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[00:00:00]

I'm Gene Demby. I'm Shereen Marisol Marjie, and this is Code Switch from NPR Shereen. All right. So I have a I have a quick question for you.

[00:00:10]

Does your family have any stories that they tell themselves about themselves that are not exactly true?

[00:00:19]

I feel like every family has these types of stories. I can think of two off the top of my head. My Puerto Rican side. My Titi Lucy is totally convinced or was rest in peace. Lucy was totally convinced that we are related to the actor Benicio Del Toro. This is probably something I could figure out, but I have not tried to do that. I don't think it's true. It could be true. And then on my dad side, on my Iranian side, we're supposed to be direct descendants of the Prophet Mohammed.

[00:00:47]

Oh, wow. I don't even know how you find out if that's true or not. It would be dope if it was true, but I don't think it's true.

[00:00:56]

Is also is the story is too good. It's like too good to check to get the joke. Yes.

[00:01:00]

I don't even want to check. Yes. I am a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

[00:01:04]

Well, the truth is just about every family has some sort of myth or story that they tell themselves about who they are.

[00:01:11]

Mm hmm. And this week, in the past month, fireworks hasn't thrown your keep it third eye open.

[00:01:17]

It has been three months in my neighborhood. Yeah, it's very months. There's been a lot. I am not exaggerating. I love fireworks, so I'm not hating it, but. Anyway, was the Fourth of July also known as Independence Day, which means a lot of people are telling stories and myths about what it means to be American.

[00:01:35]

And there are lots of reasons why people tell these stories. Sometimes it's because people genuinely don't know the truth. So they exaggerate or they make something up.

[00:01:46]

And sometimes just like make your family seem like they were part of some important historical moment. Sometimes.

[00:01:54]

It's to hide something that is way too painful to talk about. Yeah. And that can be especially true for African-American families. You know, the further we go back in time and his trauma family, the harder it is to find records for what family was and where they were and what they were doing. And when we do find those workers is often like not a very pretty story, which leaves even more reason for people to invent a family law.

[00:02:18]

So today we're bringing in our teammate, Leah Dianella. She's an editor and producer for the show. She actually does like everything on the show. You will hear her name in the credits like 15 times. And she became obsessed with this story that her family had been telling for more than 60 years. But it's a story that sounded a little too perfect to be true.

[00:02:42]

Hey, Leah. Hey, Shayne. Aging.

[00:02:45]

Leah, you've been researching this family's story for months now. What's it about? Set the scene for us.

[00:02:53]

Yeah.

[00:02:53]

So I've been thinking about this story for a little bit more than a year, but it actually starts with my dad, Michael. And he's been looking into this story for decades. And his interest started in part because of our last name, which is Donella.

[00:03:09]

Wait, what. What about Genella?

[00:03:12]

Was very beautiful city games. It is. Vizsla is beautiful.

[00:03:18]

Thank you. I do like it. And my dad had a little bit more trouble with it, though. He said that all throughout his life people have been commenting on it. Apparently they get real tripped up when they meet a black man whose last name ends in an A.. For some reason.

[00:03:33]

Yeah. I thought, like, it was a tie in or a. Yeah.

[00:03:35]

If you're a Spanish speaker, you want to say, though, Naya, when you see it, you know, but then it has two ends. And so if you're a Spanish speaker, you're like, I don't know. Is that neat. Is that a Spanish last name. It is definitely a curious last name. And I was like, where is that from?

[00:03:50]

Because you're from Philly. I assumed it was like Italian, Italian, American, Donella.

[00:03:57]

We've heard so many theories about it growing up, but my dad kind of wanted to figure this out. So my dad and I are both people who, as you two might know, can't let anything go.

[00:04:09]

Well, we know that about Yulia Eurus, but now we know where you get it from. Yes.

[00:04:13]

So you can think, thank my dad for the thoughtful. But last July, the two of us decided to figure out the truth once and for all. And so that started with us going to New Orleans together. Oh, yes.

[00:04:27]

New Orleans. All right, Leah, take us there. The Big Easy. One of my favorite cities in the United Crescent City.

[00:04:33]

Yes.

[00:04:34]

One of the doper's places in the U.S. So I had never been there before. But my dad was acting as my tour guide and he took me straight to Bourbon Street. It's early evening when we get there. The sun is just beginning to say, casting shadows over the crowds, but it's still about 100 degrees outside. Tourists wielding iPhones, Penshoppe next to performers with kettledrums a pushcart selling hotdogs for a dollar. My dad and I order plastic cups of beer to drink on the street because we can make it.

[00:05:07]

Thank you. Also because my dad loves beer and I'm always trying to be just like him. Chaotic procession's march past us. We try to guess what they are. That's why it might just be a party funeral party.

[00:05:22]

It's hard to tell the difference here anyway. People always talk about New Orleans being haunted. One of the most haunted cities in America. They say, well, I sure hope so, because in addition to drinking beer and finding pretty good restaurants. My dad and I are trying to dig up a ghost. The ghost of my great grandfather, Harrison Donella, will soon be walking down the street where he used to live. Sifting through records of his life, searching through graveyards.

[00:06:00]

Part of the reason we're interested in Harrison is because the story we learned about him and his wife, Laurie, my great grandmother, was such a perfect origin story, like a modern day post bellum, interracial Romeo and Juliet. OK, I'm going to tell it with a little help from my dad.

[00:06:19]

My great grandmother, Larry Young, was a black woman from Louisiana and my great grandfather, Harrison Donella had been born in Sicily and came to the United States as an immigrant.

[00:06:31]

Harrison was part of a huge wave of immigrants that came to Louisiana at the turn of the 20th century, traveling by boat from Palermo to the Crescent City.

[00:06:42]

So Harrison and Marema, anyone's at the beginning of the Jazz Age, maybe at a dance hall or strolling by the Mississippi eating a BNA.

[00:06:52]

And it wasn't long before they were truly, madly, deeply in love.

[00:06:57]

But there was a problem because at the time in New Orleans, it was illegal, as it was in many places for a white person, a black person to get married.

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Louisiana was one of 30 states where interracial marriage was illegal in the 19 teens and 20s, which meant that as long as they stayed there, Larry and Harrison couldn't be together. Star crossed lovers, fate was keeping them apart. But they decided to defy fate.

[00:07:27]

So part of my theory was they came to Chicago to get married because they couldn't in New Orleans. That's right.

[00:07:36]

One night as the story goes, they packed their bags and at the stroke of midnight, they stole off to the Windy City in search of a better life. At least that's how I imagined it anyway. In Chicago, Harrison and Lonnie could finally be together. They got married in a Catholic church soon after they had their first son, John Donella, my great uncle. After that, they had their second son, Joseph Davola, my grandfather. And life was good, but it wasn't always easy.

[00:08:07]

I knew that they were poor. You know, both my father and my Uncle John, you know, greatly emphasize that they grew up in a very poor background.

[00:08:17]

John and Marty both worked all the time. They lived in a small apartment on the south side of Chicago, full of books and records, lots of that New Orleans jazz. But here's where it gets a little weird. As the years went by, something kind of funny started happening.

[00:08:34]

People started to think of Harrison, this immigrant from Italy, as black.

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In Chicago, certainly during the time I grew up in Chicago, even though it was technically lawful for black and white person to be married, it was still quite a segregated city, racially and quite socially uncommon and unaccepted, really.

[00:09:03]

My dad's theory was that in order for Harrison and Lady to live together without causing a stir, it would be natural for people to assume that they were both the same race, which was, of course, going to be black. Larry was black and they lived in a black neighborhood, sent their kids to black schools, hung out with black people with all different skin tones. That assumption that Harrison was black stayed with him the whole rest of his life.

[00:09:24]

Harrison died in 1941 when he was 68 years old and on his death certificate. No huge surprise. He is listed as colored. But his family, of course, didn't forget the real story of the young Italian man who fell in love in New Orleans. And they passed that down to my dad. I think that story was especially meaningful for my parents because they were also an interracial couple trying to make it work and challenging social times. My dad, again, is black and my mom's people were immigrants from Eastern European Jewish stock.

[00:10:02]

So I think this felt like a kind of nice prelude to their relationship.

[00:10:06]

But of course, there was something about this story that was not true as some of the things that my father said about him turned out to be in conflict with the public records that I was able to ascertain.

[00:10:26]

So fast forward about 40 years. It's 1979. My dad is twenty five years old, living in Atlanta. Fresh out of law school, and he gets sent on that work trip to New Orleans.

[00:10:38]

And while he's there, he decides to dig into this story a little. So he visits the public library to see if he can find out anything about his grandfather. He finds a bunch of documents, including a birth certificate for Harrison Dinello Junior.

[00:10:55]

An American birth certificate. Basically, what I found out is that, you know, my father's family had been in this country for several generations. I would say at least four or five.

[00:11:09]

That's when my dad first realized that something was not checking out. Harrison Donella Junior. My great grandfather was not an immigrant. Not even the child of immigrants. My dad didn't even know if he was Italian at all. He was able to find the names of Harrison's parents. Harrison Dannell, a senior who grew up in New Orleans, and Anna Steward, who is from Texas. But earlier than that, it was still a mystery. My dad didn't know where these families came from or even for sure what race they were.

[00:11:42]

So I wondered if he knew what any of them looked like. My dad told me he's seen a picture of Harrison, just one in it. He said Harrison looked like he was in his 20s or 30s, kind of skinny and kind of pale. There was a black and white picture. So the coloring was kind of ambiguous. My dad said Harrison seemed to have a full head of straight brown hair.

[00:12:03]

He was wearing a suit.

[00:12:04]

But I mean, with the picture and I think most people look at and say it's a white man. But on the other hand, I have seen light skinned black people that you would also look at and assume they're white, too. And even though that Italian thing turned out to be pretty dubious, even though no one in my family really knew very much about Italy or had any customs whatsoever that were tied to Italy, I and all three of my siblings grew up believing that we were at least a little Italian.

[00:12:39]

And it wasn't just my generation. My dad had believed this story, too. And my dad says my grandfather and great Uncle Harrison's own kids.

[00:12:47]

They seem to have believed it, too, that their dad was a white immigrant from Italy, although they're dead now.

[00:12:54]

So it's hard to know for sure what they really believed.

[00:12:57]

My dad said he didn't think my grandparents were intentionally making this story up, but part of the reason why it could be compelling, it was I was talking about people who come from modest poor means, like family history can be the link to nobility.

[00:13:14]

According to my dad, in 1930s Chicago, Sicilians had a reputation as being scrappy, hard working, kind of edgy and cool so that that would provide you with a higher social status and racist Chicago or many racist parts of their states than being black.

[00:13:36]

My dad thought maybe Harrison was just light skinned, pretending to be Italian to get ahead. I also talked to my brother David about this, and he had a different theory, a much less romantic one. You know, you hear a lot of black people talking about having, like Indian heritage, right? And sometimes a lot of times actually. Right. That's. That was used as an explanation for, you know, why is grandma so much lighter skinned than everybody else?

[00:14:05]

David brought up that.

[00:14:06]

Part of the reason black people look all sorts of ways is, of course, because of the legacy of slavery. The vast majority of African-Americans have some white ancestry. And part of the reason is that a lot of enslaved black women were raped by white men.

[00:14:21]

So if Harrison was very light skinned, it might have been something that he had taken advantage of.

[00:14:27]

The last name, Donella, and and said that he you know, we are Italian and use that as an excuse, not excuse, but a more wholesome story than the truth.

[00:14:42]

And I was starting to get a feeling that the truth was going to be kind of hard to stomach. So I was determined to learn the truth. But after months of research, I'd run into more dead ends and false leads than I could count. Desk was a mess covered with half drawn family trees, wild theories scrawled on the back of old scripts, pronounce of documents I found on Ancestry.com. There were days it probably looked like I was a TV detective.

[00:15:13]

Slightly crazed, trying to string together death certificates, census records, photographs of gravestones. But in those moments, I feel like I need to know, was Harrison a light skinned black man passing as Italian? Is he a white man assumed to be black? Was the confusion about his identity imposed from other people, or was there something about his past that he was trying to hide?

[00:15:39]

Answers to those questions wound up stretching all the way back to the antebellum's and would completely blow up everything that I and my dad and my family believed about who we were. Support for NPR and the following message come from Luminary presenting their new original podcast, Murder on the Towpath, a captivating True Crime mini series hosted by journalist Soledad O'Brien that explores the 1964 murder of Mary Pancho Maya in Georgetown, DC, and the resulting trial that rocked the country. Listen to murder on the towpath, only on luminary.

[00:16:17]

Go to luminary dot link slash towpath and get a seven day free trial of luminaries. Original podcasts cancel anytime terms apply.

[00:16:26]

Comedian Nicole Byer doesn't consider herself body positive. She just accepts herself as is.

[00:16:32]

I hate that there's a name for like not hating a part of who you are. Do you know what I'm saying? Like, it's insane.

[00:16:38]

Nicole Byer on her new book, Very Fat, Very Brave and How to Love Yourself.

[00:16:44]

Listen to it's been emitted from NPR. It is seven forty seven p.m.. And I am right now in Baton Rouge and my hotel room. I'm here to go to the Louisiana State Archives tomorrow. Back to Louisiana. I've spent the past few months digging up all the information I can find about my Dinello lineage. And I just have this bad feeling.

[00:17:10]

I'm a little nervous for tomorrow because I don't know what I'll find.

[00:17:16]

And I really. Don't want to be related to someone who owned slaves. After talking to my family, I spent a long time thinking about what could be so bad that a family would want to hide it for generations. And one of the worst things I could imagine was having owned slaves. I didn't have any proof that that was the case, but I felt it in my gut. So the next morning, bright and early, and they're at the archives ready to go in and find some answers.

[00:17:58]

Well, if I can get in my gear causes a bit of a stir.

[00:18:02]

Was there a microphone? A microphone? Yes.

[00:18:08]

Yes.

[00:18:11]

Speaking of my microphone, it's a really quiet space. The first floor looks like your typical smallish public library. There are computers that look like they're from the 90s.

[00:18:25]

But upstairs is where things really start to get cool. A man named Bill staffer and takes me up the elevator. He's the archives research library administrator.

[00:18:35]

You're looking that I would say about one point eight million vinyl records at this point.

[00:18:42]

And then there are the curiosities.

[00:18:45]

The strangest thing I've ever run across, and I don't have anything to do with my records and why the records I found were. There was a criminal record. Gentleman had been another gentleman's finger off and found a lot of paper at it. And I started looking around about that come about turn this century and open it up and there's the finger. Luckily, that finger is an exception.

[00:19:07]

It's mostly just, you know, paper. Very important paper, though, because only about point one percent of the archive is digitized and almost all of it is from New Orleans because most rural parishes didn't keep too many records.

[00:19:21]

They just had no need for it. But Arlene's New Orleans going back to French French period, they recorded vital records. And so if you say I've got rounds of New Orleans and that's where I am based, I'm doing great. And New Orleans is so rich. I mean, the different mix of people that have come in and out of New Orleans. You know, it's so diverse and so interconnected, you know, so I guess it's for to get the archivist says that all that diversity and mixing of different groups made New Orleans unlike anywhere else in the country.

[00:19:55]

Yes, there was segregation and racism and classism and lots of rules written and unwritten about who could associate with whom. But it was also a place where lines got blurred. People were not always who they claimed to be, which meant that people from New Orleans really could be related to just about anyone.

[00:20:17]

And you may be kin to a king and you may be kind to a common person that lived in, you know, a certain part of America at a specific you be as much fun as it would be to be kind to royalty.

[00:20:31]

What we find of my own family paints a much more common picture down in the stacks. I find snapshots of a family history.

[00:20:39]

Birth certificates and death certificates, babies who died in infancy from old timey sounding conditions. And then I come across a marriage license.

[00:20:50]

It's for Harrison Junior's parents, Andy Stuart and Harrison, Denault and Senior. And he is my great great grandmother, a woman who was born in Texas and who is listed as mulatto and Harrison Senior is my great great grandfather who was born in Mississippi and whose race I'm still not sure of.

[00:21:13]

And on this marriage license are the names of Harrison Senior's parents.

[00:21:18]

A woman named Winnie Sky and a man listed as OJ Genella.

[00:21:27]

I sigh when I read the name when you Scott. As with so many of the other women in my family, her last name is so ordinary Lady Young. Annie Stewart, Winnie Scott. These last names feel like so many dead ends. So I keep going with the men. The Dinello is who exactly is O.J.?

[00:21:57]

O.J., Donella, it turns out, was born in Virginia in 1815. O stands for Owen, but he rarely uses it. O.J. moved to Mississippi as a young man where he bought some land, and then to Louisiana, where he bought more land. A lot of land, actually, and land. That was valuable enough that one of the deeds was signed by the president of the United States, James Buchanan, at the time. So a wealthy, landowning, free traveling Southerner in the eighteen hundreds.

[00:22:30]

I have no choice but to assume that O.J. Donella was white, which I take to mean that his son, Harrison Senior, was white. I'm starting to drop a new family tree in my mind. Harrison Senior, a white man from an old Virginia family, marries Annie, a colored woman in 1868 in Louisiana.

[00:22:55]

How did they meet? What would their relationship have been? How unusual was it during that time as these questions are rattling around in my mind? I realize I need to run. I've got a bus to catch. Back to New Orleans. So I pack up my photocopies and I leave.

[00:23:13]

A few hours later, I'm sitting in my hotel room waiting for my dad to arrive. He's driving up from South Arkansas where he lives. I'm excited to talk through what I found. So we start poring over the new documents, looking for any breadcrumbs, talking through theories. And as we're debating the intricacies of someone's handwriting and what it might say about their race. I decide to ask my dad why he cares so much about this surge, why he's been doing this research on and off for the past 40 years.

[00:23:46]

And in typical dad fashion, he answers with a story, a kind of tangential story about his other grandfather, not Harrison at all, but a man named Butch Reddick.

[00:23:59]

My grandfather would get up in the morning every morning and go to work, and he would come home every evening with food in his hands.

[00:24:08]

He'd be carrying a whole fish, sometimes a whole chicken.

[00:24:11]

My dad said, what if I had no legs and everything? Or he'd have a rabbit or like two squirrels that had thin skin. And so I thought he went out every day and went hunting.

[00:24:25]

So for a long time, my dad thought his grandfather was a hunter. He would talk about it to his friends and his classmates.

[00:24:31]

But it was maybe when I was in college or maybe as late as law school that I was in a conversation with one of my uncles. And, you know, we talked about my grandfather, that's him. And that's quite an interesting way that he lived in Chicago. Mean like he was able to make this living. You're just going out and hunting and fishing for food, everything.

[00:24:59]

That's when my dad found out from his uncles that his grandfather had been a chemist at Dupont Chemical Company as a chemist.

[00:25:08]

Yeah. So they were really getting all this.

[00:25:12]

They came in with his stuff to the farmer's market.

[00:25:17]

And I honestly didn't know that till pretty late in my life.

[00:25:23]

Even the people we know, we don't know and the people we don't know. We really don't know if my dad had such a huge misconception about who his grandfather was, a person he had known and loved. What was there to know about this other man who he never even met with, Harrison Carter? Because I never met him, nothing. I knew almost nothing about what he did when he was like, you know. So I'm curious about about his life.

[00:25:51]

You know, who he was, what he did. Does anything survive?

[00:25:57]

Does anything survive? We left the hotel in search of more clues. Our first stop was Harrison Junior's old address. Then his old workplace. But towards the end of a long day, traipsing through the city, we still don't have much context for what we'd found. We had about all the documents we could find. It was time to call in some help.

[00:26:19]

Nice to meet you. Nice to meet you. Nikki Brown is a history professor and an expert in the history of race in New Orleans. At the time, she was working at the University of New Orleans and she met us at a restaurant not far from campus. Yeah, nice place.

[00:26:36]

Nikki, explain to us some of the racial landscape of Louisiana generally that during reconstruction, the state had a population of about 700000.

[00:26:45]

It is nearly evenly divided between. So it's about 350000 white. It is about 320000 black and enslaved.

[00:26:59]

She said that New Orleans had the largest population of free people of color in the Western Hemisphere.

[00:27:04]

It also had the biggest slave in the Western Hemisphere outside of Haiti. But again, take it all together. So, so. So this would be a place where people feel free. And you wanted to be in a community that that was thriving and you wanted to have like a business or you wanted to have a family and you are a person of color, a free person of color. You would you would gravitate to having laid all that out press.

[00:27:34]

Nikki wanted to know where my family might have fit into all of this.

[00:27:37]

So I'm interested to hear what what have you found? So we told them what we knew about Harrison Junior and Lottie Harrison Senior and Annie, O.J. and Winnie, their races, as far as we knew, where they lived and when. It's a lot to keep track of.

[00:27:55]

So if it's helpful, I can draw a little tree. Sure, sure. And early on, I wanted to get my bag. Probably very obvious question out of the way. Where are these southern landowning deniers like? Definitely white. We have no records of their race.

[00:28:10]

But were these people likely have been white? Yes. I just have to say, I would have to say I would be 100 percent certain that they were white.

[00:28:23]

She said if they were coming and going as they pleased and if their race wasn't listed on any forums, that meant that they were white people. 100 percent. So I asked her how that would have worked for Harrison, a white man and any black woman in terms of getting married. And she said the year they got married was very important. 1886, less than a decade after reconstruction, meaning after the civil war.

[00:28:49]

If there were laws in Louisiana during the antebellum period that prohibited interracial marriage or cohabitation, those laws were struck down between 1865 and maybe about nineteen hundred. And then they come back on the books. Nineteen hundred nineteen of five Latino history. So they were married at a time when if he identified as white and she identified as a person of color there, they married at a time when that would have been right.

[00:29:21]

That time period where interracial marriage was legal in Louisiana lasted about 35 years. And my great great grandparents seem to have fallen right in the middle of it.

[00:29:31]

So they got married in 1886. How unusual wouldn't that have been?

[00:29:37]

What a terrific question, because it gets to the heart of the matter. Who are they going to live with? Are they gonna live with their parents and live with his parents? If he is from an upper. If he's part of a upper echelon of law society, they're not gonna live with her.

[00:29:57]

They're not going live with his parents because bi racial marriages, even even in the shadow of reconstruction, were just not considered to be socially acceptable.

[00:30:11]

So how are these two people going to walk down the street and love on each other the way married couples sometimes do?

[00:30:19]

Again, this is New Orleans. So the mixing isn't unprecedented. But I still want to know how this happened, how a white person, presumably the son of slave owners, wound up meeting and marrying a black person who was presumably the daughter of enslaved people and almost certainly born enslaved herself.

[00:30:38]

How did Annie and Harrison get together suddenly about this woman's status as enslaved? Something about that is making sense to me, that somehow he came across her, something about it.

[00:30:52]

I don't know if he knew her, which when she was a slave or. I don't know. Meaning she was she was just a tiny baby.

[00:31:03]

Nikki said maybe Harrison's family made a deal with the people who owned. And his family. Maybe they'd come across each other in some sort of property arrangement. But then again, he says there is another possibility.

[00:31:18]

I don't discount love. I don't. I don't either. I'm not going to leave love out of it. I'm not going to leave it.

[00:31:24]

It's very possible that they just fell in love.

[00:31:32]

It started out as a love story, and here we were now with his professor telling me it might still be a love story after all. Former slave marries son of slave owner.

[00:31:43]

It's not quite a fairy tale, but there was something vague and magical about the idea that two people from such different backgrounds could wind up falling in love. I was willing to ignore most of the other possibilities and just take it. My dad and I left that cafe later that night. We ate some Vietnamese food, drank more beer, and I left New Orleans feeling a little lighter. I was already spending a version of this story where the gumbo that is New Orleans magically produced a happy ending.

[00:32:17]

I was sinking into a comfortable, sanitized myth of my own making.

[00:32:26]

Three weeks after I got home, I got an email. It was from someone I messaged on Ancestry.com in response to a forum on the name Genella. So quick backstory. Someone had created a Genella family tree. One side of the tree went to the present day. The other side ended at Ojai. So I had asked about the background of O'Jays, father and uncle and a woman named Emily. Dieter responded. I was glad to hear that from you.

[00:32:56]

You as the race of John and James. So now they will fight.

[00:33:01]

Emily wrote that she didn't know specifically where they were from, but she assumed Ireland or Scotland before I answered you.

[00:33:08]

I looked to see what I could find. Sometimes I think there's a genealogy angel sitting on my shoulder whispering. I found the newspaper article, Bullo and stuff. Is this the same? Oh, and Jadeja. No. Of your ancestry.

[00:33:25]

The newspaper clipping was from the New Orleans Bulletin, dated the 12th of October 1875 when I opened it. I realized once again that my precious little happily ever after story had been wrong. A good guess, but not the real story.

[00:33:44]

An interesting case. 2ND District Court and the succession of OJ Donella Judge Tufo decided Monday morning the question relative to the will alleged to have been made. It appears Dinello died unmarried and without issue. That's children, but left brothers and sisters and descendants of such Harrison and Adelaide, Anila, the natural children. Colored claimed that on the 4th of December 1874, Dinello made a will bequeathing to them certain property.

[00:34:08]

Turns out Harrison hadn't been the white son of a slave owner. He was the black son of a slave owner. The progeny of OJ Dinello and the woman OJ had owned when he Scott.

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So my great great great grandfather, OJ was a white slave owner. My great great great grandmother was Winnie Scott and enslaved woman who lived on his property. And they were the parents to Harrison Senior and his sister, Adelaide. When OJ died, there was a legal dispute. Some folks, including white members of our family, claimed that O.J. had no heirs, that he was without issue. Basically, they were arguing that he hadn't had any white kids, which meant that he didn't have any kids at all.

[00:34:57]

There's a whole 300 something page handwritten document about the trial in, quote, the matter of the succession of O and J.

[00:35:06]

Genella. The case wound up being appealed. And I'm still trying to understand what exactly happened. But one thing is pretty clear, as my dad said earlier, Harrison Junior, my great grandfather, the one who moved to Chicago, was a very, very poor. My grandfather, Joseph, was poor, too. My dad grew up poor. The black descendants of a slave owner don't seem to have benefited longterm from any sort of inheritance. I'm not sure that when he or Adelaide or Harrison ever got the inheritance that they seem to have been promised.

[00:35:48]

On the one hand, this is not an uncommon story. In the broad strokes, thousands of slave owners impregnated their slaves. Every descendant of enslaved people knows that that's likely a part of their history. But so rarely were those connections acknowledged explicitly. The idea that I could draw a line specifically say that my great great great grandfather owned a plantation and my great great great grandmother worked on it. Reading proof of that felt unreal. You know, you spend your whole life telling yourself that you're a certain kind of person, that you come from a certain background, that you do certain things because of how you were raised and where you come from and who your family is.

[00:36:34]

And then there are certain facts that don't fit into that mythology. I can say out loud the sentence. My great great grandfather was a slave owner named Owen Jefferson Tomala, and he owned my great great great grandmother when he Scott and those two people owned Jefferson Genella. And when Scott Donella are equally my great grandparents, even though they were in opposite situations. But what does that mean about me? Does this fact how I should live my life, how I should understand my family?

[00:37:10]

I don't know. So, of course, I had to call my dad to see if he could help me sort through this. I called him from D.C. on a Thursday afternoon. He was home in Arkansas. And I told him that I had found what I believed to be the last piece of our family mystery.

[00:37:32]

Oh, that's very interesting. I can't wait here.

[00:37:36]

I told him about the court case, about the verdict. I guess it's not surprising for that time and maybe not even unusual for that time. I guess what the surprising part is that he acknowledged the children as well and left them property.

[00:37:55]

I found that surprising to this story we so often hear is that white slave owners refused to claim or even acknowledge their black children. So doing that is pretty unusual.

[00:38:05]

I think it's pretty, pretty amazing completion of the puzzle of our family history. But the other questions that I have from that mouth, like. Why this little story was created. And they really believe it.

[00:38:28]

So I have been thinking back to that moment when Nicky Brown suggested that this could still be a love story and how eager I was to believe that this whole time I thought of myself as someone who is trying to uncover the truth. But had it not been for Emily Deeter, I might well have stopped there, not because I was trying to hide something, at least not directly, but because it felt so nice to believe that my family was special, that we existed somehow beyond the forces that were going on at the time, that this love transcended what was happening.

[00:39:04]

A white supremacist so powerful that it had caused a war. So I don't know who started this myth about Harrison, but I can imagine that even the people who could have known better, who maybe should have known better, might have been content not to ask too many questions. I'm proud to be a descendant of people who were enslaved. I mean, of what they went through and what they were able to accomplish. To me, the real story of their lives is so incredible that generations of my family were born into slavery, died as free people moved their lives from the South to Chicago during the Great Migration.

[00:39:45]

Got married, worked really hard, went to church, raised families, and that they raised my dad, who I still want to be, just like who is stylish and hilarious and wise and weird. So I guess in a lot of ways it's still a story about love, after all.

[00:40:07]

That is the history that I would never want to hide, and I'm grateful that we live in a time now where I can say proudly that I am black, descended from black people who have lived through every different iteration of what that means in this country.

[00:40:28]

Ijo. That's our show. This episode was produced by Kumari Devarajan. It was edited by Michael May and Steve Drummond with help from the Lena Lancy, NSA and Sami Yenigun. And we got a shout out the rest of the calls. Which fame, of course. Karen Grigsby Bates just calling Natalie Ezekial, Ellie Johnson and Alyssa John Perry. I'm Gene Demby.

[00:40:50]

And I'm Shereen Marisol. Marjie, be easy.

[00:40:54]

Yo, Peace special thanks to NPR's Storyland for producing and editing this episode. And huge thanks to Barbara Van Wakeham from NPR's investigations team for her research. Thank you to my genealogy, Angel and Lady Deeter. Thanks to the Louisiana State Archives. And of course, thank you to my mom, my siblings, Sara, David and Anna and to my dad. I'm Gregory Warner with NPR's Rough Translation, so there's a holiday in the Netherlands where every year thousands of white folks wear blackface.

[00:41:26]

Some people are trying to end that tradition. But in a very Dutch way, you talk, you talk, you talk, you talk, you talk until you reach consensus.

[00:41:35]

Can you fight racism in a way that brings the whole country with you? That's on NPR's Rough Translation.