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Rick Kittles

Callers Jammed Howard Switchboard

As he began to work toward realizing his ideas, Kittles encountered both excitement and controversy. When word of his efforts leaked out, Howard found its switchboard jammed with calls from reporters and from ordinary African Americans who wanted to know how they could sign up to be tested. Investors sensed something big in the making, and Washington Business Forward estimated that if just one-tenth of one percent of the 33 million Americans of African descent took Kittles's ancestry test each year, his potential annual gross would be in the $10 million range.

The obstacles in his way were just as sizable as the potential. Scientific observers questioned whether Kittles could generate useful results in view of the fact that DNA testing could illuminate only a small sliver of a person's ancestry, and questions were raised about the size of the African DNA database on which he planned to rely. Kittles ran into trouble with the government funders who had underwritten the African Burial Ground research as he moved toward profit-making enterprises, and he parted ways with his former associate Michael Blakey in a disagreement over the new project's aims. Kittles had a few fierce critics within the African-American community as well; charging African Americans a fee to learn about their African origins was "like charging Holocaust victims a fee to confirm their relatives were in fact gassed," University of Maryland anthropologist Fatima Jackson told the on-line magazine Salon.

Though he hoped to launch African Ancestry, Inc. by 2001, Kittles faced months of delays as he patiently worked to answer the objections of critics and deal with the complexities of running a business while working in the academic world. He took on a partner, Washington businesswoman Gina Paige, to handle the financial side of African Ancestry, taking the title of Scientific Director for himself. Compiling data gathered by other researchers, he amassed a large enough sample of African DNA to pass muster with other scientists. His collection of 10,000 samples "to me sounds pretty good," University of Chicago professor Chung-I Wu told the Chicago Tribune (as quoted by the Knight Ridder Tribune News Service). And he was careful to inform potential customers of the method's limitations, pointing out that a person's ancestors over several centuries numbered in the hundreds or thousands, only two of which (one on the father's side, one on the mother's) could be identified by African Ancestry's DNA tests.

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Brief BiographiesBiographies: Dan Jacobson Biography - Dan Jacobson comments: to Barbara Knutson (1959–2005) Biography - PersonalRick Kittles Biography - Concocted African Ancestry, Directed Prostate Cancer Study, Callers Jammed Howard Switchboard, Attracted Celebrity Customers