Pearl Duncan: How DNA is rewriting history

Roundup: Talking About History

[The author is completing a book,"DNA Blood: World's Shared Roots of Strong Mothers and Determined Fathers" about DNA and Ancestry.]

In this presidential election year, in print, the Internet and on TV, we hear and see much talk about uniting the country, and being unified. We hear much about patriotism and behaving as Americans. On this 4th of July, few things make us feel as American as a connection to the Founding Fathers. Americans feel and express their connection to the Founding Father's beliefs, actions, words -- families and ancestry. They do this whether they're recent immigrants or descendants of Colonial Founding Fathers Founding Brothers. But one group of Americans are reconnecting, not only with the Founders' beliefs, actions and words, but with their families, ancestry and history.

Ancestral DNA research has allowed Americans to restore connections that were lost or forgotten. That group is African-Americans whose ancestors were slaves in the time of the Founders. What DNA is revealing is that their ancestors were also the people we call Founders. Gradually, public intellectuals and officials, even conservative thinkers are beginning to acknowledge and state this history. President George Bush, speaking at the NAACP 2006 convention, spoke of America's "second founders":

When people talk about America's founders they mention the likes of Washington and Jefferson and Franklin and Adams. Too often they ignore another group of founders -- men and women and children who did not come to America of their free will, but in chains. These founders literally helped build our country. They chopped the wood, they built the homes, they tilled the fields, and they reaped the harvest. They raised children of others, even though their own children had been ripped away and sold to strangers. These founders were denied the most basic birthright, and that's freedom.

Yet, through captivity and oppression, they kept the faith. They carved a great nation out of the wilderness, and later, their descendants led a people out of the wilderness of bigotry. Nearly 200 years into our history as a nation, America experienced a second founding: . . . These second founders, led by the likes of Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King, Jr. believed in the constitutional guarantees of liberty and equality. They trusted fellow Americans to join them in doing the right thing. They were leaders.

Conservative pundit Pat Buchanan, writing in his book about American roots, said, "but black folks were as American as apple pie, having lived in the land longer than almost every other group save the Native Americans. We were of two races, but one nationality: American."

In a nation that had enforced miscegenation laws for hundreds of years, where our black and white ancestors were legally banned from marrying or having sex with each other, it is not surprising that when today's black and white Americans discover that they are related, there is some shock. These ancestors had extensive relations; there are almost no African-Americans today who do not have mixed ancestry in their DNA. I researched the specific ancestral mixtures in my family, even though when I began my genealogical research, I had no idea we were of mixed ancestry.

I write about culture not politics, but for this discussion, I cite a comment that was overlooked in presidential candidate Barack Obama's speech on Race in America. His words focused less on politics and more on the history and culture related to our 4th of July festivities this week. Speaking of his wife Michelle and his daughters, he said, "I am married to a black American who carried within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners -- an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. . . . It is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup." Like the Obamas, African-Americans are not only rediscovering more of their ancestry, they're embracing the ancestry they find. But it is an emotional experience and journey.

I too am descended from slaves and slave owners. What helped me to trace this complex emotional history was the response I received from my modern ancestral relatives. I was accepted by my ancestral Ghanaian -- and Scottish -- cousins. After I traced ancestors to the 1600s and 1700s in Colonial America, Medieval Ghana and Medieval Scotland, I contacted my modern Ghanaian and Scottish relatives.

Since then, dozens of journalists have asked me how I was received by the Scots. Just a few weeks ago, on June 18, I received an e-mail from a reporter at a French TV station, asking, "Do you have any contact with your Scottish cousins? Have you met them yet? What kind of relations do you have with them?" People in the U.S. and around the world wonder and ask how whites in the U.S. and in Europe accept African-American cousins who used DNA and Colonial genealogy to trace their ancestors.

My response is simple. The Scots' reaction exceeded my expectations. One reason is they have one of the most extensive genealogical systems in the world so they were able to check and verify the records, officially. Another reason is I did my family's DNA tests in 1999, after I'd done ten years of extensive research into our history, family lore and nicknames. That information led to specific ancestors in specific villages in Ghana in the 1600s. They were farmers. I also found ancestors in Jamaica in the Caribbean in the 1600s and 1700s, and in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in the 1600s and early 1700s. The oldest written record I found of a mixed son of a black mother and white father was a birth record in 1726. His mother was a "Free Negroe Woman," and his father a "Scottish burgess," a noble.

When I submitted the records to Scotland, the Scots, authorized by Queen Elizabeth II, granted me our Scottish ancestors' coat of arms. I am convinced this decision was easy for the Scots because I showcased not only our Scottish ancestors' records but also our Medieval African and Colonial American records. DNA and extensive genealogy changed the way they saw my history.

Thousands of African-Americans have discovered ancestors through DNA, genealogy and family stories, and in the process reconnected with a wide range of ancestral cousins around the world. I digested details about the Founding Fathers in my ancestry, emotional as it was. In 1787, President John Adams purchased a mansion as a summer house from Leonard Vassal, a wealthy New England slave owner. Leonard Vassal owned seven sugar plantations in Jamaica, including Content, where a few of my ancestors were enslaved. With the proceeds and wealth from his slaves and plantations, he built a historic house in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1734. The mansion is the historic Adams Mansion beautifully displayed on page 68 of Peter Mallary's Houses of New England.

Another plantation owner, one of my Scottish ancestors, used the proceeds from his six Jamaican plantations and the inheritance from his cousins' "Founding Brother's" tobacco plantations in Virginia to purchase an estate in Scotland where shale oil was discovered. Shale oil gave rise to the independent oil companies, which was organized into the multinational oil company, BP, British Petroleum. This is a small sample of how DNA and genealogical research are changing the map and emotional reaction to American history and culture. Once we accept the history and move on, we begin to forge a new future.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Raul A Garcia - 7/10/2008

These linkages will serve everyone to find new awarenesses of their ancestry if they so choose. We humans, are all related if we do our DNA searches. As a middle school teacher, I make my students aware of this new technology when I discuss with them culture and human history. Great article!

David Thaddeus Liebers - 7/7/2008

It's important to remember that African-American's were founders in a very real sense. I'm not just talking about "keeping the faith," which is, by itself, a heroic and American experience in the face of slavery, but those black voices who were talking to the very founders that Bush first mentions.

Leaders like Rev. Richard Allen worked their way from slavery to freedom and succeeded in creating lasting institutions and ideas that have persisted as long as those in our founding documents.