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February is Black History month, an opportunity for us to pay “tribute to the generations of African Americans who struggled with adversity to achieve full citizenship in American society.”¹ Paula’s mother, Nell immigrated from Jamaica to the United States in 1945. Half black and half Chinese, she was determined that her three children would be successful.
Paula and her two older brothers did find success. She is a former NBC Universal executive Chairman and CEO of Madison Media Management. She was named one of the “75 Most Powerful African Americans in Corporate America” by Black Enterprise Magazine in 2005.²
Paula spoke at RootsTech 2016. As I sat in the audience, I was moved to tears many times by her story and the pictures she showed. Her 25 minute keynote address: My “Chinese-Jamaican Legacy” is available to view at the FamilySearch Blog and is well worth your time.
We all want to know where we came from, but what if you don’t know someone as close as a grandfather? Paula describes her feelings at the beginning of her book.
We grew up in an atmosphere charged with the sense that something was desperately wrong. We lived with a fundamental contradiction: Family is the most important thing in the world, my mother would insist. But we did not have much of a family. I always wondered: if it is the most important thing, why aren’t there more of us?
When I was a little girl, I would talk to my grandfather, even though I did not know much about him. I would ask him, “Where are you? Why did you leave?”
And I promised myself that I would find him.” ³
Paula’s roots were in Jamaica, where her mother was born. She started her search where we all must start, reaching out to living relatives who can give us the clues we need to continue our search. Paula traveled to Kingston, Jamaica and started learning about the Chinese men who came to there to build their businesses. She asked questions. She sought to put her grandfather in his place in history. Why did he come from China? Why did he go back to China? Why didn’t her mother go with him? As in our family research, each new fact fostered new questions that needed answers.
Through family history serendipity, Paula connected with her cousin JJ in Toronto, home to a large Jamaican and Chinese community. JJ attended an event in February of 2012, canvassing the room asking about “Samuel Lowe.” One man knew about the Lowes, that they were part of the Hakka people, a Chinese minority originally from northern China. Paula learned that a Hakka Chinese Conference was planned for that summer in Toronto so she made plans for herself and her two brothers to attend.
At the conference she made friends who determined to help her find her Chinese family. With their connections, they were able to locate Paula’s relatives. She now had aunts, uncles, and cousins – all living in Shenzhen, China. They wanted to meet her and she wanted to meet them. Her husband worried that her new-found family might not be so enthusiastic, especially with her African American heritage. Paula writes: “I expect that because I am their family, and they are my family, we will be family. That is all I expect.” (Finding Samuel Lowe, prologue)
Paula’s expectations were realized with her Chinese family welcoming their African American relatives with open arms. The gaping hole filled, Paula ends her story with these poignant words.
I had promised myself that I would find him–that the lost puzzle piece would be restored, that the interrupted story would be continued, that the broken lives would be repaired.
And I did.
And they were.
And the world as I know it is a sacred, miraculous place.
As family historians what do we learn from Paula’s journey to find her grandfather? Perhaps that family is all important. Knowing where we came from helps us discover who we are. We gain courage and confidence in ourselves as we search out our ancestors and learn of their strength in overcoming trials. We puzzle over their lives and choices. We sorrow when we discover tragedies. We celebrate their successes. They were real and they are ours.
I hope you enjoy reading Finding Samuel Lowe: China, Jamaica, Harlem as much as I did. Best of luck in all your family history endeavors!
¹ “About African American History Month” African American History Month (http://africanamericanhistorymonth.gov/about/ : accessed 31 January 2017).
² “Paula Williams Madison,” WIKIPEDIA (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paula_Williams_Madison : accessed 1 February 2017)
³ Paula Williams Madison, Finding Samuel Lowe, (New York, New York : Amistad, 2015), 3.