I’m Black and I Think I Have Presidential Roots

Tracing Your Roots: A blues singer thinks he is descended from Lincoln's mom; his daughter seeks advice.

Boo Hanks (myspace.com); Nancy Hanks Lincoln (cr.nps.gov)
Boo Hanks (myspace.com); Nancy Hanks Lincoln (cr.nps.gov)

(The Root) — Right now there’s a lot of popular interest in the life of President Abraham Lincoln, due in no small part to the recent success of Steven Spielberg’s award-winning 2012 film, Lincoln. I share that interest, and in 2009 even presented a documentary on PBS about his legacy called Looking for Lincoln. Below, a reader asks if her father shared a blood connection with our 16th president.

“My dad, James Arthur Hanks, aka blues singer ‘Boo Hanks,’ claims kinship with Nancy Hanks Lincoln, the mother of President Abraham Lincoln. My father has told this story for years of his ties to the president, as well as his ancestral link to American Indians through his grandmother Cloudy and his link to Africa through a grandfather, who as a 9-year-old boy at the end of slavery was sent from South Carolina (along with a mule) to a friend of his former slave master in North Carolina.

“It would be nice for my father to know the truth of his ancestry while he is still alive. Although Boo Hanks was always a blues artist at home with his family, he has risen in popularity among blues lovers around the world since the age of 79. He is now 85 years old and still playing in concerts around the globe when his arthritis will allow him to travel.” –Sheryl P. Hanks Johnson

To be honest, connecting your father’s ancestor to the English Hanks family of Virginia would be difficult using genealogical records alone. According to the death certificates of Boo’s father, Eddie Hanks, that we found in our research, Boo’s grandfather Philip Hanks (through his father, Eddie) died in 1926 in Vance County, N.C., and his death record indicates that he was born in Vance County in 1870, but it lists his parents as unknown.

Philip’s birth year varies from 1861 to 1870 on most censuses. The earliest record we’ve found for him places him at age 16 in the Burwell household as a farm laborer. This record is in the 1880 census in Warren County, N.C. (Philip eventually married the Burwell daughter), so he was likely born a slave or born fairly soon after the Emancipation Proclamation. Philip is mostly listed as mulatto, occasionally as black.

You could try DNA testing for further research. Any patrilineal descendant of the English Hanks family of Virginia, which goes back to William Hanks of Richmond County, Va. (who died about 1703 or 1704), would share a similar Y-chromosome sequence (William is the great-great-grandfather of Nancy Hanks Lincoln, as well as the seventh great-grandfather of actor Tom Hanks). Several confirmed descendants of William Hanks have already participated in Family Tree DNA, so if he were to accept the invitation to take the test that is posted on the site, that would at least determine if Boo Hanks descends, patrilineally, from the same forebears as Nancy Hanks Lincoln.

You could also determine if you are related to an established descendant of the Hanks or the Lincolns through autosomal DNA testing. Several companies — including Family Tree DNA, 23andMe and AncestryDNA, among others — offer this test and automatically connect you to people with whom you share long segments of identical DNA, meaning that you descend from a recent common ancestor.

Good luck, and let me know what happens!

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root.