Listening to Wendy Spencer’s decades-long search for her biological father, the improbability of finding him, and then her shock after learning about the legacy of hatred he inherited from his own father, one would forgive Wendy if she decided to forget she ever found him.
But Wendy thought that perhaps her love and her family could change that legacy.
“I know people can change,” she said. “I have witnessed it before. I see it slowly happening.”
Wendy’s story of connecting with her biological father, Bill Miller, is a testament of using love to conquer hate, confronting the truth about her biological family’s history, and even more broadly coming to terms with America’s own history of racism. People magazine recently featured Wendy’s story and how she’s attempting to change that family legacy.
“With all the hate in the world and misunderstandings I wish people could see each other as human beings with similar hopes and desire,” she said. Wendy, a 50-year-old hair stylist in Sacramento, is Jewish. She’s married to an African American man and they have four children. One of their sons is married to a Latina and the other is married to a Filipina. After learning from her mother more than two decades ago that she’d been conceived during an affair, she began searching for her biological father.
Last year, she tested with 23andMe. In October when Wendy logged into her account right after her grandson’s brit milah, the Jewish circumcision ceremony, she had a notice that she had a new DNA relative. Thinking maybe she found a new cousin, she clicked on the file.
“There was a picture of a man, it said ‘Father 50 percent match 24 segments,’” Wendy said. “Then his name, ‘William Miller.’ Needless to say I was shocked my family heard me shout from the other room!”
She soon was able to connect with Bill. They exchanged email messages and then talked on the phone.
“We talked for an hour-and-a-half,” Wendy said. “He cried off and on and seemed so happy.”
He’d told her that he had seen her twice after she was born, but that when her parents moved and then later divorced he’d lost track of her, although he never stopped looking. Wendy found out that he was in a cancer ward in San Antonio recovering from surgery. She arranged to go and visit him and then flew to Texas. He picked her up at the airport after being discharged from the hospital, and took her meet her great aunt, and a cousin.
“After a few family stories and my aunt pulling out pictures, the beginning of a nice connection was being made,” Wendy said.
The next day she went and stayed at her biological father’s house. He lived alone and had never married. The house was a wreck, but the visit allowed for Wendy to learn more about him and his family. It was almost too much for her to bear.
“He told me the reason he had the DNA test was because he was always concerned that he had a little African American in his DNA and he wanted to find out once and for all, (he does not),” she said. “It was very obvious that my dad is a racist!” The more he talked the more uncomfortable Wendy became as he put everyone in a racial categories or sprinkled his conversation with racist terms. “It was like a minor stab in the heart every time,” she said.
But she wanted to know “the good, the bad and the ugly” about her biological family. Her father obliged telling her about his father, Wendy’s her grandfather, Emmett Elliot Miller. “He told me his dad had done evil things,” she said.
Emmett Miller had been an organizer in the KKK. He’d been involved in trying to bomb an all black college, and helped to organize the picket to stop the integration of schools in Little Rock, Arkansas.
“I felt sick to my stomach, the thought of getting up and leaving occurred to me,” she said. “At the same time I felt God’s presence with me. It was a very gut-wrenching conversation.”
She told him how hurtful his racism was to her and asked that he stop using some of the racist words that were part of his vocabulary.
“I could tell his honesty was mixed with all the emotions he had been feeling,” she said. “This lonely older man was genuinely happy to have a daughter, grandchildren and great grandchildren, but his emotions were all mixed up and he needed to share the conflict that was going on in his soul.”
His daughter is Jewish, married to a black man and his grandchildren were all mixed, his great grandchildren even more mixed.
Hearing her father’s stories about his family was almost too much for Wendy to process. She thought that even in her own lifetime as she was growing up in California surrounded by a family known for tolerance, her grandfather had been working so hard to prevent desegregation and the rights of black people to vote. When she eventually came home from Texas, Wendy said she was “an emotional wreck.”
She talked to her husband and her mother-in-law, who’d always had such sage advice about other matters. But on this, her mother-in-law had nothing to offer. Both of her mother-in-law’s parents had been murdered during the pre-civil rights era in Mississippi because of the color of their skin. Wendy’s mother in-law just didn’t have it in her to forgive.
“I’ve never seen my mother in-law speechless, with no words of comfort or wisdom,” Wendy said. “She tried but I could tell how shocking my news was to her.”
Still struggling with what she learned, Wendy continued to talk regularly with her biological father, and then he came to California to visit, arriving for Hanukkah. Wendy’s family welcomed him into their home. He stayed for five days, and became the center of attention. He connected particularly with Wendy’s son Michael and her youngest daughter Cosette. But on the fifth day of his visit, he stayed alone at home with Wendy’s husband. It did not go well. But even after that, Wendy is trying to maintain the connection. Her father has sent Cosette gifts. He regularly emails, sends cards and calls. From his point of view Bill said in a comment he made to People that although his language is sometime coarse he is not a racist or a bigot. At one point in the early 1960s, he and a friend were considering moving to Mississippi to help register voters, he has close friends who are Jewish and he regrets that there is tension between him and Wendy’s husband.
“He says he loves me and does not deserve me,” Wendy said. “I am glad we have found each other.”
But she doesn’t know how it all will end up.
“I do not regret finding him and learning about the other half of me,” she said. “It has not been easy, but all of the story has been told.”