Thursday, December 04, 2008

"Family Matters", by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Personal History, “Family Matters,” The New Yorker, December 1, 2008, p. 34
Read the full text of this article. (Registration required.) December 1, 2008 Issue

ABSTRACT: PERSONAL HISTORY about the writer’s exploration of his family tree. The writer’s grandfather, Edward St. Lawrence Gates (known as Pop), had two hobbies— growing tulips and keeping scrapbooks. The writer didn’t know about the second hobby until after Pop Gates’s death, in 1960, when the writer was nine years old. Pop Gates was buried at the Rose Hill Cemetery, in Cumberland, Maryland; the writer’s forebears were among the few blacks allowed in the predominantly white cemetery. Mentions Thorn Rose Cemetery. The writer had been made keenly aware, early in his childhood, that the Gateses had a certain status in Cumberland. After Pop’s burial, the writer’s father took him back to the Gates family home and went upstairs to the closet. There he pulled out dozens of musty leather books with pages covered with news clippings of African-Americans who had died. One obituary, dated Saturday, January 7, 1888, was about the death of Aunt Jane Gates, the writer’s great-great-grandmother. The writer’s career as a historian began that afternoon in 1960, and he became obsessed with his family tree. What he really wanted was a family crest that would tie him to their white ancestors. Mentions J. R. Clifford and W. E. B. Du Bois. Most African-Americans can trace at least one line of their family back to the 1870 census, which was the first taken after the Civil War. As a child, the writer had been told that the Gateses were descended from an Irishman named Samuel Brady, who supposedly owned Jane, fathered her children, and gave her money to purchase her home. In 2005, the writer placed an ad in the Cumberland Times and posted a message on a Brady-family online forum. One of Brady’s direct male descendants and a direct male descendant of Brady’s brother agreed to take a DNA test. The tests established, without a doubt, that Samuel Brady was not the father of Jane Gates’s children. When the writer told his father and his aunt, Helen, what the tests revealed, Aunt Helen said, “I’ve been a Brady eighty-nine years, and I am still a Brady, no matter what that test says.” What about the father of Jane’s children, then? The writer and a team of genealogists compiled a list of all the men with certain surnames in the 1850 and 1860 census for Allegany County, Maryland, and are advertising for their male descendants. Perhaps DNA testing can solve the last remaining mystery in the Gates family line. Until the family crest of the Irishman who fathered Jane Grant’s children graces the writer’s family tree, his family story will remain a tale only half told. Mentions Pop Gates’s scrapbook full of war casualties.