My DNA profile is mostly predictable. I am 99 percent European. But there were two little surprises in the mix. According to 23andMe, I have .06 percent South Asian (India, Pakistan, etc.) DNA, and .04 percent West African DNA.
My parents recently tested as well, offering a great opportunity to sort out what came from where. As it turned out, my mother has the (inexplicable) South Asian DNA, and my father has .05 percent West African DNA. One day, I’d love to know how an Indian or Pakistani person came into the family tree! But, I’m thinking about that mysterious African ancestor today.
First question, is this for real? Such a small amount could easily be dismissed as an error. I’m definitely no DNA expert, but after a bit of reading, I think that this is accurate. For a start, it’s not actually that uncommon for white people from the Deep South to have some African ancestry. According to this article by the estimable Henry Louis Gates, around 9 percent of the self-identified white population of Georgia, where my dad’s family is mostly from, show some African ancestry in their DNA.
My dad and I show the African markers on the same chromosomes (5 and 14). On 23andMe, it even rings up as the same ethnic groups: Congolese, Ghanaian, Sierra Leonean, and Liberian. So, if this were an error, it would have to happen in exactly the same way for both of our tests. This seems very unlikely. Family Tree DNA also reports that my dad has a trace of African ancestry. Finally, all the DNA cousins on 23andMe that I know are on my father’s paternal line show the West African DNA, anywhere from .05 percent to 1.2 percent. So, I have no reason to think that DNA evidence isn’t accurate.
Mathematically speaking (and according to what 23andMe tells me) this 100 percent West African ancestor was about 6-8 generations back from me, and lived some time in the 18th century. At a genetic distance of 8 generations, this person is just one of at least 256 people in that tier. So, I don’t want to make too big of a deal out of this. I’m clearly white, after all, with all the benefits and privileges thereof. Nevertheless, this new information has made me think…
I know very little about any of my lines before about 1790. But I can now make a few working assumptions.
In addition to all my slave-holding ancestors, I almost certainly have at least one ancestor that was enslaved, coming over from Africa in the hold of a slave ship. Being white, I never considered this as a possibility until I saw it in the DNA.
My ancestor was almost certainly a woman, as the vast majority of inter-racial relationships at that time were between white men and black women. She may well have been raped by her enslaver, because that’s just how it worked. I feel that in my gut, as any woman would.
My 8th-or-so great-grandmother then had at least one child that was half-European. And that child had at least one child with a white person that was even more European, and so on. My ancestor’s child, grandchild, or great-grandchild “passed white.” They must have, otherwise the next 200+ years of my family history wouldn’t have taken place on the white side of the color line.
That grandchild or great-grandchild who “passed” lived during the time frame that I have already documented. Therefore, it is highly likely that one of the ancestors that I have been researching knew (or suspected) that they had an African granny. They may have even held slaves themselves. So, that’s pretty interesting. Or at least that’s one word for it!
(As a side note, this means that some of my more distant African-American cousins could potentially be related to me through a black ancestor instead of a white ancestor.)
I have only a rudimentary grasp of DNA, but I do see a pattern. It appears that the common ancestors of all the cousins who show the African marker are Thomas N Bembry and his wife Sarah Ann Simpson. Cousins on all the other lines do not show the African DNA. So, for now, my working theory is that either Thomas or Sarah had the African ancestry.
Without jumping to any conclusions, I do wonder about Miles Bembry, my somewhat mysterious 6th great-grandfather — and persistent genealogical brick wall. Though he doesn’t appear to have started out with any property whatsoever, Miles was a somewhat educated man and worked as a plantation overseer. This could certainly be a place for a wealthy planter’s illegitimate relative. I’ve written before about how the Bembry family (fictional) story strangely tracks closely with the actual history of the McKenzie/Clark family, who employed Miles as an overseer on their Scotland Neck plantation. Was he a cousin born “on the wrong side of the blanket?”
Some of the language used to describe Miles’ sons is also odd. John Bembry is described as having “dark skin and eyes, with a heavy down look, and a very dark and heavy beard.” Apart from the dark skin and eyes, a “down look” was frequently used to describe rebellious slaves in wanted notices. It could simply be a way of describing criminals in general, but it could also be “code” implying that John Bembry was mixed-race.
Kenneth Bembry was basically accused of being “uppity” in a Tallahassee newspaper when he ran for the Florida legislature. It could be because he was an overseers’s son, or this, too, could be “code,” it’s impossible to say for sure. But it’s not hard to imagine this language being employed to smack down a man who was rumored to be mixed-race and was considered to be getting too big for his britches.
“Mr. Bembry does us an injustice. We never could be so cruel as to attempt to prevent his advancement in society. We know not his position in society, either as to how far he has advanced, or as to the height to which ambition prompts him to climb. We shall not raise a finger or have a wish to stop him. He may climb to the topmost round of the ladder and we shall not interfere to prevent him. If, however, by “advancement in society” he means his election to the Legislature, there is something so superlatively ridiculous in it that we are astonished that should expose himself by making such a complaint.”
It’s worth noting that Kenneth had several children with a free woman of color, Fanny Williams, in Tallahassee. One of his sons by Fanny was apprenticed by him to learn the “Art and Mystery of Farming,” presumably to prepare him to be an overseer. Was he continuing a family tradition?
Again, I do not want to draw any definite conclusions. But I think it is possible that Miles Bembry was the grandchild or great-grandchild of a woman of color. I think it is possible that he appears out of nowhere in 1790 because he was the first generation in his line who was able to pass for white. I’ll simply keep this theory in mind when researching. If I were more competent with DNA science I could probably narrow it down further….but alas, I am not!
It would be fun to to solve this mystery, but in a way, it doesn’t matter. DNA does not lie. Around 250 years ago, one of my many-greats grandmothers was an African woman. She was almost certainly a slave, considered to be less than human, property to be bought, used, and sold. Her descendants deliberately forgot her in order to be considered white. She probably left no paper trail that I will ever be able to find. Nevertheless, she persisted, hidden in our chromosomes, just waiting to be discovered in the 21st century.
I am pleased to meet her!