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

This new routine had a transformative effect upon both boys. “It made just an enormous difference in me and my academic performance,” Carson said. His academic success in high school led him to Yale. He went on to the University of Michigan Medical School and into a residency at Johns Hopkins. When he decided to focus on neurosurgery, his career took off. Today he is one of the leading pediatric neurosurgeons in the world.

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.