By Brent Staples in the New York Times

DNA testing and access to electronic databases make it easier now to uncover the truth of family origins. But the news has tended to focus on the white ancestors of black families, and far less so on the hidden black forebears and their “white” descendants. Even now, discoveries of black ancestors in white family histories generate surprise.

That was the case in the announcement earlier this summer by, an online genealogy company, that President Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, a white woman born in Kansas, was very likely related to John Punch, a black man who lived in Virginia in the mid-17th century. Punch, a well-known figure in the history of slavery, was one of three runaway servants — the other two were a Dutchman and a Scot — who were captured in Maryland, returned to their master and hauled into a Virginia court.

The Dutchman and the Scot had their terms of service extended, but the court ruled that the “Negro named John Punch” would serve said master for life. The difference in their treatment led historians to view Punch as a figure whose story crystallized early attitudes toward the Negro and anticipated the formal legal and social constructs that would be used to justify chattel slavery.

To avoid an increasingly hostile legal climate, one branch of the Punch family decamped to North Carolina, where its members were recorded as “mulatto” in early records. Another branch that remained in Virginia — and became known as white — eventually migrated to the frontier, forming part of the Dunham family line.

All of this makes for interesting reading. But the anguish that families often endured when close relations cut them off in the process of shedding their colored identities cannot be overstated.

Imagine being rejected by a parent, sibling or child for racial reasons and you get some sense of the suffering that befell black families whose members set sail into whiteness, never to be heard from again.

Read the full article here.

Additional Resources

Williams, Gregory Howard. Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black, 1996.

Broyard, Bliss. One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life–A Story of Race and Family Secrets, 2007.

Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, 1912/1995.