Finding Roots They
Didn’t Know They Had

by Barbara Free, M.A.

     Finding 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 angle.
     Besides tracing family trees using paper and digital documents, Finding Your Roots uses DNA testing, usually through’s 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 person’s 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 father’s 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 father’s 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 father’s side, when he’d 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 program’s efforts, he found his father’s 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 mother’s 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 didn’t 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 such rumors.
     When the DNA did not match and the match that kept coming up for his mother was to a woman they’d 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 mother’s name, and found that the daughter’s 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 everyone’s permission, LL Cool J’s 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 mother’s 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 half-sibling.
     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 one’s 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 ancestor’s 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 don’t wish to share with the general public. Yet family members are entitled to their information, no matter what it is. One’s 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 didn’t get to see it on PBS, look for it online.

Excerpted from the April 2016 edition of the Operation Identity Newsletter
© 2016 Operation Identity