About two years into the friendship, a rift opened between them when Smith learned that her great-great grandfather Baltimore Robinson had been the property of a man named Philip Robinson, the brother of Neel’s great-great-great grandmother Courtney Robinson.
The discovery, at first “surreal” because of their friendship, became deeply painful for Smith. A native Chicagoan, her black identity was forged by her experiences growing up. Her father was active in the civil rights movement and she embraced “black power” as a youth, amid influences at home and school that taught her to be proud of her heritage.
As an adult, Smith’s enthusiasm and curiosity have taken her to Africa several times. Her career in public relations includes serving as communications director for President Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate primary campaign and Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign.
For a time, Smith and Neel didn’t talk with one another, communicating instead by exchanging poetry. Neel examined her own motives and reactions to her longtime work, both researching slaveholding families and teaching courses on race and slavery. She is professor emerita of comparative sociology and women studies at the University of Puget Sound, where she began teaching in 1975.
She resides in California, where she was raised but still “grew up Missourian,” her family having moved from there. She described her sweet grandmother as someone she loved but who carried with her the bigotry of the time and place of her own upbringing.
Among the things Neel confronted was the “staggering, stinking burden of debt my ancestors left me,” she wrote during that time when she and Smith didn’t speak. But the women realized a useful dialogue had begun. They began “peeling back layer after layer, relentlessly exposing the wounds” so they could heal.
Their presentation, “Entangled Lives,” was born from this experience and since that time in the early 1990s, they have shared their story with audiences. It is in part to “break the silence around the issues of slavery and race,” but also to encourage others to explore their own family lineages and try to understand those past relationships in the context of the time in which they occurred.
Smith and Neel also described how their research ultimately led them to another startling find: They are blood relatives, sharing a ninth great-great grandfather, John Lewis, a Welsh immigrant. Records show Lewis is related by marriage to a household thought to have included four of the 20 Africans listed in the first Virginia census around 1623.
The entanglement of their own family histories is not unique, Smith and Neel said, it is the history of race in America. They hope their story will inspire others to embark on similar journeys of discovery and healing.
Contact: Jennifer McManamay