Black Tree, White Roots: White Tree, Black Roots: The Descendants of Two Brothers

By Harleston, Carmen W. | Negro History Bulletin, October-December 1996 | Go to article overview

Black Tree, White Roots: White Tree, Black Roots: The Descendants of Two Brothers


Harleston, Carmen W., Negro History Bulletin


Growing up, all of my extended family (grandparents, aunts, uncle, and cousins) lived in distant cities. As happens in many families we rarely saw them unless significant events -- usually a death or marriage -- brought the family together. I can remember on a few occasions, asking about the family. I was always told "we'll talk later." For a variety of reasons, "later" never came. Not knowing my extended family had a profound impact on me. An impact that I would not understand until many years later.

In May 1976, I received by mail a photograph and copies of four pages which appeared to have come from a Bible. These items were sent to me by my paternal grandmother's sister-in-law. The photograph, a copy of the only picture I ever remember seeing of my grandmother and her family, was taken at the family farm in Juniata County Pennsylvania, probably around 1911. The letter accompanying the package gave no clue why they were sent to me, or why they came at that time. However, I was grateful to receive them. I was thrilled at last to have some information about my ancestors.

The Bible pages told me when my great great grandparents were born, when they married and when they died. Also listed were the births and deaths of their eleven children, as well as information on some later generations. I sensed that my receiving this information was significant. However, with a new baby, and a toddler in tow, the time was not right for whatever I was to do with this information.

I waited four and a half years before I removed the pages from their safe storage place. I was back at work then, working for a government agency located a few blocks from the National Archives. On a lark, one day at lunch I visited the Archives. With a little help I found my great grandparents listed in the 1900 Juniata County Pennsylvania Census. My grandmother was three years old. That's all it took to get me hooked. In the days, weeks and months that followed, my childhood wish to know more about my family came true.

While I was growing up my immediate family lived in many cities. However, When I received the crucial information that would lead to my family search, every place connected to that research was within thirty minutes to three hours of where I now live. That proximity certainly made it very convenient to visit courthouses, cemeteries, historical societies, and other record depositories.

A casual conversation about my research with a colleague at work, led me to his former colleague in Cincinnati who turned out to be my cousin. I later learned that the cousin had a forty page family history. The narrative was written in 1902 by his grandfather (my great grandfather's older brother). A wealth of family information was included in this written "oral history."

After much success in finding church records, wills, deeds, Civil War and manumission records and other documents relating to my ancestors, I was ready to visit the community where they had last lived, died and were buried (Mifflintown, Pennsylvania). I called directory assistance and asked for "Imes," (the family name), hoping some family might still live there. I was told that there were thirty or more families listed. Aware that this was a small community, I correctly assumed that all the Imes' were related. I asked the operator for the first name, which happened to be Blair W. Imes. Later I would learn that this was probably the only family that would be willing to help me. I was also to learn that the Blair Imes family and all of the other Imes families in this community were white.

I was perplexed. It was not clear to me for some time why if all of the descendants of my great-great grandfather Samuel Imes were black, why were all the descendants of his brother David Imes white. I had found census records, a marriage application, various documents in Civil War Pension records, newspaper articles, a biography written by David Imes, and photographs of David Imes and his wife. …

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