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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, $24.95).

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 15 years.

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 do research.

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 news.

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 the family.

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 this book.

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 forgive?

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 poor.

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 in America.

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 those demons?

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 happen.

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 class."

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.