by theoretical traditions of:

  • Critical Theory – looks at how oppressive social class relations are produced and reproduced;
  • Critical Race Theory – looks at how race and racism work and how it intersects with the law;
  • Critical Feminist Theory – looks at the position of women within the family, community, economy, and strategies women used to navigate that position.

All researchers, whether their family is indigenous or immigrated to another country, can conduct a critical analysis of their family history by re-examining narratives about the larger society as well as those within their own family. Dr. Sleeter quotes from an article by A.A. Parham that “genealogists who are white are less likely to [acknowledge historical contexts] than those of color.” [1]  Researchers can put this into practice by conducting context research alongside traditional genealogical research. They can do this by using the hidden four “P” Factors:

  1. PUSH – what drove people to leave their original city, state, country of origin or land;
  2. PULL – what desirable or favorable conditions drew people to immigrate to that new location;
  3. PUNISHING – what negative experiences punish or marginalize both the people who immigrated and those who were already here;
  4. PRIVILEGING – which people benefited from positive incentives or resources and what were those advantages bestowed upon them.

Using an example from Dr. Sleeter’s presentation, here is how she used the hidden four “P” factors with her own family history when her ancestors moved from Tennessee to Colorado:

  1. PUSH – After the Civil War, the economy of the South wasn’t great and led to people finding opportunities elsewhere;
  2. PULL – Desire to find gold in Colorado;
  3. PUNISHING – For her ancestors: They didn’t end up finding gold and had to settle for other ways of getting rich, which ended up being land. For others: The year her ancestor began homesteading in Colorado was the same year the indigenous tribe, the Utes, were driven out of Colorado into Utah;
  4. PRIVILEGING – Ancestor found and homesteaded land dispossessed from the Utes.
One way to practice critical family history is by presenting information alongside family data. Researchers can create an excel sheet that covers local and national events in their family’s life decade by decade. Screenshot is from Professor Sleeter’s virtual presentation in February 2021

At Sutro Library we have led by example incorporating these four “Ps” and reexamining narratives through our programming this past year:

“Critical Family History: Placing Family History within Larger Contexts” – Dr. Christine Sleeter, provided a foundation for which all subsequent events would build upon. She shared her own personal experience as well as other examples of how one can think critically about their own family history.

“Connections Concealed: Family & Slavery in Fluvanna County, VA” – Marty Jessup shared the story of a great aunt buried at a Black church and how it led her to researching persons enslaved by her ancestors ultimately expanding insights on race.

Adolph Sutro’s Urban Forests: Influences and Lasting Benefits” – Family history often has an environmental impact and one that can be felt for generations to come. This can be said for Adolph Sutro when he planted non-native trees atop San Francisco’s highest hills. Jacqueline Proctor shared his motivation for changing the natural environment and how those forests still impact San Franciscans today.

“Harris v. Sutro: An Early Civil Rights Battle at Sutro Baths” – While our founder, Adolph Sutro, is known more for his accomplishments, he is not exempt from critical analysis. Elaine Elinson presented on a Sutro Baths policy that perpetuated white supremacy and the little known, but historically significant, case Harris v. Sutro where John Harris boldly challenged racial segregation in San Francisco.

“The Mystery Aussie: Jan See Chin” – Pamela Wong shared the story of her family history journey, how she uncovered the mystery of a great uncle, and how his story reflects today’s Asian immigrant experiences. Jan See Chin’s story underscores how the undercurrents of politics, white supremacy, and colonialism can impact one’s family history. Pam’s publication of the same name can be found in the Sutro Library.

“I’ve Been Here All the While: Black Freedom on Native Land” – Through chapters that chart cycles of dispossession, land seizure, and settlement in Indian Territory, Dr. Alaina E. Roberts drew on archival research and family history to upend the traditional story of enslavement and Reconstruction. This talk was not recorded; however, her book can be found in the Sutro Library.

Recordings for this year’s talks as well as previous virtual talks can be found on the California State Library YouTube channel Events at Sutro Library playlist.

While we intend to continue offering events of this nature, we also have materials in the collection that are examples of critical analysis and can be used to help researchers re-examine narratives. Below are critical family history highlights from the Genealogy Collection:

One Drop: History of an American Family from the Mayflower to the Millennium

“One Drop provides a fascinating take on American history from the Mayflower to the year 2000. More than just a populist history, the book traces the history of our country through the eyes of one family, a family composed of some people who think they are black and others who are sure they are white. Reading this book will change your view of race and racial division in the United States forever.” – Publisher description

They were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South

“Bridging women’s history, the history of the South, and African American history, this book makes a bold argument about the role of white women in American slavery […] White women actively participated in the slave market, profited from it, and used it for economic and social empowerment.

By examining the economically entangled lives of enslaved people and slave-owning women, Jones-Rogers presents a narrative that forces us to rethink the economics and social conventions of slaveholding America.” – Publisher description

Black Tudors: The Untold Story

“From long forgotten records, Kaufmann has unearthed the stories of Africans who lived free in Tudor England. They were present at some of the defining moments of the Tudor age. They were christened, married and buried by the Church. And their stories have remained untold. Kaufmann challenges preconceptions of sixteenth century attitudes toward race and slavery, and transforms how we see this period of history.” – Publisher description

Forgotten Patriots: African American and American Indian Patriots in the Revolutionary War: A Guide to Service, Sources and Studies

“[This] volume identifies over 6,600 names of African Americans and American Indians who contributed to American Independence. [It] provides context to the service of these often overlooked Patriots and the challenges faced in documenting their service.” – Publisher description

This Land is their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving

“400 years after that famous meal, historian David J. Silverman sheds profound new light on the events that led to the creation, and bloody dissolution, of this alliance. Focusing on the Wampanoag Indians, Silverman deepens the narrative to consider tensions that developed well before 1620 and lasted long after the devastating war-tracing the Wampanoags’ ongoing struggle for self-determination up to this very day […] 

This Land is Their Land shows that it is time to rethink how we, as a pluralistic nation, tell the history of Thanksgiving.” – Publisher description

*Dr. Silverman spoke on this book virtually in our last event of 2020. The recording can be found on the California State Library YouTube channel.

Wanted! U.S. Criminal Records: Sources & Research Methodology

When conducting critical family history, it’s important to not just focus on the accomplishments but to also shed light on the dark spots in our family history. In some cases, this may include researching criminal records. “This book is a reference for information sources about criminals from America’s past and includes examples of documents researchers can find in repositories and a primer on how to conduct genealogical research on criminals.” – Publisher description

Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life

Full of statistics in the forms of charts, tables, and graphs, this book provides an examination of immigration to America from the first settlers to late twentieth century.

The last three highlights are special collections and can be found in our closed stacks:

明治新刺名誉姫鏡 Meiji shingaku meiyohime kagami

[New Meiji biographies of famous women]

From our Tiny Town section, this pocketbook includes short biographies of 34 Japanese women. It offers a wide range of Japanese society from aristocrats and writers to peasants and warriors. Each biography includes a distinct portrait.

Chinatown map from 1885 San Francisco Municipal Report of the Board of Supervisors

Created in conjunction with the San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors Report after they sent a special committee to investigate conditions in Chinatown, this map identifies distribution of ethnicity and vice (drugs, prostitutions, etc.) in this part of San Francisco. This report was used to sway opinion against the Chinese population and push Chinese immigrants out of the city. View enlarged version of map.

Ji Ceong’s ledger book

[Emeline Morland Anderson North-Whitcomb scrapbooks of San Francisco history]

Once a ledger book for a San Francisco Chinatown-based business’s transactions between 1890-92, later the scrapbook of Emeline Morland North-Whitcomb; this book bulges with relevance to California’s long, complex history of assimilation and adaptation, cultural appropriation, and erasure.  

Whether it’s in our reading room or at our events, we hope we’ve inspired you to look at your family history through a critical lens!

Special thank you to all of our 2021 speakers and the California State Library Foundation.

This post was written by Genealogy Librarian Dvorah Lewis.


[1] Parham, A. A. 2008. Race, memory, and family history. Social identities, pp. 13-32.

For Further Reading

To learn more about critical family history and genealogy:

For more information on the 1885 Chinatown map, check out these two articles:

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