The New York Times In America

January 8, 2004

Surprises in the Family Tree

By MITCHELL OWENS

JOHN ARCHER first appears in Northampton County, Va., in the mid-17th century. He started a family that prospered, fought in the Revolutionary War and built a mansion. Generations later, Archer's blood trickled down to me. It mingled in my veins with DNA from a gravedigger in 17th-century Württemberg, Germany; from an Appalachian clan with a recessive gene that turns their skins indigo blue; and from a rich young widow in Jamestown, Va., whose fickle heart led to America's first breach-of-promise suit, in 1623.

I have been researching my past for two decades, since I was in high school, so finding a new ancestor is hardly startling. Learning about John Archer three years ago, however, was startling. He was black, a slave or indentured servant freed around 1677. I am white. That's what it says on my birth certificate. Now I know better, thanks to Paul Heinegg.

A retired oil-refinery engineer in Collegeville, Pa., Mr. Heinegg, who is white, has compiled genealogies of 900 mixed-race families who lived freely in slaveholding states in "Free African Americans of North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia" and "Free African Americans of Maryland and Delaware." (The information is posted on a Web site, www.freeafricanamericans.com.)

Mr. Heinegg's research offers evidence that most free African-American and biracial families resulted not from a master and his slave, like Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, but from a white woman and an African man: slave, freed slave or indentured servant.

"Most of the workers in colonial America in the 17th and early 18th centuries were indentured servants, white and black," said Dr. John B. Boles, a professor of history at Rice University in Houston and the editor of "The Blackwell Companion to the American South" (2001). Since there was not a clear distinction between slavery and servitude at the time, he said, "biracial camaraderie" often resulted in children. The idea that blacks were property did not harden until around 1715 with the rise of the tobacco economy, by which time there was a small but growing population of free families of color. Dr. Boles estimated that by 1860 there were 250,000 free black or mixed-race individuals.

"Some academics have studied this parallel story of blacks in America, but it hasn't trickled down to the general population," Dr. Boles said. "The action is in slavery studies." Mr. Heinegg is one of the few people to trace the free black families that lived in slave-owning America: some of them rich slave owners, most of them poor farmers and laborers, nearly all of them little known.

"When I saw what Paul had done, my eyes opened wide," said Dr. Ira B. Berlin, a professor of American history at the University of Maryland and the founding director of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project there. Dr. Berlin met Mr. Heinegg in November 2000 at a conference in Durham, N.C., about the mixed-race cabinetmaker Thomas Day, a major antebellum figure. The documentation Mr. Heinegg had amassed in five years convinced Dr. Berlin to write a foreword to his book praising his meticulous work.

It is incontrovertible that America is a multiracial society, from the founding father Alexander Hamilton (the son of a mixed-race woman from the British West Indies) to Essie Mae Washington-Williams, 78, a retired schoolteacher, who, the late Senator Strom Thurmond's family acknowledged last month, is his daughter. And for decades there have been questions about the possible mixed-race ancestry of Ida Stover, Dwight D. Eisenhower's mother.

Since 1997, after it broadcast "Secret Daughter," a documentary about a mixed-race child given up for adoption in the 1950's, "Frontline" has been exploring the mixed ancestry of well-known Americans on its Public Broadcasting System Web site. One is Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whose blood lines, according to the historian Mario de Valdes y Cocom, go back to the van Salees, a Muslim family of Afro-Dutch origin prominent in Manhattan in the early 1600's. If any branch of your family has been in America since the 17th or 18th centuries, Dr. Berlin said, "it's highly likely you will find an African and an American Indian."

That's where Mr. Heinegg, 60, comes in. In 1985, his mother-in-law, Katherine Kee Phillips, who was black, asked him to research her family tree. "I had hoped to trace as many branches of her family back to slavery as possible," he said. Instead, he found that Mrs. Phillips and his wife, Rita, had white ancestors who were not slave masters, including a woman who started a family with John Kecatan, an African slave freed in 1666. The ladies were intrigued by his discoveries but not surprised, Mr. Heinegg said.

Curious about his findings, he began tracing free black families related to his wife by combing colonial court records, wills, deeds, free Negro registers, marriage bonds and military pension files. Many were dauntingly unindexed.

"Nobody has done anything like this," said Dr. Virginia Easley DeMarce, a historian and former president of the National Genealogical Society who works for the Office of Federal Acknowledgment, Department of the Interior, which decides who is an American Indian. "Paul is the first person to identify families of color on such a broad scope," gathering material from entire states rather than just a county or two.

Dr. Berlin said, "There were communities in 17th- and 18th-century America where blacks and whites, both free, of equal rank and shared experiences, were working together, living together, drinking and partying together, and inevitably sleeping together."

Tracing those communities has not been easy. "People of color are often not identified as such in early records," Mr. Heinegg said. "For example, an individual might appear in deeds and court records and leave a will without ever mentioning his race." Sometimes a person's race can be discerned only by studying the tax assessed on nonwhites. If a man paid the tax on his wife but not himself, Mr. Heinegg said, it meant he was white but she was not.

An added challenge is that racial identity can mutate from free black to white in just a few generations. In my Archer ancestors' case, it was mixed marriages and a cross-country move: my great-great-grandfather Esquire Collins and his wife, Roxalana Archer, are listed as mulatto in an 1800's Tennessee census but show up as white on a later Arkansas census. "You crossed over as early as you were able to," said Antonia Cottrell Martin, a genealogist in New York. Mixed-race families who had difficulty passing sometimes explained dark complexions as coming from an American Indian or Mediterranean ancestry. "It's what people in the South used to call Carolina Portuguese," said Dr. DeMarce, who comes from a mixed-race background.

"Free African Americans of North Carolina," self-published by Mr. Heinegg in 1991, won an award from the North Carolina Genealogical Society. (The American Society of Genealogists gave a later edition the Donald Lines Jacobus Award for best work of genealogical scholarship.) But the book also stirred controversy. Some white members of the North Carolina group were upset with his findings and asked that the award be withdrawn, Mr. Heinegg said.

Dr. DeMarce said: "He's just publishing the documents. He's not interpreting them. That's up to anthropologists."

Mr. Heinegg is familiar with racial prejudice. He and his wife, who met as members of the Brooklyn outpost of the Congress on Racial Equality, left the country in 1969, disgusted by what they saw as a lack of progress. They raised their three daughters in Tanzania, Liberia and Saudi Arabia.

But even when he was abroad, Mr. Heinegg ordered microfilm records by mail and spent one-month vacations in the United States to peer at faded records in county courthouses. He still works on his research, and updates his book and Web site regularly. A new edition of "Free African Americans" is published every two years by Clearfield, a division of the Genealogical Publishing Company, Inc., www.genealogical.com. The latest two-volume paperback costs $100 and is 1,042 pages long.

The index to Mr. Heinegg's book lists more than 12,000 individuals, including ancestors of mine it would be nice to know more about, like Richard Nickens and his wife, Chriss, freed in 1690 by the will of John Carter II, a prominent Virginia planter. Nickens and his wife were given two cows, six barrels of corn and the right to farm some Carter land for life.

Matters like these fascinate me. My brother, Derrick, finds our black ancestry only mildly interesting, being riveted instead by our Native American blood. My eldest nephew, Justin, an elementary school pupil obsessed with islands, cherishes the knowledge that one ancestor was shipwrecked on Bermuda in 1609.

Genealogy is not regarded as an academic discipline, Dr. DeMarce said, which is why Mr. Heinegg's work is not more widely known. And his lists are published by a specialty house, not a university press, she said, "so it's unlikely to be reviewed by a major publication like The American Historical Review."

Mr. Heinegg prefers to let the academics find his work on their own. Right now, he is busy adding more free black Virginia families to his list. "My goal," he said, "is to find the origins of every family that was free in the Southeast during the colonial period."


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