HAMPTON, Va. – At the dawn of Colonial America, two families lived in the same household, maybe under the same roof. One was white, one black. One was from England, one from Africa. One, almost certainly, owned the other.
The black family included the first identified African child born on the mainland of English America – the first African American.
Four centuries later, as America shreds itself over the racial legacy that began in that home, two women will meet where it all started. One is white, one black. They didn’t learn of each other until this fall, but believe they’re descendants of those two Colonial families.
The white woman, 60, wants to help heal the wounds of the past; the black woman, 62, wants to learn more about the past. The white woman is contrite over past wrongs; the black woman, although she tries to suppress it, is angry over past wrongs.
In a country that often seems bent on denying, altering or simply forgetting its racial past, these two women have decided to confront it – sincerely and, as it will turn out, painfully.
With some trepidation, they will cross the continent to Hampton, Virginia, the place where it all started 400 years ago. It will be an historic meeting between two families who believe their fates intertwined at the beginning of Colonial American history, where they came to share a last name: Tucker.
Growing up in Kansas, Pam Tucker always knew her father’s ancestors enslaved black people. In Kentucky, she was told. Before the Civil War.
The family stories, however, always stressed the good relations between the Tuckers and the black people they owned. Though enslaved, the black Tuckers loved the white ones so much they even took their surname.
She heard many times how her grandfather had accompanied his father on a trip from Kansas back to Kentucky around the turn of the last century. As they approached the former Tucker homestead, the older man suddenly jumped from the wagon in which they were riding and ran toward an African American man, roughly his own age, sitting under a tree.
They hugged and laughed and cried. They’d grown up together, before the war, in a household where some members enslaved the others.
Pam was quietly skeptical of her elders’ spin. Hadn’t the African American people’s own names been stripped away, making “Tucker” the simplest identification? As for the Kentucky reunion, could you forget you once had owned someone, or been owned?
She knew racism wasn’t confined to the past. Once, when her family was visiting her Tucker grandparents, her grandmother called a part of town they were driving through “N—–town.’’ In the backseat, Pam and her sister exchanged startled glances.
But nothing she’d suspected about her family’s past prepared her for what she learned this year in a story in USA TODAY: Her family’s founding father was one of the first Colonial Americans to enslave Africans.
He was Captain William Tucker, a soldier, merchant and planter, and one of 22 members of the General Assembly of the Virginia colony, the first elected representative body of its kind in North America.
According to a 1625 census, his household included Anthony Negro; Isabella Negro; and William, “theire Child Baptised.’’ It was the first time such an infant was identified by name.
Pam was shocked, horrified, embarrassed. Her ancestor’s sins were not hers, but it still hurt.
She was the mother of two teenagers living in the most liberal city in Texas. She was a Ph.D. engineer who dealt in facts, not biases. She’d worked hard to diversify the workforce of her small manufacturing company.
And she knew, from personal experience, what prejudice felt like.
After she moved into a suburb of Austin with her two kids and her female partner, she found a large, headless snake dumped in the driveway. Another time, as she was standing in her yard, someone driving by yelled, “Faggot!’’
When USA TODAY contacted her for a story about the Tucker lineage, she was leery: “What kind of a write up is this going to be, about the white Tucker family?’’ she asked herself. “They’re the bad guys in the story.’’
In 1619, a year before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, the Virginia colony was already 12 years old. That August, a ship arrived at Port Comfort, in what is today Hampton. According to a letter, it “brought not anything but 20, and odd, Negroes, which the Governor and the Cape Merchant bought for victuals’’ – provisions.
The Africans had been kidnapped by English pirates from a Spanish slave ship headed for Mexico. Five years later, in 1624, two of them – Anthony and Isabella – were listed in Capt. Tucker’s household. By the following year, they’d had William, named probably after the captain.
Although their status was legally ambiguous – the colony had no law on slavery – the pair had been enslaved in Africa, sold in Virginia, and probably regarded and treated as enslaved in their new home.
After that 1625 census, Anthony, Isabella and William disappear from history. Records, if they were even kept for enslaved people, were destroyed by war, flood, fire or worm.
Capt. Tucker’s family almost disappeared as well. But a careful genealogy published by Pam Tucker’s mother indicates these white Tuckers moved gradually west, across Virginia, the Appalachians, the Mississippi and the Great Plains.
Pam Tucker is Capt.Tucker’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter. She is a bit of a pioneer herself. She was a woman in the largely male engineering department at the University of Texas. She started a business making plastic screws and nails at a time when American manufacturing was declining.
While she was dismayed this fall to learn Capt. Tucker enslaved Africans, she was intrigued to read about a black woman her own age who believes she is descended from the baby born into slavery in the captain’s household.
Black history and a trip to Angola: Wanda Tucker’s search for answers
Angola was barely mentioned in the history of the slave trade. USA TODAY invited Wanda Tucker there to search for her roots.
Jarrad Henderson, USA TODAY
Through the centuries, an extended African American family in Tidewater, Virginia, passed along a story.
We were on the first ship to bring enslaved people to Colonial America, and we are descended from the first black child born here. They called the child William Tucker.
Although the family’s claim has been widely and sometimes officially acknowledged, there is no genealogical or DNA proof of such a connection. The Tuckers can trace their roots back to around 1820, leaving a 200-year gap.
Pam read that Wanda Tucker was trying to give the black Tuckers the kind of genealogy that Pam’s mother had given the white ones. But it had been hard to do, and hard on Wanda.
The black Tuckers had long thought their ancestors were indentured – servants on contracts – rather than enslaved. But just a few months earlier Wanda had found a record showing her great-great-grandfather was born into slavery
Pam, who had helped her mother work on the family genealogy, could imagine the other Tuckers’ frustration. She wished she could help. She wanted to reach out.
But she also feared how her family would look – they were after all the bad guys. She wondered what she could do to right centuries of wrong. And she knew this was a situation most Americans would avoid, not embrace.
After thinking it over, she told USA TODAY she wanted to connect with Wanda’s family, in order to … what? Promote “healing,’’ whatever exactly that meant.
“Anything that would make a difference,” she said. “Even if I have to be a target.’’
The families’ connection “might be from a horrible past,’’ she admitted. “But it’s a connection.’’
Wanda and Pam were introduced via email. A few days later, Pam was waiting for a first call.
Just before the appointed time, Wanda texted, saying she wasn’t ready to talk just yet. She was too anxious.
Pam texted back: “Me, too.’’
Finally they talked, and established a rapport. Then USA TODAY offered to bring them to Hampton. A few weeks later they were on a pilgrimage – Wanda from her home in Phoenix, where she teaches at a community college, and Pam from Austin – to the place where it all began.
The momentous meeting occurred in the prosaic setting of a hotel lobby in Hampton. They hugged.
Pam presented Wanda with a box of pecan tossies, along with the recipe on a card labeled “from Mother Tucker’s kitchen.’’ Wanda, a bit frazzled, fretted that she hadn’t brought a gift for Pam.
Sitting next to each other on a couch, they seemed to have much in common: middle-aged, middle-class women with doctorates (Wanda in education, Pam in chemical engineering) and short haircuts. Both were mothers, although Wanda’s children were grown and Pam’s were teenagers. Each had left their hometowns and now lived in Sunbelt metropolises. Each had watched “Roots” on TV in the ’70s with their families.
After some small talk, they moved on to what had brought them to Hampton. “I don’t know where to start,’’ Pam said. “It’s embarrassing and it’s hard.’’
Then she blurted out two confessions about things that had bothered her for a long time, since growing up in the small, almost all-white town of McPherson, Kansas.
When she was 13, she was among those invited to a girl’s birthday party. The town’s one black girl their age was invited, too – until the birthday girl’s father found out and told his daughter to disinvite the black girl. Pam knew it was wrong, “but I went to that party.’’
She kept going.
When she was in high school, a history teacher said the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, but states’ rights. Pam knew that was wrong, “but I didn’t say anything.’’
She wiped a tear. “I have a lot to learn,’’ she said. “ I want to keep learning.’’
Wanda listened. She didn’t forgive. Forgiveness, she believed but did not say, wasn’t hers to offer.
Pam choked up. “Talking to you,’’ she said of racism, “it becomes real.’’ Every day since the meeting was set, she said, “I cry.’’
Pam told Wanda she wanted to work on her racist thoughts, some of them unconscious. “I hope you will help me.’’
Wanda agreed: “We can be a part of correcting history. … We will make right something we didn’t cause. This is not a moment of anger. … You didn’t do anything to me.’’
“If you were angry,’’ said Pam, “it wouldn’t surprise me.’’
That night, Wanda couldn’t sleep.
She was an academic. She liked order. She liked predictability. In the past few months, though, her world had been upended. After the USA TODAY story about her visit to Angola, she’d been flooded with mail from people who were moved by her story, who wanted to learn their own stories.
She felt like she was on a mission, but she wasn’t sure what mission or whose it was. She had been crying a lot. Her shoulders felt tight.
It wasn’t time for anger, she had told Pam, but anger was what she was feeling. She wasn’t mad at Pam. She was mad about something bigger than them both.
The next morning, around a long table in the hotel lobby, Pam met about a dozen members of the extended Tucker clan. She was, in effect, the guest of honor at an old-fashioned, Southern-style black family reunion.
The assembled Tuckers included a 72-year-old retired New York City cop who introduced himself as “the last William Tucker.’’ He’d driven from Georgia with his daughter and her family for the occasion; they’d be on the road heading back the following morning several hours before dawn.
Someone encouraged Pam, “Tell us about yourself.’’
Pam told of her small town girlhood, her Firestone Tire dealer father, her energetic mother. Norma Tucker had earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees while Pam was in school. She became a college journalism professor and an administrator.
Norma began studying genealogy because she was curious about the differences between her family and her husband’s. What had made the Tuckers, always more prosperous than her family, so proper and insular and tradition-conscious?
Pam revealed that her own two children, now teenagers, both were conceived through in vitro fertilization from a sperm donor when she was single and in her 40s. When she told her mother of her plan, Norma cried.
She admitted to the Tuckers she’d been apprehensive about meeting. An older half-sister in Oklahoma, who’d agreed to a face-to-face interview with USA TODAY, later rescinded “after thought and discussion with my family.’’ She wrote that the story should be “for and about African American families… To introduce European colonials would only distract from those early African colonials’ stories.’’
The sister asked that her contact information not be given to Wanda’s family, and she emailed relatives a warning about the story.
“I don’t know what her fear was,’’ Pam told the Tuckers.
“Money!’’ one piped up. Everyone laughed.
Pam reiterated what she’d confessed to Wanda last night, about the birthday party, the history teacher, the reunion in Kentucky more than 100 years ago between the enslaved man and his owner.
“We’re grateful that you could come,’’ the “last” William Tucker told Pam. “Thank you.’’
“Thank you,’’ Pam said. “You are all so sweet and kind and open.’’
“You’re open!’’ cried one of the Tuckers.
That afternoon Wanda and Pam stood on the banks of the James River. According to the Colonial-era historian Martha McCartney, this was the location of the 150-acre parcel granted Capt. Tucker in 1624. It probably was where his family and Anthony’s had lived.
It was also where Capt. Tucker planted tobacco in the rich alluvial soil and thus began to make his fortune. By the time he died in the early 1640s, he owned 9,000 acres.
Today, the avenue along the river is lined with large, gracious houses. It was hard to imagine what the Tucker place must have looked like; most such Colonial dwellings had four drafty, cramped rooms, packed dirt floors, smoky clay fireplaces and shuttered, glassless windows.
Pam, who’d never been to Hampton before, felt the weight of the moment: “This is the soil that was tilled for tobacco with people’s sweat, tears and blood. They were not here by choice, but they found a way to survive.’’
Wanda could only nod. She had once lived nearby, never realizing her proximity to history. It was overwhelming; tears streamed down her cheeks. “Very painful,’’ she murmured.
As Wanda turned to leave, an older cousin reminded her of something else: In the 1950s and ’60s, this neighborhood was whites-only. “If the cops saw you walking around here,’’ he said, “they’d stop and ask what you were doing, and suggest you move along.’’ It seemed as if the past kept getting more painful.
When Pam and Wanda left, they each clutched a seashell from the riverbank.
The spot where Anthony and Isabella came ashore in 1619 is now part of Fort Monroe National Monument, a decommissioned military post.
Terry Brown, the National Park Service superintendent, welcomed Pam and Wanda. “There’s a larger audience that needs what you’re doing,’’ he told them. He looked at Pam. “This is so historic, that you would even make the trip. When I think about love and unity, this is where it all begins.’’ As far as he knew, Pam was the first descendant of Capt. Tucker to visit the site.
The women walked to the end of a dock, close to where the pirate ship tied up. There, Pam read aloud an account from her mother’s historical novel, “Fledgling Eagle.” It imagines the scene that August day, as seen by young Will Tucker.
“A noisy crowd gathered alongside a docked Man-of-War. … About two dozen of the blackest human beings Will had ever seen were chained together and overseen by a man with a whip, as another man released them, one by one, to be sold by yet another.
“’Fine property here!’ announced the auctioneer. ‘This fine African will make an outstanding servant. He’ll be a strong field hand. Look at those muscles. He’s strong. And he’s big.’
“’Does he understand English?’ shouted a man.
“’A few words,’ replied the auctioneer. ‘But he understands the whip. … What am I bid?’
“’How many years of indenture?’ called Will.
“’Mister, these are not indentured servants. They’re slaves.’’’
When Pam had finished reading, she and Wanda held hands. “I don’t have the words,’’ Wanda said, her voice quavering. “It’s kinda hard to say something after that.’’
Pam had the same reaction. The scene, she told Wanda, “is hard to imagine. … I can live daily and not have to think about it. When I’m made to confront it, it’s heartbreaking.’’
From the dock Wanda could see the Chamberlin Hotel building, a nine-story, brick and limestone showpiece built in 1928 to the designs of the architects of Grand Central Terminal. Her father was a waiter in the segregated dining room. He had to serve customers who’d say, “Boy, come here!’’ Things like that had made him an angry man.
“As much as I did not want to be like my dad,” she said, “I found myself becoming like my dad.’’ Angry.
It had been an exhausting day. The rest of Wanda’s family had headed home. Before dinner, the two women sat in the lounge of the hotel bar.
Wanda finally had to speak up about how she’d felt last night in her room.
“It wasn’t about you,’’ she told Pam. It was about a 400-year-old system that Pam represented, and from which she had benefited. It was about an evil that began in that Colonial household, “and we’re still dealing with it.’’
Wanda paused. “I’m having a hard conversation with you about the rage I feel…There have been times I didn’t have any words. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to cry, but I just haven’t found the words.’’
“I’m not even expecting you to do anything with it,’’ she added.
Last evening, sitting in the lobby with Wanda, Pam felt as if she had gone to confession. Now, she did what she’d wanted to do, even before leaving Austin.
“There’s something I need to say, too,’’ Pam told Wanda. “I need to say I’m sorry. If I can speak for my family, for myself. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’’
Wanda’s eyes got wet. She nodded and whispered, “Thank you.”
They were silent for a long time. Then Wanda said: “We didn’t create this. … You didn’t have to say that.’’
Pam nodded: “I needed to say that for me.”
Pam had come to Hampton prepared for coolness, maybe outright rejection, and found acceptance. The engineer in her had wanted to fix things – help with the genealogy, heal the breach – but some problems defy solution.
Wanda had come wondering if Pam’s family could help with her genealogical quest. Now, she said, that didn’t seem so important. Or maybe it was too painful.
“As much as I want to know what happened in that 200-year gap’’ between 1625 and the 1820s, Wanda said, “I’m afraid. Maybe I’m protecting myself by not digging too deep. There’s part of me that’s scared to death to know. I don’t know what happened to my family, but I know what happened to thousands of others.’’
Angola had hurt her, as had that moment when she saw “slave’’ written next to the name of her great grandfather in the old census ledger.
Wanda has white colleagues and friends, she said, but they talk in generalities. Somehow, facing the descendant of a man who she believed enslaved her ancestor, they could talk about race with a different intensity. A directness.
Pam and Wanda were holding hands. Wanda, thinking of Pam’s guilt, said, “I hope you’ll let that go.”
There had been confession, apology and acceptance, yet something less than resolution.
The meeting had not turned out as Pam expected. Seeking to give something, she had gotten something; seeking to change things, she was herself changed.
She knew when she returned to Texas, she would have to try harder. She couldn’t wait for an invitation to reach out to people who were different from her. She needed to set an example for her kids, to be unafraid.
She was no longer the person who said nothing in history class, or who went to the birthday party, or who sat silently in the back seat of the car.
For now, she nodded to Wanda.
“We’ll keep at it.”
Contributing: Kelley Benham French, USA TODAY
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