Ring. Ring. Surreal suspense. If he answers his phone, his family and ours could possibly dive together into 200 years of family history.
He is likely my second cousin—even though he is mulatto and I am white. We both may be great-grandchildren of the same man, a South Carolina planter born in 1817. Almost 200 years ago.
But no one answers. The rings finally stop.
That was two days ago.
I first learned of this possible second cousin over a month ago. He is 85 years old.
First, I emailed him through Peoplesmart’s secure service. I identified myself by age, occupation, race, and phone. I said my research had suggested that he and I were related, and I’d really appreciate being able to talk with him, “if it is all right with you.” I tried to be deferential and straightforward.
No response. In a few days, I mailed him a letter that repeated my email, and added that we might want to compare great-grandparents. So now he had my phone number, my address, my plea, and my intent.
No reply to my letter. So I waited until two days ago, when I phoned him.
Ring. Ring. No answer.
What is my evidence that this man may be my second cousin? Census records, church minutes, death certificates, family rumors, and plain old probability. Some selected “finds,” without names (to preserve the privacy of the living):
- This man has the same name as a person (call him A) who appears through census records to be my second cousin. The 1940 U. S. Census lists A as born in 1927, so A would be 85. This man is 85.
- Both this man and A bear our family surname and a first name used within our family. Both are from the same South Carolina town. In the 1800s, our family lived in that town and the surname was well known.
- This man is the only person in the United States today with this particular first name and surname.
- A’s mulatto grandmother was born in 1847, according to census reports. In mid-1849 my great-grandfather was expelled from a Baptist church on an unproven charge of bastardy—that is, fathering an illegitimate child—according to the church minutes.
- A’s father appears as a mulatto boy in the 1880 and the 1900 censuses. In 1880 he has the surname of his mulatto mother’s black husband. But in 1900 this same mulatto boy has a new surname—our family’s surname. What has changed? One thing: in 1900 the mulatto boy’s black grandmother has joined the household. She may have argued for the name change.
- The mulatto boy’s black grandmother (A’s great-grandmother) is listed as “Mother” on the 1921 death certificate of another mulatto man, B, who has our family’s surname. Listed there as B’s “Father” is my great-grandfather, whose name is unusual and unmistakable. B’s birth year is 1855. He was born into slavery. In 1880, after slavery, B and his own family lived close to my great-grandfather and farmed a plot of land.
I am inferring this hypothesis: My great-grandfather had two mulatto children by the same black woman, who was a slave: (1) a daughter born in 1847 (A’s grandmother) and (2) a son, B, born in 1855. This black woman may have decided that each of these children should bear my great-grandfather’s surname, for both did.
I believe genealogists call this a “collateral line.” While all traces of ancestors hold meaning, I am the type of (amateur) genealogist who seeks especially to find the living.
I believe the man I found on Peoplesmart is likely to be A, my second cousin. When I first discovered him listed among the living, I emailed some family members who live near him, to ask whether they would like to approach him. I had prepared them for this kind of “find” at last summer’s reunion.
Two relatives were enthusiastic about reaching out to this man. They were eager to learn more about his family history and ours, and to know whether he has children. Two others were not interested. “Better let well enough alone,” they said. The rest told us to do whatever we thought best. One cousin even said: “If he shows up here, I’ll welcome him into my home.”
Involving my family members felt positive to me. Thomas DeWolf and his family had a similar reaction when they learned their ancestors had been famous and rich Northern slave-traders: They sent letters to 200 of their relatives. Ultimately, ten family members joined an expedition to retrace the steps of those slave-trading ancestors. DeWolf’s cousin, Katrina Brown, filmed the trip and made a PBS documentary, Traces of the Trade. DeWolf published a memoir in 2008, Inheriting the Trade.
Contacting family members about a disturbing family history is not all roses. I spoke briefly with DeWolf on September 10th, through Bernice Bennett’s Blog Talk Radio. Dewolf said that a number of his relatives were not pleased that he was focusing on their family’s slave-trading history. He added that members of Edward Ball’s family, about a decade ago, were upset with him for writing Slaves in the Family.
But DeWolf also told me that after resisting at first, some of his family and Ball’s family are “coming around” toward a positive view. I’m glad. When your ancestors have participated in historical atrocities, it’s good to acknowledge that reality. Once you admit fact, you can start unraveling the hows and whys of human nature. You can move toward healing. I’ve tried to do that in my family memoir, Into the Briar Patch, which studies the effects of owning slaves upon my ancestors and their descendants.
On Bennett’s September 10th program, I asked a question of her other guest, Sharon Morgan, who is DeWolf’s new co-author. How should a person approach a biracial relative who descends from slaves owned by that person’s family? This is my case. Sharon advised this straightforward statement: “Through research I have found that we’re related. I would really appreciate being able to talk with you.” She also said to keep trying for contact—since the message might not get through at first.
I’m taking Sharon’s advice, and I’m grateful for it.
Sharon Morgan descends from slaves, while Tom DeWolf descends from slave traders. Their new co-authored book—released today, October 9th—is entitled Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade.
Tom and Sharon believe in the work of Coming to the Table, an organization that helps people acknowledge and heal the wounds from racism that are rooted in our history of slavery. Here, the descendants of slavery and slaveholders can meet. George Geder sent me the link to Coming to the Table during Bennett’s Blog Talk Radio session with Tom and Sharon.
In fact, George Geder and Robin Foster were the ones who told me about Bernice Bennett’s series of programs. Grateful shout-outs to all three!
Coming to the Table promotes truth, listening, and the long work of reconciliation. I would like to participate in this vital work, in whatever small way our family can.
I’ll try again to contact this man who may be second cousin.
I’ll also keep searching for traces of C, a son of the mulatto man B. I found C in the 1920 census living with a wife and four children . . . but nothing more until his Social Security number in 1957 and his SSDI in 1964. What happened to his children? His descendants would be related to our family.
While A’s (my prospective second cousin’s) phone was ringing, I was filled with surreal anxiety. I’m ready to withstand that kind of anxiety again. Connecting with lost relatives . . . those are high stakes.