“My father’s father, Edward St. Lawrence Gates—known to his children and his grandchildren as Pop—had two hobbies. He was renowned for one of them in and around his home town of Cumberland, Maryland: he grew tulips, ‘like a Dutchman,’ people said. He looked like a Dutchman, too—’light and bright and damned near white,’ as my father used to say. I learned about my grandfather’s second hobby only after his death, in 1960, when he was eighty-one and I was nine.
Pop Gates was buried at the Rose Hill Cemetery, where our forebears were among the very few Negroes allowed to disturb the eternal sleep of Cumberland’s élite white Episcopal citizenry. The town’s Episcopal churches had been segregated at least since the black St. Philips offered its first Communion, on June 19, 1910. That day, the church’s records show, Pop, his mother, Maud, his wife, Gertrude Helen Redman, and about half a dozen other Gateses took the Sacrament, which was offered by the Diocese of Maryland’s white bishop.
I was struck by how different Rose Hill was from Thorn Rose, the all-colored cemetery in Keyser, West Virginia, where my mother’s relatives had been buried. The effect was one of unkempt, chaotic modesty, each plot separately maintained by the family of the deceased. The dead at Rose Hill, by contrast, looked almost prosperous, their graves immaculate, some even regnant, crowned with ornate granite memorials. Rose Hill had a full-time groundskeeper and a stone-clad gatehouse, where records of the dead were kept. It was locked at night, unlike Thorn Rose, where just about everyone went to make out. At Thorn Rose, records of the dead seemed to exist only in the collective memory of the families whose ancestors were buried there.
My brother and I had been made keenly aware, early in our childhood, that the Gateses had a certain status in Cumberland. No one ever explained whether this was because they had owned property for a very long time in what is still a mostly white neighborhood, or because of light-skin privilege, or some combination of both. Being a Gates was somehow special, and not just within the black community in Cumberland.
After Pop’s burial, my father took us back to the Gates family home, at 505 Greene Street, a two-family house that my great-grandfather had bought in 1882. My brother and I followed my father up stairs that I had never climbed. As we walked in single file behind my dad, I noticed that the walls of the living room and staircase of my grandparents’ house were lined with framed sets of blue, red, and yellow ribbons, which Pop had won for his tulips. My grandparents’ bedroom was a cabinet of wonders, its walls decorated with only blue ribbons, along with photographs of family members I would never meet. My dad led my brother and me past the bedroom and onto a sun porch adjoining it. On the right was a trunk that was brimming with toys; it reminded me of something I’d recently seen in a Disney movie. My father turned left, though. Opening a closet door, he pulled out dozens of musty leather books: partially used bank ledgers. (Pop had once been a janitor at the First National Bank on Baltimore Street.) The books were about an inch thick, with big blue- and red-lined pages. A few had been tied with string where the red leather binding had lost its strength. Slowly and silently, he turned glue-stiffened pages that were covered, front and back, with newspaper clippings. So—Pop Gates had kept scrapbooks! That was his second hobby.
The clippings covered various news stories and human-interest items. There were hundreds of them, seemingly random, sharing only a macabre tenor: headlines about injuries and death, especially murders and fatal accidents; articles about war casualties, robberies, automobile accidents, and even plane crashes. Nestled among them were obituaries, funeral notices, funeral programs, and those laminated bookmarks noting the passing of the dead, complete with a bit of religious verse, a passage from the Bible, birth and death dates, and sometimes a photograph of the deceased. Those scrapbooks were like an archive, decade by decade, of Cumberland’s colored dead, although plenty of dead white people poked their pale visages out of those pages as well, fighting for air among all those Negroes.
After a while, it occurred to me that the white and the colored denizens of the obituary notices were dressed alike, their sartorial equality reflecting the shared aesthetic of an Olan Mills photography parlor: three-piece suits and white starched collars, hair slicked down or pressed. I felt as if those scrapbooks were a portal into a world I did not know. I began to wonder: Who were these people?
“Look here, boy,” Daddy said, startling me as he broke the silence. There, deep in those yellowing pages of newsprint, were two obituaries. One, dated Saturday, January 7, 1888, was from the Cumberland Evening Times. The headline read “DEATH OF ‘AUNT JANE GATES’ “:
Last night at 11 o’clock “Aunt Jane Gates,” colored, a family servant of the Stover’s died in the 75th year of her age. She has lived for a long time on Green Street where her death occurred. Her remains will be interred at Rose Hill Cemeterytomorrow afternoon at 3 o’clock. Services will be held at her residence on Green Street.
I especially remember another article that called her “an estimable colored woman.” Daddy then retrieved a framed photograph of this woman, who had lived just up the street from where we sat, and was buried steps away from Pop Gates’s newly dug grave. “That woman was Pop’s grandmother,” Daddy said. “She is your great-great-grandmother. And she is the oldest Gates.”
I stared at the picture until I had that face memorized, an image of the oldest colored woman I’d ever seen, etched indelibly into my nine-year-old head. In 1979, my great-aunt Pansy made a present to me of the original, which now hangs in my kitchen. What was most striking about the woman in the photograph, apart from the white nurse’s hat and uniform she wore, was that she didn’t look like a Gates. She was much darker than her grandson. I would have guessed that she was about my color, although the sepia patina that the photograph has acquired over a century and a quarter makes it hard to tell. But she had a long, straight nose, light eyes, high cheekbones, and an austere countenance. Her hair, poking out from under her nurse’s bonnet, appeared to be a curly wave. She didn’t look especially feminine; in fact, she could have been a man in drag, as my father pointed out years later with irreverent glee.
Finally, Daddy shut the album and slowly stood up. By the time we made our way downstairs, the house was teeming with family. Enough food to start a restaurant had been crowded onto the oak dining table. I headed for the fried chicken and the potato salad, hungry all of a sudden, not sure what had taken place upstairs. When I got home, I looked up the word “estimable.”
My career as a historian began that afternoon in 1960. Soon after the funeral, I became obsessed with my family tree. I peppered my mother and father with questions about the names of their ancestors, their birthplaces and birthdays, their occupations, the places and dates of their deaths. My father was the storyteller of the family, and most of my conversations about our ancestors ended up being with him.
And, besides, I was far more concerned with my Gates lineage than I was with my mother’s ancestors, as I was convinced that if any distinction was to be found on my family tree it would be through the Gates branches, given the family members’ skin color and the texture of their hair, and the fact that they had owned so much property for so long, including a two-hundred-acre farm, where my father was born, in 1913, at Patterson Creek, just across the West Virginia border. On more than one occasion, my father tried to tell me that my mother’s family was more distinguished than his, but I thought that he was being modest. He never seemed to tire of these interrogations, even when I repeated questions that I had asked a year or two earlier. I dutifully began to write it all down, in a brown spiral notebook.
Sometimes I would grow bored and put the notebook away; then, after a few days or weeks had passed, I would be seized with a desire to learn more. Once, I took my notebook for a presentation before my fifth-grade class but found myself embarrassed that I was unable to explain, when asked, how my ancestors had come to be slaves, or where in Africa they had come from. The girl who asked was, like most of my classmates, white. As far as I knew, the only way to explore a black family’s history was through family stories.
Eventually, as glossy magazines began to advertise that they could send you your family’s “coat of arms,” I longed to possess the knowledge that would allow me to claim one of these. What I really wanted, as much as the family tree detailing the identity of my African-American ancestors, was a family crest that would tie us to our white ancestors. History had allowed them to hide, to avoid responsibility for their progeny. Perhaps that crest could lead to a new set of ancestors and cousins whose identities had been reduced to whispers, gossip, and wishful thinking—the speculation, sometimes playful and sometimes maddened, that fuelled so many discussions among my father and his siblings.
When we studied American Colonial history in fourth grade, we learned that the first black slaves arrived on the James River in 1619, two hundred years before Jane Gates was born. Were there black people who could trace their families that far back? I couldn’t bring myself to order the family tree of some other Gates line, though I did relish the idea that we were related, somehow, to Horatio Gates, the Revolutionary War general whom we had studied at school.
I was searching not just for the names of my ancestors to fill out my family tree but also for stories about them. Each new name that I was able to find and print in my notebook was another link to the colored past that had produced, by fits and starts, but also, inevitably, the person I had become and was becoming. On my mother’s side, J. R. Clifford, my great-uncle, was, I learned, the first black man to be admitted to the bar in the state of West Virginia. Far more thrilling to me was the fact that, during the Civil War, he had served in the U.S. Colored Troops. He had also published his own newspaper, the Pioneer Press, in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Later, I learned that, in 1905, he had co-founded the Niagara Movement—the forerunner of the N.A.A.C.P.—with W. E. B. Du Bois. On my father’s side, three generations of Jane Gates’s descendants had graduated from Howard University, starting with my great-aunt Pansy, in 1910, and including two generations of dentists. My father’s first cousin had graduated from Harvard Law School in 1949; there he had met his wife, who, in 1955, was the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Harvard. Kind of hard to top that, my father would argue, but J. R. Clifford knew Du Bois, and Du Bois was the ultimate trump card, black history’s ace of spades.
With just a little effort, most African-Americans can trace at least one line of their family back to the 1870 federal census, which was the first taken after the Civil War and is therefore the first in which all our ancestors appear as citizens with two names, rather than as property. In the 1850 and 1860 censuses, there is a list of “Slave Inhabitants” held by each owner, recorded by age, gender, and color (black or mulatto) but not by name. Since many freedmen took their surnames from their masters, one part of the pre-1870 puzzle can sometimes be solved through a simple comparison: once you have found your ancestor in the 1870 census, you can examine the “Slave Inhabitants” list from the 1850 and 1860 censuses to see if a white person with the same surname and in the same geographical area owned a slave; then see whether a slave ten or twenty years younger than your ancestor is identified on those lists. Estate papers and property records can also be used to cobble together a history of slave ancestors. The 1870 census, which relied on the same door-to-door information gathering used when I was a boy, lists all the members of a particular household, by their full names, birth places, ages, and occupations.
Census data, despite their simplicity, can be surprisingly revealing. The entry for Jane Gates, for example, says the following, if I summarize the relevant columns: “Jane Gates, age 51, female, mulatto, laundress and nurse, owns real estate valued at $1,400, born in Maryland, cannot read or write.” A mulatto? An illiterate mulatto at that? Nothing in the oral lore of the Gates family had prepared me for either of these facts. Who was Jane’s father? And who was the father of her children? With her in the house are her daughter Alice, age twenty-two; her son, Edward, age twelve; and two grandchildren (Jennie, age five, and David, age nine, both children of her daughter Laura). Edward and David are in school and can read and write. Alice can read but not write; she also works as a laundress and nurse.
As a child, I had been told with absolute certainty that the Gateses were descended from an Irishman named Samuel Brady, who supposedly owned Jane, fathered her children, and gave her the money to purchase her home. Jane’s son (and Pop’s father), Edward, my great-grandfather, who was born into slavery in 1857, on Brady’s farm, would, when questioned by his children, respond only that he and his siblings all shared the same father. It was his children—my grandfather’s generation—who were the source of the Brady rumor. Had Jane given her son some clue that this was so? Did Edward the elder whisper it to Pop in a moment of speculation or confessional intimacy? Whatever the source of the rumor, it had become canon law by the time I was born.
The more I learned about Brady and the Gateses, the more likely it seemed that he had known Jane and, indeed, slept with her, as family lore held. Edward Gates was born—I learned from his obituary, of 1945—“on the Brady Farm near Cresaptown.” According to extensive research by Jane Ailes, a genealogist (and Brady’s third-great-granddaughter), Samuel Brady had a farm just outside Cresaptown, exactly as family legend had it. And between 1828 and 1865 Samuel Brady owned slaves, starting with one, and reaching a high point of forty-two, in 1850, according to the federal census. Brady was a study in contradictions: three of his sons fought for the Confederacy, and one of them spent eighteen months in a Union prison; nevertheless, a year before the war ended, Brady signed deeds of manumission for four of his slaves so that they could enlist in the 30th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops and fight for the North.
Emboldened by these findings, I set out to prove or disprove the family story about the supposed father of Jane’s children. In the past decade, developments in DNA testing and the retrieval and digitization of archival records have made it possible for black families to begin to trace their ancestry further back through American history and, ultimately, even across the Atlantic. In 2005, I placed an advertisement in the Cumberland Timesand posted a message on a Brady-family online forum asking for male descendants of Samuel Brady to identify themselves, hoping that one of them would submit a DNA sample for a belated paternity test.
One of Brady’s direct male descendants and a direct male descendant of Brady’s brother William 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 I told my father and his sister, Helen, what the tests had revealed, Aunt Helen summed up the reaction of just about all the Gates family members: “I’ve been a Brady eighty-nine years, and I am still a Brady, no matter what that test says.”
I found myself pleased by Aunt Helen’s defiance, as irrational as it might seem; I guess I had always thought of myself as a Brady, too. Being told that we weren’t Bradys was a bit like being orphaned. For my cousin John Gates, there will always be two stories about our ancestry: the story that our genes tell, and the story that our ancestors told. And he wants both to be in play for his three sons and his grandchildren. The challenge of genealogy used to be the reconciliation of a family’s oral memories with public written records, and in the search for one’s ancestors nothing is as pleasing as having these two streams of testimony confirm each other. But genetics can now demolish or affirm a family’s most cherished beliefs and stories with just a bit of saliva and a cotton swab.
What about the father of Jane’s children, then? Well, given that all males with my Y-DNA marker (it’s known as the Ui Neill haplotype) bear one of a few dozen surnames, a team of genealogists and I have begun to compile a list of all the men with those names in the 1850 and 1860 censuses for Allegany County, Maryland. We are advertising for their male descendants, and asking them to take a DNA test. With a little patience, and a lot of luck, perhaps DNA can solve the last remaining mystery in the Gates family line, the secret that Jane Gates took with her to her grave.
African-American history is a young discipline; restoring the branches of even one black-family tree can profoundly change our understanding of the larger story of who the African-American people really are. By telling and retelling the stories of our ancestors, we can move that history from our kitchens and parlors into the textbooks, ultimately changing the official narrative of American history itself.
My family tree hangs in my kitchen, just across from the photograph of Jane Gates. But the graphic record of the entangled blood lines, impressive and gratifying though it is, does not fulfill my boyhood longing for a coat of arms. Of the scores of names neatly arrayed in those boxes, only one is that of a white ancestor, even though a “genetic admixture” test reveals me to be fifty per cent “European.” Until the family crest of the Irishman who fathered Jane Gates’s children graces my family tree, along with his name and the names of his ancestors, my family story will remain a tale only half told.
Then again, I’m still amazed by the ancestral additions I’ve already gained. The genealogists, in the process of researching my family tree, found three sets of my fourth-great-grandparents, all free Negroes, including, on my mother’s side, John Redman, who enlisted in the Continental Army, at Winchester, Virginia, in 1778, and served until 1782, seeing combat near Savannah, Georgia. So we had a patriot ancestor after all, even if his name wasn’t Horatio and even if he wasn’t a Gates. When I discovered that my mother had descended from seven lines of Negroes who had been freed by the eighteen-thirties—three of them by 1776—I felt chagrined that I hadn’t spent more time interviewing her. She had an enigmatic reserve when it came to her family’s past, an attitude that was in stark contrast to my father’s fondness for vivid narratives. “We come from people,” she liked to say.
I had long assumed that Pop Gates’s scrapbooks had been discarded, perhaps after a spring cleaning, by someone who wasn’t aware of their value or by someone who didn’t wish to revisit the past. As part of the celebration of my father’s ninety-fifth birthday, last summer, I decided to scan the photographs owned by the far-flung Gates family members, so that we could collect them in a book and present it to him. Amid my aunt Helen’s possessions, my cousin Bette found a red-and-black bank ledger, full of old news clippings and stamped with the logo of Cumberland’s First National Bank. My grandfather was such a shadowy figure in my life that I can’t even remember the sound of his voice. But the discovery of this scrapbook, covering the years 1943-46, allowed me to take a stroll through his mind.
I am tempted to call the scrapbook Pop Gates’s Book of the Dead, just as I might have been when I was nine. Its interpretation of this grim theme is even more all-encompassing than I had remembered, though. The book is full of statistics about war casualties but also contains intimate stories about the individual dead. And tallies of Cumberland’s wartime losses are mixed in with articles cataloguing the massacre of thousands of Jews and Serbs and reports about the starving population of India.
On April 5, 1943, an article reports that the governor of Alabama “Calls for Full Racial Segregation”: “The two races are distinct. They occupy spheres in life that began in different origins, have continued in diverging channels and should remain separate, as they have always been since the creation. No influences from outside should or can change these fundamental safety principles.” But the war was bringing hope for race relations, and Pop recorded that, too. While, early in the scrapbook, an A.P. article applauds “the first all-Negro division activated by the United States Army” because “at the outbreak of war, the American Negro clamored for an active part in the nation’s war effort,” a feature near the book’s end, datelined Paris, March 20, 1945, announces, “Negroes and Whites . . . Go Into Battle Side by Side for First Times in U.S. Army History.” The pages of Pop’s chronicle celebrate the appointment of Francis Ellis Rivers as a City Court judge in New York, as well as the first nine months of service of Hugh Mulzac, the “First Negro Captain of an American Ship.”
Pop compiled these clippings about the wartime heroics of black servicemen while working as a janitor at the First National Bank. At sixty-three, he was too old to serve but was required to register. Pop’s draft-registration card from 1942 contains the fullest description of him that has ever come to my attention: his height is five feet eight inches, his eyes are hazel, his weight is a hundred and sixty-two pounds, his hair is gray, and his complexion is ‘ruddy.’ (The choices for complexion were ‘sallow,’ ‘light,’ ‘ruddy,’ ‘dark,’ ‘freckled,’ ‘light brown,’ ‘dark brown,’ and ‘black.’) Under the column for ‘Race,’ the ‘White’ box had initially been checked; evidently, the registrar had taken him for a white man. In decisive black ink, the check mark was crossed out. The registrant must have demurred. (By contrast, Pop’s brother Roscoe chose to take advantage of a similar error that year and pass for white.) Identity wasn’t merely a matter of skin color; it was a matter of history. Pop knew himself to be an estimable colored man. A new check mark appeared beside ‘Negro.'” Henry Louis Gates, “Personal History: Family Matters;” New Yorker