Monday, July 6, 2015

Race, Ethnicity and Other Bugaboos

I have been silent about racism. There has been so much chatter about it, I didn't want to litter the web with more. And this blog is supposed to be more about ancestry than social issues. But I did name the sub-title of my blog "Genealogy in Black and White" for a reason. So. . .

I believe the conversation about racism should begin with the fact that "race" is a myth. Race is a social concept not a biological one. I was not upset that Rachel Dolezal, the Spokane president of the NAACP, identified herself as black. Neither am I upset that Jennifer Beals identifies herself as white. We are different colors and hues. We have different types of noses and mouths and hair. All those things can be altered artificially. And we all belong to different cultural and sub-cultural groups.We can adopt different practices and habits, interchange them. They are not set in stone. So I wish the conversation could begin as "we are all the same and all different,"

As far as ethnicity goes, maybe we're so into hyphens in this country because we're so mixed up. Everyone comes from somewhere else except for the native Americans.  My own DNA test results said my heritage was mostly African, but nearly one third was made up of European. There was also traces of Asian and Amerindian. I chose not to identify myself as African-American even before I got those results. First, I don't like hyphens anyway. I am American by birth. Period. And even though I claim I'm Black, I'm really more of a caramel color.

Anyone from Africa, regardless of their color or hue, who becomes a citizen here could use the designation of African-American. Very few people call themselves European-American. They identify a country instead of a continent. Because of my slavery heritage, I don't know which African country to declare, although 26% of my DNA, the highest percentage, is from a Nigerian ancestor. But then 19% of my DNA, the second highest percentage, came from an Irishman.

I believe when we get around to talking, after beginning with "we are all the same." we should next say  there is no difference that makes one a "real" American or "true" American more than another person. Born, raised or immigrated, we the People are ALL Americans.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Say Their Name

Recently it was leaked that Ben Affleck asked Henry Louis Gates to conceal the fact on "Finding Your Roots" that Afflect had slave holding ancestors in his family tree. Affleck said he was "embarrassed" by this. Some people have criticized him for this. Others have commiserated with him. The thing is, if your American fore-bearers go back to the 18th and even 19th century, chances are some of them were slave holders.

I understand that this may be embarrassing for some. In the course of researching my ancestors, I have run across many embarrassing skeletons in my own  genealogical closet. Life is messy. It is impossible for anyone to have a squeaky clean legacy no matter how much we wish.

My main issue with Affleck's concealment is that by keeping that ancestor's name hidden, he is also keeping the names of the slaves held by his ancestors hidden. Their history is being kept from descendants who may be looking for them.

When "Who Do You Think You Are" aired that Reba McIntire had slave holders in her ancestry, it gave me clues to one of my illusive ancestors. I would never had known this if McIntire had got the producers to keep this embarrassing fact hidden. I haven't had a chance to follow through on that clue yet but because of that broadcast, I now know where to look.

During my years in researching my family, I have been helped personally by descendants of relatives of people who held my ancestors in slavery. I have also been helped by pertinent information posted online by people I will never meet. I wish more people would disclose details about their ancestors, shameful or not.The sins of the father is just that, the sins of the father. That is, unless the son and/or daughter chooses to commit the same sin.

My great grandparents were slaves. I am also the descendant of slave holders. That is my history and I can live with that.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

It's Not Easy Being Green

When I was in school, it was the custom to pinch anyone not wearing green on St. Patrick's Day. It had nothing to do with being Irish. I attended a Black segregated public school. However, I would proudly tell my fellow classmates that I really was Irish. This was the oral legend of my family.

Now with the aid of science and DNA testing, I have proof of my Irish heritage. According to, I am a whopping 19% Irish. I still don't know how, when or where, but I am definitely descended from several persons from Ireland. And my Irish ancestors reside behind my brick wall.

I know most of my Black ancestors back to 1825. I only know one White ancestral line up to that date. That is my Featherston line. There may be Irish roots there. The Featherstons did come from England so there may be Irish ties somewhere in that family tree.

What is unique about my Featherston ties is that the interracial union of my great grandparents occurred right after slavery. Those other earlier couplings were, more than likely, forced and they definitely were not documented.

Irish immigrants didn't have it easy when they first arrived here in America. People looked down on  them, discriminated against them, called them "black" among other epitaphs. Some were even held as slaves. Of course, their road to equality cannot compare to Black American's tedious journey.

I'm not sure how I'm supposed to feel about my Irish heritage. I'm no longer that young naive child that gladly pronounced that she was Irish. I don't resent it either. My feelings, like Black genealogy, is complicated.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

History Matters

Last year, nearly to the day, I wrote:

"There are many people in the world who do not believe the holocaust happened. There are many people who believe that the sun revolves around the earth. Really. And that dinosaurs roamed the earth as late as 6,000 years ago. And that slavery in America is just a myth.

This last belief confounded me. Well, they all confound me but the last one was a new one on me. Although I am amazed that there are some people out there (really out there) that ascribe to this notion and at their ignorance, sadly, I am not surprised.

This belief was observed by a member  of a Facebook genealogy group I belong to. He posted 'I work in Gettysburg doing tours at the Farnsworth House. I do afternoon historical tours of the house and I talk about the battle in that corner of the town. We have some historical documents framed and hanging on the walls. One is a bill of sale for a slave from Virginia. Last year I had two African American young ladies 17 and 18 from Uniontown PA (south of Pittsburgh) on my tour who upon seeing that told me that they did not believe that slavery ever existed. And that documents like that were just white peoples ploys to keep black folk down. I asked if they took history in high school and they replied that history doesn’t matter.'”

These young ladies chose not to believe a distasteful part of their history. Instead  they decided to use the ostrich method of dealing with it.

About a month ago, this screenshot was posted on the same Facebook genealogy group.

I can only assume that these were also young persons involved in this conversation. At least, I hope so. All I can do is shake my head.

It is said that those who do not know, learn, ignore (choose whichever word you prefer) history, are doomed to repeat it. Kurt Vonnegut says "“We're doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That's what it is to be alive." Looking around at current events, it looks like Vonnegut is right. However, I keep the faith that learning about our history will make us better.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

1,000 Words

I read a quote yesterday that boggled my mind. According to the now defunct 1000memories website, every two minutes we take as many photos today as all of humanity took during the entire 19th century. 

Photography became popular and accessible to many during the Civil War. Letters to soldiers usually included a request for a portrait which the soldiers usually complied. These photos were treasures, the next best things to having the real person back at home with their loved ones.  

And those photos are even more precious today because they are hard to find. I have been blessed to have some photographs from the late 19th and early 20th century but I want more.  

Yes, I love a good story. I have been fascinated by the written word from the moment my father walked me, a precocious seven year old, to the local library branch to get my first library card. Yet, I must concur that a picture is worth a 1,000 words. Stories of long-gone ancestors are wonderful but a photo is glorious. Looking into the eyes of a past ancestors and relatives, marking their stance and demeanor, observing the details of fashions from another era, takes one's perception of those individuals to a level not obtained by mere vital statistics. For me, old photos are time machines that captures the past where words may fail. 

So I hunt for old photographs, beg relatives who profess to hoard them, take as many photos as I can for future generations. And I share. Because not only do we take more photos now than ever, we have the technology to scan and post our treasures for all to see.

Columbus and Narcissa Alexanders, my paternal great grandparents

Fred and Posie Warren, my maternal grandparents
Solomon Koonce, born 1826, and family. He is my 3 x great-grandfather on my mother's side

Narcissa Wallace Alexander, my paternal great grandmother

Narcissa's mother, Cinderella Wallace

My maternal great grandmother Lizzie Brassfield Koonce and her sister Cora Brassfield.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Grains of Truth

In 2013 I confirmed an oral legend I had recently learned about my paternal great great grandfather. Up until 2009 my family had never heard about our ancestor John Alexander being in the civil war. I was skeptical even after I found a John Alexander on the roster of U.S. Colored Troops out of Mississippi. After all, John Alexander was a common name. I found dozens of them serving in the war. For that reason, I did not send for the pension papers. It was a lot of money to spend to find out it was the wrong man. I decided to go in person. I justified the expenditure as a trip for business and for fun.

It turned out that the pension papers were for my relatives and it gave me more details about John's life. However, it did not give me the name of his slave holder. That was left blank. I had to deduce who it might be from other evidence. I concluded that the slave holder had been a Huffman. This was also the man my aunt always thought was the slave holder.

Since 2013 I haven't done much more research on John Alexander but I think the ancestors have been nudging me this week. Yesterday I decided to look into John Huffman born in 1801 in Alexandria, Virginia and died in 1882 in Lincoln County, Mississippi.  In 1870, Huffman lived in the same neighborhood as John Alexander. This is one of the clues I have been told to look for when trying to find the slave holder. I looked at Huffman's family tree. Huffman was married to Mary Glass. Her parents were Frederick Mason Glass and Elizabeth Strother. When I saw this I got very excited. You see, according to another oral legend, John Alexander lived on a plantation in Virginia called Strouder. Some of my cousins have told me that "Strawder" was his nickname. Am I on the right trail?

I was still skeptical. Glass and Strother married and lived in Georgia. Georgia was never part of any oral history for Alexander. However,  I was able to find a family tree on for the Glass family. It gave me Mary's ancestry. Her grandfather was William Strouther, born in 1755 and died in 1833 in Virginia. He was living in Fauquier County when he died. Fauquier is adjacent to Rappahannock County, where John Alexander claimed he was born!

I definitely think I'm on the right trail now. It also makes me curious as to whether all the oral legends I have heard have a grain of truth. My to-do list has just gotten longer.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Definition of Frustration

frustration [fruh-strey-shuh n] noun

1. when you get a new DNA match on ancestry and the match has no tree.

2. when your new DNA match has a tree and it is private.

3. when your DNA match has only two persons in their family tree

4. when your match has over 500 names in their tree and you still don't recognize any surnames.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Tell the Story

Over ten years ago I published (self-published) my findings into a book for my family. I felt so proud of what I had done. Holding that book gave me such joy. It was a lot of hard work. Besides years of research,  I wrote, printed, bound, designed the cover--all on my own. But as anyone interested in genealogy knows, this work is never finished. It is always getting updated. So I have been laboring for the past year at putting out a new, updated yet incomplete book.

My goal is to finish by April this year. That is an arbitrary and necessary date. Otherwise, I would never stop writing and researching. Whatever I find after this book is published will have to go into another, updated yet incomplete book.

I have researched different print on demand companies but I haven't decided which one I will use. I may even try to self-publish again. I do like the control. Besides, my purpose for publishing my book is to relay and preserve history for my relatives. Money is not a goal or an issue. 

I firmly believe that every family historian should write the stories down. Oral traditions were great back in the day but we have advanced past then. It isn't important to be a great prize-winning author. It is more vital that what we have learned gets passed down to our descendants.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Brick Walls

I have been researching for nearly 20 years now. I have made great discoveries but I'm still stuck behind the proverbial brick wall. My brick wall is visual.

I know all my great grandparents' names. I even know most of my great-grandparents' names. And there it stops. Except for five names, I know little or nothing of my great great great grandparents. And therein lies my problem.

I was so excited when I got my DNA results back from I received all these wonderful matches. I even have two circles with shared ancestors. The problem was that those shared ancestors were already known to me. Yes, it did confirm that Charles Featherston was my great grandfather and that was nice. However, I was hoping for something more enlightening. And that won't come until I can figure out more about my great great great grandparents.

Unfortunately, the DNA results has also confirmed another assumption I had made. I am alone in my family when it comes to this pursuit. My closest relatives to have their DNA tested, except for my uncle, are distant 4th cousins. That means we share --you got it-- an unknown great great great grandparent.

So I will continue to scour the records as I try to chip away at that wall and I will continue to pray that more of my cousins, closer cousins, catch this genealogy bug. It could happen.

Once More With Feeling Again

I've been very bad at keeping up any blog lately. I am still researching every week. I still have the passion and the disappointments. It just seems that writing about it has become less of a priority.

At the beginning of every year I vow to write more and then the writing peters off. Sometimes it peters off because I'm doing rather than contemplating. I think this is a good thing. Sometimes I just don't write because I have nothing new to report.

So this year I will begin again. I will try again. The purpose for the blog has always been two-fold: to chronicle my research for myself and to help others who are interested in genealogy. Maybe if I keep those reasons uppermost in my mind, I won't slough off.

Here goes.