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.

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"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."

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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."

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Carson was captivated by this revelation and wanted to know what his relationship to this James Ash might be. I told him it seems likely that James Ash could have been the father of Indiana's father, Thomas Ash, and of her Uncle Green, which would make James Ash Carson's great-great-great-grandfather.  For African-American genealogy, this is a great success.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is editor-in-chief of The Root.