Sunday, March 6, 2011
Who Do I Think I Am?
A year ago, while living in my parents' native state of Virginia, I embarked on a journey into my ancestral past. My motivation for this undertaking? Well, I love history and I love a good story, so I had recently followed many others as they delved into their ancestries. Cane River by Lalita Tademy, one of my favorite books that I shared in a previous blog post ("Books That Made A Difference To Me"), chronicles Tademy's genealogical findings in the framework of fiction, much like Alex Haley's Roots. My husband Anthony and I have also enjoyed countless documentaries about genealogy, such as PBS' African American Lives. And occasionally on Friday evenings, I have enjoyed watching the likes of Tim McGraw, Vanessa Williams and Lionel Ritchie discover their family roots on NBC's Who Do You Think You Are?
When I began digging into my family roots, I wasn't sure what I was going to find. Like many African American families, my family is rather colorful. And I don't mean that metaphorically. Our complexions range from "coffee, to cocoa, to cream, to milk, to lily," as Tademy describes her ancestors in Cane River. And fourteen years ago, I cannot describe our surprise when I gave birth to a cream-colored, redheaded child (my sweet Kalin). He was quickly dubbed by the hospital nursing staff as "the mailman's baby," although in my postpartum state, I didn't find the joke funny at all.
You can probably imagine our surprise when, eleven years later, I gave birth to yet another cream-colored, redheaded baby (my precious Jada). Needless to say, Anthony and I knew there were some secrets to uncover in our family trees, and I can't tell you how intrigued I've been to get to the bottom of them. Well, since my Uncle Alvis has completed and documented quite a bit of family history on my father's side of the family, I decided to tackle my mother's genealogy, which I knew very little about. And let me tell you, it's been no small undertaking. I still have lots more research to do, but I'd love to share just a few of the pieces that have already come together.
Genealogy experts suggest you begin with gathering facts from living family. So of course I began my search by interviewing my mother. I discovered my mother had no idea who her grandfather was, only that he was Caucasian. Just two generations before her. Her mother's father. Can you imagine not knowing your own grandfather? And this was not the slavery era either. My grandmother was born in 1901, so we're talking the beginning of the Twentieth Century. If you're reading this, that's probably the century you were born into, so it wasn't that long ago.
I asked my mother if she at least knew her grandfather's name, and she replied "Ned Hudnall". So I began searching on ancestry.com for a Ned Hudnall in the Census reports for Northumberland County, Virginia. I found no "Ned Hudnall" anywhere. So I searched for my great-grandmother, Mary Frances Conway instead. I found Mary in several Census reports, but a couple of those years were of particular interest. In 1910, Mary is listed with two of her children, Elizabeth and Antic (my great aunt and uncle), living with a Caucasian family. My great-grandmother and great uncle are listed as "servants" in the home. My great aunt is listed as a "boarder". The race of my great aunt and uncle is listed as "mulatto". By the way, in 1910 my grandmother, only eight at the time, was living with her older married sister Ella Conway. I found Ella living with this same family in the 1900 Census, as a "house girl".
And guess what the last name of that Caucasian family is? Yep -- Hudnall. I could feel the search for my great-grandfather heating up.
The head of the house was James Hudnall and his wife was Susan. They had three sons, William, Bertrand, and Richard Llewellyn. A logical conclusion: one of these sons is probably my great-grandfather. But with a name like "Ned," probably a nickname, I hit a brick wall. After searching the Hudnall family online, however, I found a family historian amongst this family. He and I emailed each other for a few months. He too found my ancestors living with this Hudnall family. Here's an excerpt from one of his emails: "Being a son of the family that employed both your great aunt and your great-grandmother, and most likely with your great-grandmother living on the premises, there would have been more opportunity for the two of them to have had a liaison." The nature of that liaison -- a love affair or a forced physical relationship -- I may never know.
Well, the obvious question in my mind was, which Hudnall son fathered my grandmother? Well, there's one more clue in this story. My mother had once mentioned an "Uncle Simon" that she remembered from her childhood. Uncle Simon's background was sketchy, but her understanding was that he and her mother (my grandmother) had the same father, but different mothers. She described him as being fair-skinned with sandy-brown hair and hazel eyes. When I researched this puzzle piece, guess where I found my Great Uncle Simon living in 1930? He was living with Richard Llewellyn Hudnall, the son of James Hudnall. Richard Llewellyn, the head of the house, was fifty-two and Simon was twenty-eight on the 1939 Census. If you do the math, that makes them twenty-four years apart. Could Richard Llewellyn have been Simon's father, and therefore my grandmother's father? It was possible that even though Simon was never recognized as a son, his lodging and material needs still could have been met by his father. Or maybe Richard, a medical doctor, was an uncle taking care of his brother's son.
Either way, there are two legacies represented here. The first legacy, indicative of the racial climate of the time, was the biracial child born to an African American mother and Caucasian father. Everyone in the family, and in the town for that matter, knows exactly who the parents of this child are. However, because of the stigma of the birth outside of marriage and outside of strict racial boundaries, there are no written legal documents of this father-child relationship. Thus a century later, I am unable to identify my great-grandfather with one hundred percent accuracy. The second legacy evident here is the Caucasian family's willingness to care for the biracial children born into their family line. These children were given housing at the very least, as they are listed living with their family members over several decades.
In an essay "My Most Unforgettable Character," a fellow townsmember of Richard Llewellyn shares a heartwarming description of the town physician. "Scion of an old aristocratic family, Dr. Hudnall placed less importance on ancestry than he did on the man himself. He was interested in everyone regardless of color or creed... Dr. Hudnall's office was like a small pharmacy and it supplied medicine gratis to those who could not pay for it. Long before Social Security was even thought of this community must have had, through the bounty of this good man, an early and unique Medicare system for the indigent." My eyes teared over this essay. This man of valor could have been my great-grandfather or great-great uncle.
My search to fill in the missing pieces of my ancestry puzzle has been intriguing and exciting some days, discouraging on others. I envy my Caucasian friends who can trace their family trees back to England, Germany and Scotland. I even envy those African Americans that can at least trace theirs back to slavery times. In 2011, the legacy of secrecy in my family saddens me. My grandmother Elmira has family bibles where she has listed every name on her mother's side, but left her father's side blank. She never spoke about her father to my mother or any of her children. Was she ashamed to have been the product of a controversial relationship? Was her heart hardened towards her father because he never openly acknowledged her? Unfortunately, it's impossible for me to ask her these questions now.
I identify with Bliss Broyard, author of One Drop, a memoir that sheds light on her biracial father, who passed for white his entire adult life. Comparing her genealogical search to that of other "amateur genealogists," she said, "I envied these people. Whereas they were unraveling a ball of thread that started with family stories and yellowing photos displayed in the hall, my lead was a dusty, tangled thing that had been kicked under the bed years before. Unknotting it wasn't going to be easy."
I pray that as I continue my research, God will help me detangle and unknot my "ball of thread". My heart longs to right the wrong, shed light on the darkness and straighten that which is crooked. I know I'm only one person, but maybe God can use me. Lord willing, the story of "who I think I am" might even bring some healing.