LUANDA, Angola – It was well past midnight, but I was still wound up.
That day, I’d stood in the doorway of a slave trader’s house where, centuries ago, Angolans were forced onto ships that never returned. It felt like a boulder was stuck in my chest.
Still, I had work to do. I scribbled details in my reporter’s notebook – visitors wiping tears, shackles displayed behind glass cases, fish sizzling on glowing coals, children skipping along the sand.
At one point, I got caught up, swinging my hips and shuffling my feet in the dirt, dancing to local music with Angolans who swore I must be one of them.
‘‘Maybe I am,” I thought, then kept on dancing.
But later, in the quiet of my hotel room and in the dim light of a lamp, I sought the answer. I knew my ancestors were from Africa, but where? Was I possibly at home in Angola?
A few weeks earlier, I had taken a DNA test. That night in my hotel, I searched for an email with the results. It popped up. My heart jumped.
Black history and a trip to Angola: Wanda Tucker’s search for answers
Angola was barely mentioned in the history of the slave trade. USA TODAY invited Wanda Tucker there to search for her roots.
Jarrad Henderson, USA TODAY
My search was sparked by an assignment from USA TODAY to write about a family in Hampton, Virginia, who believes its members are descended from the first Africans brought to the English colonies in 1619. If their claim is true, they are connected to a founding American family, heirs of a legacy history has ignored.
I was in Angola to chronicle Wanda Tucker’s journey to the country where she believes her ancestors lived. For many African Americans like the Tuckers, the search for family roots can seem out of reach. Oral history was – and still is – a major link to our past, but the paper trail can go cold.
I was brought into the story late in the process through a mix of circumstances. Still, it appealed to me. Everything happens for a reason.
So this spring, I ducked into a phone booth in the press gallery at the U.S. Capitol to join a conference call with editors and colleagues. When the editors mentioned the name of the family we were featuring, I thought, hmm. My late grandmother’s name is Ernestine Tucker. Then they mentioned the Tuckers were from Hampton. My grandmother’s people were from a place near Hampton. Even more interesting, I thought.
I mentioned all these coincidences to my colleagues. We all laughed.
Maybe you should take the DNA test, an editor suggested. We laughed again.
But then it wasn’t so funny.
What if, in this world of six degrees of separation, I was related to the family I was writing about?
Behind the Scenes of 1619: DNA’s role in family history
Deborah Barfield Berry came to Angola ready to document Wanda Tucker’s journey, but it was actually the start of her own.
Jarrad Henderson, USA TODAY
On a drizzling June afternoon, I walked with Wanda Tucker and her cousin Walter Jones under huge oak trees in the Tucker family cemetery in Hampton. They pointed to headstones that dated to the 1800s. They explained how the cemetery had become a symbol of their family legacy.
I listened, asked questions, jotted notes.
For Wanda and Walter, believing they are descendants of the first Africans here meant reclaiming a piece of stolen history. It afforded them some celebrity and tremendous pride.
So as I interviewed the Tuckers and pored over their photo albums, I quieted the part of myself that wondered about my own origins. Reporters are trained to stay in the background.
But that night, in a hotel room not far from the cemetery, I called my oldest cousin on the Tucker side of my family. Selidia Juniis-Johnson is 76 and lives in New York.
I’ve been a reporter for more than 30 years. I’ve been on Air Force Two, in the White House and on the floor of the chambers in the U.S. Capitol. I’ve interviewed members of Congress, presidential candidates, civil rights icons, governors, secretaries of state.
This call was personal.
I asked her about her grandfather – my great-grandfather.
She told me his name was Edward Thomas Tucker. He owned a farm, was a shoemaker and helped build a school for “colored’’ children.
He was also a Baptist preacher and a strict one. He and his wife had 10 children, including my grandmother, who was a twin.
They lived in a house that he built, with a porch and a huge oak out front. Tracks from the Norfolk & Western Railway Co. cut through the yard.
I learned more from that two-hour conversation than I probably would have at any family reunion. Unlike my mother’s side of the family, I don’t remember the Tucker side hosting reunions.
They didn’t say anything at all about Grandpa Tucker’s family, Selidia said. “Nothing.’’
Finding out more felt like a daunting task. Records weren’t always kept for African Americans; some were lost, destroyed or tucked in family bibles. For years, the census didn’t even name them. They were simply listed as slaves or “free colored.”
Despite those challenges, more African Americans have launched searches, turning to DNA tests, musty court records, and libraries, hungry for information .
“There’s this wanting,’’ Mary Elliott, curator of American slavery at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, told me. “People want to be connected to their origins.”
Until a month ago, I didn’t know the names of some of my forefathers right here in America, nor where my ancestors came from in Africa. I wasn’t sure I could trace much of my family history.
I was wrong.
In a brightly-lit room just up the stairs at the Library of Virginia in Richmond, my sister Selina and I pulled opened metal cabinets and plucked out cartridges of microfiche.
A friend had suggested the library because it housed records from across the state. The reels held information about births, marriages, deaths and deeds.
One by one, we carefully loaded the microfiche. It slashed through the air and back on the reel.
On reel No. 40 of the Virginia marriage records, we confirmed that Edward Thomas Tucker, my great-grandfather, married Lucy Stokes on Dec. 30, 1903.
On reel No. 13 of the old birth index, we learned that Edward, who was listed as colored, was born to Jack and Mary Ellen Tucker in Nottoway County.
Other records showed that Edward had filled out a WWI draft registration card in 1917-1918.
We cheered – as quietly as we could – when we found the maiden name of great-grandmother Lucy’s mother, Martha Marrick.
There were moments when we just sighed. For some records from 1863-64, just after the Emancipation Proclamation, “Missing” flashed across the screen.
In an earlier search of the 1880 Census, I found Lucinda Hardy, who was born about 1790, listed in the household of my great-great grandfather. It’s not clear if she was his mother or grandmother. I assumed she had once been enslaved. I stared at the screen and almost cried. What would her life had been like?
The next day, at the Prince George County Courthouse, a clerk guided us into a room with huge ledgers.
For hours, we squinted in the fluorescent glare at the fancy cursive writing.
In one transaction on Oct. 26, 1914, Edward and Lucy sold “one (1) acre, more or less’’ for $75.
The year before they sold a parcel to the Norfolk & Western Railway Co. for $200 “cash in hand.”
My sister and I marveled at how, with little education, they were wheeling and dealing.
We weren’t done.
Cousin Selidia said the Tucker family had once worshiped at the Lebanon Baptist Church, and great-grandfather Edward may have been a preacher there.
So Selina and I headed for Disputanta, a rural community south of Richmond. We drove long winding stretches before we spotted the red and white church marquee: “Lord keep our children safe.”
We knocked. No answer. We searched the church cemetery for Tuckers. Nothing. I tucked a business card between the front doors.
We then went on a search for a miracle – a house with a porch near the railroad tracks with a big oak tree out front.
That didn’t happen. But we had closed some gaps. Worn out, drained, we drove back to Washington, D.C.
Interviewing elders is key to capturing family history “so it’s not stuck in some attic somewhere,’’ Lisa Elzey, senior family history researcher at Ancestry, told me.
“Every single person on your (family) tree has a story.”
For many African Americans, oral history has been the strongest link to the past. The griot, or storyteller, has long been a part of African culture.
“The challenge is, of course, to find the documentation to support it,’’ said Hollis Gentry, genealogy specialist at the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s branch of the library. “That’s a big challenge for not just African Americans only, but for everybody.’’
Today, more African Americans are taking DNA tests, but experts agree chromosomes tell only part of the story.
“What really is important is to be able to look outside the box,” said Elliott, of the African American history museum.
Runaway slave ads can provide names and descriptions. Church records often list members of the congregation. Experts also point to ship manifests and wills of slave owners.
They encourage visits to local museums and universities, especially black colleges, which can house photosand other artifacts.
“You have to be like ‘CSI’,’’ said Elliott. “You have to be this investigative person to really start putting together the pieces of the puzzle.”
I didn’t know I’d have to fill a vial with my spit. The plastic tube for Ancestry was only a few inches long, but in my mind, it was like the 12-inch tube used for candy Pucker Powder.
I waited until the afternoon traffic slowed to the bathroom at work and found a corner inside. Then to protect my life markers, I quickly shipped off the package.
Later, I rolled six swabs across the inside of my cheeks, slid them into an envelope and shipped them to another lab for AfricanAncestry.com. The business of DNA testing has expanded over the years. I did two tests to be safe.
Weeks later, in that hotel room in Angola, I stared at my Ancestry results in an email.
A colorful illustration showed where my DNA originated.
Cameroon, Congo and Southern Bantu: 25%
England, Wales and Northwestern Europe: 14%
The rest was a mix of Ivory Coast/Ghana, Ireland, Native American.
Soon after I returned to Washington, I opened a package from AfricanAncestry.com, showing I shared maternal genetic ancestry with Tikar and Hausa people in Cameroon.
My results matched my DNA with samples from people in present-day African countries. Centuries ago, those regions were home to kingdoms rather than countries with borders. Cameroon and Angola are not far from each other.
I’d traveled 7,000 miles to chronicle Wanda’s search for her roots, and the whole time, mine was somewhere in the same global neighborhood.
“It was like you were going to your ancestral home,’’ Elzey said.
I’m not the only one searching.
Gina Paige, president and co-founder of AfricanAncestry.com, said genetic testing there increased after the 2018 blockbuster “Black Panther,” and the focus on the Year of Return initiative in Ghana.
Nearly 500 registered last week for the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society conference in Hyattsville, Maryland. Attendance has steadily increased. The group now has about 40 chapters.
Ric Murphy, the group’s national vice president for history, attributes much of the recent interest to 1619 commemorations and the rise in DNA testing.
Access to more research and records has also spawned new narratives about the history and accomplishments of African Americans, he said.
“They’re now beginning to find out that their ancestors really were a major part of our economy, a major part of our laws, our rules or regulations, our history,’’ Murphy said. “It is now giving folks a sense of pride and ownership.”
It was enslaved ancestors who helped build the U.S. Capitol where I freely wander the halls interviewing lawmakers. They helped build the White House, steps away from the bureau where I worked on this story.
Many non-Africans know from what European country their great-great-great-grandparents hail, even down to what boat they arrived on, said Simone Jones, director of data analytics for AfricanAncestry.com.
“Where we get stuck, of course, is we weren’t brought here by free will,’’ she said. “We were stolen, so that brings about a whole bunch of confusion.”
It can be so painful, sometimes people don’t want to think about it, she said.
“Sometimes we have to dig and let people know it’s OK.’’
Contestants on the “Price is Right” cheered from the television hanging high in a corner of my cousin’s kitchen just outside Baltimore.
I only knew him as Sonny, but his given name is Edward Tucker, after his father and grandfather.
At 74, Sonny is the oldest male Tucker. He and Selidia are the only living grandchildren of Edward and Lucy. My father, William Barfield, their first grandchild, died in 2009.
The way Sonny tells it, his father – nicknamed Eddie – got fed up with farm life in Disputanta and his strict preacher father.
Eddie made a life-changing decision one day when Edward Tucker tried to beat him because his younger brothers hadn’t finished their chores. Eddie pulled a shotgun off the wall to ward off his father’s wrath.
He then fled into the woods, where his sister later found him. Grandma Lucy sent her to give him the $2 she had earned selling yellow flowers on the side of the road.
Eddie jumped on a train headed north. He never returned.
By the 1930 Census, Eddie was living in an apartment in Brooklyn, New York, where he worked as a porter. His sister, Dorothy, had joined him.
The Tuckers were part of the migration of millions of African Americans who left a harsh life in the South, particularly after the Civil War and during the Jim Crow era, for enticing promises in the North.
The Tucker siblings also ended up in New York City. They owned beauty salons and corner grocery stores. They drove taxis. My grandmother cleaned houses, saving enough to buy a five-story brownstone.
The family gathered for Sunday dinners. They played cards, drank liquor and danced – all things my great-grandpa Tucker didn’t allow.
“We had a party every single weekend at somebody’s house,’’ recalled Selidia. “We had a wonderful childhood.”
They came in their finest gear, including Uncle Eddie, who had led the way to New York and opened a beauty shop in Harlem. Sonny said his father was one of the first African Americans to own a hair salon uptown.
“He always had a nice car and would be as clean as he could be,’’ recalled Sonny, whose own shiny black Cadillac was parked nearby. “And the sisters were bad, too. They looked like they were fashion models … You would never catch them raggedy.”
“They might not have had a lot of education, but they had a heck of a lot of pride.”
My great-grandmother, Lucy, eventually followed her children to New York. At one point, she lived with my grandmother. In her back room on the second floor, she smoked peach tobacco in a corncob pipe.
Edward Tucker had stayed behind in Virginia. Now I had to go look for him.
Did slavery start in 1619?
Mary Elliott of the National Museum of African American History and Culture dispels myths associated with slavery.
Jarrad Henderson, USA TODAY
The rows of gray headstones seemed to fade into the woods. At the Evergreen Cemetery in Richmond, Kelly Pratt armed me with gloves and a mask so we could search for the headstone of Edward Tucker.
The headstones in this historic African American cemetery aren’t all in neat sections or clearly marked plots. That massive undertaking is underway.
I had searched for days for a death certificate, but my only lead was found online and I couldn’t be sure he was the right one.
My visit to the state vital records agency and the state library had come up short.
Stumped, I searched the online obits in the Progress-Index, a local paper started in 1865.
The next day, I called Ms. Alice in the obit department. She referred me to the public library, where old editions were on microfiche. I would have to search the ‘‘colored dots’’ section of the paper, the space set aside then for African American news.
But without the date of Edward Tucker’s death, that would mean looking through every issue. It felt like I had slammed into a brick wall.
The one death certificate I had found earlier online offered a thread of hope.
This Edward Tucker was senile when he died. Like my great-grandfather, he was a preacher. He was also born around 1878. He was buried at Evergreen for $25.
The 60-acre cemetery is the resting place for thousands of African Americans, including leaders and activists such as Maggie Lena Walker, the first African American woman to start a bank.
The graveyard is dotted with yucca plants. The tough, rubbery plants aren’t native to the area. The old folks believe they keep spirits at rest.
Over in the historic section, seashells browned with age rest near headstones dating to the 1800s. A new seashell lay near one headstone.
Legend has it that seashells were the last things Africans saw before being taken from their homeland. Some believe placing a shell by a headstone is part of the journey back home.
For hours, Kelly and I swiped cobwebs, skirted poison ivy and watched for snakes. We brushed leavesfrom headstones to read the names of fathers, mothers, civil rights leaders, veterans, teachers.
No Edward Thomas Tucker.
I pulled off the gloves, but I wasn’t discouraged.
Nearly two months after launching the search for the Tucker side of my family, I’ve learned the names of my great-great-grandparents. I understand how my family ended up in New York. I know where my ancestors came from in Africa. I visited the town of my grandmother’s people. I reconnected with elders in my family.
Cousin Selidia wants a family gathering.
“This is the time,’’ she said, “for coming home.”
One recent Sunday morning, I returned to Lebanon Baptist Church intent on finding out whether my great-grandfather Edward preached here.
I patted my leg as the choir sang, “Fix it Jesus.’’
Most of the church was standing, clapping and swaying.
Hands shot up when the singer demanded, “Raise your hand if you need fixin’.”
Withservice over, James McDaniel, a deacon emeritus, greeted me, an unfamiliar face in the rear of the church. He shook his head when I asked whether Tuckers had worshipped there. He’s been a member since he was 6. He’s 75. He asked others, including his older sister Bernice, as they collected their purses and Bibles. They named Tuckers at other churches.
“They’re scattered some of everywhere,’’ he said.
There are eight black churches in Disputanta. My great-grandfather likely belonged to one of them.
I followed Ms. Bernice to check another church. No luck there either. In the parking lot, Ms. Bernice promised to help in my search. It’s important, she said, to know your family.
“Used to be you knew everybody,’’ she told me.
We waited for weeks for DNA results from AfricanAncestry.com that would tell whether my Tucker family was related to Wanda’s.
The testing required a male from each Tucker line. My cousin Sonny and Wanda’s brother, Vincent, agreed to take the test.
Wanda’s family – Brenda, Carolita, Walter, Foley, Floyd – all believe they’re descendants of the first Africans brought to the English colonies. That claim has inspired celebration, research, remembrance and skepticism.
Their belief is rooted in the faith of oral history, their family’s long ties to Hampton and no reason to doubt.
Until now, I hadn’t even thought about my family’s possible connection. So I was caught off guard when Murphy, the genealogist, said with my family name and my family’s history in the region, “There’s almost no way that you couldn’t have some of that original blood in you.”
“Did you do your DNA?” he asked.
“You have Bantu in you?”
“There you go,’’ he said.
The call with the DNA results finally came last week while I waited for a session at the black genealogy conference.
“It’s a match,’’ Jones, the analyst, told me.
I didn’t react. I had to be sure Jones understood what I was asking and that I understood exactly what she was saying. I didn’t get all the scientific terms. I repeated the question, read back her response.
Somewhere along the line, she said, Edward and Vincent share a male relative. We might never know where that connection happened, though because the results cover 500 to 2,000 years
“It shows just how connected we are,” Jones said.
Jones, who shares DNA information every day, was calm. Me, not so much.
I hung up, took a minute, then cried.There was so much to absorb.
That means the story I stumbled into by pure luck or divine intervention wasn’t just another story, it was connected to my own.
That means I spent 10 days on the road in Angola with a woman I didn’t know I was related to. By the end of that life-changing adventure, we had bonded like family. Little did we know.
That means when Wanda landed in Angola, feeling alone, longing for family and asking for a hug, her prayer was answered. I had hugged her in that airport terminal.
That means when Vincent told me before we left for Angola to take care of his sister, he was asking me to watch over my own.
That means when we returned and Wanda hugged my daughter, Amaya, in the airport, she was embracing one of her own.
That means my cousin Selidia was spot on when she texted last month “actually Wanda looks a lot like you.’’
I texted Jones after our 31-minute call to make sure there couldn’t be a mistake. She assured me – as did the experts at the conference – the DNA doesn’t lie.
I didn’t know whom to call first. My editors, who had pushed back the publication date of this story to wait for the results. My cousin, who took the DNA test. My sister, who explored unfamiliar terrain with me. Or my newfound relative.
I called Wanda.
“Hello, cousin,” I said.