I enjoyed this week’s episode of Finding Your Roots with Dr. Henry Louis Gates on PBS.
In the episode, titled “Black Like Me”, Dr. Gates featured the genealogical stories of journalists Bryant Gumbel and Suzanne Malveaux and producer Tonya Lewis-Lee, who is also the wife of Spike Lee.
The show’s title was a nod to its clever design. Each story seemed crafted to challenge preconceived notions about what it means to be Black in America. At the start of the show, Bryant Gumbel shares the pain he’d felt throughout his career being attacked (by fellow African Americans) for not speaking “black enough”. Dr. Gates presses Suzanne Malveaux to reflect on her experiences as a black woman who does not physically appear black to most people who meet her. Dr. Gates then explores the ancestry of Tonya Lewis-Lee who descends from free black ancestors dating back to the early 1700s, ancestors who had never experienced slavery.
Gumbel’s reflections in particular, struck close to home for me. I remember a few years back enjoying a guys night out over cigars and dark liquor. A few hours and about 5 debates into our fellowship, in the midst of a 6th debate, an acquaintance decided to declare to me in rebuttal, “Andre, you are a Bryant Gumbel type.” I became angry. I was less angry about what he’d said, and more angry about what he’d meant. Gumbel is smart, successful, accomplished. Who wouldn’t want to be compared to someone like that? But he wasn’t saying it that way. What he meant, was that he didn’t consider me authentically black. Throughout my life I’ve had to deal with these slights to my identity based on how I talk, or how I dress, or my interests, and I had to learn to brush them off and remain confident in my own authenticity as a black man.
Here’s another aspect of Gumbel’s family history that intrigued me. Dr. Gates uncovered that Gumbel’s surname comes from a German Jewish community by way of his second great grandfather — a white man who arrived in Louisiana midway through the Civil War. His DNA results in fact, revealed he was 7% Ashkenazi Jew. He was shocked to learn he was ancestrally both German and Jewish.
His story reminded me of recent discoveries I’ve made into my own German ancestry. My third great grandfather James Henry Johnson was born enslaved in the 1830s on the Smyre Plantation in Lincoln, North Carolina. According to family history his father was a man we only knew as “Master Smyre” and his mother was an enslaved woman. He left the plantation post-emancipation over an inheritance dispute. He settled into nearby Huntersville, North Carolina on the outskirts of Charlotte which is where my father’s family is from.
Through research I’ve been able to determine that James Henry Johnson’s father was likely a man named John Smyre Jr. (1785–1877), who was the son of a German immigrant Johannes Schmeirer Sr. (1740–1846) and his German American wife Utilla Bost (1764–1831) of Lincoln County, North Carolina. DNA validates our connection to the Smyres. My family has generated hundreds of DNA matches across the descendants of the Smyre children. Additionally, my cousin who is a direct paternal descendant of James Henry Johnson, shares the Smyre paternal haplotype of J-M172.
Location offers clues on which of Johannes and Utilla’s six sons was more than likely James Henry Johnson’s father. According to family history, James Henry descended from Smyres who lived in Lincolnton, Lincoln County, NC. According to Ianne Smyer’s book “John Smyer, Plain Deutsch Pioneer”, John Smyre Jr., oldest son of Johannes and Utilla, lived on the eastern bank of South Fork of Catawba River which is near Lincolnton. Additionally, according to Find A Grave records, John Jr. is the only son of Johannes and Utilla buried in Lincolnton (at Old Salem Church) while the other brothers are buried in Newton, Catawba County (at St Pauls Lutheran and Old Haas Lutheran Church) and one in Arkansas. Slave census records show that , by 1860 John Smyre Jr owned only one slave, a male in the same age range as my third great grandfather James Henry Johnson.
Here’s a little bit of what I’ve learned about my fifth great grandfather Johannes Schmeirer Sr. Virtually all of this comes from Ianne Smyre’s meticulously researched book. He was what’s called a Palatine, an early 18th century emigrant from the Middle Rhine region of the Holy Roman Empire. According to genealogist Robert Carpenter, German Palatines emigrated to present-day Catawba, Lincoln and nearby counties in three waves— (1) before the French and Indian War (2) after the Creek War but before the Revolutionary War, and (3) after the Revolutionary War. Palatines were on both sides of the Revolutionary War, but Johannes was a Patriot. He was a land owner, farmer, mill operator, logger, woodworker and merchant, among other things, who lived to age 106. Johannes was also a slave owner.
Connecting with my Smyre descended DNA matches and their family members has enriched my life. My experiences have been nothing but positive. From a research perspective they’ve been extremely helpful and supportive in sharing family documents, resources and thoughts with me as I have searched for any and all possible references to my enslaved third great grandfather James Henry Johnson.
We’ve also had some very open and honest conversations on a range of topics. The topics surrounding our shared ancestry can be difficult to discuss. What I found was that even finding a common language can be some times be challenging. For example, I kept referring to where the Smyres lived as a “plantation”, as it had been passed down to me, while my cousins were more inclined to call it a “farm”, as it had been passed down to them. We discussed slave ownership, the shame of it, family conflicts over inheritance, faith, and forgiveness. I feel like I’ve challenged them to confront the truth that the Smyres were slave owners. Not the “our family had one slave but she was just like family” slave owners, but slave owners of material scale. Their interactions with me have in turn challenged me to consider whether to give myself permission to explore, even embrace, the full diversity of my ancestry, knowing the cruel circumstances from which some of it was sourced. All of this has been an important experience. Honestly, this is an experience that I believe America needs. In my mind it’s a path to true reconciliation as a country.
This discovery and my new found family connections have inspired me to plan a pilgrimage to Lincoln County, North Carolina, the birthplace of my third great grandfather James Henry Johnson. I’ll take this trip curious to learn more about my newly discovered Palatine ancestors. But most importantly I want to take the trip to pay honor to my enslaved ancestors who were born and toiled there.
Black Like Me.