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Richmonders 'reclaim' their time and African ancestry

A person walks in front of the RAM Drum Circle, who are playing in front of a red wall
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
The RAM Drum Circle perform before a Reclaiming Our Time event on Saturday, August 19, 2023 at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture in Richmond, Virginia.

Nine Gilpin Court and Jackson Ward residents gathered over the weekend to learn their DNA history.

Genealogist Paula Royster had dug into the family history and DNA of nine Richmonders. On Saturday it was time to “reveal” what she said was “hidden in plain view.”

One by one, she called them onto a small stage at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

“Charmain Barbour Brown.”

Barbour Brown came up and listened as Royster, founder of the Center for African American Genealogical Research Inc., listed her ancestors: her fourth great-grandfather, John Clark, born in 1787; her 101-year-old grandmother, Daisy Williams — and a possible relative of someone else in the audience.

“When I looked at your family names, Deshazor was there,” Royster said. “That's Traci Deshazor over there!”

Deshazor, the city’s deputy chief administrative officer for human services, was the first person to speak at the event.

She said Richmond sponsored the event to help Jackson Ward and Gilpin Court residents understand their connections to the city — and each other. They live in the two neighborhoods split by the construction of the highway that became I-95. It's the focus of a city study on how to reconnect the two neighborhoods.

“One reason why Gilpin was so right for the project [is] they would not have had otherwise access to the information or know how to do it themselves,” said Royster.

"Reclaiming Our Time,” the name of the project, was about “reclaiming the citizenship that we were duly owed through the blood, sweat and tears of those who work the soil,” said Joseph Rodgers, the VMHC’s manager of partnerships & community engagement.

Community fractures — those from more recent history like the interstate’s construction, and the more distant but constantly relevant enslavement and trafficking of Africans — were a theme that came up throughout the afternoon.

“We tend to forget that our families were torn apart over and over and over again,” said Royster. “We don't know if our neighbor is our cousin.”

By knowing from which cultures their ancestors were taken, Royster said people can understand the lives that came before slavery. Royster told Barbour Brown she was Ghanaian after walking through her DNA results.

“You came from haplogroup L2. L2 is the most prominent haplogroup type for people of African descent in the United States, but it is distinctly West African, and yours is Ghanaian,” she said. “We need to get you a name. So, figure out what day of the week you were born and that'll be your name.”

After going over the results for each of the nine residents, two clergy officiated ceremonial weddings for their ancestors. Taking turns, Paula Owens Parker and Jarvis Bailey brought the descendants onstage and repeated the ritual.

“The descendants of Fanny and John Clark will stand in their place to receive and reaffirm their ceremonial vows their ancestors did not have the opportunity to take in the Commonwealth of Virginia 211 years ago,” Parker said, onstage with Barbour Brown. “Who gives this woman Fanny to this man John?”

“We do,” said Barbour Brown, before jumping the broom.

Royster’s organization said that copies of the ceremonial marriages’ certificates would be presented to the Richmond Circuit Court for recordation.

In an email, Richmond Clerk Edward Jewett said he cannot say how the records will be presented and preserved yet.

In a follow-up interview Tuesday, Royster told VPM News she set the date for the ceremonial weddings using the average age of marriage for grooms, 25, or a historical record of marriages that were not sanctioned by the state.

Jahd Khalil covers local government, the economy and labor issues for VPM News. Previously, he covered state government for RadioIQ and was a freelance journalist based in Egypt.