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Some African-Americans turn to DNA tests to trace roots

As a child, Melva Adams Kittrell would study the faces of her mother and five aunts.

Why, she wondered, did these African-American women have such fair skin? Why did two of them have blue eyes?

"I wanted to know more," says Kittrell, now 71. "Who are these people and where did they come from?"

As an adult, she spent hours listening to elderly family members and searching archives. She slowly pieced together her family tree, going as far back as slavery. Severed family ties and scattered records posed roadblocks she couldn't overcome.

But maybe science could.

Now Kittrell is among tens of thousands using DNA to trace family ancestry. Many are African-Americans who turned to companies that specialize in tracing roots back to Africa.

The trend, controversial to some, has become popular in recent years. Websites offer access to old records, and TV shows highlight the subject. In 2006, a PBS series featured Whoopi Goldberg and Quincy Jones tracing their roots. And NBC's Who Do You Think You Are?, which helps stars of all races re-create their family trees, launched its second season this month.

Demand for DNA research tends to rise in February, Black History Month, said Gina Paige, president of African Ancestry, which uses genetic testing to identify African roots.

Kittrell's test results found Asian ancestry on her mother's side. Because of her father's lineage, she calls the Ewe ethnic group of Ghana "my people."

"It opened the door to the past," Kittrell says of the DNA. "It allowed me to make a connection to a place in Africa."

• • •

Kittrell, who lives in Sun City Center, was in the audience two years ago when Paige spoke about DNA testing to the local chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.

She purchased two kits from Paige's company that day — one for her and one for her brother.

Genetic testing kits typically include long cotton swabs used to collect DNA from inside the cheek. The swabs are then mailed to the testing company in the envelopes provided.

Specialists compare the genetic material to thousands of samples in a DNA database obtained from indigenous people worldwide. Companies that focus on African ancestry collected and preserved the samples from natives of that continent.

The tests cost between $100 and $350, depending on the company. The Roots Project at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell offered free testing but stopped accepting new clients after the overwhelming response created a two-year backlog.

Despite the popularity, Bruce Jackson, a molecular biologist and the project's creator, warns that DNA results have limits.

African Ancestry and other companies say they can provide geographic and tribal ancestry, but Jackson says they can't.

DNA testing can accurately identify a person's genetic markings, but such markings can be found in multiple places around the globe, he said. There is no way to know exactly which region someone's ancestors came from. Plus, the samplings that companies use generally aren't broad enough to get a full understanding of the hundreds of ethnic groups found in Africa, he said.

Jackson and his colleagues were "on the floor laughing" after hearing 2005 reports that Oprah Winfrey announced she was Zulu.

These celebrities, Jackson said, have been misled about their lineage.

"I can assure that they're not what they're told they are," Jackson said. "There is no way that can be done."

Yet African Ancestry stands by its findings, touting a database of nearly 12,000 paternal samples and 14,000 maternal samples representing 30 countries and more than 200 ethnic groups.

"When we find matches, we find people with whom you have to share paternal or maternal ancestry because you share the same (DNA) sequence," Paige said. "That's a scientific fact."

Both sides agree that DNA itself has limitations.

A woman's DNA can only track genetic information passed down from mother to daughter through the generations. Men, however, can also be tested for their father's ancestry, traced through the male-specific Y chromosome in similar father-to-son fashion. In other words, a woman would need a male relative's DNA tested in order to gaze into her paternal ancestry, which is why Kittrell also had her brother swabbed.

Robert Wimberly, of Wesley Chapel, paid $550 for two tests — one to find his paternal history, the other for his maternal. He swabbed his cheek on the spot after Paige's presentation to the historical society.

The results, he said, were unexpected and disappointing. African Ancestry reported back that his genetic information most closely resembled Europeans on both sides, belying his coffee-bean complexion.

Another company Wimberly consulted for a second opinion, African DNA, returned the same results.

"I really don't have any answers from that standpoint," said Wimberly, 71. "I was expecting at least some African ancestry."

Testing other blood relatives could help him obtain broader results, but he has no plans to do so right now.

African Ancestry finds that 92 percent of the results for maternal lineage come back as African, but only 65 percent of paternal lineage do. The other 35 percent are Asian, American Indian or European.

"It's more likely for a paternal lineage to come back non-African because of the historical behavior of slave traders and slave holders during the period of slavery in America," Paige said. "There were a very large number of non-African men, particularly European men, fathering children with those slave women."

• • •

Companies that conduct DNA analysis also encourage clients to use oral histories, family mementos and other resources to shore up whatever the results tell them.

Kittrell's research has taken her all the way to Salt Lake City, where she combed through the Mormon Church's famous Family History Library.

There, she stumbled upon gold: a book titled Family Records of the African-American Pioneers of Tampa and Hillsborough County published by the University of Tampa in 2003.

She knew that her ancestors had settled in the Tampa Bay area more than five generations ago in Ybor City and Bealsville, a black community near Plant City. She instinctively flipped to the index at the back of the book. Sure enough, familiar names jumped out at her. She found photos and biographies of her kinfolk.

"I wanted to scream," she said.

Kittrell is self-publishing her autobiography so that descendants won't have to go through so much trouble to learn about where, and who, they came from.

The epilogue to Peering Into the Past is a letter to her children and grandchildren outlining Kittrell's values and beliefs.

"Remember the sacrifices of the past generation and people," she writes. "If it were not for them, we would not have the benefits that we experience today. Teach your children our history whether they want to hear it or not."

Tia Mitchell can be reached at tmitchell@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3405.

If you go

The Tampa chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society meets monthly at the John F. Germany Library auditorium, 900 N Ashley Drive. The next meeting is from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday.

DNA testing

to trace family history

African Ancestry, africanancestry.com, (202) 723-0900

African DNA, africandna.com, (713) 868-1438

Family Tree DNA, familytreedna.com, (713) 868-1438

DNA Heritage, dnaheritage.com, toll-free 1-866-736-2362

General genealogical research

The Mormon Church's FamilySearch International, familysearch.org, toll-free 1-866-406-1830

Ancestry.com, toll-free 1-800-262-3787

U.S. Gen Web Project, usgenweb.org

Some African-Americans turn to DNA tests to trace roots 02/10/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 11, 2011 12:15pm]
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