Finding Roots They
Didnt Know They Had
by Barbara Free, M.A.
Your Roots is an ongoing PBS series, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in which
he and a team of genealogy experts research the family trees of various well-known
people. The program has been on for several seasons, usually with six to eight
episodes each season, each episode featuring two or three individuals. In the most
recent episode, on February 16 (and the following week on other local PBS channels),
the program featured two hip-hop music personalities: Sean Combs and LL Cool J.
Being much too old to follow that music, I barely knew who these two young men were,
but their stories were quite fascinating, and there was an unexpected adoption
Besides tracing family trees using paper and digital
documents, Finding Your Roots uses DNA testing, usually through
Ancestry.coms DNA testing service, Ancestry DNA, although in some cases, they
also use Family Tree DNA and 23 and Me, in order to have access to all three databases.
Each of these testing services uses slightly different methods to match a given
persons DNA with either known or assumed genetic relatives, or to find genetic
relatives through similar DNA sequences. The other major testing service, DNA
Consultants, uses a different system, based on forensics (such as used in court cases),
which traces ethnicity and migration routes, but is not designed to necessarily match
people up with relatives.
For Sean Combs, the questions were about finding out more
information about his family. His father died when Sean was two years old. He had been
told his father died in a car wreck, a story frequently told to adoptees in the past
about their biological parents. Sean believed this story until he was in college and
found an old newspaper article concerning his fathers death and learned that his
father had been a drug dealer and died as a result of that.
He contacted Henry Louis Gates to see if he could find
out more about his family tree, especially on his fathers side. He was amazed
to learn of his ancestors, some enslaved, some free persons of color, some white. He
learned that his father had been in the military, the Marines, and had served in Korea.
He learned that his third great-grandfather, a free person of color, was arrested as a
runaway slave. That sort of possibility was the reason some families, in fact, were
reluctant to legally free their slaves, because that might happen to them after they
were freed. He also found that this man had fought in the Civil War, on the Union Side,
in the battle at Petersburg, Virginia. He said to have found all these ancestors,
including many generations on his fathers side, when hed never had any of
that history, was very healing, and made him feel like a real person. Many adoptees
express these same thoughts and feelings when they find birth family.
The other guest on that episode, LL Cool J, was raised by
his mother and her parents after his father left when he was four years old, following
a domestic dispute. When he was five, his father came around and shot both the mother
and the grandfather (both survived). He said his mother and his grandparents were
always good and kind and loving, giving him a good childhood. Yet, he did want to know
more about his father. Through the programs efforts, he found his fathers
parents, and traced back several generations to North Carolina, and was able to identify
a third great-grandfather born into slavery, who was 35 when slavery ended.
On his mothers side, there were some questions, as
well. His maternal grandfather was a jazz musician and music was part of his life from
early on. He said he had always noticed that he and his mother didnt look anything
like his grandparents and always wondered why. When the program did some DNA testing,
nothing matched. They found that his mother was adopted and that she had never known it,
although they both said they had heard rumors from time to time about her parents not
being her real parents, or her mother not being her real mother, which she just dismissed
When the DNA did not match and the match that kept coming
up for his mother was to a woman theyd never heard of, they checked further and
found an amended birth certificate for her in New York. They were able to trace her
birth registration in New York City through a number on the amended certificate and found
that there were birth registration records separate from birth certificate records. How
they gained access to these records in New York, which is a very difficult state in which
to search, legally, they did not say, but a lot of adoptees and birth parents with closed
records in New York would like to know.
By finding this birth registration record, they found her
birth mothers name, and found that the daughters given name on that record
was only one letter different from the one on the amended birth certificate, and an
unusual name at that. They were able to confirm these records with genetic testing,
finding that woman who was a match, who turned out to be a cousin.
With everyones permission, LL Cool Js mother
was able to find and meet her birth mother, who is still living. Her adoptive parents
are deceased. She said she had no idea why she was never told she was adopted, and did
not resent them for it, as they were wonderful parents, who must have had good reasons.
It is all the more unusual, because legal closed adoptions have not been common among
African Americans for several reasons. For one, when there is a history of children and
parents being separated by slavery, parents or children being sold away from each other,
families will do about anything to stay together, and a child would rarely be legally
relinquished, especially voluntarily. Another reason is that, in the past, adoption
agencies often either did not work with African Americans at all, or they had rules
about the adoptive parents incomes that eliminated most black families.
By using tests from all three companies which match gene
sequences, they had matched his mother with a woman named Joan Lewis, and she had some
of her family tested, and there were matches. They were able to meet this woman and a
cousin, then the birth mother, and there was a family gathering. After finding his
mothers birth family, they were able to trace her family to a grandfather born in
Arizona, with parents who were free in Ohio, and fourth great-grandparents who were also
free. They were also able to figure out who her birth father was, by finding a
There is sometimes an assumption that African Americans
will not be able to find family more than a couple of generations back, and certainly
not before the Civil War, and it is more difficult in many cases, but there are records
in a lot of cases, including property records, wills, and tax records. Sometimes it is
very painful to find ones ancestor listed in a will as property rather than as an
heir, and not to have any census listing by name until after the Civil War, but by
comparing different records, a lot can be learned.
In my own case, an ancestors will lists a woman and
her children by name as slaves, but states they are to be freed, the children educated,
and the woman given land and income. This woman is obviously his life partner, the
children his, their given names family names from my family. Yet the State of Tennessee
would not honor the will, even though it was properly written and witnessed. This was in
1840. I often think of that woman and her children and wonder what happened to them,
whether their descendants have his last name of Bell (very common in the South, both in
white and black families), and how one could find out more.
Everyone deserves to learn their family history, whether
it is positive or not. All families have secrets, things they may not be proud of, or
dont wish to share with the general public. Yet family members are entitled to
their information, no matter what it is. Ones history is not their destiny, but
it is part of what has made them who they are. The two persons highlighted on that
episode of Finding Your Roots certainly exemplifies this. If you didnt
get to see it on PBS, look for it online.
Excerpted from the
April 2016 edition of the Operation Identity Newsletter
© 2016 Operation Identity