Ben Carson Finds Rare Proof of African Ties

The genealogy project African American Lives traces a leading neurosurgeon's African roots back to a census document.

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Carson has never failed to credit Sonya. "We have these opportunities because people like my mother were willing to put themselves on the line. They didn't want another generation to grow up like they did." Today, Sonya lives with Carson and his wife in Baltimore.

She rarely discussed her childhood when her sons were young. We began to explore Ben's ancestry by looking at his mother's line. "You know, it was a difficult childhood," Carson said. She was among the youngest of her parents' 24 children. Most of her siblings were significantly older and had left home. To ease the burden on her parents Sonya was sent to live with different siblings on a rotating basis.

Sonya's parents were both born in Harris County, Ga. -- John Martin Copeland on March 15, 1888, and Ruby Stanley sometime in January 1894. 

Ruby's parents, Ben's great-grandparents, were Coleman Stanley and Lucy Smith. Coleman was born a slave in 1831 and does not appear in any census record before 1900, so it's hard to determine what he did under slavery or after emancipation before the turn of the century. We tried to locate Coleman's former owner by looking for white families in the area with his surname. But there were no Stanleys in Harris County until after the Civil War, when black people started using the name.

We searched for records pertinent to a broker named John D. Stanley who had acted between 1850 and 1860 as an agent for an estate that included 51 slaves. We hoped to find a connection between Copeland and the white slave broker. Unfortunately, I had to explain to Carson that we were unable to prove a link between Coleman Stanley and John D. Stanley. The paper trail runs out at this point.

We found records of Carson's great-grandmother -- Coleman's future wife -- Lucy Smith, and her parents, Emily and Green Smith, in the 1870 census. However, like that of her husband, Lucy's trail soon goes cold. We could find out nothing more about her parents. Carson was growing a bit frustrated with all the dead ends.

Further research revealed that Carson's maternal grandfather, John Martin Copeland, was the son of John H. Copeland and a woman named Indiana Ash. The 1870 census included several pages related to this Ash family. The report lists "India Ash" as a 9-year-old, living with her father, Thomas Ash, and mother, Millie. Two nearby households bear the same Ash name. Although the relationship between them is not spelled out, we can reasonably guess they are related families.

One of those neighboring households lists a James Ash, described as a 100-year-old black male. And here's the kicker: His birthplace is listed as "Africa."

I strongly suspect James Ash is Ben's ancestor, and that his claim of being born in Africa is correct. This is unusual: a 100-year-old black man, telling the census takers in 1870 Georgia that he was born in 1770 in Africa!

Seventy-five percent of our African-born ancestors had arrived in the United States by 1776. Most were dead by 1870. Our genealogists say they've rarely found a person in the 1870 census whose birthplace is listed as Africa.