DNA Test Points to Tribes of Their Past

The National Council of Negro Women's Dorothy Height, right, meets Brianna, Shayna and Jamal Tunstall at the Black Family Reunion.
The National Council of Negro Women's Dorothy Height, right, meets Brianna, Shayna and Jamal Tunstall at the Black Family Reunion. (Bill O'leary - Twp)
By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 10, 2006

Susan Kidd, an anchor on WRC (Channel 4), says she is the genealogist in her family, having traced her heritage to an enslaved woman named Binah. But like many other African Americans embarking on similar searches, she ran into a roadblock trying to pinpoint the area of the vast continent from which she came.

Yesterday, Kidd and other local celebrities got a clearer idea of their ancestry. Through a scientific analysis of their DNA samples, submitted through a cheek swab several weeks ago, the four learned what they believe is their country and tribe of origin.

Sitting on a stage in a tent before nearly 100 people, Kidd was told that she is from the tribes of Tikar and Bamileke in the central African country of Cameroon.

"Oh, my goodness. Anybody got a tissue?" Kidd said in an uncharacteristically soft voice, wiping tears from her face. On a table nearby were photos of her great-grandmothers she had brought for the occasion.

The genealogy event was part the Black Family Reunion on the Mall. The two-day celebration, which continues today, includes health fairs, R&B and gospel concerts, and games for children. The National Council of Negro Women has sponsored the event for 21 years to provide resources and information to strengthen black families.

Since the 1970s publication of the Alex Haley book "Roots" and the subsequent television miniseries, genealogy has increased in popularity among African Americans. But many have found it impossible to go beyond a few generations in the United States because of slavery -- during which Africans lost their language, culture and families -- and incomplete public records.

New technology, however, is helping many fill in the gaps. Requests for testing at the company that provided yesterday's analyses increased from about 1,000 in 2003 to about 3,000 last year, its officials said.

"We now can know where we were before our links got broken," said Gina Paige, president and co-founder of African Ancestry, which made the conclusions based on its database of 25,000 DNA samples from indigenous Africans representing 30 countries and 300 ethnic groups.

The Washington-based company tested DNA samples of several noted blacks, including Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg and Quincy Jones, for the PBS special "African American Lives," which aired in February.

Others who heard the results of their DNA samples yesterday were Etan Thomas, center for the Washington Wizards; Michel Wright, midday host at WPGC (95.5 FM); and Dorothy I. Height, chair of the National Council of Negro Women.

Like Kidd, Wright learned that her ancestors were from Cameroon; Thomas and Height descend from those in Sierra Leone in West Africa.

"I visited Grenada with my grandmother to find out about my ancestors," Thomas said, adding that he wasn't able to trace further because Catholic missionaries changed the names of his people. "It's important to know where you're from."

Michelle Beverly, 49, of Hampton, Va., who was watching the presentation, said she was disappointed at being unable to trace her roots beyond 75 years. "We don't know a lot about our history," she said. "My father and mother are 72. It would be nice to find out [her country of origin] while they're still alive."

Kidd, Thomas, Wright and Height were presented information kits about the African countries to which they were linked. And they received hugs from natives of the countries, now living in the Washington area, who welcomed them into the community.

Wearing a traditional flowing yellow dress and matching head wrap, Agnes Tong Strassberger embraced Kidd and, later, Wright, rubbing their backs.

Wright said she and Kidd will travel together to Cameroon next year.

Strassberger invited Kidd and Wright to a meeting of Cameroonian immigrants later in the week.

And she invited them to her home, where she said she will prepare a traditional Cameroonian meal of fufu (mashed yams) and ndole (vegetables with peanuts).

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