A Fort Worth African-American family dives into the mysteries of its ancestry, tracing legends of a white ancestor. The story they piece together brings answers, but even more questions.
By MARY ROGERS
STAR-TELEGRAM STAFF WRITER
"You don't choose your family. They are God's gift to you, as you are to them."
-- Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu in God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time
It has always been the messy stories that interest me most. I'm drawn to those subjects that don't fit easily into any box, the ones that, even when all the reporting is done, leave unanswered questions.
Something in that silence speaks to mankind's deepest longings and most ferocious fears. It is a reality that the heart recognizes and from which it sometimes turns away.
It is the history that we've all carried on our backs through the millennia, a story embedded in the tangle of our DNA -- the ancient whisper of the blood.
It is the untidy business of race in America.The starting place
And so it is that on a Saturday morning in early 2004, I found myself in a spacious townhouse surrounded by a collection of African art and the smells of cinnamon and brewing coffee. Family portraits lined the walls and a cornucopia of breakfast rolls was artfully spread on the kitchen bar.
I had come to learn the story of just one American family -- a family with both black and white forebears, but a family that in every way defines itself as African-American.
Former state District Judge Maryellen Hicks is known as a fiery champion of civil rights, an adamant supporter of the NAACP and a woman enormously proud of her African heritage. But like thousands of Americans who identify themselves completely by their African lineage, she has at the very least one white forebear.
What, I wondered, did this family say about that white ancestor? What did they know for sure?
Maryellen and her family were hesitant to hold their private history up to the public spotlight, but in the end they agreed.
I had no idea then that this hunt would lead me through decades of America's history and acquaint me with the wonders and the frustrations of DNA testing. I understood only dimly that the family's most cherished stories might take unexpected, even unwelcome, turns.
And so Star-Telegram news researcher Marcia Melton and I started as all genealogists do, with the family stories.The family album
"His name was Henry Durham," Maryellen said. "He was my grandfather's father, and he was white ... but Mary was African," She leaned across the breakfast table and smoothed a golden finger across a framed photograph of her great-grandmother, a dark woman wearing a high-collared dress with a brooch at her throat. There is no photograph of Henry.
Maryellen took a deep breath. "This was a love story," she said, and so began the tale of one family's history and my search for just one man.
Henry had come from Ireland by way of Ellis Island, Maryellen said. One day, while riding through the countryside, perhaps in Indian Territory, he spied Mary and that one glance seared his heart and sealed his fate. He fell hopelessly in love with her.
They married and had many children.
Henry dreamed of owning his own farm, but when at last he was able to buy a place of his own, the family was harassed and tormented by angry neighbors who would not tolerate a white man living with a black woman and raising a family.
At last the threats became so violent that one dark night, Henry and Mary loaded their family into a wagon and left the farm and most of what they owned behind.
Maryellen and her sisters did not know Henry or Mary Durham, but they do remember some of their children, particularly their own grandfather, Bruce Durham, and one of his brothers, William J. Durham, an attorney and civil rights defender who was close friends with Thurgood Marshall and later argued cases before the Supreme Court.
Bruce moved from Greenville to West Texas and opened a taxi cab company, a barbershop and a beauty salon in Odessa.
"He would always have someone drive him," remembered Maryellen's sister, Francis Parks, director of Students Offering Services at Syracuse University in New York. "He would get into the passenger side, and, at his invitation, we would often get into the back seat, and we'd be delighted. I don't remember ever seeing him write a check, but he would go into his pocket and pull out a wad of bills."
Maryellen and Francis have rich memories of their grandfather, and they are proud of the man he was, the businessman who wore dress shirts, never short sleeves, had his size-7 boots custom-made, bought his cars in Dallas, planted trees in front of his corner business and sent their mother to a university in the East.
"Here was a man who came out of the soil, and he encouraged his daughters and his granddaughters to go to university .... He dreamed with them. He dreamed for them. He was most insistent that they stretch," Francis said.
"Grandfather Bruce was a feminist. I always see him as the first feminist I ever met. He wanted his daughters and granddaughters to examine and challenge and explore. He could have marched with the suffragettes," she said.
Even if his philosophy had not set him apart, certainly his light complexion and European features would have. He was a man so fair-skinned that he could have easily passed for white, said his daughter Billie Jo Walton of Sherman. She remembered that at the train station, the conductor would often show him to the white section.
His granddaughter, Francis, remembered that fact, too. "He would say 'No, thank you,' and go into the coach where the colored folks sat. Our grandfather could have been a remarkable trickster. He could have passed, if he had chosen to. None of us can ... but my grandfather could have without anyone turning a head," said Francis "I imagined that he looked much like his father, my great-grandfather, but I don't know that."
It was easy to gather stories about Bruce, who died in 1961. But was he really the son of a white man who loved a black woman in a day when such love was forbidden by law?
We set to work.The search begins
It didn't take long to discover that Bruce's father, Henry Durham, did not come from Ireland by way of Ellis Island, which opened in 1892.
According to the 1880 U.S. Census, Henry was living in Wood County, Texas, with Mary and their first two children, Ella, 6 and Zach, 3, at least a dozen years before Ellis Island opened.
The census also lists Henry's place of birth as Texas and Mary's as Missouri. His occupation was listed as barber.
But there is one other interesting notation: Under the box for race, Henry is listed as a mulatto, a man of mixed race.
That detail raises many questions.
How was the census information taken? Did the census-taker simply assume that a light-skinned man living with a black woman had to be of mixed lineage, or did Henry declare that he was mulatto?
If Henry himself testified that he was mulatto, the question becomes more complicated, because the family believes that Henry was a white man. But in 1880 Texas, it was unlawful for whites and blacks to marry, or to live together and raise a family.
It would be another 87 years before the Supreme Court called any ban on interracial marriage unconstitutional.
Clearly, Henry's relationship with Mary was loving and longstanding. They had 11 children; 10 survived, and he was there to help raise them all.
Would he have claimed to be what he was not for love's sake?
We turned to DNA testing for the answer.The story of the DNA
Several labs specialize in testing for African lineage. Howard University has thousands of samples concentrating on areas of West and Central Africa, where most blacks brought to the U.S. as slaves had their beginnings.
The DNA taken from an African-American woman will likely point to family origins in places such as Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Senegal and Angola.
But we were interested in the European side of this family, so we chose Family Tree DNA,
a private lab, for our test. Then we went looking for the right donor. Maryellen gave us a sample, but her DNA could trace only the female side of her family, and we were not surprised when the results indicated that her roots were in Africa.
The only way to find Henry's lineage is through his male descendants -- the male line had to be unbroken. It had to be Henry's son's son's son's son.
It took almost a year to locate Peter Durham, one of Maryellen's California cousins, who agreed to swab his cheek and send the sample in for testing.
We hoped that the lab could tell us into which generation their white ancestor fell.
We were disappointed.
The lab could not pinpoint the generation for us, but we did discover that Peter Durham and his great-grandfather, Henry, came from Viking stock. He identifies with the African side of his lineage, but he shares a blood bond with people in Germany, Sweden, Norway, Scotland, England, Ireland, Wales and France.
If Henry Durham was not the white ancestor, then was it his father?
The only other solid clue is in the 1870 Census. In that record, a Henry Durham, a teenager of about 18, is working as a farm laborer in Van Zandt County. That Henry Durham is also listed as mulatto.
Is that "our" Henry? Maybe.
So if he is, in fact, mulatto, then who is his father? The 1860 slave records pointed to two possibilities and two different families.
According to one family's online genealogy, a Tennessee slaveholder presented his 15-year-old stepson named Durham with a 13-year-old slave girl as a gift in 1844. By 1860 the stepson had a wife and children of his own and had moved to Texas. The 1860 U.S. Census and slave schedules report that he also owned an 11-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy, both listed as "black" on the slave registers.
Could the boy be Henry? Because Henry was born about 1853, the age is about right. This man had no other slaves listed, and the mother of these children is not mentioned.
At first, we were certain that this was our Henry. But DNA reports suggest that Henry's kinsmen may have been named Dunham, not Durham.
According to the 1860 slave register, an 8-year-old boy listed as mulatto was living with a slaveholder named Dunham in Grimes County.
In either case, the child's name is not mentioned and no matter how we worked, we could not jump this barrier. Our search had ended in disappointment.
Without a name on the records we were reduced to speculation.The history in the name
And there lies the sad and sobering truth. Slaves were sometimes listed by a single name: Sally, Ezra, John. Sometimes only as girl, boy, female or male, followed by ages.
The famed African-American educator Booker T. Washington wrote that after emancipation, former slaves thought "it was far from proper for them to bear the surname of their former owners, and a great many of them took other surnames. This was one of the first signs of freedom," he said.
It was understandable, an eloquent statement of independence, but it adds to the problem of tracing African-American lineage.
If Henry was half white, the custom and the law of the day forced him to live as a black man. Even if only one of his eight grandparents had been of African lineage, social custom would have marked him as black.
In dozens of states, social custom was also the law, and the "one drop rule" meant that even "one drop" of African blood made an individual black.
During this unsettling time, some Americans who looked European were classified as blacks, too. From about 1900 to 1919, the courts bulged with cases.
It would be 1967 before the Supreme Court declared laws based on the "one drop rule" were unconstitutional.
If Henry was indeed the child of mixed race, the law and social custom branded him as black.What is certain is that Henry lived his life with Mary and that together they raised a large family. His descendants are certain that the bond of love between them was unshakable.
For his great-granddaughters, this is what counts. "There is something which loving does," said Francis. It gives strength and courage. It makes every tribulation worthwhile.
But Henry's mixed heritage and theirs leaves them sometimes teetering on the edge of a well that has no bottom. "We may have enjoyed some privileges because of our light skin," said Maryellen, but in no way does that bleach her identity as an African-American.
Her sister Francis pointed to famed African-American writer W.E.B. Du Bois for an explanation. "He called it a kind of 'schizophrenia,'" she said.
In 1903, Du Bois, the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University, a pioneer in sociology and one of the founders of the NAACP, wrote about what it meant to be of mixed lineage.
"One ever feels his twoness ... two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body ...," he wrote.
And that, it seems, is the marrow of this bone.
Every race is in a war of survival, trying ever to preserve itself. Any mixing of races is a threat to that survival, and there is some primal instinct, some dark fear that says one may be swallowed by the other.
Will the day come, I wonder, when a child can choose to celebrate all the ancestors who have come before?
Or, with every heartbeat, will we always hear the drumming of only one race, chanting softly to the spirit: You are mine. You are mine. You are mine.DNA testing
Prices for genealogical DNA tests range from about $100 to more than $600. The lab provides a test kit, and DNA is taken by swabbing the inside of your cheek and sending the swab to the lab.
To find a lab, search for genetic genealogy labs on the Internet. Most sites will have a box that explains what you get for your money: Y-DNA, Maternal Match, certificates, migration maps and reports that explain your origin, including American Indian, African and Jewish ancestries.
There also may be a box that explains the lab's other affiliations. We used Family Tree DNA, which partners with the National Geographic Society, IBM and the Waitt Family Foundation on the Genographic Project, a five-year program that aims to collect DNA samples to prove ancient human migratory patterns.
There are many books on this complicated subject and many labs, but here are a few labs to consider:Family Tree DNA
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