On US slavery’s 400th anniversary, how ancestry quests help heal
Flipping through his social studies textbook as a seventh grader in the 1970s, John F. Baker Jr. was stopped cold by an old black-and-white photo of four African Americans dressed in 1890s finery in front of a plantation home. The unidentified woman in the photo staring seriously out at him reminded him of his grandmother – and a tickle of curiosity was triggered every time he opened the book.
Coincidentally, when that grandmother came to see Mr. Baker’s family near Nashville for her annual visit in 1976, she asked the youth to take a photo of a local newspaper clipping that included a picture of her grandparents. They were posing in front of the Wessyngton Plantation house where they were born enslaved and continued to work as a cook and laundress into the late 1800s.
Mr. Baker says he was “in shock” when he realized that it was the very same photo as the one in the textbook with which he’d been obsessed. “Although I had seen the photograph in the textbook many times, it assumed a different meaning once I knew that those people were my ancestors,” he wrote in his book, “The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation: Stories of My Family’s Journey to Freedom.”
“I could hardly wait to get back to school and tell my classmates that my ancestors were in our history book. ... I was so excited I could hardly sleep.”
Mr. Baker’s jolt of elation – echoed today in the increasing number of African Americans engaging in ancestry searches through internet records and DNA testing – only seemed to grow in meaning over time as he made discovering his family’s past his life’s work. His painstakingly handwritten, 6-foot-long family tree of 11 generations and 1,000 descendants of enslaved people who labored at the Wessyngton tobacco plantation is his visualization of 40 years of sprawling research done for himself, for others seeking family information, for museums, and for his detailed book on the white Washington family and their slaves.
A changing multiculturalism
From the ancient rhythm of “begats” in the Bible to the modern marketing of the genetic testing company 23andMe, the search for family history is more than a matter of personal curiosity. Over the ages it has been used to stake claims to political power, royal lineage, and social standing. Now, for better or worse, it is shaping the conflicted American narrative of multiculturalism.
The growing interest in African American ancestry is creating a collective effect in the black community that has important social and economic implications.
“The cultural impact of ancestry tracing among African Americans has been phenomenal,” says Henry Louis Gates Jr., who heads the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University. Ancestry searching, he notes, has direct influence on African American baby names, music, clothing, hair, dance, and film, and is spurring African American tourism on the African continent. “All those things, incrementally, over the last 25 years are the results of black Americans being able to establish more concrete, specific connections with their African ancestors and cousins,” he says.
And there is implied political power in the new genealogical tool of genetic testing.
“Our DNA hopes are more boundless than we often fully apprehend or dare to admit,” wrote Alondra Nelson, the Harold F. Linder professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, and the author of “The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome.” Genetics, she added, “might offer new leverage” in racial justice and social transformation, including evidence for reconciliation with – and possibly reparations for – slave descendants.
Inspiration from 1970s, to digital era
The black power movement and creation of black studies programs in the 1960s, and the establishment of Black History Month and Alex Haley’s “Roots” miniseries in the 1970s, were part of the first wave of ancestral searches among African Americans.
But there was very little specificity of heritage black Americans could easily trace. The U.S. census in 1870, the first to note the entire black population, is considered a genealogical “brick wall” before which slavery and Jim Crow laws erased the potential for paper trails used in genealogical research. Black Americans, excluded from mainstream institutional recognition, often were not registered at birth, death, and marriage or for the draft or voter rolls.
The dawn of the digital era allowing online searches of public documents and archival holdings, plus the availability of direct-to-consumer genetic testing, triggered a boom in black genealogical interest.
A movie, new museums, and 1619
Other more recent developments are credited with spiking interest, too: marketing around the 400th anniversary of the arrival of transatlantic slavery to the U.S.; the 2018 film “Black Panther,” a fantasy of a peaceful, high-tech African kingdom that invigorated black identity; and a burst of new and successful cultural institutions such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, and the dramatic National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, honoring more than 4,400 lynching victims.
“There’s a direct correlation to the release of the movie ‘Black Panther’ two years ago” and a tripling of visits to AfricanAncestry.com, says Gina Paige, co-founder of the genetic testing company African Ancestry that traces lineage to a specific present-day African nation and ethnic group of origin through common maternal and paternal ancestors. She adds that the Trump administration’s “intensified assault on black Americans” is a contributing factor to the interest in ancestry, forcing “black Americans to look at themselves through a new lens.”
Filling in the void
Overall, African Ancestry claims to have helped 500,000 African Americans reconnect with their roots since it started selling test kits in 2003. It has compiled a genetic database of more than 30,000 indigenous African DNA samples to compare with that of clients – an amount that dwarfs other companies’ African DNA files.
“Black Panther” encapsulates the dichotomy between difficulties of life in the African diaspora and the fantasy of a black utopia on the continent. And, says Ms. Paige, it plays to the black longing for connections erased by slavery. African Americans implicitly understand a generalized heritage on the African continent. But they don’t have the specificity European Americans enjoy in claiming Irish or German or Italian descent, she says.
And that’s important for some black Americans who feel the void, adds Ms. Paige, who admits that she, herself, had not had the “personal curiosity” to know more about her African roots as a child because it was impossible to trace. But with DNA testing as an option to know more, it did become possible and the void was more apparent as a result.
“In my opinion, [black Americans] are the original victims of identity theft,” says Ms. Paige, “because [as a result of slavery] we’ve lost everything that identifies us as a person; we’ve lost our original names; we’ve lost our languages; we lost the freedom to honor our ancestors. And our families were torn apart.”
The growing scale of the black ancestry search and its impact on the collective consciousness of the black community, she says, can restore and heal the residue of slave status by clarifying identity.
“Once you get that identity back – a sense of pride and place and belonging – that sense of being an individual, you then play a more confident and active role in your personal life, in your family life, your local and even your national and global community,” says Ms. Paige. “It gives you a better foundation to participate.”
Finding 11 generations of his family, beginning at age 13
Mr. Baker was a genealogy prodigy at age 13. Soon after the discovery of that photo of his great-grandparents, Henny and Emanuel Washington, his parents were driving him all over greater Nashville to the state archives and library and to visit the white owners of Wessyngton Plantation.
The teen scoured such documents as slave bills of sale, plantation account books, slave tax entries, wills, deeds, and Washington family correspondence. His research was enriched by the unusually thorough record-keeping by the white Washingtons – relatives of the first U.S. president – who left Virginia to pioneer the Tennessee plantation in the late 1700s. Their account books detailed clothing and shoe sizes and costs of doctor visits for enslaved people who were ill; letters between family members discussed visits to Virginia and Louisiana slave auctions.
The distillate of this very granular study of the economics and sociology of slavery is visible in Mr. Baker’s ability – not unlike doing long division in your head – to keep track of thousands of descendants and telling tidbits about them.
One of the most haunting threads he discovered was how his great-great-great-grandmother Jenny came to Wessyngton. Jenny’s extended family was owned in Virginia by Revolutionary War hero Col. Michael Blow. When he died, Jenny’s family was inherited by one of Blow’s sons, who then ran into financial difficulty. He sold 10-year-old Jenny and her 12-year-old sister in 1802 to the Washingtons. It is clear in the paperwork that the girls were force-marched from Virginia to Tennessee, but the emotional detail that Baker – and other black Americans piecing together their family history – narrates is the unspeakable trauma the girls suffered being torn from their mother and family, never to meet again.
This kind of graphic realization of ancestral events can, paradoxically, be inspiring. Dwight Fryer, a minister, FedEx marketing manager, and historical novelist, underscored this point when he spoke about his research at this summer’s Juneteenth event at Belle Meade Plantation in Nashville.
Pain – and survival
“I think there’s a need for humankind to know their story,” he says. Knowing the trials his enslaved great-great-grandmother Jane Dickens Hunt survived, he says, helped him deal with the pain of his own teenage daughter’s death in 2001. “I found things that made me understand just how strong I really am.”
Mr. Fryer’s great-great-grandmother was forced to walk from North Carolina to Mississippi by slave owners. It spoke to him, he says, “in an Elijah-type of way ... when God spoke to him in a quiet whisper – Jane Dickens Hunt was my quiet whisper. I began to really understand how special these people were, how smart they were to deal with these things, how strong; and they lived and were enterprising.”
In short: Mr. Fryer’s ancestors were models of survival to him.
The ancestry “reveal”
When 65 members of Afra Brown’s extended family gathered for their biannual reunion dinner in Silver Spring, Maryland, in July, a dramatic ancestry “reveal” was the featured event of the evening.
The conceit of the reveal is that genetic test results will suddenly clear the fog of identity for African Americans – they will know a nation or a specific tribe or an ethnic mix of their ancestors (depending on the claims of which company’s test is involved). The drama lies in the ceremonial presentation and finally knowing rather than imagining a broad ancestral history.
Men in Ms. Brown’s family had taken a patrilineal test, which analyzes just the Y chromosome passed from father to male offspring. The other two types of genetic testing are matrilineal, which tests the DNA passed unchanged exclusively from mother to offspring, and autosomal, or admixture, which tests all the rest of the DNA and gives the long-term ancestry in a person’s entire genetic family tree, including a sense of ethnic percentages and even geographic location of ancestors.
Ms. Paige of African Ancestry came to present the results at the family reunion. Even though Ms. Brown, a Washington nurse, already knew the details and had bought party favors in the colors of the flag of the African nation – and tribe – of their roots, she was still nervous about how the surprise would go over, particularly with the family matriarchs, her 82-year-old mother and 78-year-old aunt.
When Ms. Paige announced that the women’s patrilineal roots traced several hundred years back to the Bamileke tribe of what is now Cameroon, there was joyous surprise – though one cousin, who had been resistant to the testing, stalked out, says Ms. Brown. Much of the surprise was that Nigerian or Native American roots were not part of the family’s lineage as members had expected, says Ms. Brown.
Social media is full of emotional genetic testing reveals. One typical happy video, for example, features an earnest young black American couple, John and Sophia. They live in Ghana and are recording themselves sitting in their car – baby in the backseat – giddy to play a video reveal of their matrilineal test results sent by Ms. Paige. Sophia’s roots trace to the Tikar people of Cameroon. (“I feel like I’m flying,” she gasps.) John’s line traces to Sierra Leone’s Mende tribe, who were historically rice farmers. (“We love rice!” Sophia emotes.)
“Not for the fainthearted”
But another reveal on YouTube is less breathless. In this 11-minute segment, 20-something Leroy stalls during the reveal, agonizing for long minutes, “nervous” and “scared,” because he saved up to take both patrilineal and matrilineal tests (about $600, total, from African Ancestry). He’s worried he’ll have white, European roots. When he opens the envelopes, he is crestfallen to learn he has Iberian roots on his father’s side and to find that his matrilineal roots are in the Akan tribe of Ghana, which he considers too “common” and not “exotic” in the world of African genealogical testing. He ends the video by saying he is “not a happy camper.”
Harvard’s Dr. Gates, who pioneered the reveal in the early 2000s with his public television miniseries “African American Lives,” counsels caution about staking any happiness on genealogical findings. “DNA analysis is not for the fainthearted,” he says. It can “present some profound challenges” about what happened “in the dark reaches of slavery,” not to mention uncovering recent family secrets surrounding paternity.
The way this plays out for Leroy in the video can be purely a personal disappointment, but on a collective level in the black community, Dr. Gates explains, it is “new concrete scientific evidence for the agonizing costs of slavery on black women and the black family.”
He cites research showing that the average African American is 24% white; Dr. Gates, himself, is 50% white. “All this stuff on reparations is just sophisticated scholarship by economists and historians,” he observes, “but ... this high degree of European ancestry for an average African American most likely did not occur because of ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?’ This is rape. What else are you going to call it?”
Reconnecting with Africa
Ancestry searches can provide evidence for reparations, but also for reconciliation. Business, trade, educational, and aid groups see the search for roots as a natural platform for turning the sins of transatlantic slavery into productive contemporary reconnection to Africa. Likewise, initiatives surrounding the 400th anniversary of the beginning of slavery (which is dated to the 1619 arrival of settlers with slaves to Jamestown, Virginia) have created a dramatic historical atmosphere for roots searches and reveals – but also for renewed ties between the continent and the diaspora.
Ghana has pioneered the promotional lead in reconnecting those who were forced to leave the continent. As far back as 2000, the West African nation offered citizenship to people of Ghanaian ancestry and a “right of abode” immigration status for anyone of African descent in the diaspora. Ghana, as well as Liberia, Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, Mauritius, and the African Union as a whole, has been involved with the R400 Summit planned for Charlotte, North Carolina, in September to “reconnect, reconcile, reclaim and reimagine what was lost over the past 400 years.” The summit will host a 75-person reveal of ancestry.
Ghana also has capitalized on its historic status as a major port of departure for slave ships through tourism. African Americans frequently take trips to the dungeons of forts where enslaved people were held before ships embarked to the Americas. For example, a group of three dozen NAACP leaders and members, including its president, Derrick Johnson, traveled to Jamestown and on to Ghana to reverse the journey of their ancestors and do reveals in August.
One twist on the search trend is a reconciliation effort by Saint Louis University and the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province. They are trying to trace the genealogical descent of slaves owned, rented, and borrowed by the Jesuit priests who came to run the school in 1823. As part of their effort, the university sent letters in July to some slave descendants whom researchers believe they’ve discovered through DNA databases and church archival records.
“History is very important to ancestry, but what’s also important is what’s happening [in Africa] now” and in the future, says Diallo Shabazz, co-founder of Birthright Africa, a New York nonprofit that has committed to sending 5,000 people of African descent – ages 13 to 30 – to Africa and places within the U.S. to explore their cultural roots and leadership and entrepreneurial aspirations. The next phase of ancestry searching, he suggests, should “really be a transition in the way people relate to their ancestry on the continent.”
Cultivating relationships to past and present
Karmen Thomas holds one fervent vision of the transatlantic future: After receiving matrilineal tests linking her to the Mende people of Sierra Leone last year, the Charlotte, North Carolina, operations manager connected with 500 other Mende descendants – and Mende people in Sierra Leone – on Facebook. She speaks for “hours every other day” with her very distant relatives in Africa and is planning a trip there in November to bring assistance for community improvement projects.
“I have never met these people and I can tell you I love them like they are family I’ve known all of my life,” she says, noting that they represent the culture black Americans lost when their ancestors were kidnapped and brought here. As a result, she describes a well of longing to reconnect that, if collectively harnessed, might have a major impact in Africa. “I want to go there twice a year. I want to invest in property. I want dual citizenship. I want to bank there, put money in there and bring revenue there.”
Mr. Baker’s search for his family’s past in Tennessee constantly gains momentum, too: Descendants of the Wessyngton Plantation slaves contact him at least three or four times a week for information or to ask for a tour.
He takes these visitors high on a hill to the plantation slave cemetery. Here it’s easy to be awestruck by the strange juxtaposition of the beauty of the rolling green landscape and a massive monument to those buried here – 455 people enslaved by a cruel institution still felt by their thousands of descendants.