Dr. Ira Berlin, a leading scholar of colonial America and slavery and Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, has written that “Heinegg’s work has been of inestimable value to genealogists eager to trace their family roots and to historians equally desirous of mapping the design of colonial society.”
Published to mostly positive reviews in major U.S. newspapers this past November, Bliss Broyard’s One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life
— A Story of Race and Family Secrets captures more than a decade of research and family meetings to recount the life of Broyard’s late father and literary critic, Anatole Broyard. In addition to examining her father’s decision to withhold from his children knowledge of their Black roots, the author documents nearly 300 years of family history. One Drop takes an intimate look at a Creole family whose mixed race identity has been embraced by some family members while others, like Anatole Broyard, have kept quiet about their ties to Black ancestors.
To those who have closely followed his entrepreneurial exploits in addition to his scholarly pursuits, the news that Dr. Henry Louis Gates, the director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute at Harvard University, is launching a company to help African- Americans learn about their ancestry through DNA tracing in combination with rigorous genealogical research may not come as a major surprise. Gates is well-known publicly as the narrator and producer of the “African-American Lives” series, the second installment of which aired this month on PBS. The series explores and highlights the ancestral roots of Black celebrities. The show has highlighted DNA tracing, a controversial scientific innovation that has grown popular among Americans seeking information about their ancestors.
“I see myself as doing a service for a field that’s deeply problematic because of the reluctance of some companies to reveal the complexity of the results,” Gates told The Associated Press in November.
Observers have noted that developments such as the Free African Americans Web site and the genetic ancestry tracing point to what can be called the “new genealogy.” Encouraged by the Internet’s unlimited capacity as an accessible publishing space, the new genealogy has seen the unprecedented growth of genealogical research generated by many thousands of Americans who research their family’s ancestry and publish their results online. In the mainstream media spotlight, talented authors such as Bliss Broyard and Thulani Davis have turned rigorous research and compelling family histories into provocative and informative books.
“Genealogy has clearly undergone an explosion of multifold increase and frequency. It seems that many people all over the place with all kinds of backgrounds are trying to trace their family roots and connections, and they’re making extensive use of sources on the Internet,” says Dr. J. Douglas Deal, the chair of the history department at the State University of New York at Oswego.
“There’s no question that in 2008 people of moderate means have available to them resources to trace their past only specialized researchers and persons of much more significant means were able to tap in the past. Part of that is the Internet and the government’s putting records — immigration and other records — online. Commercial ventures like Ancestry.com and its ilk have emerged. And people have a natural curiosity about who they are,” says Dr. Thomas J. Davis, a professor of history at Arizona State University.
It is not surprising that race has pushed genealogy to the center of national media attention. Stories — including the alleged sexual relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, the revelation of slavery ties between the family of Black activist Al Sharpton and that of the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, and the expulsion of Black Cherokee tribe descendants from official membership in the Cherokee Nation —have highlighted racial issues and conflict in contemporary American genealogy. In recent years, a number of authors have written popular books that have explored family histories revealing hidden ties between Black and White families.
“We have had numbers of books recently from persons who have researched their past to find out they weren’t who they thought they were. Thulani Davis’ book about her going back and finding out that her southern forebears were not just Black. They were alsoWhite and some of the Whites fought on the side of the Confederacy,” Davis says.
Mixed Heritage Comes Into View
In the 1980s, Heinegg took on the task of helping his African-American mother-in-law research her ancestry. What he discovered was that his African-American wife and motherin- law were descendants of free people of African descent from the 17th century. The discovery that free Blacks lived as citizens in predominantly White communities stirred Heinegg to research as much as he could about the presence of free people of color residingin the colonies.
“It astonished me that free Blacks were as much as 8 percent of the (free) population of Northampton County in Virginia in the 18th century. The court records revealed that these people were accepted and often helped out by their White neighbors,” Heinegg says.
Instead of learning that freedmen, who were largely of mixed race background, emerged from the unions of Black slave women and White men, the opposite proved true. As early as the mid-17th century, Black men, having won their freedom after a periodof indentured servitude, often married White women who also had spent time as indentured servants. Though Blacks brought to the colonies by the mid-1700s would eventually lose the ability to gain freedom from their servitude, the descendants of the interracial marriages grew in numbers large enough to form distinctive populations of free people of color.
“Heinegg’s studies of free Black families bear with particular force on the period when the South was a society with slaves. During those years, prior to the advent of the staple-producing plantation — tobacco in the Chesapeake and rice in the Carolinas — the line between freedom and slavery was extraordinarily permeable. Various peoples of European, African, and Native American descent crossed it freely and often,” Berlin wrote in the foreword of the Free African Americans Web site.
Heinegg says that while it’s difficult for Blacks to trace their ancestry prior to the early 1800s, people still contact him frequently to express appreciation for the work he’s done. He reports that some of the individuals who contacted him were White Americans who acknowledge ancestors of African descent in their family tree. For some Whites, a connection to someone listed in Free African Americans data often helps answer critical questions about family origins during the colonial era, according to Heinegg.
After two decades spent compiling the Free African Americans research, Heinegg plans to update the family histories into the early 1800s, a period he believes will yield many more connections between the then free peoples of African descent and presentdayAfrican-Americans.
ASU’s Davis says Heinegg’s project underscores the potential that genealogists and genealogy societies have for both individuals researching their ancestors and for historians.
“And so you have organizations like the New York Genealogical (and Biographical) Society that’s developing a database that you can tap into. Having lived in New York and spent too much of my time down at 42nd street at the Central Library, I know you can go down there and see people working away. But their results are oftenjust for them. They may share the results with some family members, but they’re probably not going to publish them. So, it doesn’t become available to a wider audience,” Davis says.
“I think that the degree to which there develops a database so that the so-called amateur genealogist can plug in their results to a publicly viewable database will make a big difference,” he adds.
DNA Genealogy Charting Its Own Path
One of the more fascinating developments with the new genealogy is the extent to which DNA testing is revealing the multi-racial ancestry of Americans. While there’s some controversy about the claims of DNA testing firms as to how accurately they can match individuals to ancestors from specific communities and ethnicgroups, there’s a consensus that proper testing can roughly specify a person’s relative mix of his or her ancestors’ geographic origins. In other words, the tests can show the extent to which people are descended from European, African, Asian and American Indian populations, which are groupings that roughly correspond to the racial categories to which Americans are accustomed.
“Due to the availability of genetic techniques that allow you to estimate the percentage of what’s called admixture, you can determine some things about who your ancestors were likely to have been. But not as much as people think,” cautions Dr. Joseph L. Graves, the dean of university studies and a professor of biological sciences at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro.
“If you look at enough of the ancestry informative markers, you can assign a probability that a certain percentage of a person’sancestry is derived from Africa, from Europe, from American Indians, and you can get a percentage mix,” he adds.
Given that a number of companies have sprung up to give special focus to African-Americans, scientists like Graves have criticized the ones for whom the science does not support the promises they have been making to consumers. DNA testing “does not do a good job of saying you are descended from a particular group of people. That’s much harder to claim,” according to Graves.
“Once (Africans) arrived in the Americas, their own ethnic identities were broken down by slavery. So people who might never have come in contact with each other in western or central Africa were forced to reproduce together during slavery in the Americas. So, most African-Americans contain a mixture of genetic material that came from ethnic groups in western and central Africa,” Graves says.
And “the reason (DNA testing) can’t do that is because we don’t know what the gene frequencies were in west and central Africa 300 years ago,” he explains.
ASU’s Davis says that it’s understandable that Blacks would be interested in knowing the specific ethnic and tribal origins of their ancestors through science. Blacks “have an extra interest in DNA testing as a genealogical tool because of the suppression of genealogical linkages that slavery imposed on Blacks,” he notes.
In the immediate future, Davis says that he believes that the availability and use of DNA testing is not going to have much of an effect on racial attitudes. Even with innovation, “people tend to slide the new technology and its findings into the world view they have. Now what happens over time is that powerful technologies change world views, but that’s not an immediate response,” according to Davis.
“I would certainly suggest we’re nowhere near there in regard to DNA,” he contends.
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