Finding My Roots

By Dr. Harold A. Black

My youngest granddaughter is named Haley. Her mother was in Tennessee’s MBA program and went with me to visit Alex Haley – a fellow University of Tennessee faculty member – at his farm in Norris, Tennessee. She had read “Roots” and meeting Alex had such an impression on her that she named her daughter “Haley.”  “Roots” was a sensation and spawned a TV mini-series in 1977. To recap, “Roots” told the story of Kunta Kinte, an African youth sold into slavery and his descendants leading to Haley himself. The actor Levar Burton played Kinte. I loved Alex but found it hard to believe that he had found his African roots.

For several years I served on the board of the East Tennessee Historical Society. I enjoyed being on the board despite being the only one not from East Tennessee. I love the rich history of the region and learning about the contributions of blacks to country music, the mystery of the Melungeons and, in particular, the strong alliance with the Union during the Civil War. One of my dearest friends is kin to the famous Carter family and told me how Lesley Riddle traveled with A.P. Carter around the region composing songs and teaching Maybelle his fingerpicking guitar style. There were other influential but soon-to-be-forgotten blacks such as Gus Cannon and Rufus Payne. In more modern times, singers like the Carolina Chocolate Drops have carried on the tradition of black country music.

However, I still felt like an outsider when ETHS launched its First Families of Tennessee initiative which records the descendants of the first white families that came across the mountains from North Carolina to settle in the region. It is a fascinating history of strength and perseverance. I recommend highly Drury and Clavin’s “Blood and Treasure,” a wonderful book about Daniel Boone. Members of the ETHS board of directors then traced back to their immigrant ancestors, the first in their family to step foot in America. I am not envious of other people except in this one instance. I knew that the likelihood of my finding my ancestral African forebearers was almost zero. Slaves did not have last names. There were no records of births and parentage. So despite my love for Alex Haley, I looked upon “Roots” as entertainment rather than historical fact.

In the television series “Finding Your Roots,” LeVar Burton (Haley’s Kunte Kinte) is shocked when he finds that his great-great-grandfather was a Confederate soldier. Personally, I was surprised that he was surprised. We black folk did not get this color by accident. I would guess that the majority of us black Americans have white ancestors and many of them were Confederates.

The Society also has the Civil War Families of Tennessee who are descendants of Civil War soldiers, both north and south. Obviously, being from Georgia, I am excluded from this group but I am, like LeVar Burton, a direct descendant of a Confederate soldier.

My maternal great-grandfather Seth Towles was a sergeant in the 6th Georgia. He never owned slaves but his sister married a Jarrell and lived on the Jarrell Plantation in Jones County, Georgia, where Seth had a son, Milous, with one of the cooks. My mother told me that Seth never disowned his black son and visited him every other Sunday for dinner at (Pop) Milous’ home. Mom said that he would load his black grandchildren in a wagon and take them to town in Macon to buy them things. All this while having a white family (he married after Milous was born). Because of this, I don’t harbor any ill will toward my great-great-grandfather Seth.

Seth is buried in a Confederate cemetery in Atlanta, less than a mile from my parents’ house at the site of the Battle of Ezra Church. Seth fought in that battle and wanted to be buried with his buddies who were killed and interred there. My son and nephew paid Seth a visit to update him on the progress made by his black descendants.

Because of Seth, I was able to trace back to my immigrant ancestor Henry Towles born in Liverpool, England in 1651 who died in Accomack County, Virginia, in 1721. I discovered that I also have a Towles who fought in the Revolutionary War and one who served in the War of 1812. I guess I qualify to be a member of the National Sons of the American Revolution. I also qualify to join the Sons of the Confederate Veterans – but I’ll pass.