Tracing a Family Tree: A Letter to Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Director, W.E.B. Du Bois Institute For
African American Studies
Harvard University
104 Mt. Auburn St., 3R
Cambridge, MA 02138

Dear Professor Gates,

Permit me to begin this letter with my sincerest congratulations for your contributions to the interracial integration of the Western canon. I only wish past generations of African Americans could have been exposed to your affirming body of work, particularly my own antecedents, who while privately embracing their multi-racial genealogy, also proudly identified themselves publicly as Negroes.

I can easily imagine my mother, father and other long deceased relatives raptly viewing and thoroughly enjoying your television productions of African American Lives and Faces of America. And, of course, I believe they would have been particularly gratified by public acknowledgements of the shared DNA heritage of Blacks and Whites in the United States. Something they always knew to be true in spite of societal denial, as exemplified by the One-Drop Rule.

Attached is a complimentary copy of When White is Black, a family memoir I authored, which was published in 2006. The accompanying DVD depicts a local interview I did a few months following the book’s publication. While not particularly comprehensive, the interview will give you an introductory sense of the book. I do beg your indulgence in relation to an embarrassing misstatement I made during that interview regarding a most relevant date. I inexplicably said 1859 instead of 1659 in citing the date of my presumed first white forbearer to arrive in America.

I’m hoping to conceptualize and write a prequel to When White is Black, perhaps as an historical novel, which focuses on the lives of several maternal family ancestors who lived during the 19th century. I’d be most grateful to you for advice, particularly in relation to fruitful DNA and other research avenues to investigate, bearing in mind that I’m financially limited by a modest fixed retirement income.

I’ve obtained  basic mt.DNA and Y Chromosome information from Family Tree DNA. However, knowing my African origin L2a (mt.DNA) Haplogroup is not particularly helpful in understanding the life journeys of certain predominately white female ancestors over the last several hundred years.

There are numerous bits of my family’s oral history, which intrigue me as a writer. For example, my maternal grandmother, Maud Ophelia White, and her family allegedly lived as white people in Galveston, Texas until Maud was in her teens. Some revelation, or incident, which I fictionalize in my book as an “outing,” resulted in my grandmother living the remainder of her life as a Negro. Beyond that I know practically nothing of Maud’s early life, except her approximate 1876 year of birth. Her father’s name was probably George White, and the maiden name of her New Orleans born mother, Louisa, who was allegedly of French descent, was said to be Compare. Interestingly, Louisa’s second husband was John Hughes of Brazoria, Texas, who, according to family oral history, was at one time a deputy sheriff of Brazoria, and an “acknowledged” relative of Charles Evans Hughes, a Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The material pertaining to the characters in Chapter 4 (Revelation) of When White is Black is mostly speculative. The names Andre Compare and Lila, which first appear in the “Peachey Tree”, page xi, and later in Chapter 4, are pseudonyms, and their racial backgrounds are speculative. This is in contrast to the fairly well documented right side of the chart pertaining to my maternal grandfather’s male ancestral line, which, as a result of the rare surname Peachey, I was able to trace back to Suffolk County, England in the early 17th century. I believe my potential writing project would be historically enriched if I could discover the geographic locations and journeys of my maternal line during the 18th-19th centuries.

In terms of the project I envision, obtaining my complete genome sequencing would give me the best possible foundation for historical research. However, since I cannot afford such an undertaking, I would appreciate your advice regarding other approaches, including less expensive DNA searches, which are likely to yield the geographic journeys of my maternal ancestors during the last 200 to 400 years.

Thank you for your consideration.


John A. Martin, Jr.

About John A. Martin, Jr.

John A. Martin, Jr. was raised in Berkeley, California, where he later spent the bulk of his professional career, as the general director of a social service agency. His life journey has included four years of service in the U.S. Air Force, B.A. and M.A. degrees from San Francisco State University and the University of Omaha respectively, post Master's degree study at Tufts University and the University of California at Berkeley, and a wonderfully satisfying professional life working in anti-poverty programs, social service, education, and civil rights organizations. Martin is currently retired and resides in Novato, CA.
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9 Responses to Tracing a Family Tree: A Letter to Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

  1. It is a fantastic post. I will undoubtedly be reading this blog far more.

  2. Elda Lazaro says:

    The effort you’ve taken to uncover your lineage is remarkable. I wish I had the means to do so myself. Good luck in your further discoveries!

    • John A. Martin, Jr. says:

      Elda, thank you for your kind comment. I am sure you can uncover a degree of personally rewarding information relative to your background using public records. In fact the search itself can be satisfying. Best of luck.

  3. We are seeking blog authors willing to comment on the area of mixed race studies Please visit mixed race uk to learn more. Many Thanks

    • John A. Martin, Jr. says:

      Thank you for visiting my website. I visited as you suggested. It’s an impressive website, which addresses a much neglected subject. I would be pleased to consider offering commentary on mixed race studies, although I didn’t see a vehicle for doing so while visiting It may be that my book, When White is Black, which can be purchased at, would prove to be an enlightening read for followers of The book discusses multiple generations of my own white/black antecedents who lived their lives in the U.S. as Black, despite physical appearances which were significantly more white than black. This, of course, was consistent with U.S. racism, and it’s implicit denial of recognition of mixed race in relation to people with both black and white ancestry.

      John Martin

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