Feb. 1, 2011 at 8:24 PM ET
When William Holland traveled from Atlanta to Cameroon to dig into his family roots, the quest succeeded beyond his wildest dreams: A blend of genetic testing and genealogical sleuthing connected him with one of the West African nation's royal families. The king of Mankon, a region in Cameroon, embraced Holland so completely that the American was ceremonially given the name of the king's father.
But now Holland is facing an embarrassment of genealogical riches: Since he first came upon his royal connection, he has determined that he's genetically linked not only with nobility in Cameroon, but also with a different clan in Ghana, hundreds of miles to the west.
"I think I'm getting toward the end of it ... but with this group, you have thousands of thousands of people," Holland told me as he headed for another extended-family reunion in Ghana.
Holland's experience demonstrates how the search for family roots in Africa doesn't always result in the neat succession of generations that was portrayed in the 1977 miniseries "Roots." It also suggests that Black History Month, which Americans observe every February, might more aptly be called Black Histories Month.
"Who was the ancestor that all of us are from?" Holland asked. "Who was he? That's the question I want to answer, but I don't know how to ask. This one man created thousands of people, but who was he? This one man ... he was something!"
Tracing African roots
African-American roots are notoriously tough to trace back from America to Africa, for an obvious reason: When traders brought shipments of slaves across the Atlantic, families were sundered and the old names were forgotten. Owners typically gave slaves their own family names — which is what happened to William Holland's ancestors.
Holland has gone through more than his share of twists and turns as a genealogical researcher: Years ago, he found out that his great-grandfather, Creed Holland, was a slave wagon driver who was forced to serve in the Confederate infantry during the Civil War. That led Holland to sign up for membership in the Sons of Confederate Veterans — a move that didn't exactly sit well with some whites and some blacks.
Nine years ago, Holland thought his ancestors came from Nigeria. But since then, there's been a revolution in the use of genetic testing to firm up genealogical ties. Holland took a DNA test offered by GeneTree and pored over records compiled by the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation, GeneTree's nonprofit sister organization. SMGF's database was suited to Holland's search because it combines genetic matching with genealogical pedigrees. If your DNA markers match up with someone else in the database, the pedigree of the person you match just might provide new clues for family sleuthing.
The database was particularly attractive for Holland because the foundation's testing teams went out to gather DNA samples from people in countries around the world, including African nations. This offered a way for Holland to "leap across the ocean" and find genetic connections to families in the old country, even if he couldn't trace the precise line of ancestry.
The genetic links led Holland to turn his search from Nigeria to Cameroon, where he came upon a doozy of a connection. The DNA matches suggested that he was related to the Mankon king, Fon Angwafo III, as well as other noble families in that country. Thanks to the SMGF database, Holland could show his assumed African kin detailed genealogical information when he visited Cameroon in March.
"The Fon" and his aides examined the records ... and welcomed Holland as a long-lost relative. He was so welcome, in fact, that his whole family was invited to come to Cameroon in November as guests of the king.
The Holland entourage — William, his 80-year-old mother Willie Mae Holland, his brother Marvin and his sister Wanda — received the royal treatment. "I get treated better there than I do in the U.S.," William Holland told me. One of the most thrilling moments came when the king gave each of the Hollands a Cameroonian name. William was named Ndefru, after Fon Angwafo III's father, Ndefru III. "The name goes back to the 1500s," Holland said.
One of the most sobering moments came when the visitors were shown three or four huts where captured Africans were kept prior to their departure for America.
"You try to hold back, but tears flow out of your eyes," Holland told me. "You couldn't control it. You just knew, in 1772 or thereabouts, you knew what was going on. You could only imagine those people who were going down to the coast, what they were thinking. When they got down there, they'd think, 'Uh-oh. This is not good.'"
Holland said his African hosts stressed that the tribe's long-ago chiefs did not hand over their ancestors for payment, and they hoped that the Americans would not hold their African kin responsible for the horrors of slavery. They also had a question for their American cousins: "How was it not possible to keep your family name?"
Holland had to explain that traders and slave owners worked mightily to separate families and clans, to erase the ties that united the slaves brought to America's shores. "Your name was taken away from you as soon as you got off the boat," Holland said.
When it came time for Holland and his family to return to America, the family researcher's head was bursting with the lore of Cameroon and the Mankon people — and yet he realized that he had just scratched the surface. "I saw just a tenth of what really goes on in terms of tradition," he told me. "You have to be there for a year or more to learn all the culture."
The funny thing about DNA is that it can link a whole tree's worth of genealogical branches. After his trip to Cameroon, Holland delved once more into the genetic database, and found potential connections to families in Ghana as well. Does that mean the Cameroon connection was incorrect? Not really. Because of different migrations through the generations, it's possible to have genetic cousins spread over a wide geographic range.
"Most of the migration periods in Africa began in the 1300s or 1400s. That goes back 28 generations, give or take," Holland said. "You keep the same DNA because you have the same ancestor, from Sudan or Cameroon or present-day Ghana. The same Y-chromosome is there."
One Ghanaian family in particular was a "very high match," Holland said, and so he struck up a correspondence. "I have spoken with the family, and they said, 'How'd you get this information?' So I sent them the pedigree, and they were shocked," he said.
Holland felt such a strong connection that he flew from Atlanta to Accra last week to meet yet another set of prospective cousins. He wasn't disappointed.
"So far, so good," he told me last week during a phone call from Ghana. "Everything is matching up. They look like me."
The news was still good today when Holland checked in again. "It's kind of strange how much everything is matching up," he said. Holland is due to get back to Atlanta just in time for the Super Bowl this weekend.
Before he left for Ghana, Holland told me that he felt ready to move on to the next phase of his family odyssey. "The next step now is, you want to go and educate people on both sides of the water," he said. "Americans need to know what it's like in Africa. And the people in Africa, they still don't know what happened to those people who went down to the coast, hundreds of years ago. It was a one-way ticket."
Well, it's not a one-way ticket anymore — at least not for Holland.
More about genealogy:
Correction for 3 p.m. ET Feb. 4: Creed Holland was William's great-grandfather, not great-great-grandfather, and Willie Mae's age went from 79 to 80 years in November. Best wishes to Willie Mae, and thanks to William for pointing out the errors. Sorry about that!
Stay tuned for an update after his return from Ghana, and feel free to recount your own family quest in the comment section below. For more coverage of Black History Month, check in with msnbc.com's corporate cousins at TheGrio.com.
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