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AfriGeneas News & Announcements
March 2010

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ella Mae Johnson, Obama's Oldest Fan, Dies at 106

Ella Mae Johnson was a witness to more than a century of African-American history, and last year, on Inauguration Day, she was determined to be in Washington to see Barack Obama sworn in as president. When she died at home in Cleveland this week, at the age of 106, she felt that trip to the nation's capital was a highlight of her life. It also changed her life.

Johnson was a pioneering professional woman. In 1926, when she'd gone to graduate school to become a social worker, she was the first black student. But she wasn't allowed to live on campus.

She dealt with such slights throughout her life with an air of formality and dignity.

But on Inauguration Day, she was willing to look a little silly in order to sit outside in the bitter cold for seven hours. She put on an elegant jacket and put on her pearl necklace. But in her wheelchair, she let her nurse cover her from head to toe in a bright blue sleeping bag, with just her round glasses and her nose peeking through the puffy fabric.

The trip from Judson Park, her upscale assisted living facility in Cleveland, had been exhausting. She talked about what Obama's presidency meant to her. "My hope for him is my hope for the country," she explained. "If he fails, the country fails. He knows, and he says, 'Not me, but you. Not us, but all of us.' "

There was a surprise that came out of that trip to Washington: A book editor heard her story on NPR and offered her a contract. Next month, her memoir will be published. It's called It Is Well With My Soul: The Extraordinary Life Of A 106-Year-Old Woman.

When the galley proof for her book arrived recently, she picked it up and kissed it. She was proud that she'd leave that legacy.

"Ella Mae's real lesson is that compassion is what will get you through life," says her co-writer Patricia Mulcahy. "She was orphaned when she was only 4 years old, and literally raised by the next-door neighbors. And this incredible example of compassion, outreach, whatever you want to call it, informed the rest of her life."

She'd gotten help from others, too, when she needed money to go to college. In 1921, women from her town in Texas gave her a scholarship to go to Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. Later she would do graduate work at what is now Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

After she graduated, she wanted to turn things around. She wanted to be the one who gave to others. So she became a social worker. She was always reaching out to someone or raising money for some cause.

Last year, over Thanksgiving weekend, she had a stroke. She didn't want to let other people take care of her. She'd try to walk and she'd fall.

Her friend Betty Miller talks about the loving letter that came from one of her two sons. "He just wrote her a letter. E-mailed it to me, and I printed it out," Miller recalls. "And he just told her she'd been a social worker for years helping others, she'd been compassionate, now this is her time to get some help. This is her time to accept the fact that she's 106 years old. She read it and I said, 'Ella Mae, do you understand it?' And she said, 'I'll try.' "

There was one last act of determination. When Johnson died Monday evening, she died where she wanted. She was out of the hospital. She was out of the nursing home. She died in her apartment at her assisted living facility.

She was surrounded by friends, many of them from her church. And as Johnson died, Betty Miller was reading the 23rd Psalm — Ella Mae Johnson's favorite.

Source: NPR

Posted by Staff on 3/25/10 at 12:26 pm EST

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Current Biology: The Evolution of Human Genetic and Phenotypic Variation in Africa


Modern humans evolved in Africa around 200 thousand years ago (kya), and have lived continuously on the African continent longer than in any other geographic region. Africa not only has the highest levels of human genetic variation in the world but also contains a considerable amount of linguistic, environmental and cultural diversity. For example, more than 2000 distinct ethno-linguistic groups, representing nearly a third of the world's languages, currently exist in Africa ( (Figure 1). Africans live in a wide range of environments, such as deserts, tropical rainforests, savannas, swamps, and mountain highlands [1,2]. Furthermore, some of these environments have undergone dramatic changes over the course of modern human evolution [1,3,4]. African populations also practice a wide array of subsistence strategies, including various forms of hunting-gathering, agriculture and pastoralism, across the continent perhaps in response to this environmental variability over time and geographic space.

African demographic history has consisted of fluctuations in population size, short- and long- range migration, admixture and extensive population structure which have resulted in complex patterns of variation in modern populations [1,5]. The timing and duration of some of these demographic events were often correlated with known major environmental changes and/or cultural developments in Africa [6]. A number of novel genetic and phenotypic adaptations have also evolved in Africans in response to dramatic variation in environment, diet, and exposure to infectious disease across the continent. In some cases, these adaptations have occurred in the last several thousand years, exemplifying the ongoing evolution of human populations. Thus, present-day patterns of variation in African genomes are a product of both demographic and selective events.

The characterization of extant genetic diversity in Africa will be critical for reconstructing modern human origins and African demographic history. In addition, this genetic information, together with phenotype data on variable traits, will be informative for identifying population-specific variants that play a role in gene function, phenotypic adaptation and complex disease susceptibility in Africans and populations of African descent.

Evolutionary History of Modern Humans in Africa

Current paleontological data suggest that the transition to anatomically modern Homo sapiens occurred in Africa, supporting the ‘Recent African Origin’ model of human evolution (Figure 2). The earliest known suite of derived traits associated with anatomically modern humans was identified in fossil remains from East Africa dated to around 195–150 kya [7,8,9]. Thus, the basic morphology of modern humans was established in Africa about 200 kya [10]. Other early anatomically modern humans, with a more full set of modern features, also appear in Africa before 100 kya and in the Near East around 100 kya [11,12,13], followed by the more recent expansion of anatomically modern humans into Eurasia within the past 40,000–80,000 years [1,2] (Figure 2). Although the mode of evolution is still unclear, it has been suggested that the emergence of modern humans was not a sudden event, but rather a continuous process of gradual morphological change from archaic to modern H. sapiens[11]. However, it has also been argued that modern human origins likely involved episodes of sudden morphological change, leading to the appearance of anatomically modern H. sapiens as a species distinct from archaic humans [14]. Regardless of the mode of evolution, current fossil and chronological evidence indicate that modern humans existed in Africa for a relatively long period of time before their migration across much of the globe.

Read the rest of the article ► ►

Source: Current Biology

Posted by Staff on 3/14/10 at 7:55 pm EST

Saturday, March 13, 2010

DNA Tests Support Zimbabwe Tribe's Claim of Jewish Roots

Lost Jewish tribe 'found in Zimbabwe'

By Steve Vickers
BBC News, Harare

The Lemba people of Zimbabwe and South Africa may look like their compatriots, but they follow a very different set of customs and traditions.

They do not eat pork, they practise male circumcision, they ritually slaughter their animals, some of their men wear skull caps and they put the Star of David on their gravestones.

Their oral traditions claim that their ancestors were Jews who fled the Holy Land about 2,500 years ago.

It may sound like another myth of a lost tribe of Israel, but British scientists have carried out DNA tests which have confirmed their Semitic origin.

These tests back up the group's belief that a group of perhaps seven men married African women and settled on the continent. The Lemba, who number perhaps 80,000, live in central Zimbabwe and the north of South Africa.

And they also have a prized religious artefact that they say connects them to their Jewish ancestry - a replica of the Biblical Ark of the Covenant known as the ngoma lungundu, meaning "the drum that thunders".

The object went on display recently at a Harare museum to much fanfare, and instilled pride in many of the Lemba.

"For me it's the starting point," says religious singer Fungisai Zvakavapano-Mashavave.

"Very few people knew about us and this is the time to come out. I'm very proud to realise that we have a rich culture and I'm proud to be a Lemba.

"We have been a very secretive people, because we believe we are a special people."

Religion vs culture

The Lemba have many customs and regulations that tally with Jewish tradition.

They wear skull caps, practise circumcision, which is not a tradition for most Zimbabweans, avoid eating pork and food with animal blood, and have 12 tribes.

“ Many people say that the story is far-fetched, but the oral traditions of the Lemba have been backed up by science ”
Tudor Parfitt University of London

They slaughter animals in the same way as Jewish people, and they put the Jewish Star of David on their tombstones.

Members of the priestly clan of the Lemba, known as the Buba, were even discovered to have a genetic element also found among the Jewish priestly line.

"This was amazing," said Prof Tudor Parfitt, from the University of London.

"It looks as if the Jewish priesthood continued in the West by people called Cohen, and in same way it was continued by the priestly clan of the Lemba.

"They have a common ancestor who geneticists say lived about 3,000 years ago somewhere in north Arabia, which is the time of Moses and Aaron when the Jewish priesthood started."

Prof Parfitt is a world-renowned expert, having spent 20 years researching the Lemba, and living with them for six months.

The Lemba have a sacred prayer language which is a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic, pointing to their roots in Israel and Yemen.

Despite their ties to Judaism, many of the Lemba in Zimbabwe are Christians, while some are Muslims.

"Christianity is my religion, and Judaism is my culture," explains Perez Hamandishe, a pastor and member of parliament from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Despite their centuries-old traditions, some younger Lemba are taking a more liberal view.

"In the old days you didn't marry a non-Lemba, but these days we interact with others," says Alex Makotore, son of the late Chief Mposi from the Lemba "headquarters" in Mberengwa.

"I feel special in my heart but not in front of others such that I'm separated from them. Culture is dynamic."


The oral traditions of the Lemba say that the ngoma lungundu is the Biblical wooden Ark made by Moses, and that centuries ago a small group of men began a long journey carrying it from Yemen to southern Africa.

“ Hearing from those professors in Harare and seeing the ngoma makes it clear that we are a great people and I'm very proud ”
David Maramwidze Lemba elder

The object went missing during the 1970s and was eventually rediscovered in Harare in 2007 by Prof Parfitt.

"Many people say that the story is far-fetched, but the oral traditions of the Lemba have been backed up by science," he says.

Carbon dating shows the ngoma to be nearly 700 years old - pretty ancient, if not as old as Bible stories would suggest.

But Prof Parfitt says this is because the ngoma was used in battles, and would explode and be rebuilt.

The ngoma now on display was a replica, he says, possibly built from the remains of the original.

"So it's the closest descendant of the Ark that we know of," Prof Parfitt says.

Large crowds came to see the unveiling of the ngoma and to attend lectures on the identity of the Lemba.

For David Maramwidze, an elder in his village, the discovery of the ngoma has been a defining moment.

"Hearing from those professors in Harare and seeing the ngoma makes it clear that we are a great people and I'm very proud," he says.

"I heard about it all my life and it was hard for me to believe, because I had no idea of what it really is.

"I'm still seeing the picture of the ngoma in my mind and it will never come out from my brain. Now we want it to be given back to the Lemba people."

Source: BBC News

Posted by Staff on 3/13/10 at 9:21 am EST

Friday, March 12, 2010 to Open Census Records Free to the Public for a Limited Time


March 11, 2010 Lindon, UT

In order to encourage more people to find their ancestors and connect with family,, the web's premier interactive history site, is opening all of their U.S. census documents for free to the public for a limited time.

Unlike any other historical collection on the web, the Interactive Census Collection has the unique ability to connect people related to ancestors found on the historical documents. Simply by clicking the "I'm Related" button for a name on the document will identify you as a descendant and also list others that have done the same. Never before has it been as easy to connect with distant relatives through historical documents.

To learn how to get started with the Interactive Census, visit:

Finding a record featuring an ancestor's name provides not only an emotional experience but also a connection with the past. On it's more than just finding a name on a census record. Interactive tools allow people to enhance the documents by adding their own contributions including:
• Photos
• Stories
• Comments
• Other related documents
Each contribution is linked to a Footnote member and provides a means for people to find each other and exchange more information about their ancestors.

"TV programs including 'Who Do You Think You Are?' on NBC and 'Faces of America' on PBS will surely increase the interest in family history in the United States," explains Russell Wilding, CEO of "We believe that using our Interactive Census Collection is a great way for those who are new to genealogy to get started."

In addition to providing the basic information about ancestors with the census documents, has been working with the National Archives and other institutions to digitize and index over 63 million historical records that include:
• Military documents
• Historical newspapers
• City directories
• Naturalization records

"Using the records on Footnote to go beyond the names and dates is like adding color to your tree," says Roger Bell, Footnote's Senior Vice President of Content and Product. "The more details you add, the more colorful your family tree becomes."

To search for an ancestor and experience family history like never before, visit:


Posted by Staff on 3/12/10 at 12:45 pm EST

6 Jul 2003 :: 13 Mar 2010
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