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Make Black History Personal: #25 Family History from the Inside Out

March 24, 2014 by  
Filed under Make Black History Personal

When I was a little Black girl growing up in Detroit, Michigan, the last thing I was thinking about was genealogy, family history or anything beyond my little world of people who loved me and who I loved back.

The Baby Karen

The Baby Karen

But pretty early in life, I became interested in history. When my parents subscribed to National Geographic, that magazine really jump-started my evolution into the history nerd I am today.

From the many issues of National Geographic I read over the years, I was most intrigued by the articles on anthropology – the scientific study of human races, origins, societies, and cultures.

The history of human beings.

I devoured everything I could find on anthropology and what’s now called the human family tree. My hero back then was Mary Leakey, a paleoanthropologist (fossil expert), who discovered the 1.75 million year old bones of a “hominid” – a now extinct early ancestor of both apes and humans.

As I became an adult, my love of history and anthropology morphed into a passion for genealogy. It’s been a way for me to understand a heritage that is more than just the color of my skin, as I once thought it was.  Genealogy has been my focus for almost 40 years. And up until last year, I was content to continue my journey into the past using a paper trail left by my ancestors. But then I took a DNA test through 23andMe (where I’m now an affiliate).

Now I’m looking at my family history from the inside out. And what a view that’s turned out to be!

First I learned a little about my own little branch on the human family tree. My DNA test shows that I have 1.9% Neanderthal in my genes. The Neanderthals are another extinct branch of humans who mingled their DNA with our modern human ancestors 60,000 years ago. Most people with European or Asian heritage still have some Neanderthal DNA, between 1-4%. People from sub-Saharan Africa typically have little to none.

My Neanderthal heritage.

My Neanderthal heritage.

I learned that my sub-Saharan African ancestors make up 53.9% of my DNA. According to the standard view on 23andme, I am 35.6% West African. I’d like to learn more about how my African DNA breaks down but it shows that I have ancestry from Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

My African heritage.

My African heritage.

I have almost no ancestors who come from the Middle East or Northern Africa as shown by my less than one percent DNA from that area of the world.

My Middle Eastern and North African heritage.

My Middle Eastern and North African heritage.

It was no surprise to learn that I have European ancestry – something that had already shown up in my genealogy research. I was surprised, though, to learn that my European ancestry was over 40% of my DNA, with over half of that being nonspecific Northern European. I’m still trying to understand more about this finding.

My European heritage.

My European heritage.

After years of hearing stories in my family about Native American heritage, I was intrigued to learn that I carry 2.1% East Asian/Native American in my DNA. Most of that is my Native American ancestry. I recently asked questions about this from a a very knowledgeable member of the 23andme community – “King Genome” who was very generous in sharing some insights into this part of my DNA results below:

Your results definitely support Native American in 4th to 6th great-grandparent if one event in your family. Your full sibling might give you a better idea of the range you might expect this ancestor to be from. It could as close as 3rd-great-grandparent or much further away based on the sibling’s results … By the way, your Native proportion to Southeast Asian is very substantial and suggests Native Ancestry from somewhere below the Mason-Dixon line.

My Native American and Asian heritage.

My Native American and Asian heritage.

King Genome gave me some great suggestions on how to better understand my DNA results. Thanks to King Genome for helping out a DNA newbie because this stuff is not easy to understand. At least for me.

About 3% of my DNA couldn’t be specifically assigned so that part of who I am remains unknown.

The part of my DNA that could not be assigned to a specific ancestry group.

The part of my DNA that could not be assigned to a specific ancestry group.

My maternal or mitochondrial ancient history is represented by the finding that my haplogroup is H39 – a small subgroup of the H haplogroup that’s predominant throughout Europe. Not exactly what I expected so this is an area where I have a lot more to learn and discover about my early ancestors.

My maternal haplogroup of H39.

My maternal haplogroup of H39.

At this point, if you’re thinking that ancestry DNA is just interesting “inside” information – think again. When I took my DNA test on 23andMe last year, they connected me with some genetic relatives. None of them were people I already knew or ever expected to know. But one 3rd or 4th degree cousin, “Trish” reached out to me and we started brainstorming about our family connection.

Since we both had family from Bermuda, we followed that path. And drum roll – I’m thrilled to report that our efforts paid off when we confirmed last week that my grandfather and Trish’s great-grandmother were brother and sister. We were both in tears over this amazing news and had our first phone conversation over the weekend.

The important lesson for me is that the DNA science from 23andme has turned into real family. And while there’s a lot more for me to discover and understand about my DNA results, I’m loving this new view of family history from the inside out.

The picture of me from the inside out.

The picture of me from the inside out.

What about you? Have you thought about trying DNA testing as a way to make Black history personal?

Make Black History Personal: #24 Cousins by Chance, Friends by Choice

February 24, 2014 by  
Filed under Make Black History Personal

In my life, I’ve been blessed on my father’s side of the family to have lots of cousins. The funny thing is that we don’t distinguish between first cousins and anything beyond that.

In fact, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I heard about the different kinds of cousins. You know – first, second, first removed and all of that. I actually find it pretty confusing because in my family, a cousin is a cousin and it’s that simple. But if you’ve ever wondered about the degrees of cousins in a family, here’s how that works:

  1. You and your first cousin share the same set of grandparents.
  2. You and your second cousin share the same great-grandparents – not grand-parents.
  3. You and your third cousin share the same great-great grandparents, but not the same grandparents or great-grandparents.

And it goes on the same for fourth cousins and beyond.

When people talk about having a cousin who’s once or twice “removed”, that relationship is between people of two different generations. For example, I have a cousin, Melvin who is the same age as I am. Our common ancestor is Frederick Dickinson who is my grandfather, but Melvin’s great-grandfather. Because we are technically from different generations, Melvin and I are first cousins, once removed.

I know this sounds pretty confusing but here’s a chart that maps out the cousin relationships described above in a visual. Start at the Common Ancestor. Identify your relationship to the common ancestor on the top line. Then for the cousin you’re comparing yourself to, identify his or her relationship to the common ancestor. Then find where your relationships meet on the chart and that will give you the relationship between you and your cousin.

small cousins chart

Many of my cousins, regardless of whether we’re first or third, removed or not, have become very good friends and I like to think we are living proof of that old proverb –

Cousins by chance, friends by choice.

I learned this concept of cousins being friends early in life from my mother who, unlike me, had only one first cousin – Katherine Barbara Simmons. Katherine was born October 20, 1912 in Cleveland, Ohio. She was Mom’s adored older cousin and the daughter of my Great-Aunt Clara. Here’s Katherine in a photo taken about the time my mother was born in 1919.

My mother's only first cousin, Katherine as a child in Cleveland, Ohio.

My mother’s only first cousin, Katherine as a child in Cleveland, Ohio.

Because theirs was a mixed race family, my mom and Katherine didn’t always have a lot of interaction with cousins on the White side of the family. So they spent a lot of time together and Katherine became a role model for style, grace and beauty to my mom – and cousins, like me, in the next generation.

katherine with car

My mother always told me that she named me after Cousin, Katherine. According to Mom, my name “Karen” is the Danish short form for Katherine. I found that depending what you read, my name has Scandinavian, Greek or Armenian origins.

Wherever my name originated from, I am honored to be my amazing cousin Katherine’s namesake. Although she died on July 28, 1988, I like to remember her in this picture below. Hopefully I can shine a radiant smile like hers on the world around me.

My second cousin and namesake, Katherine and her amazing smile.

How can you make Black history personal?

Make Black History Personal: #23 Our Royal Heritage

February 23, 2014 by  
Filed under Make Black History Personal

Did I mention that we have Royal heritage? Not the crown-wearing kind but Royal, as in the now-vintage typewriter that’s been used by three generations of our family already.

Our Royal was built in 1929, as I discovered when I looked up the serial number recently. My grandmother Hazel was the first in our family to learn how to type on the glass-covered black and gold keys.


The next generation who learned how to type was my mom. She took the Royal to college with her and later got a job as a teletype operator because of her excellent typing skills.


My sister and I were the 3rd generation of fingers in our family to learn the magic of the Royal keyboard. Now I couldn’t plunk out a recognizable tune on our piano keyboard to save my life. But on the Royal – I was a genius.

Of course, I owe it all to my 9th grade typing teacher and endless hours of typing this sentence over and over and over again –

Now is the time for all good men to come to their aid of their country.

I didn’t know until recently that this was a favorite typing drill because you can type the entire sentence, end with a period and be right at the point where you hit the return lever to start the same sentence again on the next line.


I don’t know if the manufacturer realized it at the time but the Royal was built to last a long tie. Try 85 years and counting! And you can’t tell from these photos but the Royal weighs a ton.


No one could have told me that I would end up transferring the skills I learned on our heavy metal Royal typewriter to a feather-weight of a computer I call “Mac”.


The Royal and the Mac.

But if you think we’ve retired our trusted old Royal – think again. It’s almost time for my 10-year-old niece to learn typing and the Royal offers a perfect learning environment free from distractions on the Internet.

So our Royal is dusted off once again and waiting for that brown typewriter ribbon we just got her. In a world where everything changes at lightening speed, it nice to know that our Royal heritage will continue for many years to come.


How can you make Black history personal in your family?

Make Black History Personal: #22 Meeting Obama

February 22, 2014 by  
Filed under Make Black History Personal

The first time I ever heard about Barack Obama was when he was introduced as the keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. I was watching the coverage because my home state governor, Jennifer Granholm from Michigan, was scheduled to speak.

I confess, I was half-paying attention and doing other things at home while I waited for the Governor to come on. And then I heard Barack Obama start speaking. I don’t remember his exact words, but whatever Mr. Obama said literally reached out from the television, grabbed my attention and never let go.

Barack Obama speaking at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Barack Obama speaking at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

By the end of his speech I was standing up cheering –

All alone.

In my living room.

I knew from that day forward that Mr. Obama would be president. In fact, I started saying that to people, many who didn’t even know who he was yet.

When his book, Dreams from My Father came out, I bought it and set it aside to take on vacation with me to Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts when I had visited a number of times before.

My copy of Obama's first book that I took with me on vacation to Oak Bluffs, MA.

My copy of Obama’s first book that I took with me on vacation to Oak Bluffs, MA.

Once we arrived on the Vineyard and checked into our old – but cute little house in the town of Oak Bluffs, we headed over to Nancy’s – our favorite fried fish and clams hangout in the harbor. As we sat outside at the picnic tables eating and people-watching, I was shocked to look over and see Mr. Obama and his family walking down the sidewalk.

And would you believe I had his book in my purse!

But the unwritten rule on the Vineyard is “no bothering” celebrities who are there on vacation. In all my times visiting there, I’d never broken the rule so it didn’t even occur to me to rush over and try to get an autograph. Instead I read Mr. Obama’s book over vacation and was glad I had taken the time to learn more about him.

Sometime that fall, I was invited to an event back home in Michigan where Mr. Obama was going to speak. Funny, I’m not typically an autograph hound (although yes, I did get Alex Haley’s). But on this day, I said to myself –

Lighten up. This is the man who will be the first Black president of the United States.

So yes, I did stick Mr. Obama’s book in my purse yet again. And when I got to meet him that day, I told him about seeing him in the Vineyard and not asking for his autograph while he was on vacation. That’s when Mr. Obama, (now POTUS* as I predicted), laughed and said –

Well, let’s fix that now.

And he did.

President Obama's autograph to me.

President Obama’s autograph to me.

*In case you didn’t know, POTUS is short for President of the United States.

What can you do to make Black history personal?

Make Black History Personal: #21 Uril Franklin Hollis and the KKK

February 21, 2014 by  
Filed under Make Black History Personal

During my early years, I was blessed with three grandfathers – my mother’s father, my dad’s father and his stepfather. Uril Hollis was my step-grandfather and the grandpa I got to see most when we’d spend the weekend with he and my grandmother in Hamtramck, Michigan.

I didn’t know much about Grandpa Hollis except that his full name was Franklin Uril Hollis, he was born in Mississippi and he didn’t have any children. I knew he was smart – an engineer of sorts at the Music Hall in Detroit. And I knew he had two things he loved to do  – hunt and “tinker” (as Gram called it) in his basement workshop.

My grandmother was Grandpa Hollis’s third wife and best friends with his deceased second wife, Ethel. My grandmother told me the story that some respectable time after Ethel’s death, Grandpa asked if Gram if she wanted to get married. She said “yes” if he would get some new teeth. He did – and they did. They were a loving couple until he died. And to this day, I still remember the pair of his and hers dentures sitting in two glasses of water on the bathroom sink.

Grandpa Hollis was a man with big bushy eyebrows and a solemn demeanor. He was a man of very few words but I always got the impression he liked having us grandkids around even though he never said much. Also he had a special ritual when it was time for us to go home after our weekend visits.

As my parents would arrive to pick us up, Grandpa Hollis would give a wry little smile and slightly nod his head in the direction of his and Gram’s bedroom. Both my sister and I knew what that meant and we’d race into room to Grandpa’s side of the bed where there was big glass jar on the floor filled with King Leo jumbo peppermint sticks.

King Leo jumbo peppermint sticks have been made since 1902.

King Leo jumbo peppermint sticks have been made since 1902.

Now it’s hard to tell from the picture, but these peppermint sticks were huge. Probably the size of my skinny little girl arm back then. And I loved them!

I’m sure my mother cringed every time she saw us walk out with candy that could take out at least a tooth or two. But to me, it was an extra-special gift from Grandpa Hollis who clearly knew the way to my little girl heart.

Grandpa was gone by the time I was 10. Gram died many years later at age 97. When we were going through her things after she died, we found something belonging to Grandpa Hollis. A very old, worn Bible. I thought it was his but now that I look closer, the Bible  appears to have belonged to one of his parents.

Hollis Family Bible

Hollis Family Bible


Hollis Bible registry page

Hollis Bible registry page


Hollis Bible recorded births.

Hollis Bible recorded births.

What was interesting is that inside the pages we discovered a little slip of paper (that unfortunately, I don’t have to share here). I’m not sure if the note was sent to Grandpa Hollis or his father but it was an ominous warning –

Get out of town tonight. KKK

Now I’m no expert on how the Ku Klux Klan operated, but I’m guessing they didn’t typically give Black people advance warning that they were a target.


What I remember hearing is that Grandpa Hollis had been harassed by a White man in his town and killed him. Although people apparently knew Grandpa acted in self-defense, he still had to leave town.


The genealogist in me couldn’t resist digging around a little to see what I could uncover about this story and Grandpa Hollis’s early years, even though he wasn’t a direct ancestor of mine. For someone who might be researching this particular line of the Hollis family from Mississippi, here’s what I found:

  • Grandpa Hollis was born on July 21, 1897. His full name was Uril Franklin Hollis but that name often got misspelled and turned around. [Hollis Bible; U.S. Draft Registration for Uril Hollis in WWI]
  • Uril’s father was Frank H. Hollis who was born August 27, 1855 in Lamar County, Alabama. Frank’s parents were Friday Hollis and Caroline Griffin. [Hollis Bible] According to Uril’s draft registration for WWI, his father was born in Sulligent, Alabama.
  • Uril’s mother was Laura Jane Wise born May 21, 1873 in Monroe County Mississippi. She was the daughter of Mariah Wise but there’s only a scribble of some kind where her father’s name should be in the family bible. Laura is listed as Mulatto in some of the census records.
  • Just so you know Lamar County, Alabama and Monroe County, Mississippi are right next to one another on the Alabama/Mississippi state line.
  • In the 1900 United States census, Uril is listed as “Franklin W. Hollis”, 2-year-old Black child living with his parents in Marman Springs, Monroe County, Mississippi. His birthdate was July, 1897.
  • By the 1910 United States census, Uril is listed as 12 years old, Mulatto and living with his parents in Gattman, Monroe County, Mississippi.
  • In the 1920 United States census, Uril Hollis is shown as a 22-year-old Mulatto man living with his wife, Mollie L. Hollis age 19 who was born in Alabama. Uril is renting his house in Gattman and lives next door to his father, Frank Hollis. Uril could read and write and was employed as a farmer.
  • Between the 1920 and 1930 censuses, Uril’s wife, Mollie likely died.
  • During the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was on a mission to increase its ranks and influence. And then race relations in Mississippi went from bad to worse during and after the catastrophic flooding of the Mississippi River in 1927.
  • In the Bible is this handwritten entry: “Husband – Frank Hollis – August 24, 1929″. [Hollis Bible]. Most of the family entries are in pencil and in a neat and legible handwriting belonging to the same person who recorded Frank’s death and referred to him as “husband”.
  • My theory is that the Hollis Bible actually belonged to Uril’s mother, Laura and she gave it to him when he left Mississippi to move North. The timing would have been after his father’s death in August 1929 and before the 1930 census was taken on April 23, 1930 that shows Uril living in Michigan. Specifically, he was in Hamtramck, Michigan where he and a subsequent wife, Ethel owned a home and he was employed as an auto factory worker. Ethel was born in Tennessee.
  • I don’t know why he left Mississippi but the 1920s were a time of massive migration of Blacks from Mississippi to the North.

I haven’t found any reference to any murder in Gattman that involved Uril Hollis. So the big question is still out there about the note from the KKK and if it was meant for Grandpa Hollis. If you happen to take up this question as part of your family research on the Hollis family, please let me know if you find the answer. I’d love to know.

How can you make Black history personal?

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