A Rainbow Family
It’s been 20 years since I found my first “linked descendants.” Coming to the Table was not yet born and I’d never heard that phrase. I didn’t even know for certain that Betty and Tommy Williams were descended from people my Uncle Britt Williams enslaved in Harris County, Georgia, but I had a hunch.
They’d been referred to me by a man who works to free innocent men from death row. I was in the early days of researching a book on a lynching carried out by my ancestors in 1912. Identifying Betty and Tommy as “linked descendants” wasn’t near the top of my list at that point, but over time we became friends. Somewhere along the way, I found Uncle Britt’s estate list containing ploughs, pigs, musical instruments, Complete Works of Shakespeare, and Betty and Tommy’s ancestors with names, ages, and monetary value attached.
I ran a query in RootsWeb (now part of Ancestry). It stated “Caucasian Seeking African Americans Descended from Williamses in Harris County,” or something along those lines. Within days I had an email from Deborah, calling me Cousin, and inviting me to a big family reunion in two weeks in my hometown of Columbus, Ga.
Deborah was an amateur genealogist like myself and had everything back to 1870. She’d even done a DNA trace to ancestors in Cameroon. But she’d hit that brick wall called Slavery. So I sent her everything I’d found in the estate listings of my third great uncle Britt Willliams and my great great grandfather, Thomas Arundel Williams, so she could add it to the reunion book she was preparing. And, hands trembling, I must admit, I packed my bags to return to my hometown, to meet the African American side of my family.
“Don’t worry that you’ll be the only white person here,” Deborah told me. “We are a rainbow family.” Once there I was greeted warmly by several women who asked where I’d been and said they hadn’t seen me in years. When I told them they’d never seen me, one replied, “But you look just like this other lady who used to come.” As I browsed through Deborah’s book containing photographs of the ancient ones, several of whom were nearly white, I realized that she wasn’t joking when she called me “Cousin” from the beginning. Also, several of the “black” members of the 2,000-member Williams-Hudson Family association were married to “whites.”
That was six years ago. Over time, I have entertained Deborah and her granddaughter Jasmine at my home on Capitol Hill in D.C. Deborah attended my brother-in-law’s memorial service in Atlanta this past December, introducing herself to any and all as “Karen’s cousin.” Another African American cousin, Tommy, dropped by on his motorcycle to take me to dinner one night in DC. A vibrant young man in his early 40s, I learned later he was on his “last road-trip.” Over burritos, Tommy and I talked into the night about our kids, our spouses or lovers, our mothers, our values, our childhoods, you name it. Six months later Tommy died in Georgia of cancer. I have spent several hours talking with his grieving mother, Betty, my first “linked descendant” contact, by phone. I am in touch with other linked descendants on Facebook.
Just two days ago Deborah sent another Deborah into my life. This one lives just up the road in Maryland. She, like me, is a storyteller and did we have stories to tell. We were amazed, though we’d never seen one another, at all the intersections in our lives. She wants to write a book, or at least a story, and I promised to help.
I recall with great shame that when we first met, Betty, who shares my mother’s name, asked me where my mother lived in Columbus; and I had this jolt of fear that she’d show up there trying to be friends or whatever with my still-racist mother. At that time I had a racially-mixed granddaughter whose existence I still hid from all my Georgia relatives but my sister and my mother.
The change that has come into my life and heart in the years I have known these many descendants of men, women, and children who built my paternal family’s wealth and well-being is indescribable. I know for certain I will never again have the reaction I had that day to Betty’s question. She and her family have taught me that we are all one; that we have more in common than we can imagine. Many of us grew up in the same city, at the same time, yet lived in parallel, though unequal, universes. How sad and bizarre that seems to me today and yet I know most of my white friends who remain there still mostly live that segregated life, denying themselves the rich wholeness I have found by desegregating my own.
The book I am writing – The Family Tree: A Kinship Lynching in Jim Crow Ga. – will be published in Spring 2015 by Simon & Schuster. My hope is that it will help raise the consciousness of some of my old friends and other white people still hiding out from their family, regional, and national history.