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.

Dr. Benjamin Carson
Dr. Benjamin Carson

On the Ash side, we had been able to trace his oldest ancestor to a birth before the Revolutionary War, an extraordinary accomplishment for a black person who was not freed before the Civil War. On the Copeland side, we went back well into the early 19th century.

Benjamin Solomon Carson was born on Sept. 18, 1951, in Detroit, the second son of Sonya Copeland Carson and Robert Carson. Both parents came from large families in rural Georgia and were living in rural Tennessee when they met and married. His mother was only 13 on the day of her wedding. His father, a Seventh-day Adventist minister, was 28. Neither saw any future in the Jim Crow South, so when his father finished military service, the couple moved north to Detroit. Carson was born shortly afterward.

“There were opportunities in Detroit,” said Carson. “My father got a job in the Cadillac plant, and was able to purchase one of those little GI homes.”

A decent job in a factory, a home of their own — things seemed to be going very well for Ben’s parents in the earliest years of his life. But a terrible secret destroyed his family before it really began. Ben’s mother discovered his father had another family and his parents’ marriage fell apart.

Sonya took her two sons to live with her sister in Boston, “a very different kind of place,” he recalled. Sirens, gangs, murders, rats, roaches — the whole nine yards. “Our heroes were the drug dealers, who brought candy for the kids. Both of my cousins who lived with us were killed in that environment.”

Sonya Carson’s challenges as a single mother were compounded by the fact that both Carson and his brother, Curtis, struggled in school during their early years. Something one might find hard to believe given the fact that Carson is a world-renowned surgeon today.

He credits his mother — who never got past third grade — with encouraging him to transform himself. “She wanted something better for us,” he said.

Sonya Carson decided to overhaul their lives by limiting television viewing and requiring that her children spend their spare time reading books from the Detroit Public Library, then writing reports on them.

Soon the boys were giving their mother two or three book reports every week, then sitting by as she pored over them. “She couldn’t read a word,” Carson recalled. “But she’d say, ‘Let’s hear your book report.’ When we started talking about it, she could discuss it. She fooled us. She was a smart woman. She just couldn’t read.”