New Detroit, Inc. is working to heal racial divides through genealogical research

The service organization celebrates 50 years in action.

efore the rubble had cleared, Detroit and Michigan leaders acted swiftly to create New Detroit, Inc., the service organization founded just weeks after the July 1967 rebellion in Detroit. Michigan Gov. George Romney and Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh called together a group of social and business leaders to address the racial tension that had boiled over and left Detroit in tatters.

Fifty years later, New Detroit is still going strong with CEO Shirley Stancato at the helm. Its mission, “a racial healing organization,” Stancato says, has not changed. But there has been innovation.

New Detroit has embarked on an ambitious genealogy project, offering DNA research to some of its closest partners in an effort to reinforce its mission of racial healing. How so? Well, besides finding out your ancestry, the results can help debunk the construct of race.

“The construct of race was created to divide people,” Stancato says. But now that we’re here divided among racial lines anyway, “we believe that this is going combine genealogy research and DNA testing with historical analysis and storytelling in order to shine a light on race in America.”

New Detroit is working with Ancestry.com and the Fred Hart Williams Genealogical Society, the oldest African-American society of its kind in the state. (And the organization is working with an array of sponsors – DNA testing isn’t cheap.) It is starting closer to home with employees of other organizations close to New Detroit. When those individuals find out their true ancestry, they have stories.

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Take, for instance, the number of white people who – surprise! – find out they have African origin. Or, in one instance, Stancato notes, a black woman who presumed she had Haitian ancestry (based on family stories) but learned her roots were in Togo and Cameroon. Many black individuals who have taken the test have found DNA matches in Benin and Togo.

And there are those who need counseling when they find out something they’re not. “To find out that I wasn’t (a particular ethnicity), I wouldn’t know how to take that. If I don’t find out that one piece where my identity isn’t rooted, I’m not there,” Stancato says. (It has happened with several folks who thought they were Irish, Stancato notes.)

These new stories result from people sharing what they’ve learned and how most people have more in common than originally thought. But also, Stancato is hoping the organizations participating in this genealogy research also consider hiring practices and workplace perception – things that may have unconscious discriminatory bias – in the aftermath. A firm that may not have considered hiring from an HBCU, for instance, might think twice with this broadened context.

“That’s the one thing about race – it isn’t biological,” Stancato says. “It really is racial healing, when others can heal through the story you’re telling.”

New Detroit isn’t in the position to offer DNA testing to walk-ins, but it is hoping to get there. The experiment has worked so far and will continue throughout this year in the midst of other 50th-anniversary efforts.

“When you take genealogy and put it up against history, that’s where you get your a-ha moment,” Stancato says.

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