Family Ties

African Americans use scientific advances to trace their roots

The African American DNA Roots Project is a molecular anthropology study designed to match African American lineages with those in West Africa, a region from which many slaves were taken. (Photo courtesy of M. Zokoswki)

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After he tested his own family's DNA, another family asked Jackson to test their DNA, then another family asked, and the project snowballed from there. Now, with some 10,000 DNA samples to test, the international project is near capacity. "We’re just overwhelmed," he says. "We get responses from all over the world."

Requests from African Americans also inundated fellow geneticist Rick Kittles, who appeared in "African American Lives," a PBS miniseries that tested the DNA of some well-known participants, including Oprah Winfrey. Kittles decided to meet the community demand by collaborating with businesswoman Gina Paige to commercialize his efforts. Since 2003, when they opened African Ancestry in Washington, D.C., they have tested over 8,000 lineages.

"This is a transformative experience for people who trace their ancestry," says Paige. "It causes them to look at their lives and define themselves in different ways. Some do it just because they are curious, some to leave a legacy for their children. Some are reconnecting with Africans in the continent, building schools and buying real estate. Others are connecting with Africans here in the States."

Although African Ancestry claims to have the largest collection of African lineages in the world with some 25,000 samples from Africa, they do not guarantee they will find ancestry from the continent. In general, 30 percent of African Americans who have their DNA tested find they come from European lineages—a statistic that corroborates the well-known stories of white plantation owners impregnating their female slaves. Although the company also does not promise to match the person with one specific ethnic group, they do hope to connect people with the present-day country in which their lineage originated.

Jackson is skeptical of results that are too specific. "You have to be careful," he says, stressing that there is a lot more to learn about different ethnic groups in Africa. "What you can do now, at best, is to assign people to a part of West Africa," Jackson says.

But science is making some breakthroughs. In 2005, Jackson and his colleagues made important progress when they were able to genetically distinguish different ethnic groups living in Sierra Leone. And, although he thinks the database of indigenous African DNA samples is not nearly big enough to make an accurate match with an African American, he feels the work of his postdoctoral students and other students in the field of genetics will certainly help the research on its way. "In about 50 years," he says, "things will be clear."

Tony Burroughs, a genealogist who wrote Black Roots: A Beginners Guide to Tracing the African American Family, cautions people to avoid jumping straight into DNA testing. "If a geneticist is honest, they would say that someone shouldn't do a DNA test before they do research," he says. Burroughs advises a more practical approach to ancestry research: Talk to relatives, and write down as much as possible about the family.

"After collecting oral stories, go to relatives' basements, attics, shoe boxes, dresser drawers to see what they have that has been passed down," he says. "Those pieces will add little pieces to their oral stories. Then leave the house, and do further research." Go to places like cemeteries and funeral homes; search vital records offices, death certificates, birth certificates, marriage records. "No one should do any genetic work until they have gotten to the 1800s and 1700s," he says. "Otherwise that DNA research doesn’t help."

Kearse has been researching her family's roots for more than 15 years. According to her family's oral history, her mother descended from a woman named Mandy, who was taken from Ghana and enslaved at Montpelier—President James Madison's plantation in Virginia. According to the story, Mandy's daughter, Corrinne, had a relationship with the president that produced a child, a claim Kearse is now working with Jackson to try to verify through DNA. When the child, Jim Madison, was a teenager, he was sent away from Montpelier, eventually settling on a plantation in Texas.

"The story has been passed down from generation to generation," says Kearse. "One of the important themes was that when [Jim] was sold away for the first time, Corrine [his mother] said to Jim as he was put on the wagon, 'Always remember you’re a Madison.' " For Corinne, it would be a tool, an instrumental way for her to meet her son again. They never did see each other, but the words never left Jim.


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