May 14, 2012 at 4:26 PM ET
If you're an African-American, tracing your roots back to the ancestral continent is hard enough — but tracing them back to the ancestral family? That requires genetic testing, plus family-history scholarship, plus trips to Africa, plus a little bit of faith. William Holland has filled all of those requirements, and to celebrate, he's planning a cross-continental family reunion for Memorial Day weekend in Virginia, where his ancestors were once held as slaves.
"Memorial Day is a time for remembering the loved ones you lost, right?" Holland said. "So it's a good time to remember all those generations that were lost."
It's taken more than a decade for the 43-year-old Atlanta genealogist to fill in the story of those lost generations — a story that leads back to Cameroon, and then even further back to present-day Syria. The historical record is so fragmentary, and the genetic analysis is so imprecise, that Holland couldn't possibly achieve iron-clad scientific certainty about the precise family relationships. But the story that Holland has pieced together is consistent with the genetic tests as well as with the tales told by families in Africa and America. And just as importantly, the story finally feels right.
"What makes this more conclusive is that they had an authentic story that many people could verify," Holland said.
Holland's initial investigative work took him back to the Civil War era in Virginia, where he found that his great-grandfather, Creed Holland, was a slave who was put to work as a wagon driver for the Confederate Army. That led Holland and his brothers to sign up for membership in the Sons of Confederate Veterans — which was a controversial move at the time.
But Holland didn't stop there: He wanted to know how it was that Creed's ancestors became slaves in the first place. So he took advantage of a trend that was just getting started back then: genetic testing for the purpose of finding family connections. After a couple of false starts, Holland found enough matches to justify focusing in on a region of Cameroon in West Africa.
When I first started writing about Holland's quest, two years ago, he was following up on connections to royalty in northwest Cameroon's Mankon tribe. Holland visited the tribal leader, or Fon, in the regional capital of Bamenda — and received an African name (Ndefru) from the Fon of Mankon himself during a ceremony. Holland reciprocated the next year by inviting the royal family to a gathering in Franklin County, Va. The idea was to bring together the descendants of slaves and their African relations, and even the descendants of slaveowners. But something about the event felt wrong.
"The rest of the Mankon family really resisted the fact that they were coming over," Holland recalled. "That told me that 'this is not your family, because they should be happy, they should be welcoming you.'"
During follow-up trips to Africa, Holland learned more about the reason for the Mankon tribe's reluctance: Their ancestors were among several ethnic groups in that region of Cameroon who played a murky role in the slave trade of the 18th century. "Mankon didn't trade in their own people, but they were the middlemen for people [from other tribes] going down the coast," Holland said. "The Europeans would come to the coast and provide them with whiskey and guns to make people fight."
Some of this information came from the leaders of a different group, the Oku, who live in a region of Cameroon about 20 miles northeast of Bamenda. After visiting the region, hearing the tales of the elders and double-checking the genetic results, Holland feels confident that he now has the right story.
"You felt the sense of coming back," Holland told me. "You felt the welcoming that you should have gotten. They were running down the hill to come and meet us. That's how it was."
One of the Oku elders, Sam "Pa" Wambeng, told Holland that the Oku and other groups trace their heritage back to 7th-century Syria. When Islam took hold in the region, those groups made their way through the Middle East and Africa, eventually settling in Cameroon. In addition to the Oku, the settlers included the Mboum, Nso and Foumban peoples.
Wambeng and other elders said there was a widely respected member of the Oku tribe named Bailack who lived in the 1700s. Bailack had several wives and scores of sons, but many of them were abducted and passed on to the European slavers during the reign of a ruthless fon named Ney.
"They say 70 individuals were taken directly from the family," Holland told me. "They would have been the children of Bailack. Two or three escaped, and that's how they continued with the family. The family has spread to more than eight villages in Oku, despite the number captured as slaves in the reign of Ney."
The time frame for that abduction, in the 1770s, matched up with the time frame for the voyage of Holland's great-great-great-great-grandfather to Virginia, where he was sold as a slave. And the rest is American history.
Do the genetics support Holland's status as Bailack's great-great-great-great-great-grandson? The evidence isn't indisputable. Thirty-one of the 36 genetic markers on the test that Holland took match up with the results from the Cameroonian clan. Genetic genealogy is a matter of probabilities, and the more markers two people have in common, the more likely it is that they're closely related. Thirty-one out of 36 is not super-close, but close enough for Holland to feel as if he's on the right track.
"The results from different family lines show that there were strong mutations that occurred in the 1600s and the 1700s. Given the amount of time from 1772 to this generation, it fits in a time frame where you can have those mutations occur," Holland told me. "I'm no geneticist by any means, but it sounds logical that could happen."
It's logical enough that Holland has scheduled another gathering, this time with members of the extended Oku clan as the special guests. It's due to take place around 1 p.m. ET on May 27, at the Franklin County Recreational Park near Rocky Mount, Va. Holland hopes that some of his long-lost relatives will be in attendance — but one of the dearest friends he made in Cameroon won't be there. Pa Wambeng, the elder who told the story that Holland has now made his own, passed away just a few weeks ago.
"I'm very honored to have gotten there and met him," Holland said, "because if we put off our trip, it would have been too late."
Previous chapters in the African saga:
Holland says the Memorial Day weekend reunion will serve as a memorial for "all the ancestors who traveled this path that affected our family line," including Pa Wambeng as well as Grace Ngum Tamufor, the recently deceased daughter of the previous Fon of Oku.
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.