Reporter discovers slavery roots thanks to DNA

The first Africans are believed to have arrived in America in 1619. Destined for a life of slavery in the New World, 350 people were taken from Angola on a ship named the San Juan Bautista.

A resident of Phoenix named Wanda Tucker believes that her family may have been descended from the survivors of that journey.

USA Today reporter Deborah Barfield Berry learned about Tucker as part of the newspaper’s coverage of the 400th anniversary of slavery’s beginnings in America. Berry then began to discover coincidences between Tucker’s history and her own.

“I was listening, and I was thinking ‘Hmm. My grandmother’s name was Tucker”, Berry recalled.

As the coincidences added up, her editor suggested she take a DNA test. Berry agreed.

The first ancestry test showed that she was from present day Cameroon, less than 1500 miles away from Angola, where Tucker believes her ancestors took their last steps as free people.

Y chromosome testing

The Y chromosome mutates once every 10,000 years, it is therefore possible to analyze and compare test participants for biological relatedness through the paternal family line. If the males in question are related, their Y chromosome will be identical. To find out whether Berry was related to Tucker, a male from her family and a male from Tucker’s took a Y chromosome DNA test. It was a match.

Berry had assumed she would be telling a story about one family’s roots in Africa. She was now part of the story herself. Not only was she related to Tucker, she to, could be descended from the first Africans in America.

“I’m still kind of overwhelmed by just the whole story”, she said in an interview with NPR‘s Weekend Edition.

There are so few records of Africans who were brought to America because their history was not considered worthy of documenting, said Berry. The census records were little help. Many of the records referred to ‘free colored’ or ‘slaves’. There were no names attached to these people; they weren’t even counted.

To get a fuller picture, Berry and Tucker travelled to Angola, where the San Juan Bautista departed in 1619.

It turned out to be very emotional, Berry said. She now hopes her story will encourage others to learn how they fit into the American story.

“We all have a story, and especially as African Americans, we’ve contributed much to the making of America”, she said. “In some way – whether your great grandmother was enslaved in South Carolina, whether your grandfather was a sharecropper – all of them have played a role in what America is today.”

“So, if you have time, and you have the passion, then take the time to go find out more about your family.”

Pipe DNA reveals record of the slave trade

Earlier this year, archaeologist Julie Schablitsky analyzed the DNA from a 19th-century tobacco pipe, which was found in the slave quarters of a Maryland plantation called Belvoir. Tobacco pipes were ubiquitous in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. “Wherever these people left broken tobacco pipes, they were also unwittingly leaving their DNA, said Schablitsky.

The DNA in the clay pipe contained within it a record of the transatlantic slave trade. The DNA showed that a woman had used the pipe, and her genetic ancestry most closely matched people living in Sierra Leone. The woman was most likely enslaved on the plantation.

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