A bit of truth and a lot of trimmings. That’s how we view most family stories — unless they’re ours. The popular family history program “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr.” on PBS made a great start to its new season on Jan. 5 by looking at family stories shared by actor Ty Burrell, artist Kara Walker and politico and civil rights activist Donna Brazile.
And believe it or not, all three stories involved multi-racial family trees.
Ty Burrell, a star on TV’s “Modern Family,” shared the family tradition that his Caucasian family based in Oregon included a black ancestor. Could that story possibly be true? Not only is it true, but it turns out that Burrell’s great-great-grandmother, a former slave born in Tennessee, was a pioneer who put down roots in Oregon, where her descendant grew up.
Susanna Weeks, born about 1840, pursued the ownership of land through the 1878 Act of Secure Homesteads, which required grantees to live on the property for five years and to make improvements in order to take ownership. Though only about half of those who tried actually succeeded, Weeks was one of them, and she became owner of 160 acres in Oregon.
Gates showed Burrell that Susanna’s son, George Washington Weeks, was listed as white in the 1930 Census of Oregon. But the 1920 Census listed him as mulatto, and in the 1900 Census he was listed as black, a time when only half of 1 percent of Oregon’s residents were black.
Further research showed that Susanna’s mother also was a slave, Nellie Mask. A study of the area where she lived revealed that Dudley Mask was a white slave-owner in the area where she grew up, and records showed that Nellie’s parents were, in fact, Dudley Mask, and one of his slaves, Jane, who was just 13 when Nellie was born. DNA testing confirmed that Dudley Mask was an ancestor of Ty Burrell.
He shared with Gates that he was honored to learn about the strong black women who turned out to be in his family tree, but the truth about Dudley Mask was distressing.
Kara Walker, who is known for her bold artistry illuminating the experience of slavery, didn’t know specifics about her roots — except for the family tradition that one of those black ancestors was free even before the Civil War. Since her family had moved during her childhood to Stone Mountain, Georgia, known as the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan, the story of a free black person is one she wanted to find the truth about.
That line turned out to come down from ancestor James Thorpe of South Carolina, and though DNA has since confirmed it, it was census records which painted the picture.
It’s not just that a James Thorpe family lived in a particular town, but that Walker’s ancestor Lettie Watson, who was black, lived in the same town with her son, James Thorpe.
Traditionally, a white ancestor had little or no contact with black offspring, generally slaves. But Gates pointed out that in 1910, James Thorpe Sr. owned a meat market, and that Lettie’s son James Thorpe was listed in the census as a butcher.
Gates also gave Walker information about her ancestor, who was a free black man before Emancipation took effect. In Charleston, South Carolina, in 1861, was found a record of her ancestor Henry Fordham with the notation “f.p.c.” Walker pondered that a moment, then said, “free person of color.”
Donna Brazile began her Civil Rights activism at age 8 when, on an April night in 1968, she heard that Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered. As for her last name, she presumed that it had some connection to the South American country, even if only as an aspiration for her family. But her great-great-grandmother, born in 1843 in North Carolina, was Della Braswell, which later became Brazilel.
There were, at the time, 14 slave-owners in the area named Braswell, men descended from Robert Bracewell, a man born in England in 1611 who had come to Virginia.
The program also traced Brazile’s mother, Mariah Butler Brown, back to slave-owner Tom Butler of Louisiana. His former slave, Dan Butler, Brazile’s great-great-grandfather, died in 1935, when he was 92, according to his death certificate, “just an old Negro overcome by cold” in a cabin with no clothes.
“It is profoundly disturbing,” Brazile said at the news.
The next episode of “Finding Your Roots,” scheduled for 8 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 12, will feature the stories of Bill O’Reilly, Soledad O’Brien and Bill Maher, whose roots go back to County Kerry, Ireland.
For information on researching family history in Maine, see Genealogy Resources under Family Ties at bangordailynews.com/browse/family-ties. Send genealogy queries to Family Ties, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402, or email email@example.com.