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Conversation: Pearl’s Secret

Gwen Ifill talks with Neil Henry, author of Pearl's Secret: A Black Man's Search for his White Family.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    The book is "Pearl's Secret," a black man's search for his white family. The author is Neil Henry, a former national and foreign correspondent for the "Washington Post." He's now a professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Neil Henry, welcome.

  • NEIL HENRY:

    Thank you.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So why the search? What was the point of the search?

  • NEIL HENRY:

    From the time I was a child growing up in a largely white community in Seattle, the offspring of a very proud black family, it was… I had these odd relics in my family documents pointing to a light great, great grandfather. And I wanted to… He was… He had had a long affair with a freed black slave, who was my great, great grandmother, Laura Bromley, in Louisiana. They had a child named Pearl, who was a mixed-race woman born between the black and white worlds and not feeling fully comfortable in either. These two people, who were the foundation of my black family as I know it, from 125 years ago, and I wanted to know what happened to the white side. I wanted to know if Arthur Beaumont, this English immigrant, had married a white woman. Did they have white children? Did their children have children? And could I find these cousins on the other side of the color barrier and compare their family stories to mine?

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Many African Americans have mixed ancestry in the same way that you describe, but it doesn't occur to them to try to track folks down. What triggered your search?

  • NEIL HENRY:

    Certainly, it was replicated. It's replicated in the lives of many African Americans in the country. The things that triggered my search were… I had documents. I had evidence. And as a person who was trained as a journalist, became a journalist as a calling and as a profession, we don't like unanswered questions. We always ask ourselves questions and want to go out and find answers. And I had photographs that had been handed down from all these years, from the 1880s, showing the portrait of a landed white gentry figure, a French imperial beard, nattily attired, a picture taken in a New Orleans studio. I had his obituary from a small southern newspaper, where he was a town leader and a prosperous owner of two plantations, and most remarkably of all, a handwritten letter on his plantation stationary acknowledging to Pearl in 1901 that he was her father, and that he acknowledged this and felt guilty that he had not done so much earlier, and expressing some guilt for not being a good father to her. So all of these things are handed down in my family all these years from Laura Bromley to Pearl to Freda, my grandmother, to my mother. And these documents are among many other keepsakes in our proud black path. And it was just in congruous, and I wanted to solve the mystery, I wanted to know what happened to them.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But you talk about your proud black past, but you step right into this morass, this cultural conflict that we have about race and culture in America. Were you prepared for everything you found?

  • NEIL HENRY:

    No. I don't know how anybody exploring race in our very tortured history as a people, as far as race is concerned, can ever be prepared for what one may find. On the one hand, I knew that my family's story was reflective of the rise of the black middle class in this country over the past century.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Your father was a doctor?

  • NEIL HENRY:

    A pioneering black medical surgeon who set up a practice in faraway Seattle, where I grew up, because it was the only place in America, one of few places in America, he could find where white hospitals were willing to allow him to practice his profession. A freed… An escaped slave was also in our family past who became very prosperous as a landowner in Illinois. And I wanted to know… I wanted to put this story into a broader context. And I was not certainly prepared to find that the white family, which had been doing so wonderfully in a life built on white supremacy and all of the advantages of that age in the last half of the 19th century, would suffer a terrible fall, a fall that would see them suffer deprivations and poverty and other… other harms for the next few years where they had a hard time surviving — sort of the exact opposite of the stereotype of race that our history would tell.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So how did your family, the family as you knew them, your black family, react to the notion that you were going to go in search of your white family?

  • NEIL HENRY:

    It was very mixed. For one thing, nobody knew if I could actually do this. "I mean, yeah, yeah, yeah, Neil is going to do another one of his journalistic adventures." So on the one hand, I kind of believe that most… many people didn't think it was possible. I didn't think it was possible. It took eight years of research on and off since I left newspapering to do this. And once I did find this family and once I did meet this family and understand their story, there is something of a schism in my family among a few who say I should never have done it, that it is something treacherous to do, because in finding the family and meeting them and getting to know their story, it somehow conjures up a shameful period in our past. And there is so much other stuff to be proud of, why do you want to make this contact with these people?

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And discovering at one point that at least one of your relatives, by marriage, I guess, had a connection– one of your white relatives– to the Ku Klux Klan?

  • NEIL HENRY:

    It was… You know, I made… Finally after finding through all of my research that A.J. Beaumont, an English immigrant who became a confederate officer, successful after the Civil War, that he did marry and have children — I found that he married a woman from Texas, that they had two children, one of whom survived; and that the son had four daughters. And I found one of the daughters living in Pinesville, Louisiana, a state that the family has never left throughout their time in America, while my family, of course, has been going all over the place in search of things and trying to get away from things and doing… setting up other places. I found her, and I called her, and we had a engrossing conversation where she was very, very surprised that I was able to tell her as much as she… as I did about her family. And in the course of this conversation, I asked her… Her name was Rita Beaumont-Thayer, a fascinating woman in Pinesville, did she know they her grandfather had had this affair, a long affair, with a black former slave? And she said, "you know, we knew about Aunt Pearl, that she was a result of a relationship before granddaddy married, but we always thought of her as an Indian." And I said, as I'm taking notes feverishly as a reporter, "why an Indian, do you think?" And she paused and said, "you know, well, I don't mean to offend you, Mr. Henry, but coming from where we come from and given our past, better Indian than black" — and, of course, the implication being that black people are the lowest on the totem pole and it's more understand if it's an Indian.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But you said that one of the things you discovered in doing this research is you had a more profound meaning of what it means to be black. How did you do that by finding a white family?

  • NEIL HENRY:

    By the… Because in trying to understand the other family and understanding their history and the way that they looked at America in American history, her father had written a long hand- written manuscript about the family in America as well as England. He was a man destined to inherit everything that the English immigrant had built. However, the boll weevil plague happened shortly before the turn of the century and the family was ruined and he spent the rest of his life in a kind of romantic daze, longing for the days of Jim Crow and white supremacy. In learning about this and learning that the most cherished keepsake of their past was a pin bestowed by the Daughters of the Confederacy on their family for the… In recognition of the A.J. Beaumont service in the Civil War and his continued support for those conservative causes in the South, knowing all of this history and knowing about Rita's struggles as a daughter of a single mother during the earlier part of century, it added such meaning to things that I knew and grew to know more about my own family's struggles and how we looked at life in American society in some ways completely different. And being in touch with that, I mean, it can only instill you a sense of wonder, you know, and wonder and pride at what our families accomplished.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, it was a fascinating journey. Neil Henry, thank you so much for joining us.

  • NEIL HENRY:

    Thank you.

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