On July 16, 2009, distinguished Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., returning from a trip to China, found himself locked out of his own home. Upon attempting to break in, a local witness reported the action to the police, presuming a burglary was in progress. A confrontation with police ensued, and Gates was arrested by Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley for disorderly conduct. The arrest sparked a national media event, which even came to the attention of President Barack Obama. Charges were dropped a few days later, and the President invited the two men to share a beer with him and the Vice-President to discuss the incident. The so-called “Beer Summit” was a success, and relations between the two men are now amicable.
While I don’t know much about Sgt. Crowley these days, I do know that Professor Gates most recently once again came to my attention as a co-producer and host of the PBS series, “Finding Your Roots.” The program researches the backgrounds of a number of well-known people, revealing interesting and surprising information about their ancestors. With dedicated personnel and financial support, it’s no wonder the results are successful. But what about the ordinary American, someone like Little Orphan Cecelia Annie?
Little Orphan Cecelia Annie wasn’t always an orphan. Her father left the family when she was still an infant, and died in an accident a few years later. Her mother was left to raise the four children alone, barely making ends meet. Despite continuing difficulties, the individual children went on to successes of their own, and Little Orphan Cecelia Annie married me.
When Cece’s mother succumed to cancer, any links to her family’s ancestry were virtually lost. Technically, she was an orphan, with no known surviving ancestors. Her mother kept few records of her father, and the only information was a death certificate bearing his birth date, death date and where he was living at the time.
For years, I’d always been curious as to her father’s family. Who were his parents? Did he have any siblings? Did Cece have cousins?
My research soon revealed that though her grandparents, and all of her aunts and uncles, were deceased, there appeared to be the possibility that some cousins were still out there. I found one mailing address online, and sent a letter to Virginia Rose Lane, an 83 year old woman in Indiana whom I believed to be Cece’s cousin, her father’s niece. In the letter I provided enough information to identify ourselves and the family relationship, as well as mailing and email addresses and a phone number, inviting further contact.
About a week later, a phone call came from an area code in Indiana. I answered the phone, and much to my delight, it was Cece’s cousin, calling from 2,000 miles and three time zones away. Unfortunately, Cece wasn’t home, but I spoke to “Rose” for about a half-hour, validating much of my two months of intense research. We ended our conversation with the promise that Cece would call her back in about 30 minutes.
When Cece returned home, she nervously made the call. What could she say to someone who was a complete stranger to her, yet besides her own siblings, was one of her closest relatives? Thankfully, she found Rose a delight, and together we revealed to her our plans to visit in early June.
In another week, we received another call from Rose’s son, David, and he indicated to us that he would travel from his home in Tennessee to meet us when we visited his mother. This was going to truly be a family gathering.
But my quest for more information on Cece’s ancestry was not over. I continued to pursue other leads, and found deep roots into colonial America and even tenuous links back into English nobility and royalty. But one of the most surprising discoveries was about Cece’s cousin Tom. Tom was not as close a relative as Rose and David. In fact, one would have to go back seven generations, to Cece’s five times great-grandmother, Mary Nichols, who was Tom’s first cousin. And given that Tom was born in 1743, it was unlikely we would get a chance to meet him.
When our trip to Indiana finally happened, we did get our family “Union”. It wasn’t a reunion for us, because these were relatives we had never met, nor even known about four months earlier. The family gathering involved a couple of dozen folks, and was a highlight of our trip.
But another highlight of the trip was to visit seven area cemeteries where some of Cece’s relatives and ancestors were buried. We saw graves for three aunts, several cousins, her grandparents, great-grandparents, three of her great-great-grandparents and a great-great-great-grandfather. One of those great-great-grandfathers was the great-grandson of Tom’s cousin Mary Nichols.
But the most moving of all was visiting Cece’s father’s grave, her first tangible contact with something uniquely her father’s. Let me tell you, tears were shed. Little Orphan Cecelia Annie had finally found her father.
Shortly after the incident involving Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sgt. Crowley, Professor Gates appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show. He revealed that after some DNA tests, it turns out he and Sgt. Crowley shared a common ancient Irish ancestor. He had also speculated that he might be related to Cece’s cousin Tom as well. We do know that Tom went on to greater fame himself. Among his many accomplishments: he authored a document titled “The Declaration of Independence” and became our nation’s 3rd President. Yes, Thomas Jefferson, Mary Nichols’ first cousin, appears on today’s nickel.