Atlanta Man Plans Memorial Day Reunion With African Kin

Forget gathering the family to watch Roots, William Holland took his family’s history project all the way to Africa ... and back. 

Posted: 05/24/2012 04:52 PM EDT

William Holland spends time with relatives in Cameroon, left, and among his family back at home in the U.S.
(Photos: Courtesy William Holland)

 

So, you’re all set for this year’s family reunion: You’ve picked the best location, you know who is cooking what, your T-shirt design is off to the printer and you’ve even got it on good authority that your feuding uncles will behave themselves this year.

But have you invited your family from Africa?

It may sound strange, but for William Holland, 43, of Atlanta, incorporating the long-lost African members of his family into this year’s family reunion is a reality. From the first DNA test he took in 2004 to his upcoming reunion this Memorial Day, Holland has accomplished the seemingly impossible through patience and sheer determination.

Tracing his family line all the way from the Virginia plantations where his American forefathers worked to the Oku people of Cameroon, Holland then discovered that several members of his "African side" were closer than he ever imagined — living in Northern Virginia and Maryland. Holland spoke to BET.com ahead of the big day about his own journey and the importance of knowing our history.

Holland’s genealogical journey started around 2004 when he took his first DNA test through Africanancestry.com and began prodding his aging father for details about deceased family members. A year later, after his father died, Holland chose to take his search to the next level.

“I want[ed] to do my own research and tell my own story, not someone else always giving me secondhand information and telling me, ‘Oh, your people came from slaves and your people are from this plantation and this plantation.’ But none of them have actually said, ‘Well, you were on that plantation, but you came from this place.’” Holland said. “So I took it upon my own self to figure out, ‘OK, where did they come from before that? So they couldn’t all just pop up in America and all of a sudden they were on this plantation.’”

Holland’s journey from that first DNA test to planning this year’s Memorial Day reunion took thousands of dollars in further DNA tests, international travel to Ghana, Egypt, Nigeria and Cameroon and genetic consultations.

After receiving one set of information that showed he was 100 percent Igbo (a group of people from Nigeria), Holland took additional, more specific tests offered by the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation and received a better set of data pointing him toward Cameroon instead. From there, Holland followed a trail of historians and records to piece together the missing parts of his family’s story on both sides of the Atlantic.

“I consulted a couple of historians and one said, ‘Well, there’s only one thing that could be possible, there was only one ship that came from Cameroon to Virginia directly, and that was in 1772.’”

The further Holland dug, the more he was faced with the harsh realities of long-suppressed tensions in his hometown reaching back to slavery. Holland says he and his siblings grew up and went to school with another set of Holland children — the white descendants of his family’s former owners.

“We grew up in Glade Hill. Two of the plantations that my great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather were on still exist today. You can go there right now. It’s not even five miles … the one that my great grandfather was kept and worked on, that’s not even two minutes from the house that we have now.”

Although the media attention surrounding Holland’s search brought him together with the white Hollands momentarily, he says the two grew up worlds apart.

“They didn’t invite us down to the big mansion," he says. "They have these swimming pools; we didn’t go down there in the summertime. They never said, ‘Oh let’s hang out and have a barbeque.’ No, no, no. That was not the case. 

“In one instance, [one of the white Hollands told] my brother Marvin, ‘Oh, you people got your name from us.’ As if there was some type of prize or honor that we have that name.”

As painful as the research of the U.S. portion of his family history proved to be, delving into Holland’s African side wasn’t completely without pain either.

After his second set of DNA tests pointed to Cameroon, Holland received a suggestion that he should look for his lineage among the Mankon people. Holland believed he was on to something until, after several meetings with Mankons, the stories didn’t match up to the historical records. And there was another thing: Despite bearing a strong physical resemblance to the Mankon, the genetic testing evidence didn’t match exactly.

Once again, however, history solved the mystery. Holland learned the Mankon were middle-men in the slave trade, meaning none of their people actually crossed the Atlantic.

“You didn’t trade any of your own people. How would you have a DNA match here in the U.S. if nobody went missing?” Holland finally figured.

However, Holland says this type of historical inquiry is not just beneficial for African-Americans, but helps to promote greater understanding on the part of continental Africans as well.

“A lot of people come over here thinking all of us are rich, thinking we grew up with a silver spoon in our mouth,” Holland said, recounting common misconceptions about African-Americans. “They don’t know the whole story. We were sharecroppers until 1992. I will also be discussing that at the [reunion] event as well, because they don’t have any idea about that whole system. Most people thought it ended back in the 1950s or 1920s or '30s. That’s not true. We were under their system until 1992.”

For all those aspiring to replicate Holland’s unbelievable results, he says of all the resources available, patience is the most valuable.

“Just have patience with the research,” he says. “Find out as much as you can on the U.S. side first. If you are taking the DNA test, just look heavily into it. If you really want to go all the way, just allow yourself three to four years to complete it. Don’t get discouraged. If you want to do it, just go for it. “

At the reunion, Holland has planned events that will help both families share their respective family heritage and customs with the other half. And although he seems to have reached the ends of both family trees for now, his research will continue in the form of compiling family medical histories, so that he and his Oku family can be aware about family health issues in the future.

“That’s the whole purpose of it.” Holland says speaking of the transfer of information he has planned. “You want to bring together both cultures so you can have an understanding…”

For more information on beginning your own family research visit: Africanancestry.com and the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation.

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