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After Hitting Walls With Traditional Methods, Black Genealogists Turn To DNA Testing

Sarah Boden
90.5 WESA
Renelda Colvin keeps portraits of her grandma and great-grandmothers displayed in her living room.

Many people look into their family histories because it gives them a sense of identity. Black Americans often hit brick walls when doing this research, and some are turning to DNA testing to illuminate lost branches of their family trees.

Pittsburgher Renelda Colvin has been researching her genealogy for well over a decade. It's a lot of work: she's traveled to Alabama and South Carolina to record the oral histories of relatives, searched for estate records on microfilm and done lots and lots of photocopying.

Credit Renelda Colvin
Portrait of Sam Tucker, Renelda Colvin's great-great grandfather.

“This is all of my genealogy kit right here, of everything I have ever done,” said Colvin, pointing to a beige, cloth box, about the size of a small microwave.

Inside Colvin keeps copies of birth certificates, a will that lists enslaved ancestors, and scores old photographs, including a portrait of her great-great-grandfather as young man. He wears a dark suit jacket, and has somber, round eyes.

“His name was Sam Tucker,” said Colvin, pointing at the photgraph. “Born and raised and died in South Carolina. And this is on my maternal line of the family, and I believe he was born enslaved.”

In addition to years of research, Colvin said she recently sent away for a 23andMe DNA test. This will be the second time Colvin’s done genetic testing; she also has results from AncestryDNA.

Colvin decided to buy additional testing after attending a workshop on African American Genealogy at the Heinz History Center with about 75 other people.  The event was co-sponsored by Pittsburgh’s chapter of the Afro-American Historical & Genealogical Society and the Department of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

“American slavery was a traumatic experience, there’s no question that a lot was lost,” said genealosgist MIchael Williams, the workshop's presenter. “[But] the genetic memory [in a person’s DNA] was never taken away.”

Williams encouraged people to test with several direct-to-consumer DNA companies, because each has a different dataset. Additionally, there are several types of tests that reveal different information.

Credit Sarah Boden / 90.5 WESA News
90.5 WESA News
Pittsburgh-based genealogist Michael Wiliams presented at a workshop on African American genealogy at the Heinz History Center.

After testing with the company African Ancestry, Williams, who was adopted, traced his matrilineal line all the way back to the Kru people, a historically seafaring group storied for their independence.

“She survived the Middle Passage, whoever this Kru maternal ancestor of mine was, who’s nameless,” said Williams. “Her progeny ended up in North Carolina. That lineage has passed down to me.”

People can also test their patrilineal DNA. Because women were often raped by the white men who enslaved them, patrilineal results for many black Americans show European heritage.

But matrilineal and patrilineal DNA testing only provide information for a single genetic line. That’s just a small slice of someone's heritage, considering one person has 128 great-great-great-great-great grandparents.

An autosomal DNA test, such as 23andMe, gives a more comprehensive look at one’s genetic heritage. Genealogist Shannon Christmas said this kind of product is particularly helpful for finding distant relatives.

“Even if you are not looking, someone else is,” said Christmas. “They’re going to run across your name and begin to understand where you fit into their family.”

Credit Renelda Colvin
Renelda Colvin's great-grandmother Daisy McMullen, née Miller.

A lot of people are interested in autosomal tests for, what Christmas called, the genetic-selfie.

“They are so hypnotized by the marketing around, for lack of a better term, ethnicity,” he said.

But as Renelda Colvin will tell you, these ethnic breakdowns aren’t always very accurate. For example, her test results originally reported her heritage as being 30 percent Nigerian. But that percentage has fallen in the two-and-a-half years since she took the test.

“Now, I’m like 3 percent Nigerian,” she said.

The datasets of DNA testing companies grow and change with each new customer submitting their information, and it's normal for someone's test results to change over time. The AncestryDNA online portal now shows her genealogy as being most heavily related to Cameroon, Congo and southern Bantu peoples with 39 percent, and followed by 27 percent Benin-Togo.

The shifting nature of DNA results can be disappointing for some African Americans, who often find the document trail runs cold after the 1870 U.S. Census. This was the first census conducted after the Civil War and included many black Americans for the first time.

In contrast, Colvin said some of her white friends are more certain of their backgrounds, because there are documents showing where their families came from and when.

“It’s like, ‘Well I know, I’m a quarter German. A third of this, ' and it’s easy for them to identify who they are. But for the African American experience there are so many different nuances," said Colvin. Families were ripped apart by slavery and lynchings; some stories were simply lost.

Sarah Boden
Credit Sarah Boden / 90.5 WESA News
90.5 WESA News
Renelda Colvin holds photographs of late relatives.

Colvin said, while it would be nice to have a clearer picture of her genetic makeup, she’s more curious about the generations before her who were enslaved and who lived during the Jim Crow era.

If she could talk to these relatives, Colvin said she would say thank you, “Because of what you had to endure. Because of the pain, the suffering, the mishaps, history being unkind to you. Thank you for all that you’ve done for me to be right here. And I hope I can tell your story with dignity and pride.”

WESA receives funding from the Heinz History Center.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.