A Reporter's Story About Slavery Leads To A Shocking Discovery About Her Roots

Oct 20, 2019
Originally published on October 20, 2019 8:27 pm

In 1619, the first Africans are believed to have arrived in America. Destined for a life of slavery in the New World, 350 people were taken from Angola and stuffed onto a ship named the San Juan Bautista.

Phoenix resident Wanda Tucker believes her family may have been descended from the survivors of that journey.

So when USA Today reporter Deborah Barfield Berry learned about Tucker as part of the newspaper's coverage of the 400th anniversary of slavery's beginnings in America, she thought she'd be telling a story about one family's roots in Africa. She never expected to become a part of the story herself.

Berry's reporting led her to take DNA tests that revealed she was not only related to Tucker, but that she, too, could be descended from the first Africans in America.

It's a discovery that Berry says she is still processing.

"I'm still kind of overwhelmed by just the whole story," she said in an interview with NPR's Weekend Edition.

The Tuckers, she said, "lived with their belief for decades, generations. I've just got to know my great grandfather's name like a month ago."

There are so few records of Africans who were brought to America because their history was not considered worthy of documenting.

"Even looking through the census records I felt some kind of sadness that I could only go so far," Berry said. "Even when I tried to go back further, all I could find was records that said 'free colored' or 'slaves.' There were no names attached to those people, so we weren't even counted."

Initially, Berry was assigned to a different story. But as she learned about the Tuckers from a colleague, she began to discover coincidences between their history and her own.

"I was listening, and I was thinking 'Hmm. My grandmother's name was Tucker,' " Berry recalled.

As these coincidences added up, her editor suggested she take a DNA test. Berry agreed.

The first ancestry test showed that she was from present day Cameroon, less than 1,500 miles away from Angola, where Wanda Tucker believes her ancestors took their last steps as free people.

To find out whether she was related to Tucker, a male from her family and a male from Wanda's took a DNA test. It was a match.

"I don't know what I expected, but I don't know if I was prepared [for the result]," Berry said. "It showed that I'm actually related to a woman I've been writing about."

As Berry dug deeper, she realized she needed to go to Angola, where the San Juan Bautista departed in 1619, to tell a fuller story.

"Wanda said it would be the journey of a lifetime," Berry said. "She would love to go."

"Part of it was not so much to be able to prove everything," Berry said. "Because we don't know that we can prove ... it was to go back to the motherland to see if she could trace where she believes her ancestors came from. Walk the walk that they walked. Go to the places where they might have had to be held."

A team from USA TODAY met with village leaders in Kalandula, Angola, while on a trip this summer to chronicle Wanda Tucker's trip to Angola, where she believes her ancestors once lived. From left: Jarrad Henderson, Deborah Barfield Berry; village leaders, including Antonio Manuel Domingos; Kelley Benham French and Nichelle Smith.
Courtesy of Deborah Barfield Berry

"It turned out to be very emotional," Berry said. When they first arrived, Tucker "just broke down."

Berry hopes her story encourages others to do the work to learn how they fit into the American story.

"We all have a story, and especially as African Americans, we've contributed much to the making of America," she said. "In some way — whether your great grandmother was enslaved in South Carolina, whether your grandfather was a sharecropper — all of them have played a role in what America is today."

"So if you have time, and you have the passion, then take the time to go find out more about your family."

NPR's Hanna Bolaños and Dorothy Parvaz produced the audio version of this story. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

1619 is the year the first Africans are believed to have arrived in America. They were taken from Angola, 350 people stuffed into a ship called the San Juan Bautista, destined for a life of slavery in the New World. Two survivors of that journey had a son, William Tucker. USA Today reporter Deborah Barfield Berry set out to track his descendants which led to a woman called Wanda Tucker on a trip to Angola and a shocking discovery of her own.

Deborah Barfield Berry joins me now in the studio.

Welcome.

DEBORAH BARFIELD BERRY: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this is an extraordinary story. But let's start at the beginning. A woman named Wanda Tucker believes she is descended from those first Africans to be brought to America. You were assigned to this story by chance. First, tell us why this was an important story and what you were trying to find out about the journey of African-Americans.

BARFIELD BERRY: Well, telling the story of 1619 is important. It's 400 years since that ship arrived. So the paper thought it was important to commemorate that moment and to tell our readers a little bit about what happened. And as part of that, there was a family that came to light. And I was assigned to try to tell their story.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You then went to Angola with Wanda. What was she trying to uncover there? How did this journey take place?

BARFIELD BERRY: Well, we started reporting on the Tucker family, obviously, in Hampton. We interviewed a lot of the family members, went to the cemetery. But part of what we felt like was missing was kind of going back a little further, a lot further. And that would be going back to the motherland. So kind of late in our process editors said let's do it, let's go to Angola. And we asked Wanda. And Wanda said it will be the journey of a lifetime - she would love to go. But part of it was not so much to be able to prove everything because we don't know that we can't prove. But we know where the ship came from. And it was to go back to the motherland to see if she could trace where she believe her ancestors came from, walk the walk that they walk, go to the places where they might have had to be held or - both turned out to be very emotional.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, talk to me about that. What did she discover?

BARFIELD BERRY: I think at day one, just getting off was an emotional whoosh because she realized this is probably where her ancestors took their last steps. You know, the last time they were home...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As free people.

BARFIELD BERRY: As free people, right. By that time, they probably were already captured, branded and held in what they called the slave garden, walked hundreds of miles to the shores and then put on ships. So I think when we first got there, there was a - I can't even describe. She just broke down.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Turning to you now, you're African-American. This is a personal journey for you. But it turned out to be a lot more personal than you might have suspected. It led you to more deeply look into your own ancestry. Tell me about that. Why?

BARFIELD BERRY: I was asked to be a part of the 1619 team. I was actually assigned a different story initially. And then somewhere along the line while we were having this conference call and one of my colleagues was talking about the Tucker family, which was her assignment. And I was listening. And I was like my grandmother's name is Tucker. She keeps talking. They're from Hampton, et cetera. I said Hampton. My grandmother, her people are like from - less than an hour away from Hampton.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow.

BARFIELD BERRY: I start laughing. And I said my people are Tuckers. They're from the area. And my project editor Christian (ph) goes, hmm. And she said, well, Debbie, you need to take the DNA test and why don't you trace some of your history and let's see.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And then that became your assignment and you started covering the Tuckers. And then what happened?

BARFIELD BERRY: So I took it literally before I went to Angola. I took the African Ancestry, and I took the Ancestry test before I left.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what did that test show?

BARFIELD BERRY: The first test, the ancestry test showed that I was from the present day Cameroon, which was very close to where we were. Somewhere in there I was probably near my homeland. Another test we took much later as I started working on a story about my own family history, somewhere along the line we said let's test to see if somehow there really is a relationship...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Between you and the Tuckers, Wanda Tucker.

BARFIELD BERRY: Right. And this test didn't involve me. It had to be a male in my line and in Wanda's line. So I drove to Baltimore to my oldest cousin and helped him do African Ancestry's DNA test. And meanwhile we sent another to Wanda's brother down in Hampton. And then we waited. And we waited. I'm literally sitting at a black genealogy conference, and I get a call from Samoa Jones. And she just says it's a match.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow. And what did you feel at that moment?

BARFIELD BERRY: I don't know what I expected, but I don't know if I was prepared for what she said. I think it was when I got off the phone with her that I felt it, I understood what that DNA test showed. It showed that I'm actually related to a woman I've been writing about.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And then to find that you were part of this story, too, that you might be descended, in fact, from the first Africans to come to this country.

BARFIELD BERRY: I'm beyond - I haven't process that part. I'm still kind of overwhelmed by just the whole story. They've lived with their belief for decades, generations. I just got to know my great-grandfather's (laughter) name, like, a month ago.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Part of the reason that this is so extraordinary, apart from the coincidence, is that there are so few records of African-Americans and their history because they weren't deemed worthy of that as enslaved people. And so are you saying that you're able now to know who your great-grandparents were is profound.

BARFIELD BERRY: Even looking through the census records, I felt some kind of sadness that I could only go back so far. Even when I try to go back further, all I could find was records that said free colored or slaves. There were no names attached to those people. So we weren't even counted. Other than that, it's going to be a lot of oral history. And how many people do we have left to tell us that oral history?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This story that you wrote is just one part of the extensive coverage of, on the year of 1619. Where does your story fit into that?

BARFIELD BERRY: You know, I could say I'm excited about this piece because I think it's a little different than most of the other pieces about 1619. A lot of them were about history, which rightfully so. But I feel particularly excited and proud about this one because it gives you, I would hope it gives readers a sense of how you, too, can find out where you are in this story, where you are an American story because we all have a story. And especially as African-Americans, we've contributed much to the making of America. So in some way whether your great-grandmother was, you know, enslaved in South Carolina, whether your grandfather was a sharecropper, all of them have played a role in what is America today. So if you have time and you have the passion, then take the time to go find out more about your family.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Deborah Barfield Berry, she's a Washington correspondent for USA Today.

Thank you very much.

BARFIELD BERRY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBIN EUBANKS MASS LINE BIG BAND'S "FULL CIRCLE")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDTION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.