Family tree finds a lost branch

Arts and CultureHistoryUniversity of Chicago

The moment he saw her, Floyd Harris stretched his arms open and embraced the sister he never knew. He held her close for a few moments and rocked from side to side.

Gripping her cane, Emma Lee Harris Thomas hugged Harris back with one arm, a wide grin spread so far across her face that her cheeks forced her eyes shut.

"I'm so glad to see you," said Harris, 74, as he held his new sister close. Another sister stood close by wiping tears from her face. "We have been looking for you."

"This is a miracle," Thomas, 77, of Georgia, said later. "I'm very overwhelmed. I am so happy."

For decades the Harris siblings and Thomas lived far apart and didn't even know each other. But they were able to connect recently when relatives on both sides of their family tree discovered each other while researching their ancestry online.

Thomas never knew she had other siblings through her father — a man she had never met. The 10 Harris siblings knew about Thomas because their father often talked about her, but they never knew how to find her.

The siblings met for the first time, after more than 70 years apart, in south suburban Harvey last month.

Once rare, meetings like the one between the Harris siblings and Thomas are becoming more common as more families research their roots, experts said.

In recent years, there has been a growing interest among Americans to research their family histories and verify their family origins using online tools, said Matthew Deighton, a spokesman for ancestry.com.

"What attracts people to family history the most is … they find a story and a connection to their country that is only applicable to them," Deighton said. "That personal connection is what brings people back and what makes people interested."

According to ancestry.com, 87 percent of Americans surveyed said they are interested in studying their family lineage, Deighton said. There are 1.7 million subscribers to the service, which charges a monthly fee for access to birth, death, census records and other archived information.

Now that records are online and more accessible, relatives are able to find one another in a way they weren't able before, he said.

"It used to take thousands of miles of traveling and weeks of searching records," Deighton said. "Now these records can be accessed from home. It's much faster and much simpler."

The Harris siblings and Thomas are African-American. And for African-Americans, there is a special curiosity about family genealogy, said Thomas C. Holt, a professor of American and African-American history at the University of Chicago.

During slavery, African-Americans were separated from their blood relatives and weren't allowed to keep in touch with family. After the Civil War and during the Great Migration, many black families made it a point to stay connected to relatives, despite the distance and obstacles.

"For African-Americans, we don't have the records from Ellis Island telling the root origin of our families," Holt said. "In some sense that has always piqued our curiosity about our roots in this country.

"Feeling cut off may stimulate people's imagination and desire. There's a long-standing theme in African-American history of people trying to track their family roots," Holt said.

As the Harris siblings grew up and created lives for themselves in the Chicago area, their sister Emma was one family mystery that their father would never let them forget.

Somewhere in the world, Manuel Harris would tell them, the clan had another sister.

Thomas was born to Harris' first wife. He lost touch with the girl around 1937 when as a toddler she was moved from their rural Alabama hometown to stay with a maternal relative in Missouri.

In the 1950s, Harris also moved from the South, with his wife and family to Chicago in search of better opportunities, his children said.

He never got to know Thomas, was never involved in her life and never knew what happened to her, family members said.

"Our dad made us know about her," said Gloria Davis, 68, of Harvey. "He told us, 'I don't know where she is, but I know she's out there.' We always wanted to find her; we wanted her to know she was loved."

All of her life, Thomas thought she was an only child, though she longed for siblings.

"I had six kids. I didn't have anybody growing up so I wanted as many kids as I could manage," she said.

Thomas learned about her lost family when her son was researching their roots online.

Douglas Porter traced his mother's ancestry back to her hometown using census records. Using clues in those records and marriage certificates, he found the name of his grandfather — a man who grew up only four doors down from his grandmother's address.

At the same time, Jason Harris, a young cousin in the Harris family, was also building a family tree online. He knew a generation of his elders had been searching for their long-lost sister.

As both men conducted their research, they found each other online. They compared notes, swapped emails and realized they were related.

Once they confirmed the records, Porter sat his mother down in front of his computer and shared the news.

"I was shocked and excited," Thomas said. "I didn't know what to think at first."

Within two weeks of finding each other online, the two sides of the family planned their first meeting. Thomas' children drove her to Chicago to meet the siblings she never knew she had.

The first time they saw each other, Thomas and five of her siblings who live in the Chicago region embraced enthusiastically and continuously. Then they sat down together and began to dissect their family history and figure out what happened in the past.

"You look just like our daddy," Floyd Harris said to Emma, his relatives nodding in approval.

"I'm so glad to see you. I'm so, so glad. This is a miracle above miracles," he said, then clapped his hands and stomped his feet, giving impromptu praise to God. "If there is any way that the dead can see the living, I know our daddy is smiling today. I know he's glad we finally found you."

Although he was devoted to his second and wife and children, Manuel Harris never forgot his firstborn daughter, Davis said. He prayed for her and reminded his children of her during special occasions. When Manuel Harris died, the family placed Emma's name in his obituary, even though they never knew her, Davis said.

As the years passed, and the siblings got older, they never imagined they would ever find their sister. Manuel Harris died in 1984.

"We've waited for this moment for so long," Davis said, choking down tears. "This is a whirlwind blessing. I never thought I'd live to see this day.

"This means so much because it means I get to represent our dad and allow his daughter to get to know him through me," Harris said. "That same love he gave to us, we get to pass on to her too. I know our dad is smiling."

lbowean@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Comments
Loading