What do you get when you mix the genes of an Irish guy who was chased away from his family at the barrel of a shotgun with the genes of a gifted jazz musician who spent his life struggling with his own confused racial identity?
I’m tall and slender with skin that’s ivory all winter but tans so deeply in the summer that I often get spoken to in Spanish. Since my late teens, my hair has been jet black, except for that one time a friend tilted my head over a dorm room sink and helped me dye it light brown. That lasted about two weeks, until my roots started to show.
That’s the thing about roots. Cover them up all you want, but they’re always there. That’s what I’ve learned over the past couple months as I worked with DNA analysts and genealogical researchers to find my roots - the ancestral kind, not follicular.
My family is so tightly linked that you’d think we’d have a pretty strong grasp of our history. My parents, who are still married to each other, live just a few miles from where they grew up. My brother and I see a lot of each other, and on any given weekend, I’ll gather with a knot of extended family around someone’s kitchen table. Yep, we’re a close bunch, the McDonalds.
So why so many question marks on our family tree? Well, divorce, illegitimate children and an intense sense of privacy from my grandparents and great-grandparents limited the information we have. They didn’t spend much time talking about those things, and many stories are lost with time. Now, my grandparents and great-grandparents are all gone, leaving my parents - both in their early 50s - as the oldest living generation of their clans. That makes fact-checking our ancestors’ stories hard. The heavy lifting to trace my genealogy was left to the pros at the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania.
Based on what little information I was able to give about my ancestry, the researchers provided hard facts about stories my family members and I previously had no way to verify.
Unable to trace the McDonald name any farther back than my great-grandfather, my family wasn’t entirely sure we were Irish at all. Vaguely aware of some man named “McDonald” who had disappeared from the family a few generations back, my family settled on being discretely Irish. It was the easy thing to do in the traditionally white Irish Catholic Northeast Philadelphia. But you won’t find any of us in head-to-toe green on a St. Patty’s Day bar hop.
DNA analysis probably will confirm what looks likely: The McDonald name does come from Ireland. My great-great-great-grandfather, William McDonald, was born in Philadelphia in the late 1800s. His father appears to have come from Ireland.
That William McDonald has been a person of interest in my family for some time. As the story goes, he got run off after getting my great-great-grandmother pregnant, never to be seen again.
Shannon McDonald (Nat Hamilton for Newsworks)
As the researchers found, the family lore is close to the real story. I now have in my possession the birth certificate of my great-grandfather. William Carl McDonald Draudt was born Sept. 16, 1912, to William McDonald and Mae Draudt. William and Mae were in their early 20s, unmarried and living apart. And for some unknown reason, the Draudt family found William an unfit father. Though the midwife wrote ‘McDonald Draudt’ on William Carl’s birth certificate, the Draudt family, plain as day, crossed the McDonald name out. Census records later show William Carl living with his mother’s parents and Mae eventually married a different Irish guy. William McDonald was never heard from again, but the U.S. Military insisted son William Carl use his full name to serve his country. So despite the Draudts’ best efforts, the McDonald name lives on.
Having always been uncertain of it, I’ve never identified with my Irish heritage. When I go to one of the many Irish bars in Northeast Philly - McNoodle’s, Harrington’s, Kilbane’s - it’s to drink beer and see friends, the way I would in any other bar in any other part of the city. So when people served me what’s become the standard line, “McDonald? You don’t look like a McDonald!” I’d tell them I’m German and Native American.
The German part has been confirmed. My grandmother’s parents are German, as are Mae Draudt’s parents. The Native American part has always been assumed. Turns out that’s another complicated story.
My mother’s father’s life was a mystery. He was a musician. A good one. He performed with Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones and Woody Herman. “Diz” and wife Lorraine are in my grandparents’ worn address book, and my grandfather visited Louis Armstrong until the day Armstrong died. They played clubs, put out hit records and toured the world, those guys and my grandfather, Carl “Bama” Warwick.
His nickname comes from his home state of Alabama. He was born there in 1917 to parents who also came from Alabama. He died in Philadelphia in 2003 and it wasn’t until then that my mother and her sister began talking about the secret he tried so desperately to hide growing up.
Family lore says Carl Warwick was Native American. His birthplace isn’t far from land that still belongs to Native American tribes. But his birth certificate, World War II draft registry and Social Security filing all say “negro.” So do the records I’m waiting for from the school he attended in the ‘30s - the New Jersey Manual Training and Industrial School for Colored Youth.
By the time he was playing the trumpet with Dizzy Gillespie in the ‘40s, my grandfather had been back and forth from Alabama to New Jersey several times. His mother had committed suicide, his father had remarried, and his sister had become a dance instructor at Spelman College.
And to Gillespie, who in his book, To Be or Not to...Bop, described Carl Warwick as being like a brother to him, my grandfather “looked white.” To white people, my grandfather looked black. All his life, he’d been referred to as negro, white or mulatto. It seems he was never able to identify with any of those terms.
The DNA test should be able to put the confusion to rest once and for all, although I’m not sure it matters now.
Whether it was the peace of mind that comes with age, the changing demographics in Philadelphia or the intense privacy he kept about his childhood, my grandfather never discussed race, as far as I can remember. Whatever struggles he had as a younger man didn’t seem to trouble him as he settled down in Northeast Philadelphia with my grandmother and their daughters. An old man with tan skin and turquoise jewelry wouldn’t turn many heads today.
I didn’t set off on this path for closure. It began and will end with curiosity. Before getting too far in, the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania researchers asked me how much I wanted to know about what they found. Everything, of course.
I can’t undo what my ancestors have done or change the family storyline. With facts in hand, I can do just the opposite and continue to search for more information. And I can avoid the one grave error that generations past on both sides of my family have made. I will share these stories, these facts, instead of keeping them to myself.
One day I’ll be gone and I’ll be a name somewhere up the line on my great-great-great-granddaughter’s family pedigree chart. She’ll be able to use whatever new, mind-blowing technology exists to find her ancestors. But I’ll have already done a bulk of the work for her. A lot of stories died with my relatives; no more are going to die with me.
Coming Friday, May 18, the McDonald family gets the first round of results from genetic analysis.