North Star Journey Live

Lee Hawkins: Tips and advice from his search through family history

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Samuel and Roberta Davis (left image), Lee's maternal great-grandparents, born in 1909 and 1910 respectively, moved north to Minnesota's Rondo neighborhood in the 1930s. He discovered that they were part of the wave of Twin Cities Blacks who collaborated economically and socially, finding ways to thrive despite discrimination. As land and property owners in Minnesota and Wisconsin, they served as landlords to legendary journalist Carl T. Rowan, when Black students were barred from living in the University of Minnesota's student housing.
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I've recently launched the new podcast What Happened in Alabama?, serving as a prelude to my upcoming book, “I Am Nobody's Slave: How Uncovering My Family's History Set Me Free” (HarperCollins). Both projects explore my family's 400-year journey in America, shedding light on how we were impacted intergenerationally by America's history of enslavement and Jim Crow segregation.

A man poses for a photo.
Lee Hawkins, Jr.
Photo by Emin Kadi

This exploration began with my deep childhood curiosity about my beloved father, Lee Roy Hawkins Sr., who grew up in Alabama during the 1950s under the oppressive grip of Jim Crow laws. At the age of 12, he experienced a devastating loss when his mother passed away due to complications from a kidney infection. This tragedy forced him and his four sisters to uproot their lives and relocate to Minnesota's Rondo neighborhood, where they sought refuge with one of his older sisters and her husband.

Despite the challenges he faced, Lee Roy Hawkins Sr. emerged as a pillar of strength and resilience in our family, as well as across the Black community of the Twin Cities. He married his high school sweetheart, my mother, Roberta; and together, they built a family and became grandparents. He served his country as a member of the United States Air Force during the Vietnam War era, despite not being born with full American citizenship and constitutional rights, due to his skin color. He was omnipresent in my childhood, teaching music, coaching teams, and playing guitar and singing with groups like the Sound of Blackness, Minnesota’s Gospel Music Workshop, and at our church, Mount Olivet Missionary Baptist Church, in St. Paul. Most people knew him as a gentle giant, with a gregarious personality that endeared him to everyone he met.

My father loved to meet and talk with new people, and he always made them laugh when he said, “I’m from LA. Lower Alabama.” Sometimes, he’d reminisce about picking fresh strawberries off the vine and playing on the Black-only Little League Baseball team, on the same field where Negro League legends like Satchel Paige and Hank Aaron played at night. But I was always mystified by his profound silence around the dark side of his Southern upbringing. He, like many of my friends whose parents grew up in the South, rarely spoke about the hardest parts of growing up as children of Jim Crow segregation. But somehow, even as kids, we intuitively understood that our parents were carrying and holding in a trove of memories that seemed to touch them in too tender of a place to discuss.

The mystery tugged at me for years, particularly after I became a journalist. Around 2014, I finally decided to unearth the hidden truths within my family's past. Using tools like DNA testing and genealogy, I shared discoveries with my father, piecing together our ancestry. Each revelation intrigued and enlightened us, providing clarity on generations before us. Discoveries, such as ancestors racing out of enslavement to build successful farms, or some being murdered due to that success, felt like assembling a centuries-long saga. For my entire life before I started the book project, my father was always my best friend. But delving into our shared history drew us even closer, deepening our understanding of its intergenerational impact.

Here are some insights gleaned from our journey:

Don't just build a family tree—take a DNA test

DNA testing provides invaluable insights that traditional records may not always offer, allowing us to overcome research barriers and uncover hidden connections within our ancestry.

Collaborate with family members interested in genealogy

By pooling resources and sharing information, we can fill in missing pieces of the puzzle and trace our family history back much further than we could alone.

Embrace the lifelong process of studying family history

Building a comprehensive understanding of our ancestry takes time and patience. It's a journey that evolves over a lifetime.

Preserve family stories by interviewing elders

Every family member holds a unique perspective and a wealth of untold stories. Take the time to capture these narratives, preserving them for future generations to cherish.

Try to process difficult discoveries through a lens of curiosity and love

Studying genealogy almost always reveals secrets that people thought they were carrying to their graves, often leaving generations of children and grandchildren to cope with the previously obscured reality. And beyond the revelation of difficult truths, family research and discussion can also conjure up painful memories from childhood and beyond. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of your parents and others who are still alive to answer them, but instead of rushing to condemn them, try your best to give them an opportunity to reflect and explain whatever difficult truth or memory has come up. Genealogy has the incredible ability to bring families together if they pursue the facts with love, understanding, and, when and if the time and circumstances are right, forgiveness.

Join me as we delve deeper into our shared history in “Nobody's Slave,” available for pre-order on Amazon, and tune in to the “What Happened in Alabama?” podcast series to hear parts of the story about my journey of self-discovery and resilience

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