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Filling In The Gaps

Filling In the Gaps
DNA testing helps blacks find family roots that were obscured by slavery

By Ervin Dyer

Several years ago, the closest that Gary Payne came to filling out his family tree were the little seeds of oral histories sown by his mom, Flabia Payne.

She took him back a couple of generations to life in Louisiana, where her family originated. His father's side of the family was even dimmer. He knows that they came from Greenville, S.C., but "something real bad must have happened," said Payne, 54, of Penn Hills, Pa., because nobody wants to talk about the old days. The gaps in history bothered Payne, a retired bus driver who became deeply interested in his family's roots in the early 1970s. When he tried 11/2 years ago to fill out a computer-generated family tree with his daughter, China, complete branches were missing.

It was then that Payne heard a word from on high. He heard from Oprah.
Six months ago on her talk show, Oprah Winfrey featured a segment on the company African Ancestry, which offers a DNA test that helps black Americans discover the bedrock from which they sprang. "I have a lot of faith in Oprah. So I took the test because she took the same test," Payne said.

After a swab of his cheek to collect a DNA sample, he discovered results on his paternal side that were both startling and validating: His father's genetic code was more Great Wall than Great Pyramids. His father was strongly linked to the Han people, who make up 90 percent of the populace of China. "I was shocked as hell," he said, but then again, the results filled a longtime void.

While growing up, Payne was drawn to Eastern thought and tradition. He took tai chi classes, filled his home with Asian and African crafts, studied the Buddha and named his daughter China.

And it helps explain why his straight hair took so long to twist into dreads.

For 30 years, genealogy has been a growing passion for black Americans - since writer Alex Haley wrote about Kunta Kinte and tracked the West African's lost heritage back to Gambia.

But Payne's shocking discovery puts him among the vanguard of black Americans who are now using DNA testing to find roots that were obscured by being descendants of slaves.

Last year, after attending a family-reunion conference, Shamele Jordon, a computer worker from Lindenwold, N.J., persuaded her family to have the DNA tests. She wanted to carry their history beyond the plantation South.

Family members all chipped in to pay for a DNA test, which was given to the grandchildren of the family's deceased patriarch and matriarchs.

Jordon is an only child in a close-knit extended family. About 200 people gather for the reunions that they hold every other year. They have tracked the family through slave deeds and have what they call "plantation cousins" - people who were enslaved by the same master. She is keeping the DNA results secret until the family's Labor Day reunion, but she does offer a clue: "I'll have to learn French."

Gina Paige knows from whence she came because others in her family took the DNA test: Her people hail from Nigeria, Liberia, Angola and Portugal. Now, she wants others to find their genetic roots as well.

During Black History Month three years ago, Paige, a business executive, joined with a Washington geneticist to create African Ancestry, a firm that specializes in using DNA, the cellular code inherited from one's parents that determines eye color, hair texture and skin tone, to find once-lost ancestral links. Since it began, nearly 6,000 people have swabbed their cheeks and sent in the confidential samples that match their DNA with more than 25,000 lineages in their data bank.

Dr. Rick Kittles, a geneticist at Ohio State University, has collected the information from his own research in Africa over the past 12 years and through other public information. The individual's DNA is then matched, or sequenced, with more than 300 indigenous groups in 30 countries in Africa. The sequencing can track the Y chromosome that is passed from a father to his male offspring or the mitochrondrial DNA that is passed from one's mother.

Everybody has these "signatures" that are compared to those in the data base, which map common paternal and common maternal ancestors.

In February, African Ancestry got a big boost when Harvard professor Skip Gates tracked the DNA of such high-profile blacks as Winfrey, Chris Tucker and Quincy Jones in a documentary that traced the genealogy of the stars.

The tests are "transformative," said Paige, because they open up parts of history previously closed for American blacks.

The real surprise for many black Americans, said Paige, is that some "signatures" go beyond Africa. "People are shocked, but they should not be," said Paige. "We have to remember that race is not genetic; it is a social construction. So we can have someone as dark as Wesley Snipes and find German ancestry and still be black."

There also is some concern that the DNA testing, because of its costs - $299 for one test and $500 for two - will create a hierarchy in the black community of folks who can pay to have their ancestry traced and those who cannot.

There is technology access at public libraries, and the primary research is talking to people, going to archives and getting census data. Historical societies and Web sites offer message boards or links to other information for free.

People also can hunt for grants to help with research if their family history is tied to certain buildings or communities that are trying to establish history projects.

But not everyone shoveling through family roots wants the shortcut with DNA testing.

Emily Davis, a former teacher, went to the county courthouse near Andalusia, Ala., and found amid the dust of the archives a world of ancestors who gave her a new mission: Bring their stories to life. So she continues finding family the old-fashioned way.

"No DNA testing for me," she said. "I have not gotten there yet. It's still too nice of a journey."
The way it works

At African Ancestry, founded in 2003, there are two tests.
One matches for paternal roots using the Y chromosome. Only males have Y chromosomes, which are passed unchanged from father to son. As a result, each maleís Y chromosome is the same as his fatherís, his fatherís father, and so on up the line for hundreds of generations.
The second test, to track the motherís lineage, uses mitochondrial DNA, which is cellular information inherited exclusively from the mother. You have the same mitochondrial DNA as your mother, her mother, her mother, etc., for hundreds of generations.
Once the DNA is collected, scientists determine whether the ancestry is African, European or something else.
If the ancestry is African, they compare the clientís genetic sequence against an exclusive database of African Y chromosomes and mitochondrial sequences.
If your sequence matches a lineage in the African Lineage Database, it can be determined where in Africa your ancestry is found today.
If the ancestry is not African, scientists will determine where it is found in the world.
One test is $299; two cost $500.
For more information, go to

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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