My Sis Is Famous and I Need Genealogy Help

Tracing Your Roots: The sister of a movie legend seeks to find forebears and answers to puzzling DNA results.

Poster from the film Foxy Brown
Poster from the film Foxy Brown American International Films

With this information in mind, the next step in working backward would be to locate documents on Thomas J. Grier and the Rev. P. Nicholson in Mecklenburg, N.C., since they are the most likely sources to mention your ancestors if your kin were, in fact, slaves. You could start with the 1860 U.S. federal census, since you know from the previous documents that Thomas J. Grier was alive at least until 1866 and should be included in the census that year. You also know that he was born circa 1785.

Thomas J. Grier was living in Western Division of Charlotte, Mecklenburg, N.C., in 1860. All of the information that we know about Thomas Grier matches the documents in the Freedmen’s Bureau records. You can then search the 1860 U.S. Census Slave Schedules for the slaves owned by Thomas J. Grier in Western Division, Mecklenburg, N.C., to see if any of the descriptions of his slaves match what you know about your Thomas Grier, father of Dock Grier.

You would be searching for a boy around the age of 10 in these records, since he was born around 1850. Because you are also searching for Martha J. Grier’s family, you could note if any of the other slaves listed match the description of her parents, Maurice and Mollie Grier, or her potential grandparents, John and Lucinda Grier. Since both families have the same surname, it is possible that they all lived on the same plantation or close to one another prior to the end of slavery.

If you have determined that it is likely your ancestors lived on Thomas J. Grier’s plantation, you can research the Grier family through probate and land records to see if your ancestors are mentioned by name. You could search the Wills Index for Mecklenburg County in North Carolina Probate Records, 1735-1970, for anyone with the Grier surname. The wills are all available to view through the FamilySearch website.

Examining wills prior to the end of slavery may also be of assistance to you in locating your ancestors, since they may mention slaves by name. The papers of prominent men and large estates often make their way into museums or other repositories, so you may also want to contact local cultural institutions to see if any of Thomas J. Grier’s papers survived and where they are located.

One promising source of information may by the Steele Creek Historical and Genealogical Society. Its Web page has articles on both the Grier and Neel, or Neal, families and may be able to point you toward more records. Likewise, the Mecklenburg Historical Association may also have documents that could be helpful to your search.

What About That Asian DNA?

You also questioned the 2 percent Asian ancestry in your DNA test via AncestryDNA. First, we suggest that you do an additional DNA test with at least one more DNA-testing company, such as 23andMe or FamilyTreeDNA (through Family Finder). If you get similar results from them, then you can start looking for documentation of this ancestry.

One major reason could be, as we have noted before, that Native Americans are closely related genetically to East Asians, and their DNA can show up as Asian in test results. So perhaps the Asian and Native American results you are seeing have a single origin.

Assuming that this is the case, while you are searching through deeds and probate records for your ancestors, pay attention to the descriptions of individuals, since it was often noted in these records if an individual was “black,” “mulatto” or “Indian.” You could also research the Native groups in the area, such as the Eastern Band of Cherokee and the Lumbee, to name just two.

Since Charlotte rests on a state border, you might also find it helpful to expand your search into South Carolina. Determining if any members of the Grier or Neel families ever lived just across the border in South Carolina may open up even more opportunities for records to search for your ancestors.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan Siekman, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website,, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.