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Regaining a Lost Heritage

Regaining a Lost Heritage

Can a simple procedure unlock African-Americans’ genetic history? Or is DNA tracing just an expensive waste of time?

By Toni Coleman

This year’s Black History Month program at my friend’s Washington, D.C. church won’t just feature kids reading about famous firsts and courageous equality fighters. Added to the mix is a lecture to the congregation on using DNA testing to determine their African lineage.

Increasingly, Blacks are turning to science and not assumptions to put “Africa” back in “African-American.” The eagerness to reconnect is understandable. People robbed of their history innately want to know where they come from. Veteran genealogists say the PBS special, “African American Lives,” in which Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. revealed the family histories and African lineages of such celebrities as Oprah Winfrey and comedian Chris Tucker, certainly created a spike in interest in genealogy and DNA testing.

I was all too excited when my editor asked me to do a first-person story on this growing phenomenon. Genealogical research has become more accessible because of Web sites like, which has made detailed pre-1930s U.S. Census Bureau records and vital documents available online. Another worthwhile site is, which plans to put the Freedmen’s Bureau bank records online. Still, we can only go back so far with traditional research, and so much was lost in the Middle Passage.

Out of this desire to know exactly where we come from, African Ancestry Inc. was born, says company president Gina Paige, a former product specialist for a number of Fortune 500 companies. For $299, the company analyses a person’s DNA and compares it with the DNA samples of present-day Africans to identify an ancestral link. Co-founder and scientific director Dr. Rick Kittles, an associate professor of medicine and a geneticist at the University of Chicago, had used DNA analysis to determine his own lineage, but when word spread about his research, he was inundated with requests from Blacks wanting to know what stories their own DNA held.

“Really, the community created the company by demanding the service,” says Paige. “I’ve commercialized his research to make it available to the world.”
Business has steadily grown over the past four years, but it spikes during Black History Month, when people like me come calling.

African Ancestry has tested more than 7,000 people so far. By a conservative estimate, that means approximately 35,000 people (if you include their relatives) now know with which African populations they share ancestry. Among its clients have been parents who want to help their children participate in ancestry days at school, and people who hope to adopt an African child from a country to which they’ve traced their DNA.

Not In This Lifetime
Using cotton swabs, I scraped the insides of my cheeks to obtain the mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, that passes unchanged from mother to child. I then waited for African Ancestry, which is based in Silver Spring, Md., to map the genetic sequence of my mtDNA into a unique signature called a haplotype. That signature is then compared with genetic signatures of Africans from various ethnic groups. The company traces maternal lineage through the mtDNA of women and traces paternal lineage through the Y chromosome of men.

As I waited on my results, I did more research into the business of DNA analysis to trace ancestry. A Google search revealed so many companies peddling ancestry info for a price, I stopped counting at 15. One company was offering a group special: 15 percent off the price of each kit if you order three. “You can even match yourself and other family members to famous people, like Genghis Khan and Marie Antoinette,” promises another DNA-testing company’s Web site.

I already had a fair dose of skepticism when I talked to geneticist
Dr. Bruce A. Jackson, who oversees the African-American DNA Roots Project at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. The project is collecting DNA samples from Blacks for possible matches with West African tribes.
Anthropologists, historians and linguists are also involved in the project, to put the matches in context.

Still, this is how I and probably other African-Americans envisioned this working: A scientist uses my DNA to pinpoint where in Africa my ancestors were ripped and delivered into the horrors of slavery.

“From what African country do you think I hail, and which tribe?”

I excitedly ask my African friends. One friend, who’s Ogoni, says if
I were back in his native Nigeria, I could pass for Yoruba based on my physical features.

“The problem is, it’s not possible to do that [match African-Americans to specific regions and tribes in Africa]. The one company that is saying you can do that is bilking people,” Jackson says.

There’s more genetic diversity in Africa than among any other continent because human beings lived in Africa for thousands of years before they migrated.

“We’re only beginning to understand the genetics of Africa,” Jackson says. “Of all the ethnic groups of Africa that were objects of the slave trade, less than 1 percent have been analyzed. We don’t know what their signatures are.” The ancestry match, he points out, is only as good as the reference samples.

Jackson, who also chairs the science department at Massachusetts Bay Community College, uses his own genetic tests as an example to explain the significance of a large reference database. He knew, from family lore, that the matriarch of his mother’s side was a White woman, so he wasn’t surprised when a test of the mitochondrial DNA from his family showed Irish ancestry. He hypothesized that this matriarch was an indentured servant who worked alongside African slaves. But as the database of DNA signatures grew, he re-ran his test, and this time his sequence showed Russian ancestry.

“Genetics is not the head, it’s the tail. We follow leads,” Jackson says. “One of my African-American post-docs will make the matches in the future, but I will not be here. It’s that daunting of a job. African-Americans are so passionate about regaining this lost heritage, we want to make absolutely sure than when my post-docs make matches down the road, they are correct.”

The migration of Africans makes it difficult to match African-Americans to exact ethnic groups, which is why the African-American DNA Roots Project won’t guarantee a geographic match to specific African regions. Neither does the National Geographic Genographic Project, which is conducting DNA analysis to study the migration paths of peoples’ ancestors.

Proprietary Issues
Kittles and Jackson do not have kind words for each other, but they agree on one thing: The quality of the matches depends on the quality of the reference database. Kittles says he’s confident in the matches he makes because his database is the largest, most comprehensive database of African samples out there.

“I would have the same conclusions if I had their database. Their database is one-fifth of what we have,” he says of Jackson’s program.

Over the past 15 years, Kittles has traveled to Africa and worked with anthropologists to collect samples from close to 500 different ethnic groups, spanning more than 30 countries. Nearly 12,000 Africans contributed to the database to determine paternal lineages and more than 13,000 contributed to the maternal lineage database.

“There might be some isolated groups we just couldn’t get,” he says, “but the probability of that is pretty low.” He adds that the real problem other scientists have with African Ancestry is that Kittles won’t share his proprietary database. They question the validity of his results because they can’t do it, he charges.

Kittles says African Ancestry is upfront with clients about the limitations. In the PBS documentary, for instance, astronaut Mae Jemison had a common maternal lineage that was quite old. There was no way for Kittles to say where it originated because it was common along a large swath of Africa, from Senegal to Gabon. He says it’s like someone in the United States having the last name Smith or Brown — there are so many, you can’t be sure which ones you’re related to.

But when he does make a match, Kittles says he’s sure it’s for real. “I’m not some mad scientist. I feel comfortable knowing what we’re doing is based on numbers and good science.”

“The Other Madisons”

All of the geneticists and researchers I talked to say DNA testing should be done in concert with traditional genealogy research.

Dr. Bert Ely, a biology professor at the University of South Carolina and a principal investigator on Jackson’s project, says DNA testing is not a good way to find out who you are because the results will give you only one of the many ancestors who’ve contributed to your genome. It’s most informative when you’re trying to make a relational match, as in the case of Bettye Kearse.

The question Kearse wants answered has historic implications:

Is she a descendant of the fourth U.S. president, James Madison? Kearse, a practicing pediatrician who has a doctorate in biology, has traced her pedigree back to a slave named Mandy who bore a daughter, Coreen, with James Madison Sr. Coreen, also a slave, bore a son, Jim, with her half-brother, James Madison Jr. Since James and Dolley Madison never had children, Kearse could prove that Madison’s only descendents are Black.

Kearse, of Dover, Mass., says the foundation of her claim is based on oral history. When Jim was sold, Coreen reportedly told him “always remember you’re a Madison.” In case they were ever freed, she said they could find each other by searching for Black Madisons. It was more a matter of practicality than of trying to lay claim
to a legacy.

That saying, however, proved significant to future generations of Black Madisons.

“They used the saying to inspire and encourage them,” Kearse says. “You have the blood of a president running through your veins, so you should accomplish much and take advantage of the opportunity afforded to you. The saying now is ‘always remember you’re a Madison. You descend from a president and from slaves.’”

Once freed, Kearse’s great-grandfather Mack Madison worked as a sharecropper, eventually saving enough to buy his land. He sent his son to college and his granddaughter, Kearse’s mother, grew up to become a teacher.

Since James Madison had no children, Kearse hired genealogists in both the United States and England to find any of his male relatives, who would share the unchanged Y-chromosomal DNA of Madison’s father or brothers.

“It would be nice to support the stories with DNA, but in another way it’s not important. The legacy has really served my family well,” says Kearse, who is writing a book called The Other Madisons.

“It really has been inspirational; my family has done well. That can’t be taken away no matter what the DNA shows. We have this legacy of pride that goes beyond descending from a president.”

My Results
I don’t have a specific person I’m trying to match. My amateur attempt at genealogy has taken me back only four generations, to 1892, when my great-great-grandmother, Hannah Jones, married Ed Moore in Hinds County, Miss. For 40 years, these sharecroppers, who could not read or write, tilled someone else’s land and raised five children before Hannah passed.

Over the past six weeks, I’ve been shocked to hear that my maternal grandmother’s great-grandfather, Big Poppa as she called him, was the biracial son of a White slave owner and a slave. The slave owner took care of his son, giving him land and livestock when he married. And family history has it that a church is named after the son because he donated the church’s land.

I’ve discovered enough secrets for my grandmother to exclaim: “Toni, you little devil. You digging up all kinds of dirt. You done stirred up an old hen’s nest.”

Kittles says my DNA results indicate I’m in the M1 haplogroup, which dates back 60,000 years and is common in East Africa and the Middle East. The West African group that shares this lineage is the Bamileke of Cameroon. Kittles says my sequence also matched three members of the Turkana in Kenya.

Despite the debate over whether it’s really possible to tell African-Americans where they come from, I’m still excited and find my results, at the very least, interesting. The Middle East? I can’t help but to want to know more about the Bamileke and the migration patterns and trade practices that brought the M1 haplotype to Western Africa.

I don’t know if I hail from the Bamileke or the Turkana. One thing I do know, based on the family history I’ve recently learned, is that I haven’t spent nearly enough time talking to my grandmother about other secrets she has locked up and about clarifying and sharing the history my eldest relatives do know.

— Toni Coleman is the associate editor of Diverse.

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