' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Finding Your Roots: Bastards show up in all family trees

Monday, October 6, 2014

Finding Your Roots: Bastards show up in all family trees

Henry Louis Gates
How many of us have ancestors who were born outside of marriage? Plenty it would seem. Last week's episode of Henry Louis Gates, Jr's Finding Your Roots on PBS, found that the three athletic greats the program featured all had ancestors born under less than auspicious circumstances. Tennis legend and feminist Billie Jean King, Yankee all star Derrick Jeter, and women's basketball pioneer Rebecca Lobo each had an ancestor born--outside of marriage. Gates is a warm and engaging host, and the show never fails to emphasize the connection of natural families. Guests are likely to find surprises in the family background.

Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King, a woman whom I admired long before she defeated Bobby Riggs in 1973 in a celebrated match, always wondered about her father's mother, Blanche Leighton, who had been born in 1897 and adopted as an infant. Her grandmother never talked about her birth parents because King said "she was ashamed of her birth or something....She could never say she was born out of wedlock." Gates was able to obtain a family Bible from King's aunt which contained the names of family member including Leighton's original name, Hazel Campbell. King had been unaware of the Bible's existence.

In a birth index from Boston where Leighton was born Gates was able to discern Leighton's mother's name, Elizabeth Campbell. The index had an address for Leighton, showing that she had been born at Tabitha Cumi Maternity Home, described in a newspaper clipping as "a Home and Maternity Hospital with a Message of Compassion and Hope for Girls Who Are Facing Unmarried Motherhood."

After looking at these documents, King said in a wistful tone, "I was thinking she [Elizabeth Campbell] wondered, What happened to my child?--that's what I would be thinking." When King saw a picture of her great-grandmother, she commented how it feels to see her face. "It feels good,"King said. "It feels connective."

Derek Jeter learned that his third great grandfather on his father's side owned slaves in Alabama, and Jeter's third great grandmother belonged to him. Their child, Jeter's second great grandfather, born in 1844, could have been conceived through rape, a not uncommon occurrence between masters and their slaves, even though Jeter said he wanted to think it was less violent than that: "I'd like to think it was a good relationship." Jeter's white ancestor apparently cared for his son, though, because he left him enough property to make him wealthy by black standards, and he later became a minister and had his own church.

Rebecca Lobo's paternal grandmother was born to a single mother who may not have known who her father was. She was ashamed and did not talk about the circumstances of her birth. Gates learned that Lobo's grandmother was the daughter of an Austrian immigrant who worked as a house maid. He showed Lobo a picture of her great grandmother wearing a fur coat a year after Rebecca's grandmother was born which suggested that she may have had a relationship with a wealthy man, possibly the man in whose house she worked, as these relationships were common.

Vasily Polenov: Le droit du Seigneur (1874)
This story of rape/sex with the master of the house (or the randy son) is the theme of Robert Altman's movie, Gotsford Park, as well as countless other stories, including the real life one of Strom Thrumond, the racist senator from South Carolina who impregnated a 16-year-old black maid in his father's house when he was 22, and relates to Jeter's ancestry. Arnold Schwarzenegger's child with his Latino maid also comes to mind. In Lobo's case, DNA analysis shows that her great grandfather was Jewish, surprising Lobo had no idea that she had Jewish ancestry. Was the master of the house her great grandmother worked in Jewish? Given what we know historically, it wouldn't be surprising. Wealthy men have impregnated lowly women since the beginning of time. Sexual relations between slave masters and the slaves is well documented, and a theme prevalent in that searing movie, Twelve Years a Slave. The French phrase droit du seigneur (right of the lord) refers to the medieval practice of the lord of the manor allowed to spend a night and have sexual relations with the daughters of serfs. Sounds primitive--it is--but is may have also served the purpose of the lord looking more kindly on the families and children of the serfs. That snot-nosed child might be your son, or your sister.

Finding Your Roots reaffirms the value knowing your ancestors, and Gates is a gentle guide. As King said: "Each generation forms the next generation. Everybody you [Gates] mentioned influenced my life. Now I understand why I am the way I am." Yet the right to know you natural family is sadly still a right denied to millions of American adoptees and their descendants because of archaic sealed record laws.

I suspect there's not a family in the U. S. where if you went back far enough, you wouldn't find an unwed mother. Still families are often reluctant to discuss these ancestors who tarnished the family pride. Even today when 40 percent of babies are born to unmarried mothers, shame still is still a fact. Some mothers refuse to meet their children. Some legislators continue to insist that records must remain closed to protect women from this shame. But that shame is not reason enough to deny anyone his or her ancestry.--jane

If these ancestry shows bother you because you don't have a right to your own ancestry, or if you are a mother whose child doesn't have that right: WRITE TO YOUR LEGISLATOR TODAY. Don't be afraid to let your emotions and anger tumble out at the injustice. Only by action will the laws ever be rolled back and all men and women be free to know who they are. 

America's Top Athletes Trace Deeply Rooted Passions

Using DNA to Find Family: You Can't Have Too Much Family


Finding Family: My Search for Roots and the Secrets in My DNA
by Richard Hill
"Hill's memoir is well-written, easy to read, a can't-put-down tale. It's more than that, though, as Hill reveals himself in the process of discovering his roots. When he obtains a picture of his birth mother, he writes of the "delayed grief over my birth mother's death and our lost relationship."--Jane Edwards at Using DNA to Find Family: You Can't Have Too Much Family


  1. I just watched that episode and as will all of these genealogy shows, it drives me nuts that it is soooooooo important to all of the people who grew up in their families of origin to know their seventh great grandparent because they feel so connected & grounded for knowing yet when adoptees just want to know who are their parents- it is not so important in society's eyes

  2. It makes me downright nuts!!! So many shows about genealogy, the emotions are raw--anyone else remember Rosie O'Donnell crying! at the poor house where her Irish family once was housed? And yet we can't get those unjust laws repealed.

    Adoptees must rise up and scream to their legislators to change the law--or off with their heads!

    1. And I forgot to add as Baby Carter did that Rosie's brother in the NY state legislature said to me: I will never vote for this bill [that would unseal the original birth certificates of adoptees]. He's also said to others that he fears that the birth mothers would want money.

      As far as I know, as baby girl carter says, she has never done anything to help her adopted children learn their roots. Maybe one day one of them will be writing a blog about ... searching, and the desire to know one's true heritage.

    2. Lorraine,
      I watched "Rosie" on Who Do You Think You Are and it was all I could do to not scream at her "what about your children" as she was visibly emotional on the journey. I've often wondered if doing that show has changed her views about her children and their lack of right to know.

  3. I will not watch any of these geneology shows for that reason. I'm not allowed to know anything about my mother and even less about my father. I am supposed to absorb the ancestry and history of my adoptive family like a sponge. Geneology? Not working for us adoptees.

  4. Julia Emily, your comment made me add to the blog: f these ancestry shows bother you because you don't have a right to your own ancestry, or if you are a mother whose child doesn't have that right: WRITE TO YOUR LEGISLATOR TODAY. Don't be afraid to let your emotions and anger tumble out at the injustice. Only by action will the laws ever be rolled back and all men and women be free to know who they are.

    In your case, write to Dean Skelos in NY. And Kemp Hannon.

  5. I too like to watch these shows - Finding Your Roots and Who Do You Think You Are. I've gone back to 1755 on my father's side and the early 1800s from my mother's side. And this is from a "tiny" Eastern European country. I was amazed at what I found!! I have done a family tree for all my brothers and sisters, and have an extra copy for my daughter, if she ever contacts me and would like it...

  6. Thanks, Lorraine! I've already written to Hannon, twice over a period of time. I will write to Skelos, and maybe the Governor again.

  7. seems I type too quickly- meant to say as with all of these shows- not as will…
    & yes, the Rosie episode nearly made me croak since it seems she is not a big fan of having her adopted children know anything. I often wonder if adopted persons reached out to those celebrities that have done the shows and gushed, could we find some supporters or change some minds about access????

  8. So much to absorb in this post...

    My genealogy on my father's paternal side was painstakingly traced out by my great grandfather and documented in a book. I can't remember a time when I didn't know about that book on our shelf or have a sense of pride in where I came from, famous ancestors, and that I knew my roots on my paternal side all the way to the original ancestor in England before his journey to America. I have a sense of pride and connection to my roots that I think actually makes me value the different history of my daughter who is adopted.

    I would love to help her research her genealogy someday, and we have started researching traveling to countries in all our of backgrounds as my husband has a different background than I do, and our daughter who is biological has a blend of us, and then there is our daughter who is adopted who has her own unique background. All around, it's completely fascinating to me and very inspiring.

    Insecurity is what shuts down knowledge and searching, and it's sad that grown adults cannot get over themselves enough to want what is best for their child. History is so important. Our history is important. My daughter's history is important. I'm thankful that in spite of archaic laws, which I will continue to fight against, she will be able to search out her roots if she wants to. Take that, closed record laws! You won't be able to continue to stop adult adoptees in this day and age... it's a losing battle!

  9. Hooray, Tiffany!!! Can we elect you to the New York State Legislature?? Yours is the kind of attitude toward adoption that is honest and healthy. Secrets and lies just does cut it anymore. As you say, "Take that, closed record laws!!"

    Your adopted daughter is very lucky. Your understanding and helpful approach towards her adoption is wonderful. I am sure she will grow into a secure, confident adult, and you will always have a good, honest relationship with her.

    Such a contrast between your handling of your daughter's adoption and my a-mother! Yes, a-mom is a product of her time. I could almost understand, back in the ignorant 1950's and 60's, that she believed secrecy was the right approach, and that she was afraid she would not be allowed to keep me. She has said as much. But, decades have passed. What is she afraid of now? I am obviously here to stay, caring for her and a-dad on a daily basis. No one is going to come and take me away. So, what is there to lose, at this stage of the game, by being honest? The insecurity is astonishing!

    Rosie O'Donnell? She's another story. I can't stand the sight of her. I would have to use language here that I don't approve of in order to discuss her, so I will stop now before I get carried away.

    1. I wish! I am a New Yorker by birth, so it infuriates me to see what is happening in my home state.

      It is important to remember people are a product of their times, and I agree your a-mom is likely living the way she was taught to live. But, at the same time, I struggle with giving parents a pass on being loving and caring and supportive of their children. There are other adoptive parents who are from that era who are supportive of their children feeling a connection and desire for their roots. There are adoptees in their 50s and 60s who search out their birth parents with the blessing and support of their adoptive parents. For me, it's pure selfishness and insecurity to continue to repress your adult child's feelings regarding their own adoption.

      I say this in part because I still see that attitude among adoptive parents today, and we live in a very different world. It's very frustrating to me to see, and I can't understand it.

      It feels weird to me when people say my daughter is lucky. I just can't wrap my head around that thinking. I am so beyond blessed to be able to love her. I'm constantly aware that in another world, I wouldn't belong to her. It's humbling to be a mother to a child to whom I didn't give birth... she is one half of my heart, and to be entrusted to love her is one of the greatest blessings of my life. I am well aware that my joy came at a very high cost paid by her mother, and it was a price she never should have had to pay in a perfect world. I guess I don't understand why all adoptive parents don't feel that way.

    2. Tiffany: I didn't know you are a fellow New Yorker! I wish we could knock some sense into the lawmakers here.

      I feel that your daughter is lucky. I do not know any adoptive parents, aside from those who post on FMF, who are honest with their adopted children/adult children. Not one. I know a-parents who never told their children they were adopted, I know overbearing a-parents, I know a lot of a-parents exactly like my own. All of them possessive, manipulative, and not willing for a shred of honesty to enter the relationship. They are insecure and selfish. And they all seem very afraid. Most of the a-parents I know personally are from my era, but a few are more recent. I can't make sense of it, but it is a common denominator with all the AP's I know.

      I could never behave this way. Honesty is the only way to handle something as complex as adoption. A relationship can not be built upon lies, plain and simple.

  10. At least during the BSE, adoptive parents were told that the adopted child would share their ancestry and genealogy. So why would the child need to search for his or her own biological roots? The natural parents were considered so inconsequential and were so totally written out of the picture that I think many APs believed this. Even more modern day adoptive parents raising children of the same race probably still think like this. It wouldn't surprise me if an AP like Rosie O'Donnell simply thinks of her adopted children as Irish like her.

    1. I agree Rosie would have to be a numskull to think her ancestry was her children's, but her adoptions have had a totally negative effect on her boorish brother's thinking about what those children might want or need. He could not have been more dismissive and rude to the lobby group I was with--two adoptees and me. They were livid when we left, one in tears, the other full of righteous rage.

      I have never heard Rosie say one word about the children and their rights as individuals, so in the absence of speaking out--she could actually do a lot of good--and her brother's clear aversion to adoptee rights, I suspect she is an insensitive boor, as she portrays herself to be on television.

    2. Here in the UK, a recent episode of The Simpsons had Homer's friend Carl return to Iceland where he had been adopted. He was on a mission to clear his ancestral family's name. His ancestral family was unquestionally assumed to be that of his adoptive parents.

    3. I guess Rosie and her brother only support gay rights, not adoptee rights. Some of us are more equal than others and all that...

    4. That was not the assumption of my child's adoptive parents who adopted my baby in the U.K at the beginning of the sixties.
      Of course The Simpsons is an Americam production.

  11. I also saw this show and really enjoyed it. I found it a positive thing how matter-of- factly the adoption bits were handled, with the attitude that of course both mothers and adoptees would wonder and want to know what happened to their child or parents.Notice how with Billy Jean King's grandma, they skipped right to finding the natural mother, no dwelling on the adoptive ancestry. Derek Jeter showed such class, as always, in hoping that his white ancestor at least had some sympathy for his mixed race child, and the child's mother. All the segments showed that ancestry does matter, and that adoption or illegitimacy does not wipe it out. Shows like this can only help the cause of adoptee rights by showing how normal it is to want to know the truth.

  12. I just wanted to say that it is not just adoptive parents rasing children of the same race that raise their adoptive children as if they have no other family. My daughter's parents have told her that her amother had an affair that is why she is so dark. Who does this!!!! Why not tell her the truth!

    1. What the what? I have no words.... I can't even fathom needing to fake genetic connection to such a level that I would lie in that way to my child. That's just twisted. My heart goes out to you and your daughter.

  13. I too have started a family tree. I put my son on it but did not include his father (who he knows). The tree then appeared with Father Unknown. Didn't like that so added his father and traced his tree back a few generations too. Mine is a reverse international adoption. My son has been raised to believe the European culture he was raised in is superior to North American culture. Maybe some day he will want to know about his roots. Signed Mom2014

  14. I'm so angry right now I'm not sure I can even write a coherent sentence. Did anyone watch "Finding Your Roots" last night? Anderson Cooper was one of the guests. Yes, the very same Anderson Cooper who did everything he could to steal Veronica Rose Brown from her natural father. And what was the most painful topic on Anderson's mother's side of the family? What was the subject his mother could never even bring herself to talk about? The fact that she herself was the subject of a very bitter and public custody battle that had her taken from her OWN mother and placed her with an aunt. And yet, despite his family background, Cooper used his power and publicity to do the very same thing to a little girl he never even knew. He did everything he could to support a bitter custody battle that resulted in the forcible removal of Veronica BROWN from her REAL father's custody.

    And when Mr. Cooper was asked by the host, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. who he most wanted to connect with among his ancestors, he responded "my father." Yet, he did everything he could to ensure that another precious child was denied the chance to grow up with HER father.

    When I saw that Anderson Cooper was one of the guests I was going to change the channel. But then I realized that the episode was about people with southern ancestry and since this is part of my background I became interested enough to continue watching.

    But right now I could just scream.

    I call for a boycott of Anderson Cooper. I hope you will join me.

    1. Definitely write to CNN, Robin.

      I saw a TV movie about the custody fight between Gloria Vanderbilt's mother and her aunt and grandmother, played by the ever so wicked Bette Davis. Gloria was interviewed afterward. She said something to the effect that she had a low opinion of adults fighting over a child, nothing about being taken from her mother or having any sympathy for her mother. So perhaps AC got the idea that fights should be avoided at all costs. Of course that leads to legalized kidnapping which is what happened in Gloria's case and the Veronica Brown's case.

      I suppose too that AC is glad his mother was raised by the Vanderbilt's rather than her low class mother. AC always has this look of confusion as though he is an innocent from prep school thrown in with the rowdies of the world.

  15. Robin: I taped the show but didn't watch it yet. Oddly enough--Cooper father? Wyatt Cooper? He didn't know him? I thought Gloria and Wyatt were happily married--at least they were when I took Wyatt Cooper to lunch. I was an editor at Town & Country and he wanted to write for the magazine--so lunch at The Plaza which was a block away from our offices. The man I had lunch with was a distinguished, intelligent, somewhat courtly man.

    I hope that channel your anger and write to Cooper yourself today. The letter will make his way to him through the CNN channels. You can never know the amount of good you might do for the next child who comes along and ends up in a custody battle. Please do it. Do it for the next Veronica BROWN.

    1. I missed part of the show so I'm not sure what Anderson's issue is with his own father. Perhaps after you watch it you can add a comment with the exact question the host posed to him at the end. But I am certain his answer was "my father".

      I am just spitting nails today that after learning about his family history back hundreds of years, he still said the most significant person in his family is his natural father. Maybe he should have considered that Veronica's natural father is the most significant person in her life, too; before he did everything in his power to destroy that relationship.

      On another note, Mr. Cooper has come out publicly as a gay man. Well, that is just fine with me. I hope he and his partner have a wonderful relationship. There is always a need for more loving relationships in this world. But I bet he hates it when there is discrimination against gays who want children. So he needs to look at his own prejudice toward heterosexual men who father children out of wedlock and then want to raise THEIR OWN children.

      Your suggestion of writing a letter is an excellent one and I will follow up on that. And I do ask that others also write or at least join me in a boycott of Mr. Cooper's work.

      Thank you, JE, for your support.

  16. Robin, I will gladly boycott Anderson Cooper. I might write to him , as Lorraine suggested. What you describe here is sickening.

    Lorraine: I also worked a couple of blocks from the Plaza! Beautiful place to work. Maybe we were in the same building.

    Anderson Cooper mentioning his father is as bad as Rosie crying over her ancestry, given how they both behave towards adoptees. Very upsetting and discouraging.

  17. The address of the building where T&C was in the Seventies was 717 Fifth Avenue. Fifth Floor.

  18. We were close Lorraine! I was at ASID headquarters at 730 5th Ave. Beautiful part of NY!

  19. according to Wikipedia, Anderson's father died when Anderson was about 11.

    1. Thanks, Sandra McK, for researching that. It just proves my point. Anderson C lost his father as a young boy, and yet was willing to use all of his influence to ensure that another young child lost her father. The host, Henry Gates, Jr., mentioned that he was sure Anderson's ancestors would be very proud of him. Well, I'm not. I'm sickened by his actions.

  20. Wyatt Cooper died from complications of open-heart surgery, says Uncle Wiki. I'd always thought he killed himself (still a possibility, as I remember reading this from a reliable source), as his son Carter did; he jumped out a window at the age of twenty-three.



COMMENTS ARE MODERATED. Our blog, our decision whether to publish.

We cannot edit or change the comment in any way. Entire comment published is in full as written. If you wish to change a comment afterward, you must rewrite the entire comment.

We DO NOT post comments that consist of nothing more than a link and the admonition to go there.