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Research into African-American families shapes 4 Charlotteans

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Our histories are not always obvious in our lives. During February, Black History Month, the Observer is exploring stories of Charlotteans who discovered how family legacies echo through them.

Today, we feature four Charlotteans who learned of the debt they owe ancestors. Next Sunday, we’ll explore 1964, a turbulent and eventful year for our nation. And later this month, we’ll tell the story of two Charlotteans – one black, one white – who found that behind their shared surname was a shared history that altered their views of family.

Moonshiners, ministers

Patrick Graham

Long Island, N.Y., native Patrick Graham is among Charlotte’s most respected nonprofit leaders, a professor of humanities who serves as CEO of the Urban League of the Central Carolinas and immediate past president of United Way’s Council of Agency Executives.

But talk to Graham, 43, about his past, and you’ll hear tales of pea picking as a boy in the fields of South Carolina, being chased by mules, and his gratitude to a grandfather (Floyd Graham) and great-grandfather (Colombus Graham) who sold moonshine and used the cash to buy a homestead that remains in the family.

Those stories are all based in the South, but Graham said his interest in history began as a boy listening to tales told by his elders in Long Island, where the family moved during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

In fact, his doctorate dissertation (“We Have Come This Far By Faith”) in college was based on the stories of African-Americans and their northern migration in the early 20th century.

His extended family had good reasons for the move, Graham said. They were among those blacks who became landowners in the early 20th century, which helped them survive but also earned the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan.

At least one cousin, Willie Dunningan, 43, is known to have been shot and killed by the Klan in Clanton, Ala., in 1957. Graham said he found details of the incident – a large gunfight – in an article that ran the same year in the Pittsburgh Courier.

“The Klan was terrorizing certain parts of the community, because many blacks there were beginning to own land,” Graham said.

“A lot of people got involved, including a lot of white sympathizers who helped (the blacks) in that gunfight with the Klan members. Willie was killed. It really gives you a sense of pride that he fought back and defended his family, but you also can’t help being angry at the lost potential of what he might have accomplished.”

Today, Graham is an executor for 300 acres of land that remains in the family in Autauga County, Ala., and there’s an unpaved road that carries the family name (Graham Run Road).

It was purchased by the side of the Graham family that made a lot of money in the first half of the 1900s selling moonshine but later became teetotalers and respected members of the community.

“It was not uncommon for some farmers to supplement their income with a little white lightning and bootlegging,” Graham said. “Because they were off in such rural territory with so many wooded areas, it was very difficult to find where they produced the moonshine even if authorities were tipped.”

In 2010, he returned to Alabama to spend New Year’s Eve with relatives and said he was stunned to be treated like royalty when locals learned he was a grandson of Floyd Graham, the ex-moonshiner who turned into church deacon and community leader.

“It was fascinating. My grandfather had been dead since 1992, but his name still meant something. And that’s the power of ancestry,” Graham said. “That’s the power of our history and the legacy we leave behind.”

Genetic genealogy Jenifer Daniels

Jenifer Daniels is a resource specialist for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library and prides herself on being something of an armchair detective.

So when family conversations got awkwardly quiet during her probing questions about ancestry, she refused to give up until the uncomfortable truth was revealed.

It turned out that her great-grandmother had been raped by a mulatto school teacher when she was a freshman in high school, and the family hid the resulting pregnancy by packing up and moving to a different state in 1940.

“Maybe they thought it was something I couldn’t handle,” she said. “But I have freckles and not many black people do. I wanted to know why. I was told at one point that it was because we had Native Americans in the family tree.”

Daniels didn’t stop there, however.

Like many African-Americans, she hit a lot of dead ends when tracking her family’s history before the Civil War era.

Records weren’t kept on slaves for decades, and when they did appear on census records, it was often by first name only, or a nickname or even by their owner’s name, Daniels said.

So, Daniels joined the growing number of African-Americans who have turned to genetic genealogy, using a DNA test in 2012 to fill in the genealogical blanks created by slavery.

Six weeks later, the results came in: She was 67 percent West African, 25 percent European and 8 percent “Other.”

Specifically, Daniels’ DNA linked her to the people of the African nation of Cameroon and more specifically to membership in the pygmy tribes of the Bakola and Biaka, which date back 60,000 years.

“Yes, pygmies. They were short, hunter-gatherers,” said Daniels, laughing. “I know a lot of black people who say they want to be related to the Zulu because they know they were warriors, strong and tall. But we can’t all be that.”

The DNA test made her feel more connected to her African roots, but it also left her convinced that she was more than a “race.” She’s a quarter European, and said “nobody throws away a quarter.”

“It has shown me how we’re all very interconnected, and I feel we do ourselves a disservice when we remain ignorant of that fact,” she said.

“You should know where you came from, how your ancestors have influenced the world we are in today, and what role you play in that. Why would you not want to unlock that secret?”

A history of giving Valaida Fullwood

Missing names, missing people and missing connections are the common stumbling blocks when tracing family history.

Valaida Fullwood faced an even bigger challenge.

There’s a famously missing town in her family tree, the Burke County town of Fonta Flora, which once sat in the Linville River Valley near Table Rock Mountain.

Technically, the African-American sharecropping village is still there, but since about 1916 it has been under the waters of Lake James.

The townspeople, including Fullwood’s ancestors, resettled along banks for a number of years, then eventually scattered to nearby towns such as Morganton.

Fullwood, a local author and philanthropy consultant, remembers hearing stories of the “lost city of Fonta Flora,” which they described as a multiracial community that included a mix of white, black and Native American families.

“There’s sadness when you think of an ancestral home under water, and there’s the nostalgia that comes from leaving something to the imagination,” Fullwood said.

Beyond Fonta Flora, she found proof that her great-great-grandparents were slaves, including references to them in letters written by their owner, Laura Cornelia McGimsey of Burke County. Those letters are part of the Southern Historical Collection held by the University of North Carolina.

“The institution of slavery was tragic and horrific, but I don’t think of it as a point of shame for my relatives. It doesn’t shadow my idea of who they were as people. It’s part of their story,” Fullwood said.

In fact, she finds it inspiring that ancestors such as Riley McGimpsey lived as slaves but rewrote their life stories after being freed. In his case, he went on to be a land owner, businessman and respected part of the community.

“He rose to prominence and was a benefactor to the community, helping people in need, whether it was with vegetables or letting them borrow a plow,” she said.

“People think of philanthropists as people who have a hospital named after them or an endowed foundation. But in the purest sense, they are people who make giving back to the community an integral part of their lives.”

A century later, Fullwood feels she’s continuing that family legacy with her career as a consultant for African-American and community-led philanthropic projects. She is also the award-winning author of “Giving Back,” a 400-page book profiling stories of philanthropy among African-Americans.

Entrepreneur spirit Charles Thomas

Charles Thomas was raised in public housing by a single mom who quit high school to be a parent.

It was not exactly the most promising of beginnings, he admits, adding that he never knew his father.

But today, 40-year-old Thomas is a Duke University graduate and executive director of Queen City Forward, a Charlotte hub for entrepreneurs who have business ideas addressing social needs. He also has a photography business called Sankofa.

He wanted to believe his personal story was one of overcoming adversity, rising from poverty and setting a new standard for the Thomas family. But research into his family’s history has proven that wrong.

Not only does he come from a line of teachers, ministers and even a classical pianist, but there were also entrepreneurs among them.

“When I was growing up, it was me and my mom in public housing and you can’t help but think: ‘Our life sucks. We’re poor.’ But what I learned is that I didn’t come from a long line of poor people,” Thomas said.

“I had a great-grandfather, Alexander Holder, who had a shoe repair shop during the Depression. When you think of that era, you think of African-Americans being on the bottom, below everybody else, but he had a store and was able to take care of his family. That inspires me.”

There is much Thomas still needs to learn, having met challenges in tracing his family history before the Civil War, but it’s what the family became after being freed that has set his imagination on fire.

Thomas said he has had an interest in history since boyhood, viewing it as stories that sounded like fantasies but turned out to be true.

“I have discovered who I am, and why I do what I do,” he said. “I’ve always had a passion for owning my own business, and now I know where that comes from.”

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