By MITCHELL OWENS JAN. 8, 2004, nytimes.com; see a contrary view at, which states that "Dwight D. Eisenhower's mother was said to be of mixed blood from Africa and mulatto. However, historians and biographers of Eisenhower had documented his parents' German, Swiss and English ancestry and long history in America. Some of his immigrant ancestors settled in Pennsylvania in 1741 and after, and migrated west to Kansas."
JOHN ARCHER first appears in Northampton County, Va., in the mid-17th
century. He started a family that prospered, fought in the Revolutionary War
and built a mansion. Generations later, Archer's blood trickled down to me. It
mingled in my veins with DNA from a gravedigger in 17th-century
Württemberg, Germany; from an Appalachian clan with a recessive gene that
turns their skins indigo blue; and from a rich young widow in Jamestown, Va.,
whose fickle heart led to America's first breach-of-promise suit, in 1623.
I have been researching my past for two decades, since I was in high
school, so finding a new ancestor is hardly startling. Learning about John
Archer three years ago, however, was startling. He was black, a slave or
indentured servant freed around 1677. I am white. That's what it says on my
birth certificate. Now I know better, thanks to Paul Heinegg.
A retired oil-refinery engineer in Collegeville, Pa., Mr. Heinegg, who is
white, has compiled genealogies of 900 mixed-race families who lived freely in
slave-holding states in ''Free African Americans of North Carolina, South
Carolina and Virginia'' and ''Free African Americans of Maryland and
Delaware.'' (The information is posted on a Web site,
Mr. Heinegg's research offers evidence that most free African-American
and biracial families resulted not from a master and his slave, like Thomas
Jefferson and Sally Hemings, but from a white woman and an African man:
slave, freed slave or indentured servant.
''Most of the workers in colonial America in the 17th and early 18th
centuries were indentured servants, white and black,'' said Dr. John B. Boles, a
professor of history at Rice University in Houston and the editor of ''The
Blackwell Companion to the American South'' (2001). Since there was not a
clear distinction between slavery and servitude at the time, he said, ''biracial
camaraderie'' often resulted in children. The idea that blacks were property did
not harden until around 1715 with the rise of the tobacco economy, by which
time there was a small but growing population of free families of color. Dr.
Boles estimated that by 1860 there were 250,000 free black or mixed-race
''Some academics have studied this parallel story of blacks in America, but
it hasn't trickled down to the general population,'' Dr. Boles said. ''The action
is in slavery studies.'' Mr. Heinegg is one of the few people to trace the free
black families that lived in slave-owning America: some of them rich slave
owners, most of them poor farmers and laborers, nearly all of them little
''When I saw what Paul had done, my eyes opened wide,'' said Dr. Ira B.
Berlin, a professor of American history at the University of Maryland and the
founding director of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project there. Dr.
Berlin met Mr. Heinegg in November 2000 at a conference in Durham, N.C.,
about the mixed-race cabinetmaker Thomas Day, a major antebellum figure.
The documentation Mr. Heinegg had amassed in five years convinced Dr.
Berlin to write a foreword to his book praising his meticulous work.
It is incontrovertible that America is a multiracial society, from the
founding father Alexander Hamilton (the son of a mixedrace woman from the
British West Indies) to Essie Mae Washington-Williams, 78, a retired
schoolteacher, who, the late Senator Strom Thurmond's family acknowledged
last month, is his daughter. And for decades there have been questions about
the possible mixed-race ancestry of Ida Stover, Dwight D. Eisenhower's
Since 1997, after it broadcast ''Secret Daughter,'' a documentary about a
mixed-race child given up for adoption in the 1950's, ''Frontline'' has been
exploring the mixed ancestry of well-known Americans on its Public
Broadcasting System Web site. One is Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whose
blood lines, according to the historian Mario de Valdes y Cocom, go back to the
van Salees, a Muslim family of Afro-Dutch origin prominent in Manhattan in
the early 1600's. If any branch of your family has been in America since the
17th or 18th centuries, Dr. Berlin said, ''it's highly likely you will find an
African and an American Indian.''
That's where Mr. Heinegg, 60, comes in. In 1985, his mother-in-law,
Katherine Kee Phillips, who was black, asked him to research her family tree.
''I had hoped to trace as many branches of her family back to slavery as
possible,'' he said. Instead, he found that Mrs. Phillips and his wife, Rita, had
white ancestors who were not slave masters, including a woman who started a
family with John Kecatan, an African slave freed in 1666. The ladies were
intrigued by his discoveries but not surprised, Mr. Heinegg said.
Curious about his findings, he began tracing free black families related to
his wife by combing colonial court records, wills, deeds, free Negro registers,
marriage bonds and military pension files. Many were dauntingly unindexed.
''Nobody has done anything like this,'' said Dr. Virginia Easley DeMarce, a
historian and former president of the National Genealogical Society who works
for the Office of Federal Acknowledgment, Department of the Interior, which
decides who is an American Indian. ''Paul is the first person to identify
families of color on such a broad scope,'' gathering material from entire states
rather than just a county or two.
Dr. Berlin said, ''There were communities in 17th- and 18th-century
America where blacks and whites, both free, of equal rank and shared
experiences, were working together, living together, drinking and partying
together, and inevitably sleeping together.''
Tracing those communities has not been easy. ''People of color are often
not identified as such in early records,'' Mr. Heinegg said. ''For example, an
individual might appear in deeds and court records and leave a will without
ever mentioning his race.'' Sometimes a person's race can be discerned only by
studying the tax assessed on nonwhites. If a man paid the tax on his wife but
not himself, Mr. Heinegg said, it meant he was white but she was not.
An added challenge is that racial identity can mutate from free black to
white in just a few generations. In my Archer ancestors' case, it was mixed
marriages and a cross-country move: my great-great-grandfather Esquire
Collins and his wife, Roxalana Archer, are listed as mulatto in an 1800's
Tennessee census but show up as white on a later Arkansas census. ''You
crossed over as early as you were able to,'' said Antonia Cottrell Martin, a
genealogist in New York. Mixed-race families who had difficulty passing
sometimes explained dark complexions as coming from an American Indian or
Mediterranean ancestry. ''It's what people in the South used to call Carolina
Portuguese,'' said Dr. DeMarce, who comes from a mixed-race background.
''Free African Americans of North Carolina,'' self-published by Mr.
Heinegg in 1991, won an award from the North Carolina Genealogical Society.
(The American Society of Genealogists gave a later edition the Donald Lines
Jacobus Award for best work of genealogical scholarship.) But the book also
stirred controversy. Some white members of the North Carolina group were
upset with his findings and asked that the award be withdrawn, Mr. Heinegg
Dr. DeMarce said: ''He's just publishing the documents. He's not
interpreting them. That's up to anthropologists.''
Mr. Heinegg is familiar with racial prejudice. He and his wife, who met as
members of the Brooklyn outpost of the Congress on Racial Equality, left the
country in 1969, disgusted by what they saw as a lack of progress. They raised
their three daughters in Tanzania, Liberia and Saudi Arabia.
But even when he was abroad, Mr. Heinegg ordered microfilm records by
mail and spent one-month vacations in the United States to peer at faded
records in county courthouses. He still works on his research, and updates his
book and Web site regularly. A new edition of ''Free African Americans'' is
published every two years by Clearfield, a division of the Genealogical
Publishing Company, Inc., www.genealogical.com. The latest two-volume
paperback costs $100 and is 1,042 pages long.
The index to Mr. Heinegg's book lists more than 12,000 individuals,
including ancestors of mine it would be nice to know more about, like Richard
Nickens and his wife, Chriss, freed in 1690 by the will of John Carter II, a
prominent Virginia planter. Nickens and his wife were given two cows, six
barrels of corn and the right to farm some Carter land for life.
Matters like these fascinate me. My brother, Derrick, finds our black
ancestry only mildly interesting, being riveted instead by our Native American
blood. My eldest nephew, Justin, an elementary school pupil obsessed with
islands, cherishes the knowledge that one ancestor was shipwrecked on
Bermuda in 1609.
Genealogy is not regarded as an academic discipline, Dr. DeMarce said,
which is why Mr. Heinegg's work is not more widely known. And his lists are
published by a specialty house, not a university press, she said, ''so it's unlikely
to be reviewed by a major publication like The American Historical Review.''
Mr. Heinegg prefers to let the academics find his work on their own. Right
now, he is busy adding more free black Virginia families to his list. ''My goal,''
he said, ''is to find the origins of every family that was free in the Southeast
during the colonial period.''