Black, White or Red – Changing Colors

henry finding your roots

The Root recently published the article, “Did My White Ancestor Become Black?”, written by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Eileen Pironti.  We all know who Henry is from his PBS Series, Finding Your Roots.

America is the great mixing bowl of the world, with Native American, European and African people living in very close proximity for the past 400 years.  Needless to say, on the subject of admixture and race, things are not always what they seem.

Henry Gates sums it up quite well in his article, regardless of what your ancestor looked like, or your family looks like today, “the only way to ascertain the ethnic mixture of your own ancestry is to take an admixture test from Family Tree DNA, 23andMe or Ancestry.com.”

Interestingly enough, in an earlier issue of The Root, Henry talks about how black are Black Americans.

In that article, Henry provides this information.

* According to Ancestry.com, the average African American is 65 percent sub-Saharan African, 29 percent European and 2 percent Native American.

* According to 23andme.com, the average African American is 75 percent sub-Saharan African, 22 percent European and only 0.6 percent Native American.

* According to Family Tree DNA.com, the average African American is 72.95 percent sub-Saharan African, 22.83 percent European and 1.7 percent Native American.

* According to National Geographic’s Genographic Project, the average African American is 80 percent sub-Saharan African, 19 percent European and 1 percent Native American.

The message is, of course, that you never know.  Jack Goins, Hawkins County, Tennessee archivist,  is the perfect example.  Jack is the patriarch of Melungeon research.  His Goins family was Melungeon, from Hawkins County, Tennessee.  Jack founded the Melungeon DNA projects several years ago which resulted in a paper, co-authored by Jack (along with me, Janet Lewis Crain and Penny Ferguson), cited by Henry Louis Gates in his above article along with an associated NPR interview, titled “Melungeons, A Multiethnic Population.”

jack goins melungeon

Jack, shown above with the photo of his Melungeon ancestors, looks white today.  His family claimed both Portuguese and Indian heritage.  His ancestors and family members in the 1840s were prosecuted for voting, given that they were “people of color.”

But Jack’s Y DNA, providing us with his paternal link to his Goins male lineage, is African.  No one was more shocked at this information than Jack.  Jack’s autosomal DNA testing confirms his African heritage, along with lots of European and a smidgen of Native in some tests.

When in doubt, test your DNA and that of selected relatives to document your various lines, creating your own DNA pedigree chart.  For a broad spectrum picture of your DNA and ethnicity across of all of your heritage, autosomal DNA testing is the way to go.  Without all of these tools, neither Jack nor Henry would ever have known their own personal truth.

14 thoughts on “Black, White or Red – Changing Colors

  1. Fascinating! My own autosomal results showed some Asian, which I was very surprised about. I already have some lines going back to Charlemagne, I guess Genghis Khan is bound to show up sooner or later too…

  2. Thank you as always for your erudition and putting everything in terms we can understand. The more than 20 admixture analysis tools at Gedmatch are so exciting, don’t you think? It is my favorite tool there.

  3. Interesting articles but no surprise to me. Since undergoing autosomal testing through Ancestry.com, I have thus far come up with a list of over fifty cousins whose ancestry is mostly West-African, even though I have no such ancestry myself. Most of my known ancestors came to this country in the 1600s and lived almost entirely in the South. Add in the fact that there are records indicating that a large percentage,sadly, were slaveowners and the only questions are which of these were the shared common ancestors with my African American cousins. I hope to find this out one day.

    • I share some of that history, and have similar questions. There is no sign of slave ownership in most of my ancestry, except for one line going back to William Randolph, and maybe one more generation down. Any connection I have to potential African American cousins would be through that very narrow connection, unless I’ve missed something. Only one family member has done genetic testing, with two more waiting for kits. That limited testing showed no sign of African DNA though that may be due to the limitations of the current data base. Although I’m ashamed to be connected to slave owners, and baffled at the lack of intermingling, it would be nice if the situation would help shed light on the family histories of black cousins. It wouldn’t make up for what was done, but it would be nice to help restore some shred of what was stolen.

      • Hi KG, growing up in the South we were always told that only a small percentage of Southerners, the Planter class, owned slaves and thus I assumed that none of my ancestors were of such status, I never suspected there would be an slaveowners in my tree.

        Once I began to study my ancestry, however, I did find a few wealthy families who owned slaves (one owned around 100 or so), but also some ancestors of rather limited means who the slave scheduled and census records showed were still the owners of one or two slaves. Apparently one didn’t have to be all that wealthy to be a slaveowner after all. I suspect that in such cases the owner was probably working in the field alongside of the slave or maybe the listed slave was a cook or helped with the children. In any case, a slave was still a slave and lacked the ability to change his or her condition in most instances.

      • Michael,

        You are so right. Slaves in less affluent families may sometimes have had a better deal, but that doesn’t make it OK. I do not think there was as much genetic mixing in those situations. My line comes through one of the daughters, Elisabeth. We left the south pretty quickly, landing mostly in the Midwest. My sister and I have returned to the south, but we are the first in at least 7 generations to do so. I’ve not found any evidence of any more slaves, but that doesn’t preclude it. I think free people who worked for families were listed as “domestic” while slaves were listed as “servant” but I’m not sure how consistent people were with those terms. I’ve found several incidences of domestics who were poor irish imigrants. I found one ancestor with a very strange name who I think might have been a Scot sent here with after the battle of Worcester. I’m going to keep digging. I’m ashamed of them for owning slaves, but I’d be more ashamed of myself if I swept it under the rug because of my own discomfort.

    • Earl, what would you call people of this continent? I haven’t read or heard of it, but did the Natives who were here before the Europeans call it something? Seems like there were too many tribes to have a mutual name for it.

      I think we use “American” because that is the name (for better or worse) given by the Europeans for the two continents in the western hemisphere. Thus, an original Native of these continents is a Native American. Europeans who arrived can be called European Americans, or, if they know their (main) country of origin, they can use that “Whatever” American. And so on. Ultimately, after a few generations, we’re all Americans, now.

      I’m not sure what the practice is for other continents. Is a person from China, who immigrated to say, Australia, called a Chinese-Australian? I guess Australia had its name given by Europeans, too. What about an Asian-African? Who knows.

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