CLARK: More Frank and Lynn on race – Muscatine Journal

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Any tidbit related to Muscatine’s equal-rights pioneer Alexander Clark gets my attention, so one phrase was all it took to start me researching “George Jones, who cultivates A. Clark’s farm on the Island” (Muscatine Journal, Aug. 22, 1879).

Dec. 3, 1863: “George Jones exhibited a commendable degree of patience and excellent horsemanship, finally inducing the refractory animal to go off in a horsemanlike manner.”

I’ve learned more, but not very much more, about George Jones, 1828-1888, variously classified by census-takers as Black, White, and Mulatto (mixed).

My previous column introduced two of his descendants, Frank Best and Lynn Bartenhagen.

I asked them: How long have you been searching/researching your ancestries? What’s been most surprising or memorable about the experience? How has all this affected your views on race?

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Frank: “It was opening an entirely different story in American History that I never knew. It’s really hard to put into words how much this has affected me. To understand that parts of my family were enslaving people and parts of my family were the enslaved. It has given me a completely new perspective on what it means to be African-American in this country.”

Lynn said she’s been researching family history since she was 16. DNA testing confirmed Black ancestry on “both sides” of her family.

“When Ancestry [dot-com] offered DNA tests I was excited to do mine and see if that helped me find new relatives. It has, but it has also been overwhelming. My DNA did not help enough. I now have nine family members who have taken the tests, and this has helped confirm our ancestors on both sides. I have also been contacted on Ancestry by a gentleman working on the other side of the family trying to find our connection. He was excited when I said I would work with him. He had been turned down by others as he was Black. We are still trying to find that ancestor.”

She and Frank compare notes on their finds. They explore different family trees, of course, with 3rd great-grandparents George and his French-born wife, Victoria Knapp, as their common ancestors.

Lynn: “I lose track of time working in the past all the time. I was surprised by how long I’ve been searching for certain ancestors. Keeping that in mind I do work on both sides of my family and when I find information I follow the lead until I hit a roadblock.”

Frank said he is still trying to figure out if George was free before he came to Muscatine, a question he’s pursued for the past decade.

Frank, describing another of his ancestral lines: “My great grandmother … if I do the DNA additions correct was around 28 percent Sub-Saharan African…. So, whoever my great grandmother’s father was, he was more than likely over 50 percent Sub-Saharan African.”

Another question for you both: How do your relatives feel about your discoveries?

Frank: “Some have been very excited to know more family history. Some don’t want to know any more.”

Lynn: “None of my living relatives were surprised or bothered by my ancestry revelations. I mean, how can you have family in America since the beginning and not think that finding other nationalities and ethnicities is not going to happen?”

Frank: “This entire search has opened up a world of African American history in the Midwest I never knew. You hear about Reconstruction and the Great Migration, but never history of what was happening right here in places like Des Moines and even Ottumwa, Iowa. There was such a boom within the Black communities at the time. There was a clear economic boom happening from the 1890s until the 1930s in these communities. Folks receiving not only high school diplomas but receiving college educations.”

“I can’t even express what an incredible eye-opening experience this has been. Just the meeting of family members with shared ancestors but a very different history, all because someone in my line ‘passed.’”

“Anyway, I just wanted to share the incredible journey I have been on. I can put you in touch with my cousins as well if you would like their perspective on this journey. I am sure it was a bit strange for them to have some white guy from Iowa contacting them with the news that we were sharing parts of the same African, and probably white, ancestry.”

“I am working with another cousin … who feels the stories I have uncovered are a book waiting to happen. A funny side story, when [he] and I first talked on the phone he asked gently, ‘So, looking at your photo I assume you identify as a white guy?’ I guess I never knew I had a choice.”

From all the tales and details Frank has told me, it will take him at least one book.

Next time: John Brown was here.

Daniel Clark is a former Muscatine Journal reporter and a student of Iowa history

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