(The Root) — The search for family roots takes on a special intensity for individuals who were adopted and don't know their birth parents. Find out why this woman's husband doesn't feel like a "free black man in America."
"I am writing you with hope in my heart that you could assist us locating my husband's roots. My husband was supposedly born to an unmarried, lightly colored black woman in New Orleans on May 2, 1941, at Flint-Goodrich Hospital. She was allegedly raped by a married black servant who worked for the same white family as her. At 18 months of age, my husband supposedly developed severe asthma, and his birth mother was unable to provide the necessary care for him.
Through a mutual friend, a stable, black married couple came to the rescue and agreed to take over the care and custody and informally adopt him. No legal documents were signed by the parties. My husband's birth mother stayed in the area for a while, found a suitor whom she married, and then they moved to Denver with her new husband and family. We are led to believe that her next two children were born in Louisiana before the move to Colorado.
I am of white ancestry and have been able to trace my roots to my European relatives. Since meeting and marrying my husband, I thought it would be beneficial for him to locate his birth mother. In 1977, we made a pilgrimage to Denver and met his birth mother and her family. His half-sister Louise told my husband to ask whatever questions he had for his birth mother. When my husband posed his questions to his birth mother, she was most reluctant to provide any real substantive information about the circumstances of his birth. My husband reasoned that perhaps after she got to know our family better, then perhaps she might be more forthcoming with the particulars of how he became born and informally adopted.
Over the ensuing years, his birth mother sent Easter and Christmas cards with brief notes and occasional letters inside. We politely inquired about extended family members and telephoned on special occasions. Nothing that my husband did changed their view of him or his family. About 10 years ago, we no longer received her annual Christmas card. I performed some research and discovered that his birth mother died, without notification from either of his half-siblings.
At this point in time, it is clear to both of us that his siblings desire to have nothing to do with our family. We accept their decision. My husband only desires to better understand his roots.
Unfortunately, 9/11 and Katrina took place and with them more stringent and restrictive measures for individuals to research their roots in Louisiana, a closed-record state. I have spent days and hours utilizing Ancestry.com — with no success — trying to locate my husband's birth mother's maiden name, Rose Bailey, born 09/02/1919, or finding a Louis/Lewis Marks born in Mississippi in approximately 1909. We performed the DNA test and uncovered that my husband is 76 percent West African, 18 percent British Isles and 6 percent Eastern European.
Understandably, my husband doesn't totally feel like a 'free black man in America' when he is prevented from finding his basic roots. We sincerely hope that you can provide us with some leads." —Patricia E. Bowles, on behalf of Julius Frank Bowles
From what you have explained, your husband should be able to order his birth record and that of his mother (if she was also born in the state) directly from Louisiana's Center of State Registrar & Vital Records at the Department of Health & Hospitals for the State of Louisiana. Since his adoption was informal, it is likely that his original birth record was not sealed. These certificates can be ordered online or by mail.
As you say, Louisiana is a closed-record state, but that simply means that for records less than 50 years old, the person ordering the records needs to prove their identity (typically with photo identification like a driver's license). According to the Department of Health & Hospitals for the State of Louisiana:
"You may obtain a certified copy of a birth certificate if you are the person named on the document, spouse of the person named on the document, parent of the person named on the document, adult child of the person named on the document, sibling of the person named on the document, grandparent of the person named on the document, or an adult grandchild of the person named on the document (unless otherwise authorized by LA R.S. 40:41)."
In addition, Louisiana vital records from more than 50 years ago are available to the public from the Louisiana State Archives. The archives hold Orleans Parish death records for 1819-1962, birth records for 1819-1912 (or at least 100 years ago) and marriage records for 1870-1962. They also have statewide Louisiana death records for 1911-1962 (or more than 50 years ago). You can search the indexes, and if you find any matches, you can order right from the website.
Your husband could also order the record of his biological mother's marriage before she moved to Denver. This could provide information about her birth and her parents. Unless she married after 1963 or outside of Orleans Parish, her marriage record should be available from the Louisiana State Archives.
Researching Rose Bailey's later life could also lead to clues about her origins and parents. You could track down her death record and/or newspaper articles about her to see what information about her history was supplied. If she applied for social security, you could order her application. Without knowing her married name, we did find a Rose M. Robinson in the Social Security Death Index. She was born Sept. 2, 1919, and she died Feb. 5, 2002. She applied in Louisiana and last resided in Denver. You can send in an order form and pay the $27 fee to obtain a copy of an application. Ancestry.com has more information about this process.
As for Lewis Marks' birth in Mississippi, the state did not require recording births until November 1912. This means that you will need to see if you can first establish the likeliest location of his birth and/or the names of his parents before you will be able to delve more deeply into Mississippi marriage, land, probate and other records. Some ways of doing this would be to find and order his death record, look for an obituary in local newspapers, check for his tombstone and burial records, and follow him in the U.S. Federal Census.
There are at least two obituary indexes for the New Orleans area in which you could search for Lewis Marks. The New Orleans Public Library has an index for 1804-1972 and an order service is available. Someone has continued this index to cover 1972 to 2012.
Since your husband was born in 1941, you should see if you can find his parents in the 1940 census records. It is possible that they appeared in city directories for New Orleans around this time. If you know the names and/or addresses, you could also try to identify the family they each served. This could assist in locating Lewis Marks and Rose Bailey around the time of their son's birth.
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. Follow him on Twitter.
Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.
This answer was provided in consultation with researchers from New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country's leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.