July 3, 2011 at 11:10 PM ET
Thanks to 21st-century genetic testing, William Holland is finally able to show some of his African cousins what happened to his slave ancestors back in the 18th century. The climax of Holland's quest came last weekend, when about 60 African-Americans and Africans gathered at Franklin County Recreational Park in Virginia for a teach-in about his family's ocean-spanning, three-century saga.
The 42-year-old Holland, who lives in Atlanta, left his job at Coca-Cola and turned his focus to the family quest nine years ago. The quest is particularly difficult for African-Americans like Holland because their ancestors came over in chains with their African identity erased. Holland eventually figured out that his great-great-great-great-grandfather was brought over from Africa around 1772 and sold to a Virginia plantation owner. He even discovered that his great-grandfather, Creed Holland, was forced to serve in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
But traditional genealogical research couldn't give Holland any further clues as to his African origins. Exactly where did his ancestors come from? Did he have any present-day cousins back in the old country? That's where genetic tests could point the way.
Holland had his DNA analyzed for markers that just might match up with African kin who had taken similar tests. Records held by the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation suggested that he might be related to the king of a region in Cameroon's Northwest Province, named Fon Angwafo III. When Holland visited Cameroon and laid out his records for the king and his counselors to inspect, he was welcomed as a long-lost relative. In fact, during a follow-up visit with other family members, Holland was ceremonially named Ndefru, after Fon Angwafo's father.
The Africans told how they lost their kin during the days of the slave trade — but when the African-Americans told how their ancestors lost their identity through slavery, Holland's Cameroonian cousins just couldn't believe it. So Holland invited "the Fon" and his family to come over to America and learn more about the other side of the slavery story.
It took months to make all the arrangements, and Fon Angwafo III himself couldn't make the trip because of political obligations at home — but late last month, the Fon's wife, Queen Kiko Anna Angwafo, finally arrived in America along with the king's son and nephew to see the region in Virginia where Holland's ancestor ended up. Holland and his family were the Africans' hosts for a family reunion on June 25. Cameroonians from the Mankon region ruled by the Fon and from the nation's West Region attended the event as well.
One of the highlights was a visit to the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Va., where a replica West African village has been built to give visitors a taste of life before slavery.
But the climax came when the Africans were taken to the old Holland plantation, where William Holland's ancestors lived as slaves (and took on the last name of their owners).
"The whole purpose was to tie in the missing links," Holland told me. And by that measure, he judged the reunion to be a great success. The Cameroonians saw a blacksmith shop from the Civil War era. They soaked in the history as they toured the plantation's old chicken house and slave kitchen. They walked around the graves where slaves and their owners were buried.
"They totally understood," Holland said. He quoted them as saying, "Now we know you weren't joking around when you told us about this. ... It's very clear now, the pain and suffering you went through when you came to America."
And there was a bonus: A descendant of the slave owners, John Sherrard Holland, served as the Africans' tour guide.
"It was a great honor and a pleasure to do that," the 55-year-old operator of a hunting preserve told me later. He went to school with members of William's family, and "we've always had the best of relationships," he said.
As for the dark past of slavery, John Sherrard Holland said that has been left far behind. "It's history," he said.
But William Holland said that history is worth reflecting upon once more, particularly at a time when America is celebrating Independence Day. He noted that when Americans heralded their freedom in 1776, his African ancestor had been unfree for four years. "Just imagine what he was thinking," Holland said.
"Is it time for celebration?" he asked. "I don't know. But now we're trying to do justice to that heritage — and that's something to celebrate."
Previous chapters in the tale of William Holland's roots:
For further information about genetic testing for genealogical purposes, check out this guide on Cyndi's List, or this entry on Wikipedia. If you happen to be a Boyle looking for genealogical information, take a look at my Boyle family website. You can also connect with me via Facebook or Twitter. And if you really want to be friendly, ask me about "The Case for Pluto."