Feb. 28, 2011 at 8:33 PM ET
Based on his genetic profile, William Holland considers himself a descendant of noble families going back more than a millennium. Between then and now, however, his ancestors were dispersed around the African continent — and some of them were brought to America as slaves. That's the branch of the family to which Holland and his family belong.
Now, Holland is bringing the centuries-old saga of his family full circle by inviting his long-lost relatives to come from Africa to America. If Holland's plan works out, African royalty will meet face-to-face with the descendants of slaves and slave owners in Virginia.
"It's something that's never been done before," Holland told me today, on the last day of Black History Month. "It's something that should not be missed."
The genesis of Holland's plan goes back to the trips he's taken over the past year to fill in the gaps in his genetic heritage. Y-chromosome tests suggested that his ancestors were related not only to a royal family in the West African nation of Cameroon, but also to a noble family in Ghana, hundreds of miles away.
"I'm overwhelmed now," said Holland, who is the great-grandson of a slave who found himself serving in the Confederate army during the Civil War. But Holland isn't too overwhelmed to make a kind of sense out of his tangled genetic tale.
This month, during a visit to his genetic relatives in Ghana, Holland pieced together a story of a grand migration. A comparison of his Y-chromosome markers with those of the families in Ghana and Cameroon suggested that their most recent common ancestor lived perhaps 50 generations ago, or roughly 1,000 to 1,500 years ago. His Ghanaian hosts, members of the Akpaglo family, told him that their ancestors migrated southward from Sudan and settled in the Oyo Empire. Holland assumes that his Cameroonian ancestors were part of that migration as well.
"From there, they split up," he told me. One ancestral line eventually took root in Ghana, another in Cameroon. Holland has now been to both nations to track down his pedigree. Armed with the genetic results, he was initiated into two African families.
In Cameroon, Holland was given a royal name ("Ndefru"). In Ghana, the Akpaglo family gave him three more African names during a seven-hour ceremony. Holland's new names include Togbe ("old wise man," even though Holland is in his 40s), Korsi ("born on Sunday," which he was) and Degboe ("brave person who went away and returned").
"I'm satisfied now — now that I have four names," Holland joked.
But he's not finished yet. Holland still wants to share the experience he had with his fellow Americans, and at the same time give African visitors a taste of America. Holland says some of his friends and relatives back home in Atlanta are irked by the idea that they were somehow sold into slavery by their African ancestors. His African friends and relatives say that's not the way it was. So Holland is trying to organize a daylong reunion and seminar on May 22 in Virginia, where his ancestors worked as slaves, to give Africans and Americans a chance to talk through their history together.
Holland has invited Fon Angwafo III, who heads the Mankon tribal group in Cameroon, as well as family representatives from Ghana. He's hoping that his African-American relatives as well as the descendants of the Virginia family who held his ancestors as slaves will be on hand as well.
"You hope to enlighten your family about Africa and what happened in the slave trade," Holland explained.
Holland has already heard that "the Fon" has accepted his invitation, and he's pretty sure someone from Ghana also will be coming. It's not a done deal yet, but if everything works out the way Holland hopes, one man's quest to find his family roots will turn into a meeting of the clans from across oceans of time and space.
Holland says his newfound African kin can hardly wait. "They're past excited right now," he told me. All in all, not a bad way to end Black History Month.
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