I Am Black but Discovered I Have Jewish DNA. Where Is It From?

Tracing Your Roots: Testing results and a family legend raise interesting questions.

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Dear Professor Gates:

I’m African American, but about a year ago I received the results of genetic testing, which indicated that I’m 5 percent Ashkenazi Jew. My European genetic makeup is around 15 percent.

Family lore (which, of course, can be notoriously unreliable) shared stories about possible Native American ancestry, but Native American ancestry wasn’t part of my genetic makeup. I was, however, rather blown away to find that I was, in small part, Ashkenazi Jew. No one in my family, on either side, is able to account for it.

On my mother’s side, I’ve discovered a story of a European ancestor who was married to who I believe was my great-great-great-grandmother, Hannah Simmons. Hannah was born around 1820. The name of her husband (the rumored ancestor of European descent) was Jack or John, I believe. I’m unsure. Some folks in the family suggest that she married twice (remarrying after her first white husband died).

Via Mocavo, I found a record of Hannah in the 1900 census; she was listed as the mother of a head of household, Jake Green. Although the family lore is that Hannah’s husband was European, I don’t quite buy this story. One of Hannah’s sons, Ransom, never mentioned having a white or mulatto father. We have a picture of Ransom, and to simply eyeball him, he doesn’t look phenotypically European-African biracial. He’s quite dark.

My questions: Is it possible that the Jewish ancestry comes from a husband of Hannah’s? If so, what was his name and where was he from? Finally, how can I find out more about her, such as which plantation she lived on in South Carolina and who her parents were? —Schlese

What Do Your Ashkenazi Results Mean?

First, to your question about where your Jewish ancestry comes from: We consulted genetic genealogist CeCe Moore about it. She told us in an email that indeed, if Hannah’s husband was white, he could have been the ancestor who contributed the Ashkenazi DNA to your genetic makeup. “If this man were indeed your third great-grandfather, then you would expect to inherit about 3 percent of your total autosomal DNA from him. Since autosomal-DNA inheritance is random, it is theoretically possible that you inherited as much as 5 percent of your DNA from him. It is also possible that her husband could have been biracial and each of his parents contributed some of that Ashkenazi Jewish DNA or that Hannah Simmons herself had some European Jewish ancestry.”

Since you have the Ashkenazi DNA present in your results, there is no doubt that some of your ancestors were descended from a small isolated population who are genetically similar to one another. You can read more about the genetic closeness of individuals with Ashkenazi autosomal DNA in this article by Moore: “Ashkenazi Jewish DNA and the Potential to Piece Together Shattered Family Branches.” This could help you understand how to work with the matches you have to distant cousins through your DNA results to shed light on your Jewish roots.

Since we know the possibilities, the question then becomes: Can we confirm your family by identifying Hannah Simmons’ husband of European descent? Unfortunately, we were not able to locate the husband you describe, but we did find some clues that can help you trace the family backward.

Looking at the Simmons Family in Mississippi

You have been able to locate Hannah Simmons in the 1900 U.S. census, which shows her residing in Jasper County, Miss. According to the census, Hannah was born about 1820 in South Carolina. We noted that her relation to the head of the household, Jake Green, was “mother,” although Jake’s parents were both born in Mississippi, as were his wives. Keep in mind, when you’re reading census records, that relationships may not be entirely specific, and “mother” could mean that she was Jake Green’s mother or his mother-in-law. Based on the ages of the individuals, Hannah was actually likely Jake’s grandmother, since she would have been 53 years old when Jake was born.

We noted this possibility when looking at the household directly next door, that of Lewis Green, whose wife, Jane, said that both of her parents were born in South Carolina. Based on this, it seemed possible that Hannah Simmons was actually the mother of Jane Green. According to the record, Jane was born about 1854 in Mississippi and had been married for 27 years.

This means that she would not yet have been married to Lewis Green in 1870, and since we were having difficulty locating any other records for Hannah Simmons, we searched for a Jane Simmons in the 1870 census, hoping that information on Hannah’s relatives might help us locate more information about her. We did not locate a record that matched this Jane in 1870, but we did locate a Jane Simmons residing in Jasper County, Miss. (the same location of the family in 1900), who was born about 1854, according to the 1880 U.S. census (via Ancestry.com; subscription required).