‘Finding this side of my family has been one of the most rewarding things.’
Carol Kushner, Ocean Beach
“Finding out in 1979 that I was mixed-race on my dad’s side has been just an ongoing process of meeting the family and discovering ancestors. Every year I stop in Charleston, South Carolina, and I do a little archival research. I find out a little more about who my family was, where they’re buried, what their stories were.
“One of the things I found out about my third great-grandfather in Charleston was that the family needed to carry papers so they wouldn’t be enslaved. These papers are dated in the 1700s. They were known in Charleston as freed people of color that had come to Charleston around the year 1779. The common ancestors are referred to in these documents as being of the Moorish race. My third great-grandfather’s family had to carry these papers. The papers state who was covered by this document, not only my third great-grandfather, but his daughters.
“It was common during the time that somebody had to vouch for you to say you were known as a free person of color. In this case, a lawyer, Henry Rutledge, vouches for the family. Their common ancestor came from Morocco as a domestic.
“In 1979, I was 27 and finally began to find out about the true roots of my family. Being raised Italian and Irish, I marched in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade with my Brownie troop. My mom had four sisters; all worked in the garment center as seamstresses and managers.
“I didn’t feel connected to parts of that family. It turned out the things that I loved to do were from the other side, from my dad’s side. They’re singers, social workers, librarians. I started out as a librarian and became a social worker. So it seemed like these things were in my DNA. Finding this side of my family has been one of the most rewarding things.
“Was I angry, angry that I wasn’t raised with this family? Yes, but I came to understand that my dad being light enough to pass gave him certain benefits in society. He could join the sanitation union. He became an officer in the union.
After a while you say, oh, I’d love to see that family again, but we don’t see them and [I] stopped asking after a while.
“My parents divorced when I was 15, which meant from the time I was 15 to the age of 21, I did not see my dad. Divorce usually meant that one person was kind of cut out of the picture and most often the father in those days. I was born in 1952 and had two older sisters.
“My grandmother on my father’s side was still alive, but he never took us to meet her. The separation was almost like thinking of a door closing when my parents married. It was, I guess. They made a bargain with one another. His family lived in Harlem. We lived in the Bronx. We were close by. It was easy for my mom to explain why we didn’t see my father’s family, because she would cut people off. It wasn’t uncommon for mom to say, someone is not good.
“We saw my dad’s brother’s family once when I was 5 or 6. My father took me and my middle sister, just the two of us, to Mount Vernon. We had an amazing day. Went to a picnic, had a Hula-Hoop contest, but I never saw them after that. I did notice they were browner than me. It stuck in my head all those years that something was not being explained to me, but I didn’t get any answers.
“After a while you say, oh, I’d love to see that family again, but we don’t see them, and [I] stopped asking after a while. When we did reconnect; they had a picture of that day. They said, ‘We remember you from that day.’ It was a painful situation.
“My parents felt like they were protecting us. They were going to raise us as white. They didn’t want people of color to come to our neighborhood. My dad’s sisters are a variety of colors, but my dad was very fair.
“We had a family reunion, and it was a color palette from the blond, blue-eyed to dark African looking. Literally, the color palette was a spectrum of color. My dad had four sisters and a brother; each one went in different directions. My uncle married a mixed-race lady, an aunt married a mixed-race man. My Aunt Sarah is the most interesting of the group. She’s turning 104 in September, and she has been really my rock during this whole process. She has answered all the questions I had, given me all of her memories.”
I confronted my mom about keeping this secret, saying, “Did you expect to keep the secret, till you died?” She said, “I almost did, if it wasn’t for you and your big mouth.”
“Aunt Sarah is an amazing person with a beautiful voice. She sang for a church in Harlem and became a Women’s Army Corps member in World War II. They needed entertainers for the Negro troops, as they were called in those days. Sarah toured Asia. When she left, they gave her a $7,000 stipend. Sarah wanted to buy her mom a house, but Grandma said, no, go to college. She went to Howard University and met a wonderful black man, Uncle Ed.
“She decided she wasn’t going to straddle the color line like her siblings because of what she saw in my dad’s marriage and her sister’s marriage – Aunt Beverly married a Jewish man, then a black man – but never really found a spot for herself. Sometimes people of mixed parentage are told they are not white enough or black enough. There’s this mid-place for people of mixed parentage and race.
“My family’s common ancestor came to the country in 1779. Imagine how many classifications this family has had through every census – colored, mulatto and Negro. In my dad’s case, he crossed the line and became white at some point. I’ve never really been able to figure out when he did that. It was a moment in his space where he checked the box as white.
“He threw himself a party when he was 65, and there was his brother, who I remembered from years ago. I gave him the third degree about my family that’s been hidden from me. He sent me some photos and papers. This was the document from South Carolina. To find that my dad’s family had been here since 1779 was quite an eye-opener. It’s an amazing unfolding of a story of a family in America that in fact had to hide their roots in fear of being discriminated against.
“I confronted my mom about keeping this secret. ‘Did you expect to keep the secret, ’til you died?’ I asked. She said, ‘I almost did, if it wasn’t for you and your big mouth.’
“At my father’s funeral in Harlem years ago, I was surprised by how many people came. A man asked me who I was. I said I was Richard’s daughter. ‘Whose Richard?’ he asked. Then I said I was ‘Dick Fordham’s’ daughter, the name he went by in his old neighborhood. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘You’re one of the girls that was hidden away.’”
Interviewed by Shoshanna McCollum