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Piecing Together the Past

Every great journey begins with curiosity, and old family photos are what piqued mine. For years I used to lose myself in the evocative sepia-toned images of my great-grandparents, aunts and uncles and wonder: Who were these people who make up my tribe? What were their stories? As a mother, it was important to me that my son and daughter understand where they came from. What I did know: I’m the daughter of Edna and Arthur Rust Jr., a writer and sportscaster, respectively. I come from a family of storytellers and grew up hearing many colorful tales about my people. Sadly, they all have passed, so now it’s my turn to tell the story.

I reached out to Ancestry to help me connect my past to the present. My hope was that my DNA test would reveal some answers. Where were my other relatives from—especially my African ancestors? What role did slavery play in our family dynamic? It turns out that getting answers can be as puzzling as not knowing. Our past is not a straightforward path leading to a tidy conclusion.

When I received my first email alert with Ancestry’s preliminary round of research, my heart raced with anticipation. The bombshell I’d always suspected was confirmed when we delved into my mother’s family. As a teen, I would interrogate Nana Edna about her parents, who had raised her in Savannah, GA. Doing the math, I thought it was likely that one of them had been born into slavery. She either didn’t know or didn’t want to share.

I quickly found myself falling down a rabbit hole of information—general trepidation. I really needed some handholding, so I contacted a family historian at Ancestry, Michelle Ercanbrack. She knew I was nervously working on an article and suggested I fly out to their headquarters in Utah. (As an African American, the notion of flying to Utah in search of my roots has a slightly comic ring to it, but I accepted.)

While I was having a moderate freak-out about what other land mines research might unearth, my DNA results came in. Ercanbrack reminded me that from a genetic standpoint we’re all 99.9% the same as everyone else in the world. Only 0.1% separates us, but in that difference you find genetic markers, which determine traits like hair and eye color, as well as clues to our past. “Whereas many people talk about the countries they come from, African Americans are left to talk about a continent,” says Matthew Deighton, Ancestry’s senior public relations manager. “The AncestryDNA test breaks down an individual’s ethnic heritage across 26 regions worldwide. That includes Africa, which is broken down into nine regions, offering deeper insight than ever before.”

Samuel Rust, my great-grandfather, was an English-born, Scottish-raised sea captain (rumored to have been a gun runner during the Spanish American War). He lived in Jamaica with his Jamaican wife, seamstress Adella James, and their children.

This is my grandmother Una and her sister Charlotte both born and raised Colón, Panama. Their father, George Gooden, worked on the Panama Canal. He is listed on the census as a cigar maker, but I was told that he was in real estate. Whatever he did he was able to send my grandmother and her four sisters—Beryl, Petrona, Charlotte and Doris—to America “on a fancy ship,” as my aunt Valerie liked to boast. They settled in Harlem in the 1920s.

There’s something incredible about seeing yourself divided among parts of the world. And while the DNA discoveries made me feel solid and rooted globally, my sit-down with Ercanbrack offered a tighter, if not at times, more confusing, focus. The history of our country made piecing my family together a true challenge, and on several occasions I was brought to tars of sadness and rage.

After Emancipation in 1863 came the joy of freedom but also much fear and uncertainty. African Americans were trying to figure out where they were going to live and which name they were going to claim. They could choose any name, bur Ercanbrack explained that there was a lot of psychology involved: Do you keep the slave owner’s name? Do you choose another name? Do you opt for the name of the family who last owned your husband so that maybe he can find you? Some people stayed in place, some took off trying to find work; others sought to reunite with the rest of their families.

Ercanbrack notes that in the 1870 census, you see people striving to create unity and some kind of familial structure and in doing so they sometimes took the same name as their new clan. The roadblocks were real but so were the stories of people coming together to help one another.

I’m proud that I come from these survivors and that I’m here to say their names and keep their memories alive for myself, my children—and others. Learning about our past breathes new life into everyone’s history. I exist because my ancestors persevered. There’s a quote that resonates strongly with me: “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.” Truly, I am.

Allen H. Harrison, my great-grandfather, was born in 1860 on Beech Island, SC, to Handy Harrison and Jane Harrison, surely two slaves. But he is listed as a mixed-race boy, and a mixed-race child born at that time was likely the son of a slave owner. Seeing his pre-Emancipation birth date on paper sent chills down my spine.

The 1900 U.S. census had him living in Savannah, GA, with his family, including his wife, Lula May (a bright woman who never made it past eighth grade but had been class valedictorian.) Allen, a Baptist preacher, owned his home free and clear. He taught my mother to read when she was just 4 years old—quite impressive for a little boy born into slavery.

Good genes

Mine revealed that I’m 64% African, with a breakdown among several countries, the strongest being Benin/Togo at 30% (with shout-outs to Ghana at 9%; African Southeastern Bantu, 8%; Cameroon/Congo, 7%; Senegal, 6%; Nigeria, 3%; and a splash of Mali, 1%). The other 35% of my DNA comes from the Europe West region, which the Ancestry site defines as “a broad expanse stretching from Amsterdam’s sea-level metropolis to the majestic peaks of the Alps.”

Who owned my maternal great-grandfather?

Ercanbrack and I examine documents that show Emanuel L. Hayes would have been about 8 in 1860. We search for enslaved persons owned by a Hayes until we hit upon an 8-year-old male owned by John L. and a 7-year-old male owned by Harris. The men, probably brothers, owned 32 slaves between them and were in the same Alabama county as my great-great-grandfather—likely a connection. “We are extrapolating,” says Ercanbrack, “but it’s within the realm of possibility.” I shudder and literally feel sick to my stomach.

My mother, Edna Rust (above with my father, Art Rust, Jr., one of the first African American sportscasters), was very Afrocentric and with great pride taught me about art and culture from the continent. She would have loved to have known more about our origins. 

When my grandfather Arthur Rust Sr. came from Jamaica, he planned to get his license at a nautical school in New York but was told that “no man of color” could enter the school. He went on to become a beloved doorman on Manhattans Upper West Side and always stood up against racial injustice. His wife, Una Rust, was very proud of her Panamanian roots.

My grandfather told us that his father, Samuel Rust, was Scottish, possibly from Aberdeen, but records show that he was actually born in Wethersfield, Essex, England, in 1850 to John Rust and Rebecca Newman. Was he raised in Scotland? Ercanbrack says it’s possible. But if not, it takes some of the wind out of my bagpipes. I had a certain picture in mind that involved rolling green highlands and kilts—hell, I’d even found a Rust kilt pattern.

This is my mother’s father, Cornelius Hayes, with his wife, Edna. His father was supposedly Timothy Hayes, an Irish sanitation man. But there is no Timothy Hayes on record. On the census my maternal great-grandfather is Emanuel L. Hayes, born in 1852 in Dothan, AL, and listed with a B for black man, so I can only imagine he was a slave. Maybe Timothy was Emanuel’s nickname? Maybe he was half Irish? Or maybe he was someone else.

My grandmother Edna was quite a badass. She defied the segregated railroad system in the 1940s South by demanding entry to the all-white dining car.


The Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company was created to help newly emancipated slaves. This is where the first records for Allen H. Harrison were found.

Ancestry is a great resource where you can access more than 20 billion historical records. I had help working on my records for this article, but it’s easy to build a tree on your own. And you can get a free estimate on the cost of working with a genealogist at progenealogists.com.

For more information for researching your family history, go to ancestry.com. Enter “familycircle” at checkout for 10% off the AncestryDNA test through November 20, 2017.