When Joe Mozingo began to research his family history, he didn't just want to understand his origins but to 'read his own blueprint'. His cross-continental quest would yield some fascinating insights, writes Joan Oleck
The Fiddler on Pantico Run: a journalist's discovery of a black ancestor
The Free Press
Joe Mozingo, a Los Angeles Times reporter, had always wondered about his unusual name. Some family members said it was Italian, others said it was Basque. One story described a Native American infant adopted after his village burnt; another, two Italian boys who stowed away on a ship to America.
But there were also murmurs of an African ancestor, a slave boy of 13 or 14 named Edward Mozingo, who around 1644 was captured by European slavers in West Africa, then taken in shackles to coastal Virginia. There, Edward became an indentured servant to a major tobacco planter until he successfully sued for his freedom 28 years later, on October 5, 1672 - as a Jamestown Court record affirms.
The revelation of a black forefather changed the tone of the family dialogue: some members of the mostly white Mozingo clan living in the South and small-town Midwest were distinctly discomfited. (One man hissed that he wasn't related to "no damn monkey".) But Joe, a self-described "blue-eyed surfing son of a dentist" from Dana Point, California, was riveted. He resolved to find the truth, out of curiosity, and perhaps a touch of compulsion.
A black professor named Sherrie Mazingo - a variation of the family name - had told him of genealogists' reports tracing US-based Mozingos back to a "Bantu warrior" from the Congo, indentured in 1600s Virginia. And that was all the intrepid reporter needed to hear; he was hooked.
So began the multi-year odyssey Joe Mozingo describes in his compelling new book, The Fiddler on Pantico Run: An African Warrior, His White Descendants, a Search for Family. He was not, he says, just another ageing genealogy buff. Instead, "understanding my origins had become more existential than just solving a mystery or resolving a racial conundrum. It was like reading my own blueprint, seeing how I came together".
What makes Mozingo's story intriguing to outsiders is the racial element, certainly, but also the interesting array of experts and family members whom he interviewed in Tidewater, Virginia, where Edward landed; Kentucky and Indiana, where Edward's descendants migrated; and Cameroon and Angola in West Africa, from where the Bantu warrior likely departed. Along the way, Mozingo includes rich detail about the development of the "peculiar institution" (the Southern euphemism for slavery) as well as the surprising savagery of colonial America. The colonists were guilty of burning enemies at the stake. But it takes a strong stomach to read every facet of how a sea captain named George Casson was captured by the Indians, then methodically separated from his skin, end to end.
Central to Edward's story, meanwhile, was his marriage to a white Englishwoman named Margaret, a not-so-rare scenario in colonial America. "Unlike the Spanish colonies, Virginia had not yet established its system of chattel slavery," Mozingo writes. "They hadn't yet worked the economics out." So indenture rather than slavery predominated. Servants, who could buy their way out, were less risky, less likely to revolt; and Tidewater's thriving tobacco farms needed all the help they could get. Black servants could have relations with whites, even marry them. Edward was one of these, as he rose up society's ladder and lived into his 80s. Before he died in 1712, according to his will, he owned land along Pantico Run creek and accumulated valued goods he left to two surviving sons - tablecloths, candlesticks, a featherbed, and a fiddle.
Still, even though poor whites and blacks "imbibed, gambled and danced together" in Edward's day, and well into the 1700s, new laws were passed, starting in 1640, that set apart people of African descent; the first prohibited masters from giving their "negroes" weapons when Indians attacked. More laws followed, increasingly marginalising them, Mozingo writes. Free blacks and mixed-race offspring became a "pariah" class.
The author can trace his own mixed-race history back to his fifth great-grandfather, Spencer Mozingo, who he and other researchers believe was the first in his line to pass as white and may have been the illegitimate son of Edward's granddaughter. (The author's DNA test matched him to another person on the Spencer line, but not to other Mozingos. The reason: the test reveals only direct, father-to-son paternal lines, showing that the author is likely descended from a maternal ancestor.)
Immersing himself in the census books of that era, Mozingo discovered something fascinating: Spencer was a neighbour of James Madison, the fourth US president and chief author of the US Constitution. But Spencer's precise relationship back to Edward remained a mystery, as the author looked into this and that Mozingo daughter of the late 1700s to find Spencer's mother. Prime candidates included Sarah, listed as living with a "Mulatto" man; her sister Margaret, who never married; and a cousin, Margaret, a "Mulatto" whose husband abandoned her to another man charged with adultery. "These tidbits were certainly not the truffles of history that Colonial Dames go snuffling for," Mozingo quips. "The Mozingos lived in a messy, racially mixed world of drunks and profane swearers that we can only glean hints of from their court records." Also, straddling of the colour line was coming to an end; interracial marriage had become illegal.
Slavery's development marched on. Colonial slaves' lot grew harder after 1807, when the US Congress followed England's lead in banning the transatlantic slave trade. Overnight, Southern plantation states became "slave-breeding" states and slaves learned to fear being "sold south", forever separated from loved ones. The North-South split widened with the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin and laws like the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed settlers in the western territories to decide the slavery issue themselves.
Spencer, meanwhile, had moved to the frontier: Kentucky, where life mirrored the hardships of colonial Jamestown when Edward arrived. "Fourteen persons, that I knew their faces, committed suicide," one settler wrote. After Spencer's death in 1831, the family moved on to Indiana.
Greensburg, Indiana is where Mozingo encountered the harshest racism, said Marlin "Bud" Mozingo, who salted his talk with the "N" word, disowned his granddaughter for marrying a black man, and proudly told the author that their hometown was a "sunset town", meaning black workers must leave at nightfall. "With no black people around at all . their bigotry retained a virulence that bordered on mental illness," Mozingo writes of this branch of his family.
Then there was the other branch of his family in North Carolina: the black branch. "The majority of Edward's descendants had sailed into whiteness by the 19th century, more than 80 of them fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War," Mozingo writes. But he needed to talk to the minority, too.
One black female family member told him of her family's "tortured netherworld of Jim Crow", which meant her light-skinned father could sit at a lunch counter without problems while her darker-skinned mother could not. In this netherworld, the woman's older brother integrated his high school, then during football games suffered screams of "Kill the n****r" from his team's opponents.
From the same family came the story of a black doctor of an earlier generation who one horrific night was forcibly taken by armed men to a planter's home to deliver the baby of his daughter. The doctor only figured out why he was there when he discovered that the newborn was brown. As he swaddled the infant, he felt a gun to his head: "Throw it in the fire," the planter commanded. When the doctor refused, the old man did it himself.
America's messy relationship with race is nowhere more evident in Mozingo's book than his trip back to Virginia, a state whose 20th-century Racial Integrity Act ruled that just one drop of black blood made someone black and therefore a non-member of society. At a trailer park, the author met Elvis and Pat Mozingo, a white couple. "I have five children, and all of them have black children," Pat told him matter-of-factly.
He stayed, to meet those kids: all "mocha-toned", as well as one of their moms: Cindy, 17, who, according to her mother, "only likes black guys". He also met Cindy's brother, Elvis Jr, 24, who the mother said, "only likes black girls".
Then - admittedly lamely - the author tried to probe why. In response he got a shrug, a stare, and a blunt dismissal, "I was on such nakedly false ground," Mozingo admits, "trying to dissect basic human attraction as if it were some strange phenomenon and not just the natural order when the colour line fell away." Race had lost its status; its biological aspect was minimal, he writes; yet here he was anyway, still trying to analyse the "absence" it had once filled.
His family story had been buried because of race, and he was unearthing it because of race. Yet in the modern era, "the story no longer felt strange or startling" and he finally could feel connected to Edward without the racial barrier dividing them.
In the book's most fascinating section, the author travels to Cameroon and Angola, Edward's probable point of departure, and describes the rich but disturbing history of how the Kingdom of Portugal and the African Kingdom of Kongo "together would unleash the first great torrent of slaves to the Americas". In Cameroon he learns that as recently as the 1920s, a slave trade flourished there, and that in 2000 habeenos, or albino Africans, were publicly murdered in a supposed sacrifice to the god of Mount Cameroon. Americans, apparently, are not the world's only vicious racists.
"What a colossal bridge for a single life to have crossed," Mozingo, walking the hills of Angola, reflects of his ancestor, Edward, whose life arced from shackles to a featherbed and a fiddle.
In a season when the US will vote on whether to retain a black president who is the son of a black African and a white American mother, who herself descended from a slave, one thing is clear: The sad legacy of the "peculiar institution" and the confounding questions revolving around race in America won't go away anytime soon.
Joan Oleck is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York.