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.
We were luckier with Sonya's father's line. Tom Copeland, his mother's cousin, was able to provide fascinating stories. He said his cousin John Copeland migrated to Tennessee from Georgia in the early 1940s. The Copelands were sharecroppers who also "dabbled in moonshine," working for "a white man who never paid what he owed." An argument with this man led to a killing, ultimately forcing John Copeland and his brothers to flee to Tennessee. Working as masons, they built foundations for a number of Chattanooga homes.
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.
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.
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.