HOUSTON—Learning about your family tree means finding your roots and whatever stories and secrets are buried there.
When you start digging into the past, you never know what you will turn up.
My relatives have rarely talked about one family member. It’s a story about secrecy, shame and rejection.
A small Ohio town has been home to four generations of my family, and like most families, we have lots of stories, and a few secrets.
My Grandmother Lucille Wheat, took some secrets to her grave. She was the matriarch I called “Nana.” She blazed a trail for justice in Troy.
“She brought the first black school teachers, she sold the first black person a house in a white neighborhood, she integrated the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts,” said my mother Carolyn Moore.
She had a seemingly well documented life, but parts of her past were a mystery.
I discovered that learning about my grandmother Lucille’s own childhood has been like looking for a needle in a haystack.
“Did Nana ever talk about her mother?” I asked my mother.
“Very seldom,” she said.
“Did you ask her about her,” I asked.
“Ah, that would be a no,” she said.
Why was there so much secrecy about Lucille’s mother—my great-grandmother—why did she rarely talk about her?
“Some of it is shame, like I said she was very private, that is not something she would have even discussed,” she said.
Digging into genealogy is like doing detective work, and sometimes the truth is complicated. My Grandmother was born in 1913 in Detroit, and spent her first years in Knightstown, Indiana.
It’s where her father Herbert Brooks was from. Her mother she says was a white woman, and her name was Axie, but there are no pictures of her.
Back then an interracial relationship would have been dangerous and, according to my grandmother, the Klan came to her home when she was about 7 years old.
“She related the story of how the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in her mother’s yard,” my mother said.
“She remembered that?” I asked.
“She remembered it and was very frightened,” she said.
The moment changed the course of my grandmother’s life. Axie immediately sent Lucille to Ohio to live with her black grandparents, in 1920.
“The story was, she put little white gloves on her and a little hat, dressed her up in a pretty little dress and told her to be a good girl, and sent her to Troy, Ohio,” my mother said.
A picture taken about a year later shows my grandmother with relatives. She was 8 years old, and she would never see her mother Axie again.
That’s all the family ever knew, or cared to know about Axie, so I decided to look for her, with the help of an expert. I went to Susan Kaufman, the manager of the Clayton Library Center for Genealogical Research in Houston.
“I think everybody should know about a personal past,” she said.
She examined census records in several states, but found no trace of Axie.
“Because we don’t know a surname for Axie, and that’s really the key,” Kaufman said.
Perhaps the answer was on Lucille’s birth certificate. My mother spent four days in Michigan searching microfilm and other documents in the state archives building and the department of health. It was another dead end.
“They could not find her listed anywhere,” my mother said.
Then just one week ago, I got a call from Kaufman at the library, she had found the needle in a haystack.
“You found her,” I said.
“I found her, we found her, we found her,” Kaufman said.
A 100-year family mystery was answered on a wedding certificate in Indiana. It turns out, my great-grandfather Herbert Brooks, married Exie, not Axie McAdoo, on April 7, 1913.
Exie is from Kentucky and she would have been four months pregnant with my grandmother at the time, and another surprise, she is listed on the application for marriage as colored.