-- When Alex Haley's your uncle, people assume you know everything there is to know about your roots. But Roots, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book whose veracity has been challenged over the years, deals mainly with Alex Haley's mother's family.
Thanks to technology that became available after the author's death in 1992, nephew Chris Haley recently uncovered a new branch of his family tree that extends not from Africa but from Scotland, through Alex Haley's father's family. And it appears to confirm part of the Haley family history recounted in the novel Queen.
Chris Haley, 46, the son of Alex Haley's brother, Julius, directs research for the study of the legacy of slavery for the state of Maryland. "When I was very young, my grandmother gave me a copy of A Pictorial History of the Negro in America," says Haley, a native of Washington, D.C., who's also an actor, singer, writer and radio show host. "That cemented in me a passion for black history."
Sometimes, that history is personal. Haley has tracked down several generations of his mother's family through paper records. So he was game when his friend Megan Smolenyak, chief family historian at Ancestry.com, suggested he see where DNA genealogy might lead him.
A line to the Baff family
In 2007, Haley swabbed cells from inside his cheek and sent them off to see whether DNA on his Y chromosome, which, like last names, is passed from father to son, matched any of the more than 50,000 people in the Ancestry.com DNA database. A different test checks mitochondrial DNA, which is passed from mother to son or daughter.
Almost at once, Ancestry.com found a perfect match. Unfortunately, that person was anonymous and has not responded to an e-mail Haley sent through Ancestry.com. In February, though, Haley learned that all but one of 46 markers, or locations, on his Y chromosome matched that of a 78-year-old man in Scotland named Thomas Baff, who took the DNA test to help his daughter, a genealogy newbie.
"We really thought it would just give us an indication of where the Baffs came from," says June Baff Black, 49, an environmental health officer for her local government in Wales.
This is where the story gets even more interesting. Although Queen is a novel, it is populated by Alex Haley's relatives. He writes about his paternal grandmother, Queen Jackson, and his paternal grandfather, Alec Haley:
Following the custom among slaves, "Alec had taken the name Haley from his true Massa, although his real father's name was Baugh. William Baugh was an overseer on the Haley plantation in Marion County, Alabama, who had sometimes taken his pleasure with a slave woman, half black, half Cherokee, called Sabrina."
Now, Chris Haley had always pronounced Baugh "baw," like Washington Redskins Hall of Famer Sammy Baugh. But his newfound cousin noted that Baff is a variation of Baugh, which rhymes with "laugh." Black says some records list her great-great-great-great-grandfather as George Baugh.
"They're definitely related, because they have the same genetic signature and the Baff name," Smolenyak says of Haley and Baff. "My best guess is that they're probably on the order of seventh, eighth or ninth cousins."
So far, the paper trail to their common ancestor has run into dead ends, Smolenyak says. But she's going to keep digging. "Sometimes DNA is really good at saying, 'Yeah, you're barking up the right tree,' " she says.
Limits of genealogy testing
The science is new, and some of these firms marketing DNA tests have fairly small databases, says Sandra Lee, a senior research scholar at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics.
"These companies are giving only a partial look at your genealogy," Lee says. So, she says, genealogists considering paying $199 — Ancestry.com's fee for a 45-marker Y-chromosome test — or more for testing should know they might not find a close match.
"If you get interested in genealogy and you're willing to throw a little money away and accept that you're probably not going to get powerful results, go for it," says Hank Greely, a Stanford law professor who specializes in the implications of new biomedical technologies.
No matter that their common ancestor might never be identified, Haley and Black say; they feel like cousins. They hit it off via e-mail, discovering a mutual love of theater, music and performing.
In late February, Haley and a cousin on his father's side, Lynn Holt, met Black, her husband and two children in London. Ancestry.com had flown him over so he and Black could appear at a huge genealogy conference. Says Haley with a smile: "The one day we were all there together, four white people and two black people, we were really a family."