News & Features » News and Features

Coloring Tree



When Gloria Brogdon's great-grandfather died just after the Civil War, some white folks came to the house in Charlotte County and took away the family Bible — or so the story goes. It's a tale that's been passed down through the generations.

Brogdon would like to find the Bible, not only to prove the story's true, but also to reclaim a record of her family's history.

Back in those days, births and deaths were recorded inside the cover and on the blank pages of the Bible, but the identity of the people who took her family's book could be just as revealing about her family makeup — especially its racial heritage.

Brogdon, who says she's "almost 50," would probably be classified in a census count as African-American. But her family tree is likely mixed. "My mother knew [my great-grandfather]," she says. "He looked white. Very, very, fair skinned."

An adjunct professor of television production at Virginia Union University, Brogdon lives in Aylett and is working on her Ph.D. in an interdisciplinary humanities program at Virginia Commonwealth University.

For the past 20 years, she's been trying to reconstruct the information hand-recorded in her family's Bible through genealogical research of her own. She suspects the people who took the book were relatives.

"It gets to be a rush for me," Brogdon says. "It's like seeking buried treasure."

Endeavors like hers have become increasingly popular among blacks.

In an ongoing special on PBS, "African American Lives 2," Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. helps black celebrities such as Chris Rock and Tina Turner trace their genealogies through research and DNA testing.

Locally, an archive of Civil War records is becoming more accessible. The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia is spearheading an effort to transcribe Civil War-era records from the Freedmen's Bureau — a government agency established in 1865 to help freed slaves become citizens — from microfilm to a searchable online database. There's also a plan to open programs in local prisons where inmates help digitize the information in the files.

"I can only think that for inmates to participate in this project would have a positive impact on them as well," says Viola O. Baskerville, state secretary of administration for Gov. Timothy Kaine.

Baskerville, an amateur genealogical researcher, says the project helps African-Americans better tell the story of how they contributed to American history.

She used Freedmen's Bureau records preserved by the Hanover County clerk's office to track down her great-great grandparents, slaves who were married 40 years before the Civil War ended and managed to keep their family together.

As for Brogdon, she says she's not quite sure what prompted her to begin her own research, but "it probably started with me trying to find out who I am." In the late 1980s, she would go to the clerk of the court in Charlotte County and sift through birth registries. Since surnames are patrilinear, she started looking down her father's line.

All the family members that she could find stretching back to the mid-1700s were "free people of color," not slaves. Brodgon had a hint that might be the case. Her great-grandfather had owned a sawmill in the mid-1800s.

"It was unheard of for a black man to own his own business during that time," she says. (Because her research is incomplete, Brogdon is uncomfortable giving out family members' first names.)

Later Brogdon was able to glean more information from online chat rooms and genealogy Web pages. There she met some Brogdons from Texas who passed along the identity of the earliest Brogdon they could find, a white Englishman who came to this country in 1758.

He showed up in a Virginia county that doesn't exist anymore, but she matched historic maps with current ones from Charlotte County. By comparing the bends in the rivers, she eventually confirmed that the first Brogdon settled there. She figures her ancestors came over with him as indentured servants, worked off their passage and freed themselves.

She's tracked her great-great-grandfathers to the time they arrived in this country, but some more recent relatives have been more difficult to find. Her great-grandfather, the sawmill owner whose death coincided with the loss of the family Bible, had a mysterious mother.

"His mother is very elusive," Brogdon says. "She is hidden someplace and I'm going to find her; that has been my quest." Family members described the sawmill owner's mother as a woman who came and went, making frequent trips West.

She had long black hair down her back, and was a midwife and an herbalist. Brogdon has heard she was Native American and came closer to confirming it last year when a tribe in the western part of the state posted an online list of likely surnames tribal descendants might have.

"When I found that possible link on the Native side, I [called and] woke my mother up at 2 o'clock in the morning," Brogdon says. "When my daughter was a little kid, and you know all little kids get pink eye, I didn't take her to the doctor," she says. "I used goldenseal to rinse her eye out. And overnight it was healed." Brogdon sees the Native American connection as confirmation that her interest in herbal medicine is not just a New Age hobby, but a family tradition.

Some traditions, naturally, are a little trickier, such as whites not acknowledging family members who are black. The fair-skinned mill owner from the mid-1800s probably shares ancestors with the white Brogdons who live in town. If the story's true they just may have a family Bible stashed in an attic somewhere.

Secretary Baskerville also found a white relative in her past. Even with her high government position, she says she wants to make sure her proof is beyond dispute before contacting anyone she identifies as a distant white relative.

"It's about connecting the dots and the making sure people are sitting down when they get the news," Baskerville says.

For Brogdon, the issue is even more intimate. Charlotte County is a small community. Just recently, a white Brogdon hit a deer in front of the home of one of Gloria Brogdon's black aunts. The driver knew the aunt and came right in to call her father. In that tightknit community, people act like family even if they don't acknowledge that they might actually be related.

"The whole key behind this whole black and white thing is [the question of] what do I want from them," she says. "I want the Bible, but does that entitle me … to an inheritance?" She says that's the last thing she's interested in, but can see how raising questions about bloodlines might raise people's blood pressure.

"That's why I said it depends on how I go about it and how mellowed out they've become," she says. "I'm just biding time. They're not going anywhere." S

  • Click here for more News and Features
  • Add a comment