We all want to know who we are. Many, like me, do a bit of genealogical searching for answers regarding our roots. It can be a frustrating but often rewarding experience that gives us a better idea of who are ancestors were, where they lived, and sometimes even what they may have been like. My own experience has been remarkable on the one hand but sadly fruitless on the other. I have been able to trace the lineage of my paternal grandmother, Minnie Bell Smith, all the way back to the early history of Norway when names of people were almost impossible to pronounce. I have been relieved to note that none of the people who came before me in that branch of the family appear to have owned slaves or taken up questionable causes. Through the women in particular I have distant connections to famous English politicians and royalty but ultimately my grandmother’s people appear to have lived hard scrabble lives marked by struggles and journeys from one place to another.
Minnie Bell Smith was born in Texas and finally died there but her story traces a path through Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas as well. She was widowed and lost children. She met my grandfather when she and her eldest daughter were working in a boarding house just to make ends meet after her first husband had died. She was a brilliant woman who did not know how to read or write. Her education came in the school of hard knocks and experience. She carried an encyclopedia of knowledge inside her head along with all of her wonderful recipes. Although tragedy was her constant companion she remained eternally optimistic and quietly enjoyed the routine of her life.
I have been unable to find out much about the rest of my grandparents. I know their names and when they were born but little else. I have never been able to find evidence of who their parents were nor from whence their DNA evolved. It is understandable that this is the case with my maternal grandparents for they came to America from Austria Hungary just before the outbreak of World War I. They left their pasts behind them and began anew right here in Texas. They represent the beginning of my knowledge about half of my history. I have no idea who their parents were nor what they had done before embarking on the long ocean trip that brought them to Galveston. Photographs of them are few. Stories are sketchy. Their past ends with their names on a ship’s manifest detailing the barest information about them.
Oddly it is my paternal grandfather, William Mack Little, who poses the most problems for me. Even though he was born in the United States of America and he provided me with names of his parents and one of his grandparents I have been unable to find even a shred of information on him. In fact, the first time that his name appears in a census is 1930, even though he was born in 1878. What I have gathered from the stories that he told me is that his mother died only days after he was born and his father took him to live with his grandmother whose home was in the back woods of Virginia. He was never quite sure where he had grown up as a boy. He noted that the place where he lived had no name and was in an isolated area rarely visited by people from the outside world.
When Grandpa Little was around thirteen his grandmother died and a judge allowed him to choose his own guardian. He said that he picked an uncle who had graduated from West Point Military Academy named John Little. He eventually adopted this man’s last name. As an adult my grandfather became a nomad, moving around the country wherever there were jobs. He rarely stayed in one place for long and he never found the time nor the inclination to marry until he was well into his forties when he encountered my grandmother in the boarding house where she worked as a cook. After that the chronicle of his life is clear but his first forty years are murky and don’t lead to a trail of ancestors.
Just as with many families ours is filled with whispered stories that may or may not be true. Minnie Bell often mentioned that she had Native American kin but I have yet to find proof of this intriguing idea. My father’s sister insisted that we had African American ancestry and it always seemed to be a possibility given that I was unable to find any definite information regarding my grandfather. A later DNA test that I took showed not a scintilla of proof of her theory. In my mother’s family there has been a running argument that her father was actually born in Cleveland, Ohio but the documents that I have found for him indicate that he was a naturalized citizen from northern Hungary or what is now Slovakia.
All of the information that I have is quite fascinating but oddly incomplete given the efforts that I have expended to find out more about my heritage. My own genealogical journey has led me to greatly enjoy television programs that feature the unraveling of history. One of them, Finding Your Roots, is in its third season on PBS. Hosted by Henry Louis Gates it focuses on celebrities and notes the complexities of our ancestry. Virtually every participant walks away astounded by the findings of Dr. Gates and the analyses are compelling and often filled with emotion.
Last night’s episode was particularly haunting. Ty Burell learned that his great grandmother was a free woman of color who haled from Tennessee but moved to Oregon during the early days of land grant opportunities. He was able to go all the way back to his fourth great grandmother and to learn the identity of the white man who was also an ancestor. It was somewhat difficult for him to reconcile the fact that his family tree derived included the illicit union of an owner with a slave. He seemed proud of his Black heritage but befuddled by the thoughts of what one of his great grandfathers had done.
Perhaps the most emotional moments of the program came from an analysis of Donna Brazile’s family tree. Dr. Gates and his researchers had found documents detailing the actual sale prices of Ms. Brazile’s ancestors. Somehow the curt listing of humans being described like objects was unnerving, especially given that Ms. Brazile is such a beautiful and learned woman. I found myself feeling incredibly uncomfortable as I listened to the reading of the information and I watched the tears tracing down Ms. Brazile’s face. Somehow putting a face on the horrific act of slavery made me realize more than ever just how wrong this practice had been. I realized that those who supported this injustice had to have known just as we do today that it was very very wrong.
We never quite know what we will find whenever we begin tracing our roots. We all hope that what we find will be palatable but there are no guarantees. Obviously our lineage doesn’t define us other than through the DNA that is passed from one generation to another. The sons and daughters of thieves are not doomed to repeat the sins of their father. We each have the opportunity to begin fresh and to live with purpose and integrity regardless of what our ancestors may or may not have done. Still it is up to us to right the wrongs as we see them. The point that Dr. Gates wanted to make last evening is that we are complex beings whose lives and DNA intersect in patterns that often make us more alike than different. Particularly in a land once marred by slavery we never really know what a search of our heritage may reveal. We may find that we carry the blood of both good and bad. Ultimately what matters most is how we choose to live in the here and now. We must learn from the past and understand the haunting truths that make us who we have become as a people. Only when we are honest about the saints and sinners of our past will we ever truly move forward.