The story that my dad heard was always that we could only trace our Cumbo ancestors back two generations to my papa’s grandfather James Henry Cumbo.  That legend – whether taught my by great-great grandfather James, by his son Noah Francis, or by own grandfather – sent Papa on an expedition of world heritage that led him to teach us all that we were Italian. When My Great-Great-Grandfather Became White

Papa even had a brightly-colored certificate from some agency certifying that fact as such.  It hung on the hallway in my grandparent’s house, near wedding pictures and the photo of all of us grandchildren together as kids.

We were, we are not Italian.

It seems clear to me now – knowing what I know about the Cumbo family and our origins as free people of color here in the United States – that no one tried to push back into this history because our lineage involved a trip across the color line. For many reasons, I expect traveling back – even on paper – felt dangerous to them.  At least “dangerous” is the word I want to use rather than “shameful” or “racist,” although I have no doubt it was those things, too.

Today, I saw my great-great-grandfather James Henry’s death certificate for the first time.  On that document, his father is listed as “unknown” and his mother is only Mary Jayne.

The person reporting his death is his son, my great-grandfather, Noah Francis.  And so I’m left with this question – which one of these men didn’t want to claim my great-great-great grandfather Britton, and why?

James Henry knew his father – Britton was alive for almost 50 years of James Henry’s life – so this was not the case of a child losing a parent early and forgetting them.  Nor was it the case of a mother not telling the child who his father was.  They all lived in the same household until James Henry was a teenager.

No, somewhere, somehow, James Henry denied his father, or his son Noah Francis did, and if I had to guess, he denied his father because his father was black.

In the 1850 census, James Henry is listed as “mulatto” as are all the other members of his family. But then by 1866, James Henry has married a white woman – Sarah Andrews – a woman whose own grandfather Peter Andrews is listed as “master” on an 1820 census.

So in his lifetime, James Henry goes from living as a black man in Northhampton County, NC to living as a white man just 120 miles away near the place my Cumbo family still calls home, and he carries my family with him.

There is so much story here, so many choices tied up in identity and hope and what must have been lies and much denial.  And while I cannot relate to the choice – given that I have grown to be me with the privilege of white skin – I want to understand it.

So I begin this journey again – into the stories of my family.  And now I take it as newly-found cousins – both black and white – travel their own storylines.

I’m excited. I’m scared.  But I do want to know.  Why Great-Grandfather did you make this choice? I can imagine so many reasons.  I want to know them all.

What about your family story? Are their secrets you’re eager to know? 


Other Posts that Might Interest You

My Grandfathers and the Weight of Racial Designations

Craving Stories


Yesterday, I had the honor of hearing a Thomas Jefferson descendant tell the story of her search to find her family’s story.  One of the things she mentioned was how much DNA had helped to affirm her lineage from Jefferson descendant. So again, I’m encouraging us all to get DNA tests done so that we can see how those microscopic twists of story link us all together.  You can learn more about having your DNA tested here at Ancestry’s DNA project – or at  Your test might just help someone else tell their story, and it might give you more of yours, too.