(BILL GREENE/GLOBE STAFF)

Sandy Harris chose to fight for the freedom of other blacks. And this sense of service became a leitmotif in Lawrence-Lightfoot's family. People who could have passed didn't pass. People who could have stayed in the North instead headed South to work in impoverished communities. It's a structuring principle of Lawrence-Lightfoot's ancestry.

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot is a sociologist, an award-winning author and my colleague at Harvard. She teaches in the School of Education, where she is a superstar. Many years ago I read her book Balm in Gilead, which recounts the history of her most unusual black family.

Advertisement

She was born August 22, 1944, in Nashville, Tenn. Her parents, Margaret and Charles Lawrence, were both part of black America's very small, very marginalized intellectual elite of that time. Her mother was a doctor and psychologist who focused on poor children; her father a sociologist who specialized in race relations, education and Marxism.

Lawrence-Lightfoot spent most of her youth north of New York City in a community called Sky View Acres, an idealistic cooperative her parents helped start in the late 1940s. As Lawrence-Lightfoot described it, it was an interracial community, made up of artists and peace and civil rights activists. Sky View was part of a burgeoning leftist movement that would become mainstream decades later.

Lawrence-Lightfoot was not a sheltered child. Even though she grew up in this idealistic Garden of Eden, she was exposed to a much wider world. Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson and Bayard Rustin were often guests in her home.

Advertisement

Lawrence-Lightfoot's parents "really believed in the idea of a more just society," she said. "They believed in integration, real integration."

Did they believe that integration would actually come? Lawrence-Lightfoot is not sure. "If you'd asked us when we were teenagers and young adults, we thought we'd never measure up to our folks.

"The teaching-healing legacy that moves through this family over many generations was a force way before my parents came along. They got it from their parents, although I think my parents lived it nobly."

Lawrence-Lightfoot's parents were the product of unusual circumstances — both were born in the North in the early 20th century and then moved South, a reverse migration that almost never occurred in black families in that era. It happened on both sides of Lawrence-Lightfoot's family.

Margaret Cornelia Morgan — Lawrence-Lightfoot's mother — was born August 19, 1914, in New York City. She didn't stay there. Her father was an Episcopal priest who moved his family from parish to parish, making numerous stops before landing in Vicksburg, Miss., where Margaret spent most of her youth.

Lawrence-Lightfoot's father, Charles Radford Lawrence Jr., was born May 2, 1915, in Boston. Like his future wife, he also spent most of his youth in the Deep South, growing up in Utica, Miss., after his parents moved there to be teachers at the Utica Normal and Industrial Institute, a school for African Americans

Advertisement

Lawrence-Lightfoot's paternal grandparents were Latitia Burnett Harris (born on October 13, 1893, in Charles City County, Va.) and Charles Radford Lawrence Sr. (born July 15, 1892, in Knoxville, Tenn.). They settled in Boston after they were married.

Yet in 1915 the Lawrences moved back to the South, precisely when so many black people were migrating North in one of the great mass movements in American history. The overwhelming majority of blacks who fled Jim Crow never looked back. Regardless of how bad things might be in the North, they were almost invariably better than what they'd come from.

Lawrence-Lightfoot's grandparents are among the tiny minority of black people in the North who made the decision to reverse-migrate to the South. And they did so for the best of reasons: to help others.

Advertisement

"They were doing what my parents did. They went down to the Utica Normal and Industrial Institute to be teachers, to help black communities."

The Institute occupies a unique place in African-American history. It was modeled after Booker T. Washington's famous Tuskegee Institute, and pursued the same educational philosophy.

Students at Utica, male and female, were there to learn a trade. It seems somewhat conservative to many of us now, but in the early 20th century the Institute was one of the few places in the South offering any kind of decent education and training for Africans emerging from slavery and sharecropping.

Advertisement

Its students were poor, rural people — the very young to the very old. Most had been field hands. They were taught to farm, operate machines, sew, how to be maids. Its vocational orientation reflected a philosophy of accommodation, of gradual progress. The Institute gave students the opportunity to learn to read, to write, to figure, learn trades and participate in a meaningful way in society. Lawrence-Lightfoot said, "It seems to me an important part of our history and not to be denigrated through our contemporary lens."

Looking down Lawrence-Lightfoot's paternal line, we sought more evidence of this familial commitment to education and equality. What we found was generation after generation of free blacks — the longest such line I have ever seen. Their unique collective experience as free people of color in a slave society undoubtedly shaped Lawrence-Lightfoot's parents and their values.

Lawrence-Lightfoot's paternal great-grandfather, Sandy Mitchell Harris, and his wife, Sarah Cottman, were born free Negroes in Charles City County, Va. — Sandy around 1842 and Sarah 11 years later. We were able to find a wealth of records pertaining to both. 

Advertisement

We began our research with Sandy Mitchell Harris' Union army pension application, noting his service in Company C of the Second U.S. Colored Cavalry in the Civil War. This led us to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., which revealed his enrollment in the army on Christmas Eve of 1863 at Fort Monroe, Va. Harris signed on for a three-year term, one of about 200,000 African Americans who fought for the Union.

Further research revealed his regiment fought in the Battle of Newmarket Heights, a pivotal battle in the Civil War that occurred just outside of Richmond, Va., on Sept. 29, 1864. The battle would pave the way for the city's eventual downfall. Harris began his military career as a private, but his records indicate that he was promoted to corporal on November 1, 1864 — not long after the battle.

The most interesting thing about Harris' service is why he chose to join the army at all. He risked his life to end slavery, yet he and his family were already free. As Lawrence-Lightfoot said, "What a noble, fabulous thing to do. He didn't have to do it. He didn't have to feel so deeply identified with the slaves fighting for their freedom."

Advertisement

Some Negroes who were free before the Civil War avoided the army, knowing they already had their freedom and that they faced not only the risk of death in battle but also enslavement or execution if captured by Confederate troops.

Ultimately Lawrence-Lightfoot's family tree epitomizes the African-American experience. There was a small percentage of us who were free and a much larger percentage of us who weren't. And these two groups — the tiny numbers of free blacks and the enormous numbers of slaves — existed side by side. 

Once freedom came, these two groups took similar, overlapping paths, suffering perhaps equally in the Jim Crow years. The contrasts within Lawrence-Lightfoot's family lines are emblematic of the extraordinary complexity of the African-American experience — complexity within the race and complexity in the relationship between black and white America.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is Editor-in-Chief of The Root.