I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to say about Christmas this year. Truthfully, I haven’t felt much like celebrating.
This year has been filled to the brim with mortifying events, the likes of which I never thought I’d see in my lifetime.
Barely a day goes by that I’m not frightened anew – for my Black, Native and Spanish friends, family, and their children. For our brave soldiers, police and firefighters of all colors and races. For the country I love and call home – the same one that my ancestors spilled their blood and gave their lives to defend. For my children, grandchildren and their descendants.
So, for Christmas or Hanukkah or Solstice, whatever you celebrate, I decided to share with you a story – one of hope – one of kinship – one of reaching beyond the stereotypes that have sometimes been ingrained in upbringing and the communities and families in which people are raised. A story about the power of choice that each of us has within us.
A story that I recall again and again because it gives me hope when my days feel hopeless. It renews my soul.
It’s a story about love, but not at all your typical love story.
A few years ago, a DNA group that I administer decided to host a homecoming and conference of sorts – before the days of genetic genealogy conferences.
We rented a hotel and the conference room, and before we knew it, the “reunion” was filled to capacity.
Three days of presentations were scheduled, with many of the attendees giving sessions about genealogy, and in particular, about genetic genealogy which was still new at the time.
One of the draw cards was a “reveal.” My cousins and I had discovered each other a few months before and had busily been DNA testing to prove or disprove whether in fact William Herrell was the ancestor of both groups of people. Me on the one side and my cousins on the other.
The complicating factor was that William Herrell had two wives, at the same time – one black and one white. Not only that, but he had purchased the black wife, Harriett, as a slave – but the white wife, Mary, raised Harriett’s child, Cannon, with her own children after the death first of Harriett and then of William.
Was Cannon William’s biological child? Oral history said yes. What was the truth of the matter?
Given the location of the reunion, I had some consternation about this topic and particularly about the reveal.
My cousins, however, were not concerned. It was them I was concerned for, not me, so the plan progressed smoothly. Adding to our excitement was the fact that we would all get to meet in person for the first time.
On the first day of the conference, we presented the attendees with the back story, which is actually quite interesting, then we left them with a cliffhanger. Were we related? We asked them to vote. What did they think? We would tell them the following morning.
The vote, by the way, was about half and half.
The Next Morning
On the morning of the second day of the conference, we were shocked to discover that people were simply showing up at the hotel. They had heard, through the local grapevine that there was to be a BIG REVEAL and everyone was interested.
We didn’t quite know what to do.
We crammed as many seats into the room as possible. People crowded in behind the seats and stood, and more people filled the lobby craning their necks to see.
Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine anything quite like this.
My cousins Carlos (Los) and Denise and I revealed the answer.
Yes, Cannon was the son of William Herrell and yes, we are all related.
But that’s not the punchline, nor is this the main story.
Los, Denise and I began on a journey as curious genealogists. Before we even knew that we were related, we had formed a relationship with each other, one which we maintain today. We’ve added more family members as well, and we are indeed “kin” as they say in the south, not just because we are blood relatives, but because we have gotten to know each other as people and we love each other. (And for the record, I have other relatives I’m not nearly so quick to claim.)
Yes, you might notice that some of us have more skin pigment than others, but our family runs the entire pigment range and truthfully, I don’t even think about it or notice anymore. It’s irrelevant. We all bleed red, feel both pain and love and are good people. It’s really that simple, and it’s all that matters.
Bottom line is that I love them, not because they are black, or actually, part black, not in spite of it, simply because they are who they are. At one point, we thought we might NOT be related, and we were all horribly disappointed, and rejoiced when we discovered that we actually DO share an ancestor and ARE cousins (thank you autosomal DNA).
One of our attendees at the conference was a retired Baptist minister. In his 80s, he didn’t get around well and while not wheelchair-bound, he used both a wheelchair and a cane to increase his mobility and keep himself safe. I had known him for years.
We’ll call him Reverend Jim. All of the names of people other than my cousins have been changed.
Reverend Jim and I thought that we might share a particular line, that of his surname, but Y DNA testing proved that our lines were different, a fact that frustrated us both, because we would have liked very much to share research.
Reverend Jim felt that his time was running out as he aged and his health failed, but he remained an upbeat, avid genealogist and welcomed DNA testing to advance his knowledge. Hence, his difficult trip to the conference.
After the big reveal, people gathered in the conference room and the lobby to visit with each other and discuss the results along with DNA testing. My cousins and I were talking to people, when voices dropped and it became evident that something interesting was happening across the room.
I was holding Los’s daughter who was about 18 months old at the time, wishing we lived closer and I could be another grandma to her.
Suddenly Los and I both realized that all eyes were on a table near the front window.
Curious and concerned that something might be wrong, especially given that Reverend Jim was seated there, I ambled with purpose towards the table, not wanting to appear nosey, but cognizant of the fact that I was the defacto hostess. Besides that, there seemed to be an intense discussion occurring and I wondered if it might have something to do with DNA testing.
Reverend Jim was sitting at the end of the table on one side in his wheelchair, and a black gentleman of about the same age was facing him across the table. We’ll call him Doug. Listening for just a minute revealed that they shared the same surname and were debating whether they could be from the same paternal line.
Now I understood the hushed room.
Given that one was black and one was white, the answer, if yes, meant that perhaps they had experienced something in their families like Los, Denise and I had discovered in ours, with all of it’s painful ramifications about slavery. Needless to say, this was a sensitive subject, and both people were trying to have a nice conversation without offending anyone. I’m sure both men were thinking, “probably not,” but didn’t want to say that out loud. Or maybe they were secretly wondering, “What if?”
Suffice it to say that not everyone is nearly as accepting of newly discovered interracial family as my cousins and all of our extended families. And yes, I really do mean that – ALL OF OUR EXTENDED FAMILIES.
So, I stood and listened, as other people gathered round.
Reverend Jim: “My Daddy worked for the railroad and was gone a lot. He missed a lot of Christmases with the family.”
Doug: “My Daddy too.”
Both men smiled and chuckled, clearly harkening back in time and thinking about their own fathers.
Reverend Jim: “We lived in the town of X back then. Did your Daddy work for the railroad too?’
Doug: “Sure did. We lived at the other end of the line, near the depot in Y.”
Reverend Jim: “My Daddy worked between X and Y most of the time, but sometimes he went on other lines too.”
Doug: “My Daddy did too. When did your Daddy work for the railroad?”
Reverend Jim: “From about 19XX to about 19XX.”
Doug: “I bet they knew each other. What was your Daddy’s name?”
Reverend Jim: “William.”
Doug, very slowly: “Mine too.”
The men and the entire room now.
Both men stared at each other across the table.
End of the Line
Reverend Jim broke the spell and reached down in his wheelchair bag, extracting a three ring binder. He opened the cover and started leafing through the contents. I thought perhaps this discussion had gotten too close to a topic that perhaps he wasn’t comfortable with. Given his age and where he had lived his entire life.
Finally, Reverend Jim found what he was looking for. I suspected it was a pedigree chart that he wanted to share with Doug.
Reverend Jim turned a page toward Doug, placing the binder on the table. I saw an old black and white photo in a plastic sleeve. Reverend Jim, smiling, said, “That’s my Daddy. Did you know him?”
Doug leaned over politely and looked at the photo, glanced quickly at Reverend Jim, then back at the photo. Doug picked the book up and evaluated the photo more closely. The photo wasn’t in good shape, somewhat dogeared, old and grainy. A woman with Doug looked over his shoulder, peering at the photo to see if she knew the man, I’m sure.
Doug reached towards his chest, looked at Reverend Jim and said softly, “That’s my Daddy.”
Reverend Jim leaned in towards Doug, straining to hear. “What?”
Doug, now louder, still clutching his chest, “That’s my Daddy too.”
My mind raced.
Was Doug having chest pains? Is that why he was clutching his chest?
Did I need to call an ambulance?
Should I ask him?
Was his father white?
Was he sure that was his father?
Was that photo really good enough to tell? For sure?
How could this be?
Doug must have been wondering the same thing.
Doug handed the binder with the photo to the woman behind him, and asked her, “What do you think?”
She looked closely, squinting for a long minute, scrutinizing the picture, handed the binder back to Doug and said, “Yep, that’s him.”
The entire room was deathly silent now. Not one peep out of anyone.
You could have heard a blink.
Both men must have been processing this information.
Both men must have realized that their father deceived them.
Both men must have realized that their father cheated on their mother.
Both men must have been wondering how he pulled this off.
Both men must have been wondering how they didn’t know about each other.
And both men must have realized that they had a brother, and perhaps other siblings, of another skin color, born in a time in America when black and white drinking fountains were the norm and racial separation by the name of segregation was expected.
Was this a horrible moment or a wonderful moment?
Some of each perhaps?
What would they do?
It was one thing to watch my cousins and I reveal our journey, in a preplanned way, but quite another to have a surprise reveal of your own in a hotel lobby filled with an unwitting audience.
What happened next would set the tone for the entire rest of these men’s lives.
What would it be?
Acceptance or Rejection?
I realized that Reverend Jim was trying to struggle to his feet. I didn’t know if I should help him, leave him alone or gently encourage him to remain in his chair. I was frightened about what might be coming.
Doug stood up too, trying to stabilize Reverend Jim.
His face revealed confusion and pain.
Reverend Jim managed to get his cane in place, stood, wobbling and somewhat stooped, and leaned over the table to Doug, reaching for him.
I held my breath.
For an excruciatingly long minute. Everything was happening in slow motion.
Reverend Jim put his free arm around Doug and pulled him into a close hug.
Doug stepped around the table and put both arms around Reverend Jim. Reverend Jim dropped the cane, fully embracing Doug.
I realized both men were crying. Tears streaming down their faces.
Reverend Jim blurted out, between sobs, “I have a brother!”
I remember huge waves of relief washing over me. The tears, hot and salty came.
Pure unfettered joy.
I knew this was only the beginning of the questions these men would have for each other.
A wonderful new chapter had opened. Wonderful based on their perceptions of the present, not the past.
My memory of the rest of that day is blurry now, much like that black and white photo.
The people in the lobby were quite astir with this news.
The following day, ALL of Doug’s family arrived loaded with photos and an impromptu family reunion occurred in the lobby with family pictures scattered all over a table salted with chatter and laughter.
Reverend Jim was so overwhelmed and excited that he managed to lock his keys in his car, and later, lose them entirely. He never attended another presentation. He had much more important things to do!
I know both families were in shock.
Here’s what else I know.
Those men had a choice to make and they had to make it in an instant.
Their families had the same choice. Most of Reverend Jim’s family was gone, but Doug’s was large and it was evident that Reverend Jim went home with far more family that he arrived with.
They had been blessed.
Hatred didn’t win that day.
Neither did bigotry.
Pure and simple.
Merry Christmas and may love bless you in the new year.