Vital signs

He looks so much like me, my aunt is convinced I’m his reincarnation. Take away the beard, and it’s my face staring out from the antique, sepia-toned photograph. But who are those equally dark-complexioned men standing next to him, all of them wearing those little white caps? Could the old family rumor be true? Was my great-grandfather really a wandering Spanish Jew who violated racist Victorian taboos by eloping with a woman descended from English nobility?

The urge to solve the mystery of my own roots comes over me every time I peer through the window of the Old Buncombe County Genealogical Society. Its library shelves, bursting with more than 8,000 volumes of history and genealogy, beckon to me like a gold vein to a forty-niner.

Joe McDonald knows full well the pull of the genes. I met him in the Society’s library, where he was poring over a stack of old courthouse records and census lists. He’d driven up from his home in Florida to gather clues about his ancestors — particularly a several-times-great-grandfather named Kemp Plummer, a turn-of-the-20th-century North Carolina political figure nicknamed “The Honest Lawyer.”

“My wife wanted me to take early retirement. I said the only way I’d do it is if I got to spend half a day each day doing genealogy,” McDonald confessed. “It’s 100 percent detective work. … You know that in this mountain there are diamonds, but you gotta keep digging till you find them.”

The all-volunteer, nonprofit Society — which has already outgrown its quarters three times since its founding in 1978 — is once again looking for a bigger donated space.

“People just bring things in,” explained Society librarian Nancy Manning, in between helping a steady stream of visitors and callers. “We have family Bible records … a whole series of lineage charts … records on general genealogy.” The library maintains both in-state and out-of-state collections, she explained.

But you don’t need a mass of data to start doing your own genealogy. You simply begin with your own little twig of the family tree and work backward through the branches, guided by a lineage chart the Society can provide.

Knowing from my own shadowed ancestry how tainted by prejudice the whole notion of a bloodline can be, I had to ask McDonald an uncomfortable question: In his many years as a genealogical detective, has he encountered any evidence of racism among his fellow researchers?

“Occasionally you do,” he acknowledged. But then he told me about a national reunion in Brevard of the Allison family, whose lineage in America traces back to the 1650s.

“Last year was the first year we had black relatives and Cherokee [including former Chief Leon Jones of the Eastern Band]. It was highly emotional, as you can imagine. In no time at all, blacks and whites and Indians were all hugging each other. Now, you think, you got all these old boys over in Transylvania County — how are they gonna accept those black [relatives]?”

But right there in the old, slavery-era census records, says McDonald, everyone could see, written next to the names of their great-great-great-grandparents, that “the father is white, the mother is black.”

“Once you realize you’re related [to so many different people], you begin to treat everyone as if they could be members of your family. [But] then,” he reflected wryly, “you’ve got some people can’t get along with their own brothers and sisters!”

The Society, meanwhile, is delving into Buncombe County’s own roots with a new pioneer-heritage project, “First Families of Old Buncombe.” You’re eligible to join if you are descended from John Ashworth, James Gudger, Benjamin Brookshire, or any of the other men and women who can be proven through public documents to have been in Old Buncombe County between its formation in 1792 and Dec. 31, 1800.

But regardless of how Blue Ridge your blood may be, if you’ve built up your own little mountain of genealogical research over the years, Manning and McDonald have one urgent request: Please consider donating your materials and research to the Society (or any other genealogical society) in your will. The recurring tragedy of genealogy is that a researcher dies, and grief-blinded family members throw away his or her boxes of seemingly worthless papers and old books — depriving future family researchers of genealogical information that may be lost forever.

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