Joyce Ann Huston had been scrolling through microfilm for hours when she saw a familiar name and screamed.
She had found Ellen Fisher, the maternal root of her family tree, in the Latter-day Saints Family History Center in Las Vegas on a census record from 1880. She had been searching for Fisher for years. Until that moment in 2000, Fisher had only existed in the stories passed down at family reunions since the 1930s.
Huston, now 55 and living in Ferguson, Missouri, had discovered the link that connected her black O’Kelley family to their white plantation-owning ancestors.
She had found the O’Kelleys’ slave.
“Ellen Fisher was a slave on the O’Kelley plantation in Mississippi, and she refused to succumb to the advances of her master, so he blinded her in one eye and threatened to toss her into a burning bush,” Huston said. Fisher did, however, have children with two of the O’Kelley brothers -- her master’s sons.
Huston had heard this oral history for decades at family reunions. The story helped explain her grandmother’s silky hair and light skin. But the family had no proof.
Huston eventually learned the slave-owner’s name, and then found a book about the oldest proven progenitor: David Kelly, born in 1763. (The Kelly surname changed over the generations.) Huston reached out to the author of the book, one of Kelly’s white descendants.
“I’m trying to get more information to find out where my slave ancestor came from,” she wrote.
Huston received a chilly reception.
Then, she connected with Argie Shumway, an 81-year-old, white, Mormon genealogy enthusiast in Provo, Utah. Shumway had posted her detailed family history on a genealogy site, which showed their common ancestor. Shumway had been working on the O’Kelley ancestral line for years, just as Huston had been. She gave Shumway a call.
“Oh, I have black cousins?” Shumway said to Huston, without a moment’s hesitation. “That’s fascinating. How can I help you?”
This connection started an unlikely 17-year relationship between the women. In 2002, Huston went to meet Shumway in Utah, making copies of records and books while there. The two share the same great-great-great-grandfather and a love of family history.
“It’s easier not to believe something than to believe it,” Shumway says about the white author who seemed reluctant to accept Huston’s claims of an ancestral connection. That’s especially true when information challenges the world as you’ve always seen it.
A turning point in the genealogy search came in 2012.
Huston already had the death certificates of Fisher’s three mixed-race sons, which listed the names of their respective white O’Kelley fathers. But they got solid confirmation of the link when a black male relative’s DNA turned out to be an exact match to the O’Kelley paternal line.
“We had found a relationship in our family trees, and our DNA proved it,” Shumway said. “What an exciting day it was.”
There’s still a lingering gap in this branch of Huston’s family tree: She hasn’t been able to find an authenticated record of how Fisher ended up with the O’Kelleys. They know she was a house servant, laundress and nanny in Wilkinson County, Mississippi, whose grandchildren eventually went to college. But Huston hasn’t been able to find a ledger or bill of sale to determine who sold Fisher and where she came from.
“That’s our genealogy brick wall,” she said. “It’s devastating.”
She and her cousin, Nikki Williams Sebastian, have self-published a book about their family’s lineage.
“We have ancestors who came to America to find freedom and ancestors whose freedom was ripped away from them,” Williams Sebastian wrote in the preface.
Their book is about one family, but also about who we include in that bond. It’s a story that helps explain why some black Americans have Irish surnames. It’s a story of journeys, common roots and how our past informs our present.
The fact that some of the white O’Kelleys embraced them and others rejected them is the story of today’s America, too, as is the fact that they still don’t know what happened to their slave ancestor. Oppression, freedom, loss, rediscovery, rejection, reconnection -- these are still the stories of race in America.
But for the black O’Kelleys and white O’Kelleys who took a connection in biology and history and forged a relationship out of it, their story is ultimately about family.
When Shumway’s son and his family visited St. Louis this summer, Huston threw a party. The Mormons from Utah got to meet their black relatives.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Bradley Reneer, Shumway’s son. He didn’t know if there would be resentment or bitterness, given the brutal roots of their connection. Instead, he said, “I felt like family.”