Genetic genealogist meets his roots at Stagville

06/09/2014 12:00 AM

02/15/2015 11:26 AM

Michael Williams is coming to Durham this weekend with a rather extraordinary story to tell.

He’s telling it Saturday, during the Juneteenth observance at the Stagville State Historic Site.

“It’s amazing, when you connect the dots,” said Williams, whose quest into his own history led him to Stagville, North Carolina’s largest antebellum plantation, and to an ancestor who lived there as a slave.

“We thought he’d be great for Juneteenth,” said site manager Stephanie Hardy. The occasion commemorates word of freedom reaching slaves in Texas in June 1865, and Williams is coming the same day as the state’s original copy of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – the one that outlawed slavery.

“He’ll be talking about what happened to enslaved families after the Civil War and after Emancipation,” Hardy said. “With (former slaves) dispersing, it’s easy to lose your ancestors in the shuffle.”

Williams, who lives in Pittsburgh, is an authority on genetic genealogy – using DNA to help trace ancestry – and Saturday he’ll share how others, particularly slave descendants, can use it to find their forebears when documentation does not exist.

The “centerpiece” of his presentation, though, is his own experience, which began when he was 12 years old and discovered he was adopted.

“I discovered a document, a summer day-camp application, that indicated something was different,” he said. “I’m thinking, who the hell is Michael Raymond Harth?”

Confronted with the paper, his mother told him he had come to the Williams family through a “closed” adoption – all records sealed – but the knowledge sparked his interest in discovering his biological roots, and meeting his birth family in 1996.

“That led to virtually an 18-year journey in meeting relatives, networking, cultivating relationships,” he said. “And there’s one of these relationships that really stands out, that allowed me to connect with Stagville.”

That was with a relative in Durham who happened to have a family booklet, compiled in 1974 by a researcher on slave families, that traced one line of Williams’ descent.

“On my direct maternal line, I descend from a woman by the name of Mariah Justis,” he said. “Mariah Justis was the daughter of Solomon Justis and Amy Joyner, and also Mariah Justice is the niece of the famous Virgil Bennehan.”

Virgil Bennehan took the last name of Stagville’s founder, merchant Thomas Bennehan, who, according Jean Anderson’s “Piedmont Plantation” history, held Virgil in high esteem. Virgil could read and write, acted as a general manager and, most notably, as a physician to Stagville’s enslaved residents.

The esteem was high enough that, when Bennehan bequeathed Stagville to his grandson Paul Cameron, it was on the condition that Virgil and his family get their freedom, $500 and transportation to a free state or to Liberia – Virgil’s choice.

Bennehan died in 1847 and the next year Virgil, his wife, son and sister went to Liberia. There, however, he found the people there too poor to support his medical practice. They moved back to the United States, settled in Baltimore, and the last known of Virgil is that he had plans to join the California gold rush.

Before Williams learned all that, he had gone as a college student to do research in West Africa and gone through a genetic genealogy training program called “Roots Into the Future” that led him into starting Native Womb Advantage Consulting. He has also published a book called “Native Womb,” about the research that led to reunification with his birth family.

“It’s really been an incredible journey,” Williams said.“Here’s an adoptee who went through a closed adoption, which is an incredible barrier to genetic genealogy ... going from that to experiencing reunification to traveling to Africa, getting involved with the DNA testing, and then really connecting to my roots at Stagville.”

This weekend will be Williams’s first in-person visit to the site, where he is speaking (weather permitted) at the Horton Grove slave quarters where the 13th Amendment will also be on display – part of a five-site Juneteenth tour, the first time the document has left the state archives.

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