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October 24, 2001:
Neil Henry '77, a professor of journalism
at the University of California-Berkeley, has attracted national
attention for his recent book, Pearl's Secret: A Black Man's Search
for His White Family (University of California Press, 321 pages,
Henry, who is African American, spent several
years trying to piece together the story of the white descendants
of A.J. Beaumont, a white Southerner who also fathered a child with
Laura Brumley, a former slave, in 1877. That child, Pearl Brumley,
was Henry's great-grandmother. Henry's family knew of their white
lineage only through few tantalizing documents that had been passed
down from generation to generation. Eventually, Henry located a
living descendant of Beaumont in Louisiana. He met her, along with
some of her relatives, in early 1998.
Henry began teaching journalism after a decade
and a half reporting and editing for the Washington Post. He now
lives in Davis, California, with his wife, Letitia, and daughter,
Zoe. Henry spoke recently with Louis Jacobson, a frequent contributor
to PAW who is a staff correspondent with National Journal magazine
in Washington. Following are excerpts from that conversation.
PAW: How long had you tried to
write this book?
Henry: All of the questions derived
from childhood. They were mysterious questions that had perplexed
me for a long time, but I didn't know that it was possible for me
to answer them until I became a journalist. My real focus began
around 1986 or so, when I had worked as a writer for the Washington
Post for about eight years. On a visit home to Seattle I happened
to focus again on those documents that had carried through so many
decades in my family's possession.
So in a way, the book took you almost
Yes, but through all that time I was a reporter
on the investigative and national staff of the Post, and then I
became a foreign editor and a foreign correspondent. So I picked
it up in fits and starts during those years. The real work didn't
begin until I left the Post in 1992 and became a teacher in California.
That's when I suddenly had a little more time and flexibility to
When you first made contact with your
cousins, how cooperative were they?
Well, it took a long time to get to that point.
I did research at the National Archives, in microfilmed newspapers,
and in Civil War-era records in courthouses in Mississippi and Louisiana.
It was then that I finally learned that the white branch of my family
had survived through all of those years. And I finally placed that
family with a name Rita Beaumont Pharis, a woman in Pineville,
Louisiana. For a long time, I gestated about how I should approach
her. In the phone conversation, she was guarded at first
as you might expect when I told her about our connection.
But when I told her that I had these documents testifying to her
grandfather's relationship with a former slave, and that I had information
that even she didn't know, she became exhilarated, and very happy.
That was sort of the icebreaker conversation. She eventually invited
me to Louisiana to meet her extended family.
It sounds like you really lucked out
in finding someone who was very open-minded and receptive to this
Well, you know, all throughout the time I was
doing the research, wondering why I was doing it in the first place,
I couldn't help but imagine or fantasize about who I would find.
What were they doing? What were their lives like? What kind of jobs
would they have? And most important, what kind of people were they?
So I imagined all the different kinds of possibilities that
they would hang up the phone, or refuse to speak to me. But it turned
out to be a very human response. Rita was somebody who was fascinated
by the story I had to tell. So even though we came from different
paths me from a black past, her from a Southern, conservative,
white path there was a human connection. When I think about
it, I don't know if I lucked out. I don't want to cast judgment
on an entire group of people in America.
You've covered a lot of stories in the
U.S. and foreign countries. If you think back, is this the single
most emotionally wrenching story you've done, or are there other
ones that come close?
Oh, there have been many. That's one of the great
joys of journalism you come face to face with human realities
that you wouldn't otherwise. Gee whiz in Liberia I covered
an awful civil war, where part of the job was dealing with genocide
and counting bodies in a morgue in Monrovia. And in some of my early
stories at the Post, I went undercover living as a homeless
person, a migrant worker. These were also gut-wrenching experiences
very deep learning experiences that profoundly affected me.
Covering all bases race and family and everything
I suppose this was. But there were many others that affected me
in different ways.
Do you think that the white family you
eventually found would have preferred to know about your branch
of the family, or not?
It's a very good question. Rita's grandfather
was my great-great-grandfather, a white Englishman who emigrated
to America in search of a dream like so many immigrants, and he
left, as many white men have done in this country, a dual racial
lineage. Her family did know that he'd had this relationship before
he married a white woman, but they always thought that it had been
an Indian woman. That was the way their father wanted that relationship
to be remembered, if it was going to be remembered at all, because
where they came from, an Indian was considered higher on the yardstick
of humanity than a black person.
But their memory of this person was always kind
of vague. I think in Rita's case, she was profoundly thankful that
I made this connection, because, as the book points out, she was
going through a very difficult time when I first made that call.
She had lost her three sisters, one to Alzheimer's, and two to deaths,
in the past few years. She herself was going through some serious
health problems. And my contacting her in that way as others
pointed out to me later made her profoundly happy, because
she was learning something new.
My making that contact put her in touch, in a
manner of speaking, with her mother and her father and others in
the family past. I also know her niece Carolyn, who works at a hospital
in New Orleans, is very happy. She was just incredibly moved by
my portrayal of my mother in the book.
So they're thankful. At the same time, there have
been eruptions in their family about how to deal with their racial
past, and specifically the fact that a family they married into
had been active in the Ku Klux Klan. There's a big tiff over the
degree to which they should recognize it.
And that's still playing out.
Yes, as we speak.
What about you? How has it changed you
to know for sure that you have white cousins?
This is something that our family has known all
along because we had carried these keepsakes through our years in
AmericaÛ Beaumont's obituary; the letter he wrote shortly
before he died acknowledging to his mixed-race daughter that he
was her father and apologizing that he hadn't done better by her;
and his photograph. All of these things were among the keepsakes
in my black family's history. From the time I was a kid, it was
really an incongruous part of that history.
I had this sense of pride in my blackness and
my forbears, including my father's history as a pioneering black
surgeon in the Pacific Northwest, and my great-grandfather, who
was a very successful farmer and town leader in Illinois after fleeing
slavery in Mississippi. Yet I wanted to find that other side of
Ultimately, there were three lessons for me in
finding them. One was my appreciation and recognition of the value
of journalism as a calling, because it was through the skills I
had acquired that I was able to solve these mysteries. Second, I
became much more proud of my parents' generation and the strides
they made in American society, and their professional class in particular,
in fields like medicine and law. It's their story that I tell in
Lastly, and perhaps most important, is the lesson
I learned about irony and surprise in life. Despite the stereotypes
of race in this country, readers of the book learn about a black
family that overcame hurdles to achieve success all over the country,
while they meet a white family that was living atop the splendor
of white supremacy in the 19th century before suffering a terrible
fall. This was the kind of story that stereotypes about race cannot
tell. The ultimate irony, for me, was that in looking for traces
of my white ancestry, I came away with a much deeper sense of pride
in my African-American heritage.
You talk in the final chapter about the
process of telling your family about what you had discovered. Were
they glad to have heard about this, or not?
Oh, my let me tell you! (Laughs.) Just
as the way the revelations in the book had an effect on the white
Beaumont family, it's also had an interesting effect in my family.
There are people in my family who believe that I should not have
done what I did that white is white, black is black and you
should never cross that line, open that door or walk through. For
most of our family's history, white people were evil they
never did anything for us."Be proud of your own blackness,"
they said, "and leave it at that."
But the problem was that I'm a journalist. You
know you have to ask questions, and you have to answer those
freakin' questions. If you're a journalist, if you're really a professional,
then it's not in your nature to just let them slide. One of the
reasons I wanted to answer these questions was that I wanted to
put my family's story and race in America into a broader context.
And how can you do that? By comparing it to a family we're related
to by blood on the opposite side of the color line. I thought it
could be interesting.
But people in my family didn't see it as a journalist
would see it. They saw it as something of a betrayal. And so those
kind of reactions are part of what I've been dealing with after
the publication of the book. I should emphasize that not everybody
in my family had that reaction just a few did. Most of the
people in my family are proud that all of this has happened.
And the folks who did have concerns about
this are they starting to come around?
No. (Laughs.) But we're still family we
still love each other. (Laughs.) And I perfectly understand where
they're coming from.
Is there anything new to report about
your contacts with your white cousins since the book came out?
Rita and I appeared on the National Public Radio
show Talk of the Nation. Rita was great. I've also appeared on a
television show with Carolyn as part of the publicity for this book.
I should add that one of the nice things about
doing a book tour was a book party they had for me in Washington.
It was my first time back in nine years, in a city I had given a
lot of my life to. All my buddies who are top editors and reporters
at the Post were there, along with my students from Berkeley who
had graduated and who are now starting their own careers in journalism.
Of all these experiences I've had since the book was published,
I think that was the most moving. It was like seeing my whole professional
life before me. That was a totally unexpected benefit to the experience.
Do you think at some point you might
have a joint family reunion of both sides?
I kind of doubt it. Carolyn expresses real interest
in wanting to meet my mother, and my brother Bobby would like to
meet these people. But they talk to me about how they'd like to,
but nobody has taken the steps. I'm not going to start any great
big reunion or anything. I've written this book, and if people want
to see each other, that's fine. But it hasn't happened yet.
I noticed a short line in the book where
you mention another part of your family which had some white relatives
named the Lowensteins. Are you going to pursue that at all?
Well, you know, I suppose I could have worked
on this thing forever, but I wanted to go with the evidence I had.
This notion of the intermingling of blood in America is not a new
thing by any means. People look at the Thomas Jefferson story as
a really big, controversial topic, but in fact it's hardly unique.
It's replicated in the lives of millions of African-American families.
The difference is that, because it's taboo and
something our society hasn't recognized much in its history, there's
little documentary evidence to go on. People just don't have the
family artifacts. And the reason I focused on this particular connection
was because I had the documents. Like Bob Woodward always said when
I was a young reporter: "Make sure you get the documents."
As far as the Lowenstein angle is concerned, I
could have spent years in courthouses tracing that, and, you know,
it's conceivable. But it didn't intrigue me as much as this did.
The most intriguing thing about this was the handwritten letter
this man had written on his deathbed, on exquisite plantation stationery,
acknowledging to Pearl that he was her natural father and that he
had done badly by not saying so sooner. The envelope had a two-cent
George Washington stamp on it, and it had been handed down for 100
years. That was so real that it just got to me.
On that point, what are your feelings
about A.J. Beaumont now? What can you forgive and what can't you
Well, to the extent that forgiveness is divine,
you can forgive the guy for being human. All humans are frail; they
have faults. But given the effects of his actions, I cannot forgive
the pain he left for my great-grandmother Pearl by not giving the
support one expects of a father. And I can't forgive his hypocrisy
and the hypocrisy of a lot of white men of that era. Here was a
man who fought as a confederate officer during the Civil War, and
afterwards, worked against reconstruction, black rights, and black
suffrage. Yet he had this relationship that resulted in a child.
That kind of hypocrisy was not only wrong but really pernicious.
I can't forgive that. But this presumes that I have some great emotional
attachment to this guy, which I never did, frankly. But I am able
to look at him with intellectual detachment, and those are the kinds
of mixed feelings I have. On the one hand I recognize him as a human
being; on the other, he was a man full of fault.
I've been on reporting trips down in the Mississippi
Delta and northeastern Louisiana, where the Beaumont family was
originally from, and those areas struck me as being extremely
What are some of your impressions about the
country where the Beaumonts lived?
Gee whiz, that's a very complicated question.
I write a little bit in the book about my complex feelings going
to the South and traveling through the South. On the one hand it
represents the worst evils of America, and all the social and economic
injustices that have been inflicted on black people. There are people
who live in parts of the Delta whose lives have hardly changed from
those awful eras I write about, even pre-A.J. Beaumont. And yet
at the same time, you will find enormous change in parts of the
South, with black people asserting their rights and achieving their
dreams. And of course it was also home to some of the greatest acts
of heroism in American history. In a nutshell, those are some of
the feelings I have.
Not only is this pattern of racially
mixed families true generally in American history, but there have
been a few books on similar topics in recent years. How does your
account differ from some of the other ones?
Two books I mention are by white writers. Both
won big national awards. One of them is by Edward Ball, Slaves in
the Family. The other was by Henry Wiencek, The Hairstons: An American
Family in Black and White. My book is different in that I look at
the story of a family's interracial history from a black vantage
point. I don't think there have been many books like that, though
I won't say mine is the only one. And also it's unusual that I'm
writing about a privileged black family one that built itself
not just through hard work but also pluck and ambition. It goes
against the grain of what many people think is the black experience
What do you think would have happened
if you had found a dead end if you had found no living descendants
of A.J. Beaumont?
I don't know! (Laughs.) It's a very good question.
There are parts of that book that I wrote before I even managed
to find anyone. Someone once said that this tale wouldn't have been
a book without finding them. But I don't know. I think its the richness
of the human story on both sides of the color line that makes the
book what it is. Honestly, I don't know. It would have been an extraordinarily
frustrating experience. And it would have been just as frustrating
if I had found them and they didn't open their door to me. That,
in many ways, would have been more frustrating.
You talk in one of the earlier chapters
right around the time when you were starting to get some
traction on the book about "race demons" that were
preoccupying you then. Did finishing the book serve to exorcise
No, they're always there it's part of black
life in America. The vast majority of black people in America deal
with race on a daily basis in ways that white people don't, and
don't have to, as a majority. So these demons are always there;
the question is how you deal with the guy or the woman in the video
store who demands to have your bookbag, whereas the white guy, even
though he's carrying two big shopping bags, gets waved through.
Or think about the incidents that happen with cops "driving
while black" or "driving while brown." These things
I talk to my brother about this. He's fond of
quoting a friend of his. Once, in a shouting match, this black guy
said, "What you people don't understand is that my mind is
like a computer, and a lot of my hard disk is occupied by race,
in a way that yours doesn't have to be." So a lot of these
experiences get filtered through race. As shorthand, I called that
"fighting the demons," and that goes on. I'll carry it
with me to my grave.
What are you working on now?
There's an article I want to do on a guy named
Woody Strode. He was a trailblazing athlete at UCLA a tailback,
and one of the first black players in the National Football League.
Then he became an actor in Hollywood. He was in a movie called Buffalo
Soldiers, he was a gladiator in Ben Hur, he was the valet to John
Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. He was a trailblazing
actor for people like Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington, and
he was a big medal-winner in World War II for serving in a black
battalion in Europe.
He was in many ways and this is what really
interests me the reality that people think of when they think
of John Wayne. John Wayne was total myth. John Wayne avoided the
draft. John Wayne was a washout in athletics. Yet he's the white
icon that lives on, at the expense of the black hero. I know some
of Strode's descendants are still alive, and I thought that would
be a good article.
I'm also busy doing work in Africa. I take some
of my classes to South Africa, and I've been setting up an internship
for some of my students to help develop journalism in Ethiopia.
I would also like to write another book at some point.
You call your college years "dismal."
What were some of the low and high points?
Well, one of the low points is the incident I
described in the book. After my sophomore year, I was kind of aimless,
even though I had succeeded academically. I was disappointed with
the architecture program, so I took a year off from school and worked
on the waterfront in Seattle. I managed to get on a trip to China
with a group of writers and artists. This was 1975, only a few years
after Nixon first visited, so it was still a profoundly closed society.
It was a wonderful experience it was my first time out of
the country, we traveled to all these places, and I kept a journal.
I came back and wrote an article for the newspaper
in Seattle. It was published my first byline. So when I went
back to Princeton, I declared my major as political science and
went to see if I could go back to China through Princeton-in-Asia.
A man there I don't remember his name looked at me
and noted that I was a black person. He said they had never had
a black person in the program, and he wanted me to rethink it, because
it could cause problems with the host family in Asia. I didn't burn
the office down or throw any firebombs, but my way of dealing with
racism from the time I was a little kid was to swallow it and move
on to something else. But it was still a very painful, embittering
experience that I've remembered to this day.
It was also the tenor of the times Princeton
seemed to be a bit out of step with a lot of the things I was interested
in in the wider world. This was the age of Watergate, and the congressional
hearings were being held then. I went to a meeting on campus to
energize students to lobby Congress about impeachment. They said
there would be a bus there the next morning. I was surprised when
this bus only attracted a handful of students to go to something
that was one of the great moments of our lives. It was a good experience,
but I had a disappointing feeling about the political consciousness
of the university.
Next to me in the yearbook you'll see no photograph
and no list of activities. I was profoundly intimidated by the culture.
This was a new age of integration at Princeton, and as a black person,
I didn't feel particularly welcome. I think there were other black
people of that time who would tell you the same thing that
we were there as kind of an afterthought. So when people ask me
what class did I belong to, I say, "I was part of the invisible
But the reason I was there was to get as much
as I could out of the university, and that meant academic learning.
So my good experiences included studying under H.H. Wilson, a professor
of political science who specialized in civil liberties. He recognized
that I could write a bit, and he gave me an A for a paper I did
on Paul Robeson. There was also a graduate of the university, John
Rose '72, who became active in government in my home town of Seattle.
He put up a flyer on the political science bulletin board offering
an internship in the King County executive's office in Seattle.
I applied and they accepted me. That summer was a good experience.
I also enjoyed working with Alfred Bush at the
university's rare book library. It was great getting to see some
of the things in the holdings, like the original manuscript of The
Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald '17, or the letters of some of the early
presidents. And last, I would mention Fouad Ajami, who was then
an assistant professor and an inspirational teacher. So there were
individuals at the university who were helpful to me in a way that
had a lasting effect on my life. But on the whole, as I say in the
book, one of my memories was my alone-ness. I felt very alone. I
remember my single room in Dod Hall and making fires in the middle
of the night. I found a certain sense of reassurance in that.
You talk in the book about how you even
didn't hang out with the other black students on campus. What was
the barrier there? Was it a class issue?
It wasn't class. I got the sense that a lot of
the black students, as a relatively new population on campus, looked
to each other for a sense of refuge. And I never trusted relationships
built just on a sense of refuge. I came from a background in a largely
white neighborhood and the most valued relationships were based
on things you shared in common that went beyond race. I didn't want
a relationship based only on race, and I thought a lot of the black
students hung out together was really because of the color of their
skin. I ate alone in those great big halls and didn't see anything
in those clubs that was a part of me. But there were people who
were outcasts of a sort who I did hang out with.
Have you thought much about Princeton
in the intervening years?
I don't think of it very much at all except
that, thanks to you guys, you can't escape it! That Princeton Alumni
Weekly follows me wherever I go! (Laughs.) I don't know how they
find me, because I don't tell them where I'm going.
I have not returned to campus since graduating.
I am not the kind of person you're ever going to see at reunions.
The only time I went through Princeton was when I had to do an article
once, but I didn't even go on campus. It just brings back bad feelings,
the entire university and those four years. I wrote about them because
they set up quite a contrast with what came next the sense
of welcome that I felt at the Washington Post. The recognition of
my talent, my desire, was so completely different from the experience
I had at the university. So, no, I haven't thought much about the
university at all.