When black and white DNA cousins meet online: A tale of two very different experiences

Genealogy is an adventure. There is no two ways about it. The adventure was something I mentally and spiritually prepared myself for prior to diving in at the deep end. I’ll explain.

Approaching genealogy like it’s a Norman Rockwell painting is never a good idea.

Credit: Freedom from Want | Norman Rockwell | Oil on canvas | 1943 Story Illustration for the Saturday Evening Post | SEPS Norman Rockwell Museum Collection

It isn’t. Picture perfect genealogy doesn’t exist. Our ancestors and ancestral kin were real people. They lived. They breathed. They flourished…and they made mistakes. They had their strengths. They equally had their faults and shortcomings. They were human and, as such, they were subject to the same foibles, pressures, life events, choices and decisions, and predilections as any other human being.

I knew before I began this journey that I was going to have a multitude of white relations who would be utterly unknown to me. How? From my complexion, my freckles, my hair, and just about every other external aspect of my being…there was more than enough evidence of it. If I had any doubts, all I need do is to look at the wide circle of my immediate family. The evidence of numerous cross-ethnic unions down the generations abound.

Credit: from The Genetic Genealogist via Visualizing Data From the Shared cM Project, https://thegeneticgenealogist.com/2015/05/29/visualizing-data-from-the-shared-cm-project/

So I was prepped and ready. While I didn’t have a name for a single white ancestor in my direct line before I began my journey, I knew that DNA testing would eventually uncover the identities of my unknown white forebearers. And it has, more than I could have ever imagined, much less anticipated.

On the whole, it has been a positive and affirming experience. It’s certainly underscored various family quirks. I will also admit that I was exceedingly spoiled when it came to meeting my first groups of white DNA cousins on the Sheffey and Roane sides of my father’s family, both online and in person. The words ‘warm’ and ‘welcoming’ don’t adequately describe how I was greeted. They will do for the time being. Were those initial exchanges awkward in the beginning? Yes, in all honesty, but only for a hot minute. The author of that initial feeling will always centre around the how’s and why’s of how we’re related: slavery. Yet, we immediately found common ground. And in the intervening years since we first met? We have a genuine fondness for one another. We are family. So I kind of relaxed into a mood that other white DNA cousins would be equally receptive and welcoming. However, America being America, that halcyon experience didn’t last for long.

When it came to white family members I shared deep roots with in Virginia, North Carolina, and the Quaker communities that dotted the US Eastern seaboard, my experience in meeting cousins from a different ethnic group was truly pleasant. However, cousins who came from states to the south of North Carolina, that experience was split between it being 40% positive, and 60% negative. Those numbers haven’t changed much over the past few years. Given the current zeitgeist in America around the subject or race and race identity/politics, the negative responses have verged on the outright hostile.

I’ll always remember my first negative reaction from a white DNA cousin in South Carolina. She was adamant that she wasn’t related to black people. She even went as far as to suggest that AncestryDNA had swapped my DNA test with someone else. I was far from being the first person this individual said this to. While she wasn’t directly hostile, it was clear she just wasn’t having it. I found this curious at the time. If you know you come from a long line of American chattel slavery enslavers, you ought to be prepared – especially if you do DNA testing – to discover relations who are people of color. Truly, that shouldn’t come as a scud missile to your reality. Nor should a person act like that this is the worst news they have ever heard in the entirety of their lives. As someone who has experienced four miscarriages with a partner, two of them being late term, discovering you have relations who are people of color doesn’t even register on the pain stakes. An awkward experience? Perhaps. I’ll give you that. The worst experience ever? No. Far from it.

I can’t speak from the other side of the coin. For my own part, I have always been open and receptive to white DNA cousins who introduce themselves. That’s just me. I can’t speak about negative reactions from people of color towards newly found white DNA cousins. I don’t doubt that this happens. It’s merely a situation I haven’t come across within my own family.

Let’s fast forward to the past four weeks. I have had two starkly different reactions from white Holloway DNA cousins. The first ran along the lines of my Sheffey, Price, and Roane cousins. She wasn’t fazed in the least. So much so that she felt comfortable enough to send a Facebook invite, which I accepted. I’m certainly looking forward to chatting more in depth about our mutual Holloways. That’s the way it ought to go.

Then there was my second experience with a Holloway family descendant from a different Holloway family line. Ms K sent a fairly passive-aggressive message to me in Ancestry. I can only guess that she felt the message she sent me was perfectly normal and acceptable. You can decide for yourself. Her request was absolutely unambiguous: “Please remove all details of my family’s line from your tree. I don’t want anyone to know I’m related to black people.” I had to re-write my response a few times before I sent it. My first reaction veered towards the “Hell no” variety of response. I was offended and outraged. This was my family too. Thorough research on the Holloways will enable me and the GA team to do some overdue DNA segmenting analysis in order to break through some very stubborn Holloway family brick walls. The more lines you have to work with, the better able you are to do the genetic work needed to tackle this monumental task.

Instead, I counted to ten, took a few deep breaths, and merely responded with: “Sorry, love, but this is my family too. I can’t help how you feel about having black relations. You’re just going to have to wrap your head around it.”

If I could be bothered to do so, I’d try to wrap my head around what the fear factor is with this brand of knee-jerk reaction. I am not looking to be added to Christmas card lists. I don’t expect birthday presents. Nor am I going to hit anyone up about paying my student loan. There is nothing that Ms K, nor those like her, has that I want or need…apart from information. Information is the only thing of value that individuals like Ms K might have. Items like slavery-era probate records that a family member might still have. Or slave deeds. Or old family pictures with black household members who might be my ancestors, or ancestral kin, who were enslaved by their family during slavery, or worked for them after Emancipation. Or information about members of the enslaved families held by their ancestors. You know, fairly basic things that would make my genealogical research a far easier process. That’s pretty much it.

Even better is finding out about family quirks and characteristics. For instance, I can say beyond a shadow of doubt that I get my sense of determination, entrepreneurialism, pioneering spirit, drive to succeed, and hard graft from my Quaker ancestors. I’d say the same thing for my sister and a whole host of first cousins I’ve known all of my life. I probably inherited my sense of humanitarianism from my Quaker ancestors too. My political views are absolutely Sheffey in nature. I’m going to embarrass them, but my Sheffeys re-affirm my belief in decency and basic goodness. I also couldn’t imagine life without my cousin Bill Sheffey. There isn’t a day that he doesn’t crack me up with laughter online. I simply couldn’t imagine life without them.


I would have never imagined myself chatting on the phone with an elderly Roane cousin from Tennessee who describes himself as a mountain man redneck. I look forward to our monthly chats on the phone. He too is an endless source of good-natured humor and running commentary on day-to-day affairs in the US.

Where did I get my eye for finely made things and my sociability? That’s pure and undiluted Roane. My belief in humanism? That probably comes from so many of the American founding fathers I am either directly descended from or related to (and yes, I openly acknowledge the cognitive dissonance between those founding fathers who were enslavers and their belief in humanism during The Enlightenment). Where did my quick-fire temper come from? Ohh, that’s definitely and undeniably Edgefield County, South Carolina…which I’m guessing sits next to my Scottish and Irish side. That last one has actually spawned a new saying: ‘Don’t make me go Edgefield. You won’t like me if I go Edgefield’. If you don’t know what that means, do a little reading on my ancestor Representative Preston Brooks (D, SC).

I can’t neglect my African-descended ancestors. From those I have researched, studied, and come to know, I inherited an endless resilience, mental fortitude and strength, as well as a dedication towards striving for a better future. You don’t survive 245 years of chattel slavery without these characteristics.

Learning about, and understanding, the various traits I’ve inherited enables me to better understand myself. That’s always a cool thing.

Perhaps, just perhaps, acknowledging you have relations from an ethnicity other than yours will be one way America can demolish a seemingly insurmountable wall of difference and “othering”.

It all begins by conversing.

24 thoughts on “When black and white DNA cousins meet online: A tale of two very different experiences

  1. I was very sorry to hear of the ugly (white person’s) reaction you experienced. I don’t understand wht people who don’t see how much richer they become by embracing new-found and /or unexpected kinship. – Your eloquence on our big, messy, American heritage is testament to that. Continuing good luck in your research and best wishes.

  2. I wrote a comment about a week or so ago about my Byrd ancestors. I have hit a road block with a Dennis Byrd, born about 1803, from census reports. He married Nancy (Denton, maybe) and remarried after her death. Dennis in various censuses was reported being born in No. Carolina and Virginia. I have not been able to find anything about him. When I saw your posts about a Dennis Byrd, I was intrigued. Our Dennis had several sons. William married Eliza Jane Lewis and her ancestors have been pretty well documented. The sons, after William’s death moved to Williamsburg, Kentucky. Nancy must have died and it appears Dennis remarried. Prior to that he had two children living with him, last name Bryant who have American Indian ties. Unfortunately the Court House in Cocke County, Tennessee had a fire and so historical records about Dennis and William are gone except taxation records. I would not be surprised at all that our Dennis was a descendant of your Dennis. There is also family lore that we are descendants of William Byrd of Williamsburg Va, There is a picture I have of a great-uncle, next to a picture of the famous Richard Byrd, and they could have been twins. I am sorry some people have been so narrow-minded. Slavery, while evil, is a part of the history of this country. I was adopted and these people are my birth relatives. In my 30’s I researched and found my birth-mother. I needed to know the people I came from. It doesn’t matter to me the color of their skin. It is a part of who I am. My adopted parents taught me, not just tolerance, but acceptance. My father worked at Indiana University, after receiving his Doctorate there, and we were exposed to many different people from various backgrounds. I learned to love them for the person they were inside, not the color of their skin. We are all children of God and therefore should consider ourselves Brothers and Sisters.
    Your amount of research and the apparent intelligence and thoughtfulness you put into your posts are very impressive. I would love to have further dialog with you. I am also researching my birth-father’s ancestors, who were Irish immigrants to Boston. More road blocks, unfortunately. Thank you for your efforts. Anything you can share about the Dennis Byrd you mentioned, would be greatly appreciated! Thank you again, and I am sorry you have been received poorly. It is just is a validation to some people’s lack of education and upbringing. I look forward to hearing from you some day! rebecca.stringer@twc.com.

    1. Hi Rebecca. Did you catch my reply on your original comment? Your Dennis is definitely of interest. I completely forgot I had another group of tri-racial Byrds who lived in Grayson County and Wythe County, Virginia, as well as Tennessee. Many descendants from this line moved into Ohio and the Mid-West. The origins of this group involve Byrds who lived on the western periphery of VA, in Native American territory. The family fell victim to a raid, with many of them being killed. The surviving children were taken by the local NA tribe and reared amongst them. As adults, they returned to white society, with varying degrees of success in terms of integrating back into society. It’s a fascinating story. Does that tale ring any bells with you and your Byrds?

      1. I did not see your comment I’m embarrassed to say I can’t remember which one of your blogs I wrote my comment to you on! That’s my age showing. Is there somewhere I can find more information on the raid? I have not heard any stories about that from the Byrd relatives I am in communication with. Do you know when the raid occurred? There were a lot of Bird/Byrd families in Greene, Cocke, and Sevier Counties in Tennessee during the time Dennis was there. There connection, if any, must be further back than Dennis. After Dennis’ generation they don’t seem to be connected, although there are several common first names. Any sources for information on the Byrds that you are able to share would be appreciated. And if you happen to remember where my original comment is, I’d love to read your reply! Thank you!

      2. Hi Rebecca, it was on the About Page via https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/about/#comment-2406

        The group of Byrds I referenced were the descendants of John Byrd (1723–1756) and Margaret Dean (1722–1765) of Jacksons River, Augusta, Virginia.

        They were killed in the attack, as were some of their children.

        Their children were:

        Sarah Byrd 1743–1815
        Katheryn Kate Byrd 1746–
        John Dean “Indian John” Byrd II 1748–1836
        Thomas Byrd **not proven** 1750–1821
        Mary “Molly” H Byrd 1752–1824
        Nalupua Byrd (English first name has been lost) 1757–
        William Baird (Byrd) 1766–

        Here is the family story as far as it was relayed to me – as well as through some initial research:

        According to the American Fenealogical Biographical Index, John was born in 1740, while The Bicentennial History of Bath county, VA gives a birthdate of 1748. “The Story of John Byrd gives his age as 8 years at the time of his fasther’s death in 1756, yet lists a younger sister, Sarah – born 1743.

        According to Robert Parsons McClintic, John died Apr 1837 intead of 1836.

        Story of “Indian John” Byrd

        The first surveys of Bath Co VA were made on September 26, 1745 with the first white settlement in this area occurring at that time. John Byrd purchased on Jackson’s River in 1754 in what is now Bath Co. VA. Frequent raids were made by the Shawnee Indians through the section guarded by Ft. Dinwiddie.

        Of the Indian raids into Bath County, VA, the earliest known took place near the middle of September 1756 within or very near the present county limits, and mainly along Jackson’s River. During this raid, the families who usually sought protection there were warned of the approaching danger. The families were trying to escape to Fort Dinwiddie, located on the Jackson River one mile north of Fassifern Farm. This fort had been recently visited by General George Washington in his Southern tour of inspection in 1755. The John Byrd family delayed their flight, and the father, John, was killed within sight of the fort. Mrs. Byrd (nee Mary ‘ Margaret’ Dean [sister of William and John Dean]) and six of her children including John Jr., age 8. A younger sister, Sarah Byrd (b 1743) was not taken and became the ward of her uncle John Dean. (She married Samuel Vance.)

        In all, 9 men, 1 woman, and 3 children were killed and 2 men were wounded in the raid. In addition to John Byrd, among the slain were Ensign Humphrey Madison, Nicholas Carpenter, James Mayse, and James Montgomery. Joseph Carpenter, David Galloway, George Kincaid, and a Mrs. McConnell were captured, but got away. Mrs. Byrd, Mrs. George Kincaid (nee Elizabeth Dean, daughter of William and Sarah [Campbell]) , Mrs. Persinger, and 25 boys and girls were taken to the Indian towns in Ohio. Among the children were 6 Byrds, 5 Carperters, 3 Kincaids, and 2 Persingers. Paul Larsh, abandoning his goods, rescued Elizabeth Kincaid by carrying her on his back the two miles to his boat. He then paddled down the little Miami and the Ohio Rivers and up the Mississippi to the French settlement of Kaskaskia. On June 19, 1759 they were married in the Church of St. Ann at Fort Chartres and had a son Charles and daughter Hannah.

        Bouquet’s decisive victory at Brushy Run over Pontiac in 1763, near the site of Pittsburg, and subsequent treaty of 1764, brought an end to the war with Pontiac. The Indians were required to give up their prisoners they had collected during the preceding 10 years. List F of prisoners delivered to Ft. Pitt in Jan. 1765 included: Margaret Bird, “an old woman taken years ago from Jackson River, died since her arrival.” List G: Molly Bird, taken from Greenbrier, 10 yrs. in captivity; and Nalupua Bird, sister to Molly Bird, 6 yrs. Nalupua, less than 10 yrs. old, may have been daughter of Margaret Bird with one of her Indian captors, but this is not confirmed by any written account.. Also among this number were Mrs. Mayse, John Byrd, Jr and several others including one of the Kincaid children. A sister, Kathryn, 2 years older, was married to an Indian chief, and never returned.

        During his capture, John Byrd, Jr. became so Indianized that it was quite awhile before he could reconcile himself to the ways of his own people. When John Byrd was given up he wore a gold chain suspended to his nose and ears. He made two attempts to return to the Indians, but was prevented. He was a favorite with the red men, and made at least one attempt to go back to them.

        John Byrd Jr. (aka Indian John) married Mary Ann Hamilton and they had 7 children. Andrew Hamilton Byrd, whose wife was Elizabeth Capito, was the only son to stay in Bath. He was twice its sheriff. (1849 & 1857). John Byrd died in 1836. He was the grand-father of John T. Byrd, of Bath.

        Alexander McClintic (b. 2-16-1787) married Alice Byrd daughter of “Indian John” Byrd, son of John Byrd who was killed by an Indian in 1757. Alice was the sister of Andrew Byrd of Bath County and to Thomas Byrd of Greenbrier County and later of Saline County, Missouri. Alexander McClintic lived on land inherited from his father east of Marlin’s Bottom Turnpike near Lewisburg. Before the Civil War, he moved to Missouri and all contact with Greenbrier kinfolk was lost. He probably lived in Saline County, Missouri where Thomas Byrd lived because around the year 1900, Joe, Mary and Sarah McClintic, all old and unmarried, lived in Saline County, Missouri and were children of Alexander McClintic and known by several of the distant and near kin living in Missouri.
        ~A brief history of Bath County, Virginia By Jean Graham McAllister 1920
        “Virginia Magazine of History,” by J. T. McAllister, (July, 1894)

        Father: John Thomas Byrd , Pioneer b: 1713 in Somerset County, New Jersey Colony
        Mother: Mary Margaret Dean b: BEF 1722

        Marriage 1Mary Ann Hamiltonb: 1745 in VA, USAChildren
        John C. Byrdb: 1772 in Bath County, VA
        William Wallace Byrdb: 1779 in VA, USA
        Alice Byrdb: BET 1780 AND 1789 in VA, USA
        Andrew Hamilton Byrd , Col.b: 19 OCT 1790 in Bath County, VA, USA
        Thomas Byrd b: UNKNOWN in VA, USA

        Title: McClintic Genealogy
        Publication: sent by William McClintic of Roanoke, Virginia in the early 1990’s
        Title: American Genealogical-Biographical Index (AGBI)
        Note: http://www.ancestry.com
        Media: Ancestry.com
        Page: Volume: 23, Page Number: 477
        Text: mil.priv. Historical reg. Of Virginians in the Rev., soldiers, saliors and marines, 1775-1783. Ed. By John H. Gwathmey. Richmond, Va. 1938. (13, 872p.):118
        Title: Bicentennial History of Bath county, VA
        Author: Bath County Historical Society
        Media: Book
        Page: 145
        Title: Bicentennial History of Bath county, VA
        Author: Bath County Historical Society
        Media: Book

  3. Brian this is excellent! I have experienced both kinds of reactions from white DNA relatives. Thank you for sharing this important topic. E. Gail Bush

    1. A comment on my Facebook page made me realize a general theme among the negative reactions I’ve received from DNA matches. It’s interesting. No one challenged the genealogy. It’s the DNA revelations that upset/angered them. Like I could do anything about a 17th, 18th or 19th Century man who had issues with keeping his breeches buttoned up.

      1. This is by far the best comment ever!!! Thank you so much genealogyadvetures. That made me smile 🙂

    1. Hello Jacqueline. Many thanks for your comment. Have you heard of the Beyond Kin Project? It’s a project that helps the descendants of enslavers share the information they have about people help by their ancestors in a bid to support descendants of the enslaved. You can find more info via the project’s main website (there is FB group too): http://beyondkin.gegbound.com/

      It sounds like your family has information that might help researchers. And thanks again for sharing!

      1. Good morning, Jacque. If you’d like to share them with me, please feel free to email them via briansheffey (at) gmail (dot) com.

        If you would like to share them with a wider audience, there are numerous genealogy and family history related Facebook groups – for individual surnames as well as for individual states and regions in America. You could also post them there.

  4. Thank you for writing – it has opened my eyes to my Bryd line. Indian John is my 1st cuz 9xR – I had no idea. I link off McClintic line – which is odd – due to the fact my dads mother is a Byrd…

    1. Hi Tery. This family group has a significant degree of endogamy – generations of cousin marriages. So it doesn’t surprise me about the unexpected McClintic connection. Given this family group lived in such a remote location with a handful of other families, who were already relations, it makes sense.

  5. This blog is wonderful! That appeared to be my story. My gg grandfathers couldn’t keep their pants pulled up either.So now I am trolling pages to see if I can find my slave gg grandmother 😦 I’m happy and sad at the same time.
    Thank you again!

  6. I have alot of Jewish, French, Scottish/Irish surnames that I have reached out to especially one gentlemand that is a professor at Coker college. No answer been a couple of weeks. However my Jewish cousin wants to confirm a common ancestor first before telling me any history. He didn’t deny we were related he just wants to know how and confirm how we are related. I am new to this and have done what I could so far. Because of my admixture and SC ( to which I wasn’t taught any of this in my history classes) rich history I am at a stand still . Definitely considering using your services ESPECIALLY because you’re from my state!

    My grandmother’s maiden name was Holloway ( from Darlington SC). Are you by any chance related to any one from this area I have had a significant road block finding her mother and father. She married Willie Gerald. ( All of my family are from NC, SC with DMV relations) I am so glad I found your blog.

    1. Hi Melanie,

      We very well could share a Holloway connection. It was a huge family. My direct Holloways were all in the Old Ninety-Six region, before going further afield. If you’re on gedmatch.come, feel free to email me your kitchen ID and I’ll see if we share any DNA segments. briansheffey (at) gmail (dot) com

  7. Dammit, now you made me ruin my mascara. Dripping with tears and look like psycho bunny clown until I wash this off!
    You are a lovely class act.
    I found your site in google because I am trying to figure out my African American relations. Cousins who are often X matches and have significant CMs keep popping up.
    My Dad’s side goes back to Mass Bay and Long Island; while my Mom’s side goes back from Maryland to Virginia and North Carolina. Just shaking my head trying to get through brickwalls and find out how we’re related.
    I tested on MyHeritage, but it looks like I need to test on Ancestry.com to find more clues.
    My family tree is well plotted by now.
    But I know since more than of both my Maternal and Paternal line have been here since 1600s, that I will find interesting surprises.
    I already knew I had Native American plus Cherokee from at least 3 ancestors.
    Autosomal DNA read by a scientist who specializes in this helped confirm things.
    Plus Gedmatch matches confirmed things further.
    I also have Iberian and Middle Eastern DNA and all of that makes me about 25-30% non European.
    I embarked on this search involving DNA/family research to find nicer and better family members on both sides.
    My Father was as distant as could be and dropped dead suddenly when I was child.
    My Mother was handful and since she had a stroke; basically will act like a 5 year old for the remainder of her years.
    My Maternal Grandparents were both lovely, but they are gone now.
    As an only child, I wished to have close bonds with all my 1st cousins.
    But sadly all of them moved away and were pure jerks to begin with.
    So I have felt like an awkward orphan until recently.
    What I have found are distant relatives who are amazing people and I feel so thrilled to find them.
    This is MY DNA, so I get to research my history all I want!
    And I admire you so much for keeping your cool with your vile relation who wanted to remove you from the family tree.
    Good luck on finding more good folk.

  8. Hi! I’ve recently found on my DNA that I have 3 distant cousins in America who are black. This was really surprising given I am Australian. However, I know on my Grandad’s family we do have links to the USA and Canada and those links go back to at least the 1600s. From what I know they weren’t exactly poor, so I’m going to take a bet that someone somewhere had slaves.
    But then again, it could also be through other branches of my family tree that I’m not even aware of yet.
    Though I am not entirely sure again. Someone who has come up as my third cousin on this side of the family tree has African South Central Hunter-Gatherer genes but mine did not show up that match.
    I would love to reach out and say Hi to these cousins but not sure if they would like to hear from me given the fact that the way we are related is through slavery (likely).
    The whole experience has been really interesting but has created more questions than answers!
    Thanks for the blog.

    1. Thanks for the great comment.

      I am from the school of “nothing ventured, nothing gained” . Although I do appreciate reaching out is a daunting prospect. You never know, you may be the proof these three individuals need in order to prove descent from a certain family. That was my experience once. I tried reaching out to some of my Nosey matches in the US. They never replied. And then, lo and behold, a distant cousin and DNA match from Australia got in touch. I also literally had an Irish DNA cousin reach out about our match, which she’s written about here: http://www.martinebrennan.com/african-american-genealogy/our-african-american-cousins

      And yes, both connections were via slavery. It’s something I can’t, and wouldn’t, fault them for. Yes, they felt bad that a distant relation of theirs enslaved people. It is what it is. Both are genuinely lovely people whom I have enjoyed getting to know.

      I wish you all the best should you decide to reach out to your African American cousins. What a small, inter-connected world we live in!

  9. I am a white Welsh born male and I took an Ancestry DNA test a couple of years ago and to my delight, I discovered that I have DNA matches with a number of African Americans who have ancestrial family connections with Jamacia. It brought home to the fact that we are all members of one global family, irespective of race, colour, or creed.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: