Colonial Americans – Freed Black Ancestors in NY
My grandmother and her sisters often tols us that we were Native American, and I remember when my grandmother registered with her tribe some time in the late 1990′s. I never knew the name or much about it, but I’ve always been interested in genealogy, and when I hit a dead end with the Spanish/Irish part of my grandfather’s ancestral line, I started focusing on my grandmother’s.
It took just a couple a Google searches to determine that we were part of the Ramapough Lenape in NY/NJ, and there that had been a rather long conflict in the Ramapough Lenape getting State and Federal recognition because the Bureau of Indian Affairs labeled them as black (I’m paraphrasing).
A couple years ago, I found the US Census’ from 1920 listing everyone in my family, including my grandmother, as mulatto. I also found her father’s WWI Draft card in which he was labeled black. None of this was ever discussed in my family, although I found later that my father and at least an aunt and a cousin knew some of our ancestry, but it was never verbalized to me. In 2012, these things don’t matter, but putting the story in historical context blows my mind. I wanted to know what relative decided to “pass” that led to later generations identifying only as white, but in researching more, I realized that it was all so much more complicated than that.
I have linked to other family trees on Ancestry.com in which our ancestors are clearly slaves or freed slaves (from Angola? And maybe having traveled to NY from GA?). I have to re-verify most of the information as there are some date issues with the earliest ancestors on the “tree,” but I was floored when I Google Searched one of the earliest names in my family tree, “Phizithiaen D’Angool,” and found it listed in a book called ‘Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585.’ Not only did I not know how complicated my ancestry was, I did not know its history was so far-reaching.
As most things go, however, knowing more only leads to more questions. I certainly experienced a “perspective shift” about the stories that raised me, and haven’t taken forgotten how my life has been very different because of choices made generations that lived long, long ago (or even not so long as I’m sure my grandmother’s choice to leave NY for MA changed our lives and set our family off in a whole different direction than that of our semi-distantly related relatives in Rockland/Orange Counties in NY). I feel guilty for coming back to race/ethnicity, but I also understand that it’s a fascinating part of this story, and looked at through an early 20th-century lens, it was at least at one time “kind of a big deal.”
The most interesting piece of it all is that I think many, many Americans have a similar story to share. It is ironic how we are still so race-obsessed as a nation, and in light of the Trayvon Martin shooting in FL recently, still harboring so much anger and resentment. I say it’s ironic because I think while we have cause to celebrate our own unique cultures, we share more than we may acknowledge, right down to our DNA.