Bridging A Family’s Racial Divide

Maria felt conflicted.Maria quote

Here she was celebrating her parents’ 63rd wedding anniversary, and the last thing she wanted to do was upset her elderly mother. But on the flipside she had to ask her.Maria now knew her mother’s secret, a secret that brought up many questions, serious questions. Maria wanted to know why her mother hid her true origins. Maria wanted to ask those questions and so many more, and her mother was the only one who could answer them.

“So I said to myself: ‘If she mentions the necklace, I’m going to say something,’” said Maria, a mother of young twins who lives with her husband in New Jersey.Her parents had come back to New Jersey for their anniversary celebration. The couple met in New York City at a high school dance. Maria’s mom was 18 when she married her father. The couple raised four kids together, part of a large extended Italian family. But that large family was all on Maria’s dad’s side of the family. She knew nothing about her mom’s family.

“My mom’s story was that she was adopted and her parents died and she had no siblings,” Maria said.

Her mother told her kids very little about her biological family except to say there was a rumor that they were Italians who’d immigrated through Argentina to the United States.Yet after testing with 23andMe and seeing her results, Maria discovered that her mother’s story just didn’t add up. Maria was only half Italian, and almost 20 percent African.

“When I saw it at first I was like ‘wait a second!’” Maria said.She thought it was wrong.When she told her sisters and brother they were in denial.“Mom can’t be black?” they said.Or could she?Both Maria’s sister and brother tested and they too had close to the same percentage African ancestry. So after that initial shock, Maria started to dig a little deeper, connect with cousins found through 23andMe, and that’s how she pieced together her mother’s family story.IMG_4769The family’s story is surprising, but finding “hidden African ancestry” is much more common than many know. While most African Americans are aware that they have “white” ancestry – a vestige of the ugly history of slavery – fewer “white” Americans know that they may have “hidden African ancestry” in their families. This too is a legacy of slavery and segregation in America. For those families with hidden ancestry, it means that at some point in history someone in their family likely “passed” for white.

Each story is unique but commonly this was to escape the consequences of racism directed at African Americans that limited job and education opportunities.For Maria learning this about her mother, didn’t so much change her identity as it changed how she looked at her family.

“It’s strange,” Maria said. “I grew up thinking I was one way and actually I’m not who I thought I was.”

Maria wanted to know why had her mother kept this secret for so long, but before she asked her questions she wanted to be sure, so she dug a little deeper. And then that day at church she said a prayer. She told herself that if her mother asked about the necklace she’d take it as a sign that it was OK to ask her mother.As they left the church her mother noticed the necklace telling her daughter how much she liked it. Maria took it as a sign to start asking questions.“It’s your sister’s necklace,” Maria told her mom.”

Her mother, who had always told her children that she’d been an only child, was stunned.

“’My sister? What do you mean my sister?’” Maria’s mother said.

Maria told her mom whom it had come from and that she had not just found her mother’s sister but connected with a brother and a few more aunts.Maria had learned that her mother wasn’t of Italian origin, nor was her biological family originally from Argentina, as she’d once told her kids. Her mother was born in Illinois. Her parents were African Americans from Mississippi, and her mother had had at least 19 siblings. Her mother’s family had moved from the Mississippi to Chicago for job opportunities, part of the wave of African Americans to move north in what is called the “Great Migration.”

Maria had learned that at some point her mother and three of her siblings, who could pass for white, moved to New York City. Maria’s mom was 15 at the time. The four siblings used a Latino sounding last name. Over the years they either lost ties or cut off contact with the rest of the family back in Illinois and Chicago. Maria’s mom soon met the man, who would be her husband at a school dance. When they got married it caused another rift in the family. After the marriage, Maria’s mother lost contact with her three siblings in New York.

Maria learned about this from relatives she found through 23andMe. One of the connections she made was with cousins in California who were the children of her mother’s brother. After making the connection Maria told her mom and together they traveled together to visit her mother’s 96 year-old brother. The two hadn’t seen each other in 64 years. Maria was also able to find two of her mother’s sisters who were still alive. She talks to them weekly and recently traveled to Chicago to meet one of them and her newly found cousins in person. These connections have given Maria a chance to see family photos of her grandparents, her mother as a young woman, as well as aunts and uncles she never knew she had.

“It’s fascinating and crazy,” Maria said. “I never knew these people existed and now it’s like I’ve known them my whole life.”

As for learning about her and her family’s African American ancestry, Maria said it didn’t really change how she thought about herself. It did change how she thought of her family, and the power of being connected to all these family members she never knew before.

“To me it’s an amazing story of a family’s racial divide, but with a very happy ending,” she said.

  • Albert Nygren

    I know about hidden things. My Mother and Father got divorced when I was 2 and 1/2 years old and she was pregnant with my younger Brother. This was in 1945. My mother couldn’t live on her own as there were no Government programs to help anyone. So my Mother Carrying my Brother Ed in her womb went to live with her Parents until I was 16 y/o. My Grandfather never made any secret that he was 1/4 Cherokee but I never knew there was any other Native American ancestry in the family. In any case we lived as any working class Caucasian family wood. When I was 16 y/o My Grandparents moved to Arizona as my Grandfather had always wanted to do because of his arthritis. I overheard them talking about that one evening when they didn’t know I was around the corner. I was no more than 12 y/o and maybe less. He said he wanted to move to Arizona but my Grandmother said “No! Not until those kids are old enough to take care of themselves,”
    They moved when I was 16 y/o but the house was not sold so we stayed there at least a year. I use way too many words, I’m sorry folks. Now that there was room in the house my older brother I had never knew about moved in with his pregnant wife. She had a baby and they moved out.
    Much later my first cousin told us that our grandmother was also 1/4 Native American. I told mu cousin that it was too bad that my Grandmother who was born in Kansas in 1898 (My Grandfather was born in Missouri in 1890), was too ashamed to admit she was Native American. My Cousin said my Grandmother wasn’t ashamed it was that there were bounties on Native Americans until 1929. Those Native Americans who were light enough said they were Caucasian and many who were too dark for that said they were African American. There may have been terrible prejudice against African Americans but there was no bounty, where you could kill one and bring proof of death somewhere and get some money.
    The kicker for me was I just recently did one of those $99 DNA tests and there was no Native American DNA found in me at all. Now how did that happen? Was I found under a rock and things just told to me?

    • Lynz Voets

      From my understanding, we receive half of our DNA from our mothers and half from our fathers. However, the half we receive from either parent is not an even split from everything in their 100 percent, it’s a random selection. To put it in very simple terms, the selection process only sees 100 items and it picks 50. It can’t tell that 25 of them are Native American. Your grandmother, being 1/4 or 25 percent Native American, passed down either all, some or none of that DNA to your mother. She might not have received Native American DNA from either parent or it wasn’t part of her 50 percent that went to you.

    • Genia W-m

      Thanks for sharing this story! You might try taking another DNA test with another company. Some of them don’t show all the ancestry. If it turns out the same then there wasn’t any American Indian but something else. What is the largest portion of DNA in your report and/or at least 20-25% of it? That may be another family secret.
      As far as hatred in the US against any group, don’t forget there were bounties for escaped slaves too. So many ethnicities & religions were targeted in the US that one would think those groups would fight a cohesive effort against racism today instead of being so polarized!!

  • musings2

    Many of my 23andme cousins are small percentages of “sub-Saharan African” – some as much as 3%. I would attribute this to their being from Southern or Midwestern families. I would imagine anyone from long Southern lineage would have this admixture, whether they know it or not. They are related to me through various paths we are not sure about. My own lineage does not have this admixture however. Mine appears to be Native American. My ancestors lived in New England. Some of my new-found cousins also have this heritage (or potential heritage, when we find out more). I’m kind of thrilled that when my European ancestors got here, they did not remain aloof from the people around them.

    I am also related to people who knew they were African Americans. When ancestry had that “famous relatives” thing, I turned out to be related to both George Bush and Ruby Dee (more closely related to her, actually) – through some of her white relatives, I suppose. I found that really cool, since I had recently seen her up on stage for my son’s graduation ceremony at NYU-Tisch, in 2008. She’s passed on now, at a ripe old age, in 2014.

    At the dedication of the African American museum in Washington, DC, President Obama stated that we Americans are related in a family. What is true for him, is true for almost all of us, certainly myself. If we could just think of ourselves that way, we might be better off.

  • Genia W-m

    Great story! While I’ve read many stories like this over the years the ending was very surprising. Especially for Italians from NY/NJ. Many of them are not the most racially accepting culture. I’ve met some very racist Italians in those states. It’s ironic that Italians can be so racist yet they weren’t considered “Caucasian”, along with the Irish, by US standards until the 1920s!!!

  • Albert Nygren

    Thank you so much beal7, how do I get in touch with them?

  • Albert Nygren

    Thank you so much for ball your valuable information. Just as an aside to you wonderful people, it is not only Native American, African American, or other ethnic groups that get prejudiced against. I went into the United States Air Force after graduating from High School in 1961. In 1962 I was stationed in Madison Wisconsin and was stationed at Truex Field. I was always open about telling everyone I served with that I was Cherokee but I was too light to be identified as anything but White by the people in town. Yet when I was in line in a store in town it didn’t matter what place I was in, in line, I was always waited on last. That was because the towns people were prejudiced against Air Force personnel. The stores would also not hire wives of Air Force men and they would be fired if found out. Also, it was often that Air Force men were beaten up in town by the citizens who lived there. I found out later that I was stationed in Madison because I was from Milwaukee Wisconsin and that the Air Force thought we might be treated better,