In this three-part series from the LA Times, a reporter faces confusion, intolerance, and hostility within his family as the search for his earliest American ancestor leads to a lineage of African slaves and farmers.
From Joe Mozingo, The Los Angeles Times:
Growing up, I knew all about how my mother’s grandparents came to California from southern France and Sweden. But my dad’s side was a mystery.
All I heard were a few stories about my grandfather as a youth in Hannibal, Mo., how he found a tarantula in a shipment of bananas at his dad’s corner store, how he and a friend once rode motorcycles out west. But no one talked about Mozingos further back, or where they came from.
I might never have given the subject any thought except for a strange word: our name. All my life, people had asked me about it.
I began to look into it, and the more I learned, the more I realized our history had been buried. My curiosity turned to compulsion. I had to unearth the truth about our origins and the forces that had obscured them for centuries. I wanted to know my forebears and feel myself among them, to see if their forgotten personalities and struggles and secrets somehow still lived within us.
When I met Sherrie Mazingo in 1996, whose name is a variation of ours, Sherrie was a broadcast journalism professor at USC when I was a grad student there.
She was black – and she had news.
She’d learned from genealogists at a family reunion in North Carolina that the Mozingos probably descended from a “Bantu warrior” from the Congo who became an indentured servant in Virginia in the 1600s.
That would mean that all Mozingos in America – including me, who grew up in California’s Dana Point, the blue-eyed, surfing son of a dentist – had a Bantu last name.
My first reaction was to laugh. But upon further reflection, it seemed feasible. Ten or so generations had passed. Traces of a race could easily disappear in three.
Over the ensuing years, little moments kept my curiosity smoldering. White people who commented about my name assumed it was Italian. Black people tended not to volunteer opinions until the Miami Herald sent me to cover the instability in Haiti in 2004. In that country, with its tenacious African customs and language, I got an invariable response when I introduced myself: “That’s an African name.”
I started poking around on the Internet. An entry in a genealogy forum noted that the earliest known Mozingo was Edward, a “Negro man” freed by the Jamestown court in 1672 after nearly three decades of indentured servitude.
This was the first piece of hard information I’d seen. Maybe Sherrie was right: We came from Africa.
Every Mozingo in America probably descended from Edward Mozingo, a “Negro man” who lived in the Tidewater region of Virginia in 1644. I could trace myself only as far back as Spencer, who first showed up as a white adult in a 1782 census in the Piedmont, about 80 miles west. Who his parents were, whom he married, where he came from were mysteries.
Tom Mozingo, 68 and retired to central Florida, is the elder statesman of Mozingo genealogy. He braces relatives who ask him about the name. “If I tell you the truth, can you handle it?” he asks them. “Can your family handle it?”
Tom was in the Navy in the 1970s when he first got an inkling of the African origins. At a conference of naval attaches in San Diego, a “giant black man” with a Cameroonian patch on his uniform noticed Tom’s name tag.
“Oh, we have people with that name in my country,” the man said.
“A lot of people?” Tom asked.
“Many, many people.”
By the 1990s, Tom was producing a family genealogy newsletter. He had traced his ancestry to Edward and come to accept him, with some pride, as his forebear.
But he wouldn’t mention him in the newsletter. Tom didn’t want to upset his subscribers, many of them older and not about to change their beliefs.
One descendant who knew about Edward had begged Tom not to write about him. “He had two daughters who were of marrying age, and he didn’t want them embarrassed,” Tom said. “It made it very personal for me to have a father ask that.”
I understood, but I didn’t agree about keeping quiet.
The charade had gone on for 300 years. In the past, it may have been a measure of self-preservation. What were we suppressing the truth for now? To protect feelings that should have been obsolete long ago?
With DNA technology and websites like ancestry.com, people are delving into their roots like never before, and both white and black often find a more complex racial history than they’d imagined.
But in our case, denial allows fairy tales to flourish.