Unearthing My Family’s Black Roots

From silence to celebration.

Woman learning her genealogy Courtesy Of Author by a tributary of the Ohio River. | ©Halie Rebeccaschild, 2018. Megan Brady, belterz | Canva

Trigger Warning: This narrative contains discussions of racism, racial identity, and mentions of racial slurs. It also addresses themes of racial passing, white privilege, and the historical legacy of slavery. This material may be distressing to some readers as it delves into the complexities of biracial identity and systemic discrimination.

Lost in My Skin

Numerous Black people have tried to tell me over the years. Some cashier clerks were particularly bold.


It was convenient enough. I’d approach the cashier, give them my items, and as if from nowhere, they’d ask.

“What nationality are you?”

What nationality am I? What an odd question to ask a stranger.

Yet, we lived in Ohio, a state where people didn’t speak out loud about race in the 1970s and ‘80s, so I shouldn’t have laughed at them for asking such a ridiculous question. Of course, I knew what they were asking. They saw my frizz top and who I was before I did.

“I’m American,” I’d reply honestly each time. But every so often, they would ask straight out.

“Are you mixed?”

What could I say? Before DNA tests and internet searches, my family and my birth certificate told me that I was a little, white girl with some seriously unlucky hair genetics.


And I didn’t like to lie. I was raised a good little Kantian, just like my father taught me by example. I didn’t have the nature to lie. So I’d tell them the only truth I knew.

My mom, on the other hand, had a story explaining it all.

“We have Native American ancestry,” she said, “on both sides.”

Without proof, I hesitated to tell people we were “Indians.” But I never saw the photos that my mom said existed of our Native American ancestors. Everyone in family photos appeared to be white people, and as far as I knew, we were strictly of German, British, and Scottish descent.

I was an oddity, my untamable hair a throwback to someone unknown.


My hair waved an ethnic flag that white people missed, but Black people saw straight away.

I tried to explain to these inquisitive strangers that both the maternal and paternal sides of my family have members with big-bodied, curly hair.

Like hair, eye color didn’t provide any clues, either. Both of my parents have blue eyes like mine. My grandmother’s eyes sparkled with green specks of hazel.

In short, I knew of no evidence to prove the claim that we have native or African ancestry, so I couldn’t answer these questions about the ethnicity of my ancestors with any certainty. I was intrigued but baffled, myself.

I do recall a moment as a teen when my normally congenial, great Aunt Bessie, horrified me with an off-handed and ugly, racist remark about our family history. I’m sure that my frustrations with my hair set her off.


“Yeah, there’s a [n-word] in the woodpile somewhere...”

Aunt Bessie used the racial slur. I was momentarily shocked, but I don’t remember any further discussion on the matter.

Relatives were no use. So what else could I say to strangers reaching out to connect with me across an invisible, racist divide?

Black acquaintances and strangers saw me more clearly than I saw myself, and I failed their tests of my awareness for four decades. The failure to see our shared sociopolitical connection of Black ancestry left me handicapped in the friendship department.

Not that I wasn’t aware of a spiritual connection to Black folk; of that, I’ve long been aware. I’ve walked a privileged, parallel path as a “white woman” with a few Black sisters, calling a couple best friends at different times. One beloved childhood playmate lived on my street.


Unearthing My Family’s Black Roots

Photo: Self portrait of author/Halie Suzy Rebeccaschild

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My mom remembers Lovey for his crisply fried bacon strips. I remember his daughter, Doretha, who captured my heart through play and dance.

We would dance to '70s grooves on their carport with the family circled. My little white girl moves to Anita Ward’s hit “Ring My Bell,” set the entire family into howls of laughter. These shared moments with Doretha and her family are among my happiest childhood memories.


It gutted me when the racist man who lived a few houses down chased away my best friend’s family. Yet, I can understand why if the leather-wearing, Harley-driving neighbor — the same one flying the confederate flag over his house today — threatened their family with violence.

This neighbor lived straight across the street from where Doretha’s family lived. According to Mom, Lovey and his wife chose to move away for safety reasons. I’ve never seen Doretha since. The family just disappeared without a word. I didn’t even get to say goodbye.

Doretha lived on the Black side of the racist color divide. Being white, my family was immune to harm from and otherwise invisible to my neighbor, the self-proclaimed, Whites-only, neighborhood enforcer in our racist, American social “system.”

My family, on the white side of the color divide, were not forced out of our lower-middle-class neighborhood because of our skin color. We lived free from threat, right under the racist’s nose, just a few houses away.


Could we have prevented harm or stopped his threats against Doretha’s family? I don’t know, but I’m confident the threat of violence against them was real.

In my teens, I befriended another Black girlfriend at horse camp. Upon arrival, I was so relieved to meet my bunkmate, who instantly helped me feel at ease in a strange environment.

Being birds of a feather, we forged a good friendship, as close as possible, given the distance between our homes and the color divide between us. Ironically, we could be cousins, but we would never know because of my family’s secret.

She’s from an area of Dayton, Ohio, where my biracial family raised their children, which included Aunt Bessie and her older sister, my maternal grandmother, Gladys.


It all started with their dad, my great-grandpa Garfield. Garfield lived a fascinating life that began on the northern banks of the Ohio River, just north of the ironically named, Utopia, in Franklin Township. He was raised on our family farm, just as his father James had been.

Tax records and censuses indicate a certain level of prosperity, with over 100 acres of land recorded. They grew tobacco and raised poultry and livestock, selling everything they produced, from cheese and eggs to honey. The proximity to a tobacco warehouse, just a few minutes past the Bullskin Creek in Rural, Ohio, may have been critical to their success.

As early Ohio farmers and some of Clermont County’s first settlers, they lived and raised children just a stone’s throw away from the slave state of Kentucky.

Given the land purchase and success as farmers, it’s easy to believe that they were a privileged class. Indeed, being free during an era of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 gave them privilege over enslaved people attempting to cross that same river to freedom.


Living between the Ohio River and Bull Skin Creek, at that time, it’s highly likely they aided people fleeing Kentucky in the face of real danger. But how did it come to be that my ancestors themselves escaped slavery?

Censuses tell a nuanced story of them being a marginalized class of “mulatos” living among a larger community of previously enslaved folks on the banks of the Ohio River. Despite their light skin tones, the records point clearly to previous enslavement back across the river.

Garfield’s grandfather Archibald, and my fourth-great-grandmother Eliza, could not read or write, a clear sign that the Kentucky-born pair were previously enslaved.

Censuses from Franklin Township tell Archibald and Eliza’s story: They arrived in Ohio from Kentucky poor and illiterate. Yet, vital records show that the couple married, paid personal property taxes, and raised a family in a community of similar people.


Moreover, Archibald acquired their farmland in the 1850s, before the end of the Civil War. It didn’t matter that they were landowners in a free state: Records show, they were categorized as “mulatto” people.

On various censuses, marriage, and birth records, the officiants continued to classify every one of my ancestors who lived in Franklin Township, Ohio, as “mulatto,” “colored,” “M,” or “C” at one time or another.

I’m certain my ancestors would have preferred to label themselves anything other than racist classifications. To me, though, these markings, like a cookie trail, led me to the truth about my biracial identity. Without these classifications, I wouldn’t have the same insight into my family’s story today.

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The Power of a Good Whitewashing

The difficulty other family genealogists and I have had discovering our previously enslaved ancestors allowed the secret to remain hidden for more than 70 years, effectively burying underground our family legacy for decades.

Some of my distant cousins today live as Black or African American people, knowing nothing about my branch of their family tree. How could that be?

Based only on what I was told by my family, I was clueless as a child and young adult. Aside from Aunt Bessie’s racist bombshell indicating that she knew something of our family secret, no one else uttered a word.

I would have gone on clueless, indefinitely, if it hadn’t been for the internet and an increase in digitization of vital records for genealogical purposes. Fortunately, with the help of Family.com and Ancestry.com, I uncovered a key birth record from Franklin Township.


On March 26th, 1881, my third-great-grandmother Luella gave birth to a single child, Verona G. In Franklin Township, Ohio, the vital birth record indicates that little Verona and his parents, James and Luella, were “colored” people.

Yet, I am unable to find additional records of little Verona. Verona mysteriously disappeared from public records, and Garfield took his place in history.

Great Grandpa Garfield, born to my second-great grandparents as Verona G., dropped his birth name. He called himself Garfield, declared himself White, and even bumped his birthdate by one day on his WWI and WWII draft registration forms.

He may have gotten his birth date wrong. It’s also possible that he bumped the date by one day to avoid the discovery of his official birth record. I will never know what he truly intended, but it appears he meant to leave behind his childhood identity for good.


At some point, Garfield walked away from being a “colored” person, as did at least two of his brothers, Frank, and Lorenzo. I suspect that Garfield and his brothers made a concerted effort to pass as White people for the safety of their families. Yet, their sisters continued to live as biracial or Black people.

Now, descendants of Garfield and his brothers have lived and identified as White people for four generations of offspring. None of Garfield’s children (except Aunt Bessie) said a word to the next generation if they knew anything.

As a result, their grandchildren grew up naive to their status, living in a socioeconomically privileged class over their unknown Black cousins. Worse, we lost knowledge of our family history and turned into our oppressors.


Great Grandpa Garfield’s family whitewashing complete, quite a few of my white-identifying, first cousins, today, came to embody the very racist society that Great Grandpa Garfield likely hoped his offspring would avoid. In this whitewashed dystopia, some members became the enforcers of systemic racism.

Some publicly demonized Barack Obama, as a candidate and as President of the United States, for example. Many voted for Donald Trump after ingesting far-right and racist propaganda their whole lives. Ironically, a few of them have hair just like mine, adding to the surreal quality of their acts of self-hatred.

I believe they will have some serious cognitive dissonance if they ever follow the historical records to find our previously enslaved family members on census records in Ohio or, eventually, to find them enslaved as family groups in Kentucky. Even DNA results could set my racist family members spinning internally.

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In Light of my Black Ancestral Roots

My journey to discovering my identity doesn’t come without cost. Some of my relatives will disagree with the facts. Others will disagree with my interpretation of the facts. Yet, I can’t worry about stepping on a few racist toes.

I’ve gone way too long without understanding who I am. Many Black people have probed me with questions throughout my life, trying to reach me. Yet, I lived in an alternate reality because of our family secret.

Unfortunately, that meant missing out on some very real friendship opportunities and losing a childhood friend, Doretha.

While I understand my great-grandfather and his brothers made decisions meant to protect us, this family story now wants to be told. It’s as if my ancestors have reached out to me through the generations, at this very moment, to tug at my hair.


“Wake up, Halie,” they say.

It’s time to put the family secret to bed, and you’re the one to do it.”

Through genealogical research, I’ve stumbled upon our incredible family history. It tells the story of my Black ancestors and hints of the resilience and the courage they exhibited to establish their home and raise their families in the face of extreme odds.

I look forward to discovering more about their journey out of slavery and publishing it in celebration of their survival and triumph.

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Halie Suzy Rebeccaschild is an Old Dominion University graduate with a concentration in solutions to Intimate Partner Violence. She writes on themes like personal identity, recovery from sexual assault, and family genealogy.