Who Do You Think You Are?: Searching For My Ancestors

I recently posted about my experiences at the Melrose Plantation from back in June, and then last week I visited the Whitney Plantation, which is the only one I really wanted to visit, and which I’ll write more about later. I’m living in a state full of former plantations in a region of the country known for the most brutal conditions for enslaved people. The worst thing you could be told as an enslaved person was that you were going to be sold down the river–down the Mississippi–and sent to the New Orleans slave market.

As a note for those of you who’ve visited New Orleans, I recently learned on the Hidden History walking tour, that there were more slave auction blocks than there were blocks in the French Quarter. AND, when enslaved people were brought down the river, they were kept in holding pens in Algiers (on the West Bank, where I currently live), until which time they could be ferried back across the river to the quarter and put on the block. There were also smaller holding cells in the quarter–one of which held Solomon Northup, the free black man the movie 12 Years a Slave was based on (which was based on a book).

Now the French Quarter is known as the tourist destination spot to drink and act a fool. Imagine if we were honest with our history and put a memorial marker everywhere that we trafficked black bodies, basically every street corner; maybe folks would have a bit more reverence than drinking Huge Ass Beers and Handgrenades on ground that forcibly separated families and treated humans as chattel.

All of these historical tours over the last year have really given me pause and have provided more context around the digging my sister and I have been doing within our own family tree to get names and places both within the US and further back to the African continent.

My sister really got this process started, using Ancestry.com to search through historical records to amass a family tree and answer long-standing questions about connections and heritage. I took it a different route, when one year for Christmas, I gave my parents and grandmother DNA tests. I used three different companies to see what kind of results each would give, including 23 and Me, African Ancestry, and Ancestry.com. My parents’ came back, but we really had some difficulty doing this process with my grandmother; even though she spit in the tube, apparently with older people it’s harder to get usable DNA. I eventually a DNA test from a different company that used a buccal swab rather than a spit tube.

After getting some interesting results, my sister and I thought everyone should do the Ancestry.com test so we could link it to the tree; also their website has more specificity for African descended people than 23 and Me. So we went around collecting spit samples from parents, Aunts & Uncles, and siblings, and awaited results.

I’ll share my results, but first I have to say this whole process has been enlightening. Firstly, because it required our getting better educated on genetics and how we inherit traits. We all grew up being told that we inherit 50% of our DNA from each parent, which is true. But what I don’t think most of considered is that the combination of DNA we get from each parent to make up the 50% and 50% can vary wildly from sibling to sibling. I mean I considered in the sense that you don’t look like identical to your siblings, different skin tone, hair texture, facial features, etc.. But as far as genetic markers that would attach you to an ethnic group or a region of country, they’re variably heritable much the same way that eye color such that our breakdown of ancestry varied.

What???

As an example, I had no genetic markers that matched Nigerian ethnic groups, 0% Nigerian, but my sister (who’s a half-sibling) did. Well that could make sense because we’re half-siblings, her Dad could be of Nigerian descent (he was) and that would explain the difference. But even for my sibling who’s got the same parents as me, we still had differences.

I know there are a lot of people who think this whole thing is pseudo-science or an elaborate ploy to get access to people’ DNA to use against them (which is more plausible to me than the science behind it being garbage). One thing to keep in mind, though, is that for people of color there’s obviously going to be less accuracy, because their reference genetic database is going to be smaller for lack of participation. This is going to be especially true for Indigenous people who probably participate less and have fewer members to sample from. Anyway, I take all of this with a grain of salt, and more so just find it interesting.

My Breakdown (with confidence intervals, because us public health folk love to know how wide our confidence intervals are):

  • 37% Ivory Coast/Ghana
    CI(24% – 49%)
  • 24% Cameroon/Congo
    CI (10% – 36%)
  • 13% Scandinavia
    CI (1% – 21%): Sweden, Norway, Denmark
  • 9% Senegal
    CI (2% – 15%): Senegal & Gambia

There were also some low confidence regions (where the CI crosses 0):

  • 6%  Ireland/Scotland/Wales
  • 3% Iberian Peninsula (Spain/Portugal)
  • 2% Africa South-Central Hunter Gatherer (A huge region from Congo to South Africa)
  • 1% Great Britain
  • 1% Benin/Togo
  • 1% Native American
  • <1 % Western European
  • <1% Africa Southeastern Bantu (Another huge region that overlaps with South Central)
  • <1% East Asian (WHAT?)

It also gives you migration patterns based on that ethnic background and slave trade routes and places my ancestral connections in the US in the Carolinas, both North and South, overlapping with portions of southern Virginia, Central and Souther Georgia, eastern Alabama, and north Florida. This isn’t all that revealing, since probably most enslaved people were brought here, and most members of both sides of my family lived in these regions. But it’s all information.

Leaving that aside, what’s been absolutely WILD is the sheer number of white people I’m related to who’ve also taken the DNA test and put up their family trees. So many white folks, with trees that have 15,000+ members on it. Imagine being able to trace your family tree back so many generations that there are that many people on it. Most of these white folks are 4th-6th cousins, so I have no idea who the specific connection is and haven’t made the time to mine through their massive family trees. But this is where our history as a country gets so damn messy, because the reality, most likely the connection is via some white male who raped enslaved women, and produced children who then became enslaved as well, and who were sold off to other owners, potentially at one of the slave markets here in this very city I call home.

It’s going to be a long, arduous journey to find out more about myself and about my ancestors. We may never get all the answers we want because records are so spotty and most of them aren’t digitized. You have to go to specific museums and libraries to view some slave rolls that may or may not have names, since many logged enslaved people like things, as counts. But every so often we get a new “leaf” on ancestry, with a new record or document, or someone else take a DNA test provides a new connection to another set of family members. A few people have contacted us over the last few years, who were adopted but never knew their biological parents, who who be related to us. It’s all fascinating.

We don’t know the plantations families would’ve been on for either side, at least not well. I hope to be able to take more concerted time to delve into these records and to do more intensive searching, especially on my Dad’s side of the family where his maternal grandfather just disappears from census records prior to the 1930s. We don’t know anything about him, so we can’t go any further back.

My grandfathers old house.

My mother’s paternal lineage are the Shorters, and we know her father was born in Eufaula, Alabama, and grew up in a house that’s still in the family in Cuthbert, Georgia, right across the river, where there are apparently a ton of other Black Shorters (who we aren’t necessarily related to). The Shorter Mansion, which attracts visitors from all over the country, is also in Eufaula. We’re all pretty much under the assumption that someone in that family was the plantation owner that produced all of these nearby Black Shorters. As a note, the Shorter Mansion is NOT a plantation–it was built post-slavery–but for the white Shorter family to have so much accumulated wealth and political clout…you can best believe it was slavery.

On my mother’s side we can name one ancestor who would’ve been enslaved. On her maternal line we know my great-great grandmother, Emmaline Avery. Her son, who she named George B. McClellan, is mixed race, and has been the focus of a family mystery for years. Why would an enslaved woman name her son after the Union general, George B. McClellan, a son who has an unknown white father? Who’s the daddy?

In our attempts to figure out who he is, we decided to get a y-DNA test (from a different company) for one of the male descendants of George B. McClellan’s first marriage. A y-DNA test only works if you have successive men from generation to generation, so we couldn’t do it from our side (McClellan’s second marriage progeny, because he had all daughters). We thought we could make the y-DNA connection to figure out who the white male is. The catch is, you have to wait for other people to use the service who might match and you have to match on more markers to have a more recent common ancestor. We did the y-67 test which means an exact match would mean a common ancestor hundreds of years ago, versus y-12, which could mean a common ancestor of hundreds or thousands of years ago. We have three y-67 matches, and they’re not exact matches, which puts their distance further in the past, but all three of them are SWEDISH! With long family trees of Swedes.

My 13% Scandinavian isn’t sounding so crazy anymore.

Anyway, as I’ve been standing on these plantations, I think about Emmaline, probably because she’s the only name I have. I visited two plantations in the dead heat of summer, and I could barely stand being outside standing still, let alone having to work in someone’s fields. I wonder how she would’ve lived, what her days must have been like, what she must have thought about. I wonder if the white father was someone who owned her, maybe a relative or a friend of her owner.

I wonder if the relationships was consensual, not because I think its possible for any enslaved/owner relationship could be consensual because of the clear power differential, but because she would’ve conceived in early 1863, post-passage of the Emancipation Proclamation in North Carolina. It’s possible (although unlikely) that the white man could’ve been someone from the union side. That doesn’t mean it still wasn’t an assault, but the chance goes from 100% rape to possibly not rape. She knew the name George B. McClellan to give it to her son, so she had to have some interaction with someone with information.

Did the Emancipation Proclamation actually change anything for her, specifically (we know it didn’t really change much for enslaved people in general)? How did she feel when she found out she was pregnant? What were the conditions of her pregnancy, of giving birth?  How did she feel about having a biracial son (my great grandfather) who could pass for white…who’s father essentially had no relationship with him?

If she were alive today, what would she think of our society? Of people getting married at the very places that unapologetically inflicted unspeakable horrors on generations of Black bodies. Of the streets and schools named after, and monuments erected in honor of, the very men who killed to keep her and her descendants perpetually enslaved. Of the people who vociferously defend these monuments and honors, that were only erected and so-named in order to symbolically resist integration efforts in the early 20th century, because of their “heritage.” A heritage that represents mass genocide and systemic torture. What would she think if she knew her great- great- granddaughter was still fighting with the ghosts of her 1863-present?

I wonder also, if these old live oak trees could talk, what stories they’d have. Those gnarled and sprawling trees, some over 100 years old, would be the only living witnesses to the crimes committed against Black people throughout slavery and all through reconstruction and Jim Crow. Some of those trees were even unwilling participants, as their limbs were used to support the nooses that hanged Black bodies.

I think it’s difficult, maybe impossible even, for white folks to understand what it means to Black in America. Not only do you belong to a group of people who are STILL stigmatized because of skin color, who have to move through society with the knowledge that you will deal with interpersonal racism and be subject to systemic racism, on a daily basis, in a way that meaningfully impacts your life. But that you have to carry that load and exist in spaces that with constant visual reminders of the degradation of your ancestors and the rationale for your current dehumanization, and are expected to act like it’s okay.

Would you get married at Auschwitz? Drink Hurricanes at POW camps? Expect to see Nazi flags worn as swimming trunks or belt buckles by the people who run our cities and teach our children? Defend the erection of Adolf Hitler’s likeness to stand 30 feet in the air in the middle of the city center? Send your kids to Joseph Stalin Elementary School? Live on Bin Laden Blvd or Sadaam Hussein Square?

All of these people are part of someone’s “heritage;” some of them did great public works projects for the respective countries. Is that enough to overcome the atrocities they orchestrated?

Living in this country, with this legacy, is truly a mindfuck. We’re told to remember the Holocaust but get over Slavery. We can’t get out of our cyclical racial violence because we can’t have an honest discussion about all the ways in which human trafficking and domestic terrorism is integral to the foundation structure of this society and the continued prosperity of certain individuals. The American Dream exists for a few because the American Horror Story existed for the masses. We’ve bought into this rags-to-riches/self-made-millionaire narrative because it gives us hope, and it’s easier to focus on than the monumental task of deconstructing and rebuilding the machinery of our society.

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