Do You Know Your Family History?

I’d been thinking about writing the Johnson Family series for a couple of years, but the idea for their background came from a conversation I had with a friend not too long ago. Before I tell you about it, if you read Unforgettable, you know I gave a brief history of the family. I told you how the parents came to meet, shared a bit of their ancestry with you, and gave a little plug to my birthplace, the U.S. Virgin Islands. Here’s an excerpt:

St. Thomas, USVI mountain view

St. Thomas, USVI mountain view

The marriage of Constance Newton and Cyrus Johnson merged two wealthy families whose lineage could be traced back hundreds of years. The Newtons’ ancestors were among the first free blacks that settled on the continent, ending their servitude as indentured servants before the economics of slavery proved too lucrative an enterprise to resist. As such, they built their wealth through the acquisition of land. Ultimately they thrived by offering banking and insurance services to blacks who couldn’t get them elsewhere, and Constance’s family eventually moved to Texas where she was born.

The Johnsons could trace their roots to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Before the United States bought the islands, the Danish had owned them, and in 1848 the Danes freed all the slaves in the territory, a full fifteen years before the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States. Cyrus Johnsons’ ancestors had been an enterprising lot and started several businesses in the islands, but they earned their wealth in the food industry. Moving to the United States, they opened restaurants in the north, affording blacks the opportunity to dine in establishments similar to the ones they would normally be turned away from. It grew into a multi-million dollar business that touched almost every state in the country. 

And of course, there’s Lucas Baylor’s background, or lack thereof.

He rested his elbows on his knees and scrubbed his hands over his face. He had a foster family, five brothers and sisters he’d grown up with in Mama Katherine’s house, but otherwise, he had no known blood relatives. Mama Katherine had told him he may not know who he was or where he came from, but that didn’t make him a nobody. But when he compared his life to Ivy’s, he came up short. She knew her heritage. She could trace her lineage.

The only memory he had, faint though it was, was of a woman with a large Afro leaning over him and singing the lullaby “Rock-a-Bye-Baby.” He wondered if it was real or a false memory. It could be a dream, but he could almost swear his smile mirrored the one she wore as she sang to him.

The social workers had told him there was no way he could remember any such occurrence because he’d been so young when they found him, but he held on to the memory nonetheless. It was a connection to his past, no matter how fragile.

The image of her face was fuzzy and its clarity remained just out of focus. Yet he wanted to believe she was his mother. It gave him something to hold on to, no matter how small, no matter how unlikely. His throat tightened painfully, as if someone had closed their hand around his neck and he straightened in the chair, fighting the suffocating sensation. He hated the drowning feeling that sometimes came over him—as if he were tossed into the abyss and told to sink or swim.

He’d felt this way all of his life, along with a restless emptiness, not unlike being out to sea in a small vessel without a paddle or motor to propel him along. Just…drifting, without purpose or direction.

He thought again about Katie, his own flesh and blood. They shared similar traits. She liked to write just like him. Imagine that.

With a wry smile, Lucas surveyed the bustling crowd at the airport.

His foot bounced up and down as he thought.

Maybe he could do it. Maybe he could do the father-thing. The more he thought about it, the less crazy the idea seemed. 

His jaw hardened with resolve and he picked up his carry-on bag from the floor. He walked up to the ticket counter.

“I need to change my flight,” he said to the airline agent. “I need your first flight to Seattle.”

Research for Unforgettable

One of the things I did was research black land ownership to see how far back I could claim it for my story. It turns out that the first black property owner was an indentured servant from Angola by the name of Anthony Johnson. He was captured in Angola and became quite wealthy through land ownership. So wealthy that he had his own indentured servants, and according to the accounts I read, he may have been the first slave master on the continent because he refused to release a black indentured servant from his debt, and thus the man was forced into serving “the term of his natural life” (aka, slavery). It’s a fascinating story that I’d like to research more.

Idea for the Background of the Johnsons

Genealogical tree of your family. Vector illustration

Recently I was interviewed in the Café au Lait group on Facebook. It’s a group whose members read and write interracial romance. The admin asked me a question that I’ve been asked at various times in different forms:

Question: Are your characters and their stories modeled by anything in your personal life? 

My response: Not specifically, but there are elements of me, things I see on TV or read in magazines, or just experiences I see friends and family going through.

As I mentioned above, the idea for the Johnsons’ background came to me because of a conversation with a friend. She’d traced her lineage and was able to pinpoint the name of one of her African ancestors, the slave ship he came over on, and which African country he was from. Amazing, right?

I have to admit, I was jealous listening to her recount her history. I’d joined Ancestry.com years ago but never paid for the membership or done anything at all, really. It was just something I thought I’d get around to eventually. But listening to the excitement in her voice fueled a desire to research my own family tree.

Being of African descent makes it difficult to trace your ancestry, and it’s even more difficult if you’re from the Caribbean. Don’t get me started on the record-keeping, and islanders tend to move around a lot. So while I’m from the U.S. Virgin Islands, most of my family is not. I have Dutch-speaking family in the Netherlands Antilles, I have cousins in Bermuda, my parents are from St. Kitts, their parents are from other islands, etc., etc.

My sister and I are leading the search, taking notes and conducting interviews to get as much information as we can about our past. I only wish we’d started sooner. I can only imagine how Lucas and others like him must feel. Because there’s something satisfying about knowing your history and who and where you came from.

Question: Have you ever researched your history? Do you plan to? Other questions or comments? 

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12 responses to “Do You Know Your Family History?

  1. It sounds like a very intriguing story I can’t wait to read

  2. My older brother has been researching our Mom’s side of the family for close to ten years. He travels a lot for his job and has visited relatives, and grave sites, no one was even aware of. He’s found family records across the country and parts of Europe, but still no connection to Africa…yet. My Dad’s family has been more difficult. His father was a sharecropper, and his grandfather (my great-grandfather) was a slave. The records we have been able to find were a mess. But we’re hoping for new info…one day. Great back story to “Unforgettable”.

    • That’s great what your brother is doing. My deceased uncle was the family researcher, and he was the one who helped us find our family in Bermuda. Since he passed away, no one else has been doing the research, but my sister and I hope to change that and gather as much info as we can.

      Wishing you continued progress with your search into your history.

  3. My mother did a great deal of research into our family before she died, so she left me a treasure trove of information to continue some day. You are doing the right thing by gathering all of the information that you can now. Every time an older person dies, it’s like a library is burned down.

    • Truth==> “Every time an older person dies, it’s like a library is burned down.”

      All of my grandparents are dead, so I know a lot of info is already lost, but we’re determined to capture as much as we can.

  4. Ida Louise Johnson

    All four of my grandparents were from the Bahamas. Along with 2 cousins we have been researching our family history for the past 30 years. Each find along the way is very gratifying. I will defiinitely have to read ‘Unforgettable.” I love books that look at genealogy.

    Just know once you get started researching, you will never want to stop. All the best in your family journey.

  5. Great post! That’s cool that you and your sister are researching your history! Ive always admired those who research their history. I’ve been curious about mine, but not curious enough to dive into the process. Actually…I think that’s a good job for my sister! :) Good luck in your research!

  6. Hi Ms. Delaney,

    This post is very interesting. I haven’t actually thought about tracing my family history. I have been asked a lot of times am I mixed with something, why I don’t know (just a caramel color), although my parents are both very light skinned. I have never thought about it. But since I have read your post, It has piqued my interest, make me want to research now.
    I’m almost done with “Unforgettable” @ 90%, I am also readn it very slowly as I dont want it to end. Lol, I know I am being greedy, just can’t help it!

    • Natalie, you could start slowly, and a little bit at a time start building your family tree. By the way, your type of greed is very flattering. I’m glad you’re enjoying the book!