HAMPTON, Va. – As Walter Jones walks his family’s ancient cemetery, shovel in hand, he wonders about those who rest there.
The gravestones date back as far as the 1800s. Some bear the names of folks Walter knew; some have faded to illegibility; some are in pieces. And, under the brush he’s cleared away and the ground he’s leveled, there are burial sites unmarked by any stone.
The cemetery means so much to Walter because his extended family – the Tuckers of Tidewater, Virginia – believe they are as much an American founding family as any from the Mayflower.
They have a widely recognized but possibly unprovable claim: that they are directly descended from the first identified African American people born on the mainland of English America, an infant baptized “William” around 1624.
It’s been 400 years this August since William’s parents arrived in the Virginia colony. The Tuckers, like many African Americans, struggle to trace their roots. They have no genealogical or DNA evidence linking them to those first Africans, but they have oral history and family lore.
And they have the cemetery, a repository of what unites them and what baffles them.
This graveyard, Walter says, is “the only thing you can actually put your hands on, put your eyes on.’’
He’s thinking of that July day two years ago. He was leveling earth when the blade of his shovel hit something solid.
He looked down. A round, gray object seemed to have emerged from the dirt. He dug under it a little and lifted it up. It looked like a section of a bowl.
He moved more dirt and spotted something else round and gray. He brushed it off and held it against the first object to see if they fit together.
He didn’t realize it at first, but he was holding a human skull.
Researchers would conclude that it belonged to an African American woman who was about 60 when she died – roughly Walter’s age. But they couldn’t say when.
That night, the woman was all Walter could think about. She embodied every question, every possibility, about his family’s origins. And he’d held her in his bare hands.
The ‘20 and odd’
The Tuckers want to know their story because our stories help define us. Especially those that explain where we came from.
Many Americans can find out from a Norddeutscher Lloyd Line manifest or an Ellis Island log or a parish registry in Cork, Palermo or Cornwall. For African Americans, it’s not so easy. Their story, often as not, was stripped from them.
This is a story about one family’s search for its story. It’s about a storyteller who loved that story maybe too much; the searchers following in her path; and the mysterious old cemetery that, some feel, holds the key.
The Tuckers believe their American story started in 1619. According to a letter by the tobacco planter John Rolfe, the widower of Pocahontas, a ship landed in England’s 12-year-old Jamestown settlement and “brought not anything but 20, and odd, Negroes, which the Governor and the Cape Merchant bought for victuals’’ – provisions.
The “20 and odd’’ already had been through hell.
They were taken prisoner of war in what is now Angola by African mercenaries working with the Portuguese; marched to the Atlantic coast, where they were branded, penned, forcibly baptized; and finally chained head-to-foot below deck on a Spanish ship headed for Mexico and a life of slavery.
The San Juan Bautista carried about 350 enslaved people, more than a third of whom died on the crossing. Then, in the Gulf of Mexico, the ship was attacked by two English privateers – pirates under a foreign flag of convenience. The two ships carried about 60 of the Africans north toward Virginia.
Virginia had no law to permit or ban slavery. But the Africans became slaves in fact, if not law. In 1624, two of them, identified as Anthony and Isabella, were listed in the household of Capt. William Tucker, a military commander and settler.
The following year, the two appear again in a census, this time along with “William theire Child Baptised.’’ Another African child, unnamed, also appears for the first time in the same 1625 census. But William is the first identified by name.
The Tuckers believe that he is their founding father; that William was surnamed Tucker, after Capt. Tucker; and that their ancestors lived on or near Bluebird Gap Farm, site of Capt.Tucker’s plantation, in what is today the city of Hampton.
But the Tuckers have so far been unable to prove their claims to the satisfaction of most historians and genealogists.
An African Ancestry DNA test for a family elder, Floyd Tucker, showed that his DNA coincided with that found in a tribe in what is today Ghana – not Angola, from where William’s parents came.
It’s unclear how far William’s line goes forward, and how far the Tuckers’ goes back. A professional historian hired by the family has yet to find anything to narrow the gap.
One problem is that England’s American colonists kept poor records; settlers were more concerned about making it through winter or fighting Indians. Often, what records were kept subsequently were destroyed, by everything from fire to worms.
Today, experts say that any family – white or black – is hard-pressed to establish genealogical connections before 1800 unless their ancestors were rich, famous or criminals.
Just because the Tuckers can’t document their connection doesn’t mean they don’t have one, said Beth Austin of the Hampton History Museum. “But it’s really still just a theory. That’s all we can go on.”
Did William survive infancy in the precarious colony? Did he have children? Did his children have children? Regardless, he was the symbolic beginning of so much in American life – of the hands that picked the cotton that financed the Industrial Revolution; of jazz and gospel and hip-hop; of Ellison and Baldwin and Morrison; of King and Malcolm and Fannie Lou Hamer; of the Afro, the high-five and the dunk shot.
And yet, after he was baptized – on a date and in a place unknown – history’s first identified African American simply vanished.
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SOURCE: USA Today, Rick Hampson and Deborah Barfield Berry