finding your roots

Looking for my African American Roots

Layla Schubert June 1, 2012

My family lore told of Native American ancestry. When I asked WHICH ancestor supposedly had Native American roots, I was told my mother’s grandmother. THe first thought that came to mind was, “but she looks black…” Well, a study of the census revealed a white-washing of my family line, quite literally: My great-great grandmother and her children are all listed as mulatto in the 1910 census and white in the 1920 census. Somewhere between the lines they shifted racial identity, and everyone involved went along with the shift. It started with my great-great-great grandfather, George Bowers, b. 1839 in PA. He and his German wife are easily located in the 1880 and 1900 censuses. Where he came from before that is a mystery that my cousin and I just can’t clear up. There were at least three George Bower’s in PA born in or around 1839, and the confusion between them has lead to misinformation in all directions. I would love to figure out where he came from–according to his census statements, his parents were born in Kentucky or Tennessee. I’ve found mentions of a prominent free black Bowers family with long roots in Virginia, and I’ve also found mention of noted black musicians named Bowers in Philadelphia in the Nineteenth Century. I would like to find out if their stories are a part of my story. I know that I am descended from slave owners–some of the founding families of the Virginia Colony. My children are also descended from Puritans on their father’s side. Those histories are easy to trace. I would like to find George’s history so it can be held up proudly next to the others–his story is an American story, too: he married a white woman in Michigan while it was still illegal to do so (by lying on the marriage license; he was at the vanguard of the labor movement (he was a Teamster right at the formation of the union–the ONLY integrated union at the time; his obituary lists him as being “well known around town,” yet his origins are a mystery.

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  • Annie Bluebird

    June 3, 2012 at 6:42 pm

    ‘Ancestors called native American but looked Black.’
    Did you look into that German side?

    I have the same story (different names,) ancestors remembered as Native Americans. But when I finally found old photos and names they turned out to be just Germans… except they appeared Meditteranean, you could say, or North African, with distinctly African hair.

    As it turns out, some of these German ancestors are Gypsies, better named Romany. This is a story very little told and even harder to research. They were sometimes listed as mullato and sometimes as white – both ways in my tree, despite German names and being born in Germany. Some of them circulated stories that they were Native American, as they felt it would be ‘safer cover.’ (Ha.) German Romany are called Sinti. Maybe you should check this out and save yourself a lot of headaches. The history of immigration to the U.S. is a lot more complicated than anybody admits to. By the way, Bowers is a common English traveler name, too, though the name is shared by non-traveler English people, too.

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The basic drive to discover who we are and where we come from is at the core of the new 10-part PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the 12th series from Professor Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Filmed on location across the United States, the series premieres nationally Sundays, March 25 – May 20 at 8 pm ET on PBS (check local listings).

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