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US Black Heritage: Preferred Terminology

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This page is for use by the US Black Heritage Project. It was last updated on November 20, 2023. It will be formally reviewed collaboratively by both the USBH Leadership Team and the USBH Project members by November 1, 2025 to determine if any updates or changes need to be made.


Above All We Want to Bring Honor, Respect, and Dignity

  • We acknowledge words have power.
  • We acknowledge that discussion about terminology can be a vital and useful part of evolving a difficult topic to a better place–in this case racism in the USA. The USBH Project is taking a different path (see below).
  • We acknowledge the terminology used 3-4 years ago are not the same words being used today and we fully expect those words to change again 3-4 years from now.
  • We acknowledge there is no perfect answer/perfect terminology to please all. Our wish is to do as well as possible within a genealogy context.
  • We acknowledge that the work of the USBH Project is very emotional and has a great deal of trauma at its foundation.
  • We acknowledge that members of WikiTree and USBH specifically are all volunteers doing the best they can with tough work and each person comes from a different combination of background and life experiences. Therefore, it is impossible for everyone to see every issue exactly the same way. An answer that makes perfect sense to one person may make no sense to another.
  • We acknowledge that USBH has one goal above all the others: to connect all enslaved ancestors to their descendants. USBH seeks to do this in the quickest, most efficient way, while being the most accurate, to make up for lost time.
  • We acknowledge that everyone doing the work of the USBH Project is at a different level (beginner to advanced) of understanding of the full context of the work. USBH seeks to meet every member where they are at.
  • We acknowledge that the work of the USBH Project continues to positively evolve as it gains more experience. It is the goal of the project to continue to do so. Something that is working today may no longer be the best choice in five years.
  • We acknowledge and respect others' right to disagree with the terminology choices USBH has made.
  • We acknowledge that we all want the same thing: To bring honor, dignity, and respect to a group of people who on the whole have not yet received it. The USBH Project believes the number one way to do that is to connect them to their family.

History of the USBH terminology choices

In 2020, when USBH restarted the African American Project, basically from scratch, one of the first things the leadership did was ask questions within the Black community about terminology: What terms do you expect to see in genealogy?, What terms do you find offensive?, What terms do you prefer?

There was no consistent answer. Some descendants of enslaved ancestors preferred the historical words such as slave and slave owner because it is a better descriptor of the horrible experience their ancestors went through. They felt it honored their ancestors' true experience. Some preferred enslaved and enslaver because it makes their ancestors humans first and property second.

But there were two things that the majority agreed on. 1) They expected to see the historical words. It didn't shock them to see these words on a genealogy website. 2) They would prefer not to get hung up on terminology and instead spend time getting connected to their ancestors.

USBH then had to make a decision. Do we continue to use the historical terms we see every day in our work (and the terms already being used for many categories) or do we use the modern, evolving terminology that may need to be changed again within a few years? We chose to continue to use the historical terms for categories, headings, and page names for the following reasons:

  • Searchability - We need to use terms descendants will use the most often to find their ancestors. The answer to that question is still the historical terms. With the current increase in integration of AI, we recognize this reason may become a lower priority, however we still need a consistent way to tell people to search.
  • Consistency and Standardization - Both for easier searchability and a better workflow, we need all categories, headings, and page names to be consistently named.
  • Ease and Comfort of Work - For the USBH Project members who do the slavery era work day in and day out, the historical words will never go away. They read them every day and they have to talk about them in our project chats. They need to feel comfortable typing "One negro slave for $900" in a conversation with another project member without stumbling over the words and worrying about who they might be offending in that moment. There is no way to make what's written on these pages okay, so we have to clinically take them as they are in order to do the work.
  • Time Focus - In order to keep up with the everchanging and evolving terminology surrounding the work the USBH Project does, we would have to change our categories, headings, and page names about every 3-5 years at minimum. The words used in 2020 are not the same words being used today in 2023 and there are current discussions for further changes to the terminology. If those changes take root, today's words will be changed again within another year or two. Categories, headings, and page names have to all be changed manually (by hand). Although editbot will update categories on individual profiles, someone has to first manually set up the changes for the thousands of categories. Editbot does not change headings and space page names. Because USBH is growing so fast, we already have thousands of categories and pages and tens of thousands of profiles (that will quickly grow to hundreds of thousands). It would take a minimum of six months to a year to update all the categories, headings, and page names. If we had to do this every 3-5 years, we will basically lose one year out of every 3-5 years of work that could have happened, but we spent it on name changes instead. We have chosen from the beginning not to take that path.
  • Energy Focus - Although the discussion and evolution of terminology is a very important catalyst for change, the USBH Project has chosen a different path. Rather than spending our time on such activities, we have chosen to spend that same time, energy, and effort on the work itself that will bring change. While others are choosing the path that takes them through all the points from A to Z, we are marching in a straight line from A to Z because we believe it is a shorter path. We all have a similar end goal, but how we choose to get there is different. USBH does not want discussions and changes of terminology to distract from the groundbreaking and innovative work we are doing.
How USBH expects to travel.

The Emotional Cost of Terminology

We recognize that for some people, using or hearing the historical terminology of slavery is traumatizing. However, we don't feel the language has evolved enough yet to truly overcome that trauma.

Imagine going to Bibiana, an enslaved woman who has been working all day in the fields under the southern sun. The sun is now setting and she finally has a moment to eat a bite of dinner before sitting in a family circle to tell a few stories before sleep. You come up to her as she gets ready to enter her family's shelter and say excitedly, "Bibiana, I have good news! As of today, you will no longer be called a slave." Watch as a spark of hope enters her eyes. She waits patiently for your next words. "Yes, from this day forward you will now be called an enslaved person." Now watch as that spark of hope dies followed by sad resignation. Because Bibiana knows what we know. No matter what she is called, her situation hasn't changed. She still has to get up at the crack of dawn tomorrow and begin another day in the fields working without choice and without pay. She has to continue to watch the suffering around her.

Do you want to be the person to tell her about the change in terms and watch the look in her eyes – to add to her trauma? USBH doesn't.

We believe we can do better.

We don't know fully what that will look like yet, but we have some ideas forming. What we do know is the one way we can bring honor, respect, and dignity to Bibiana is to return her stolen family. It's to allow her to tell her story to her descendants. It's to give her the rightful place at the head of the family table. That's the path the USBH Project is on.


Please note:

  • The US Black Heritage Project is not the terminology "police." We will not be searching WikiTree for words we feel don't fit our project guidelines. However, if we come across a profile that can be improved with more respectful language or language formatting, we will either edit that profile or send a private message to the profile manager.
  • Please respect the terminology any WikiTree member chooses to use to honor their own family and ancestor profiles.

Words/Language We Ask You Not To Use in Profiles, Discussions, and Comments

  • Racial Slurs. The exception is when used as a direct quote, is in quotation marks with a reference to the source, and is absolutely necessary to add value to the profile.
  • Skin tone words that have been used as racial slurs at different times in history. As above, the exception is when used as a direct quote, is in quotation marks with a reference to the source, and is absolutely necessary to add value to the profile. (some example are negro, negroid, negress, quadroon, octoroon, high yellow). Often these words will be referenced on census records and other documents to show race. It's acceptable to reference racial information on a profile.
  • Skin tone words that aren't necessary. For instance, If you have already said in the profile the census record said he is mulatto, you do not then need to call him a mulatto man. Calling him a man is all that is needed in this case.
  • Master. This is a term slave owners expected slaves to use to show the owner's superiority and implies another level of supremacy that is not necessary. Please use slave owner, slave holder, or enslaver instead. As above, the exception is when used as a direct quote, is in quotation marks with a reference to the source, and is absolutely necessary to add value to the profile.
  • Concubine or Mistress for a slave who is used for sexual purposes. Concubine is not a correct word for the United States culture. Concubine and mistress are often romanticized roles. There is nothing romantic about being a sexual slave. Please use only the facts as they are written in sources and let the reader decide for themselves what that relationship was based on facts. The exception to this is if you have a source that clearly spells out a type of relationship and you are referencing that source in the profile.
  • Please don't use subjective language about a person in a profile. This means don't say something like "he must have been an unruly slave" because a source says he received punishment from an overseer. You don't know this unless it is spelled out in a source. Don't put information you assume to be true based on how you are reading the facts. Please stick to the facts and add sources for them.
  • Mixed Race vs Biracial vs Multiracial, These terms can be ambiguous (have no specific meaning), especially for earlier profiles. Instead, whenever possible, please use factual words found in documents such as saying a person is listed as "mulatto" in a census record. Or you can write the person had a white father and a mother who was a Black slave. The reader can infer from this information what their ethnic makeup might be. It's okay to document a person's race on profiles in order to give descendants a better idea of their heritage.

FAQs

  • Which words are USBH using?
    • For categories, headings, and page names only, we use the historical terms of "slaves" and "slave owners." For narrative on USBH Project pages, we use "enslaved ancestors" and "slave owners."
  • Which words should I be using?
    • When writing narratives, we ask you to use the choice of the words that you feel are most respectful. When a disagreement arises, the descendant's choice always takes precedence. If you are doing slavery era work for the USBH Project, we ask you to use the existing slavery categories by location as well as the following:

For biography section headings to document enslaved ancestors, please use the standard headings of === Slaves === on slave owner profiles and === Slave Owners === on enslaved ancestor profiles.

For slave owner space pages, please use the standard name starting with "Slaves of"

  • At what point will USBH change its terminology?
    • When the existing terminology has become universally offensive or when the new terminology more closely aligns with the end goals which tells us we won't need to change them again for a good long time.
  • What terminology should I use in verbal discussions or in spaces outside of WikiTree?
    • It important to keep in mind that no matter what the current-day accepted terminology is, different groups use different terminology. The best way to handle this is when you are meeting with a group outside of WikiTree, listen to the words they use in their discussions, and do your best to respect their choices while in their space.
  • Why wouldn't you choose to be leaders at the forefront of the terminology discussions?
    • USBH prefers to spend its time, energy, and focus on the work that we believe will bring about change. We have the same goals as those using terminology discussion as a way to evolve the world, but we have chosen a different path of how we will arrive.

See the US Black Heritage Exchange Portal for more information on how to create profiles that involve slavery.





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Comments: 4

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I noticed that in the presented text, you have capitalized the adjective "Black" referring to a person's "race", but not the adjective "white" in the same context. Is this a conscious decision and the advised usage for the US Black Heritage Project?
posted by Vaughn Vaughn
edited by Vaughn Vaughn
Hi Vaughn, yes, it is a conscious decision to capitalize the word when referring to race and is stated as a "preference" on the USBH Notables styles and standards because it is now recognized as a USA-wide standard. Black is a recognized USA race with a shared ethnic community and history. However, that being said, this isn't a preference we will be editing on profiles other than our managed Notables. If someone uses or prefers lower case, that's okay too. Emma
In Illinois when they changed the laws to eliminate slavery they did it in steps. First, slaves were changed to indentured servants (often with terms that meant they were still slaves). However, slaves under a certain age or those born later were given a set term of years. After the indenture term they were freed. What is the preference in terminology for this time period? Do we use indentured or do we still use slave?
posted by Stacey Martin
Hi Stacey, thank you for your question. I had to check with the project members to see if we could get an accurate answer for you. It sounds like many of these indentured servants were still in a slave relationship, so I would call them slaves. However, those who voluntarily indentured themselves under contract in exchange for money (or a comparable form of payment) would be considered indentured servants. Emma