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In search of the meaning of 'Mozingo'

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Reporting from the Northern Neck of Virginia

My father's family landed in 1942 Los Angeles as if by immaculate conception, unburdened by any past.

Growing up, I knew all about how my mother's grandparents came to California from southern France and Sweden. But my dad's side was a mystery.

All I heard were a few stories about my grandfather as a youth in Hannibal, Mo., how he found a tarantula in a shipment of bananas at his dad's corner store, how he and a friend once rode motorcycles out west. But no one talked about Mozingos further back, or where they came from.

I might never have given the subject any thought except for a strange word: our name. All my life, people had asked me about it.

I began to look into it, and the more I learned, the more I realized our history had been buried. My curiosity turned to compulsion. I had to unearth the truth about our origins and the forces that had obscured them for centuries. I wanted to know my forebears and feel myself among them, to see if their forgotten personalities and struggles and secrets somehow still lived within us.

I set out last year to learn our story, traveling from the Tidewater of Virginia to the hollows of Kentucky and southeastern Indiana and beyond. At times, I struggled to absorb what I was finding, and I met Mozingos who were skeptical of it, or ambivalent, or fiercely resistant.

I learned that our early ancestry reflected not so much a quirk of American history as the messy start of it, seeding a furious internal conflict that continues today.

With us, the whole battle was embodied in a family — and a name.

My parents always said they thought "Mozingo" was Italian. But this was offered only as theory.

We were open to suggestions.

One came from an acquaintance who said he found a bunch of Mozingos in a phone book in the Imperial Valley and was told they all were Basque shepherds. On this authority, we became French Basque.

Next we heard that "Mozingo" was an Americanized version of "Mont Zingeau," a mountain in France or maybe Switzerland I could never find on a map.

All of this was beginning to feel a bit dubious when I met Sherrie Mazingo, whose name is a variation of ours. Sherrie was a broadcast journalism professor at USC when I was a grad student there in 1996.

She was black — and she had news.

She'd learned from genealogists at a family reunion in North Carolina that the Mozingos probably descended from a "Bantu warrior" from the Congo who became an indentured servant in Virginia in the 1600s.

That would mean that all Mozingos in America — including me, who grew up in Dana Point, the blue-eyed, surfing son of a dentist — had a Bantu last name.

My first reaction was to laugh. But upon further reflection, it seemed feasible. Ten or so generations had passed. Traces of a race could easily disappear in three.

My family took the news as a great lark, while duly noting that my grandmother would roll over in her grave.

My uncle Joe, an information systems manager for the city of Los Angeles, took to regaling his two black secretaries with claims of his Bantu warrior roots. (He swears they thought it was funny.)

My dad recalled an episode from when he first opened a practice in Tustin with a dentist who had an Italian name. A black woman showed up at the offices of "Anthony Mumolo and J.D. Mozingo, DDS." She took one look at my father, asked "He's the dentist?" and left in a huff. A colleague, hearing the story, took to calling them the "witch doctors."

I started poking around on the Internet. An entry in a genealogy forum noted that the earliest known Mozingo was Edward, a "Negro man" freed by the Jamestown court in 1672 after nearly three decades of indentured servitude.

This was the first piece of hard information I'd seen. Maybe Sherrie was right: We came from Africa.

I holed up in the genealogy stacks at the Los Angeles Central Library and the Mormon Family History Center in Westwood. I paged through books of early immigrants to America, census, tax and court records.

I found the reference to the 1672 ruling — in the "Minutes of the Council and General Court of Colonial Virginia" — but little more.

Who was Edward? Were we related? How does anyone know if he was Bantu?

I was becoming obsessed. But there was no time to look further. I was finishing school and needed to get my career going. I had to let it go.

Over the ensuing years, little moments kept my curiosity smoldering. White people who commented about my name assumed it was Italian. Black people tended not to volunteer opinions until the Miami Herald sent me to cover the instability in Haiti in 2004. In that country, with its tenacious African customs and language, I got an invariable response when I introduced myself: "That's an African name."

Then I got married, had a son, Blake, and moved back to California.

Rocking Blake to sleep when he was just learning to talk, I would sometimes say our name, Mo-ZEENG-oe.

He would laugh and sing it back to me.

As the chair creaked on the floorboards, I would think about the children he would have, and their children, and so on, until I faded from memory, and then Blake, and all that would be left was this funny name.

I couldn't leave the mystery to my descendants. I had to learn the truth.

And so the real journey began.

Tom Mozingo, a retired nuclear power plant operator living in Florida, had researched the name for years. He once wrote a Mozingo genealogy newsletter and helped start a DNA project to help trace family lines. He responded quickly to my inquiry with some background on the "extended family."

Part of his e-mail intrigued me: "I am going to be cautious and try to balance the information I provide to you with . . . the promises I have given to my extended 'families' concerning their right to privacy. I will promise you total honesty and if I cannot divulge something, I will tell you so."

I respected this but couldn't imagine what private affairs he thought I wanted to expose — unless he meant Edward, the African.

He forwarded my e-mail to Samie Melton in Dallas, a Mozingo by marriage and the keeper of the Mozingo genealogy database.

Melton explained that most — maybe 90% — of the several thousand Mozingos in America can be traced directly to Edward. The others can be traced to areas of Virginia where Edward's offspring settled and are presumed to be descendants too. No one has found evidence of other Mozingo lines arriving in America during the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries.

This was actually real. This buried history was in me. I felt a rush of anticipation.

Melton asked about my grandfather and then promptly sent me an e-mail tracing my lineage back to the American Revolution.

There were only six generations between me and my oldest confirmed ancestor, Spencer Mozingo, who headed a household in Orange, Va., in 1782.

Spencer begat Joe who begat Joe who begat Joe who begat Ira who begat Joe who begat Dave who begat me. They apparently followed the receding frontier, from Virginia to Kentucky to Indiana to Illinois.

Over the next few days I studied where each person was born, when and where they died. I groped for ways to make it seem real, to wrap my mind around that gulf of time between Revolutionary Virginia and suburban California.

I saw that Spencer lived long enough to see his grandson, whose own son lived to see my grandfather.

But where did Spencer come from? There was no record of his birth. His parents were unknown.

DNA testing of one of Spencer's male descendants did not show a direct paternal connection to Edward. Nor would my DNA. Spencer probably was the illegitimate son of one of Edward's granddaughters — a Margaret who never married, or another Margaret, whom the sheriff dragged into court for adultery. But records of women were sparse, so we might never know for sure.

Spencer first showed up in a 1782 census, heading a family of "six white souls."

I found it in the library and, scanning for more Mozingos, came upon a name that had me reeling: Spencer lived near James Madison, the "father of the Constitution" and future president of the United States.

There were only 61 households in their census tract. Of course, maybe their circles didn't intersect much. Spencer was a poor, possibly mixed-race farmer on rented land. Madison had more than 80 slaves and went to the College of New Jersey, which became Princeton.

But seeing that Spencer was even in Madison's orbit was a boon for me: Historians had undoubtedly pored over every letter, diary and document relating to him. Perhaps my progenitor would turn up in one.

On a damp winter morning last year, I crossed the silty breadth of the Rappahannock River as fishermen in low wooden boats hauled up lines in the gloom. The highway traversed tidal flats and gently lifted into the low clay hills of Virginia's Northern Neck.

I pulled into the little brick town of Warsaw, which was called Richmond Courthouse when Edward lived here and won his freedom in 1672.

The Neck was still wilderness then. The settlers were at war with Indians from the north and stayed mostly to the shoreline of the Rappahannock.

When peace came shortly thereafter, they pushed into the forested interior, clearing the timber to grow tobacco and widening the Indian trails into crude roads. They put the tobacco in casks called "hogsheads" and rolled them with oxen to warehouses along the river. Life was miserable. People starved; disease was rampant. The crops were plagued by drought, tobacco worm and tobacco flies. Most farmers lived in windowless log hovels with dirt floors.

Edward had been a servant to Col. John Walker, a member of the colony's legislature. When Walker died in 1669, his widow inherited Edward and remarried a powerful Virginian, John Stone.

Edward sued Stone for his freedom. Little is said about the lawsuit in the court record, only that there was an appeals hearing in the high colonial court, that "Divers Witnesses" testified and that the judges concluded "Edward Mozingo a Negro man" had served his term after 28 years of indenture.

Edward and his wife, Margaret, and their two children, Edward and John, grew tobacco and raised livestock as tenant farmers on a creek called Pantico Run.

Where Edward came from before his years of servitude can only be inferred from history.

The earliest Africans in Virginia came mostly from the Portuguese port in Angola. They were prisoners of war, criminals, orphans, slaves, debtors and refugees from famine.

They first arrived in 1619 — in chains, speaking no English and often listed only by first names — "Antonio a negro . . . Mingo a negro."

Some were bought as servants, while others were undoubtedly stuck in what amounted to slavery.

The fact that Edward had to sue for his freedom after nearly 28 years suggested his owners viewed him as a slave. But that he could sue and win showed that blacks, for a brief moment, had rights they would struggle for the next two centuries to regain.

Free blacks got land grants, conducted business and used the courts. A few grew wealthy and had servants themselves. They mixed with whites.

"Not only did many blacks and whites work alongside one another," Philip D. Morgan, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in his book "Slave Counterpoint," "but they ate, caroused, smoked, ran away, stole" and had sex. Some blacks and whites even married — which undoubtedly explains how many Mozingo lines became "white" within a few generations.

Virginia began to formalize slavery in the mid-1600s and outlawed intermarriage in 1691. The free blacks and mixed-race offspring became a pariah class.

"Edward made it in the last gasp, when there was a degree of flexibility in the system," Morgan said.

At the courthouse in Warsaw, I found a copy of Edward's will and an inventory of his possessions when he died around 1712. He had lived to be at least 68 — well beyond the normal life expectancy of the time — and had done quite well for his family.

His tools indicated he was a carpenter and a farmer. He was better off than most people in that place and time.

His house had two feather beds, two chests, a trunk, three couches, a couple of tables, seven cider casks, a spinning wheel, four "earthen juggs," all sorts of kitchen necessities. Many items suggested a certain refinement of the upwardly mobile: napkins, table cloths, ceramic dishes instead of wooden, candlesticks, pewter salt containers, a chamber pot and a looking glass. In the field there were five sheep, a young horse, a mare and a colt, a heifer, two cows and two calves. He owned two guns, which he bequeathed to his son Edward.

And he had a fiddle, a sure sign that there was more to his life than survival.

I left the courthouse and headed farther west. The landscape looked neglected, as if humanity was in retreat. Faded little homes and trailers gave way to fallen farmhouses and gray woods — unmoving skeletons of locust, oak, maple, dogwood. The road passed fetid old mill ponds and abandoned barns shot through with trees and dead vines.

In a deep hollow, I noticed a house on a hill to the left. Through the bare trees, a homemade sign next to the driveway said "Pantico Run."

My heart beat faster. Edward had lived around here somewhere. His sons leased a nearby grist mill.

I got out and picked my way along the creek. The ground was a decaying mat of moss and fallen leaves. Rotten stumps crumpled underfoot. The creek pooled into a swamp, then sluiced back into a clear channel.

I dug a hand into the cold, sandy soil and studied it. This was the earth Edward worked every day, the grit he must have scraped from under his fingernails at night. I hiked farther into the woods, hoping some hunter or property owner wouldn't draw a bead on me. People still made moonshine in these hills. Dogs barked in the distance.

Where could his cabin have been? In 337 years, this land could have cycled between forest and farmland over and over. The terrain presented no hint, just a forlorn maze of wood.

This was not a rational endeavor. I wasn't going to find the ruins of Edward's cabin, his diary lying among the rotted logs.

But I'd spent days holed up in small-town courthouses, trying to read faded 17th century script. I wanted to feel something, to see Edward out in a field or on a porch playing his fiddle. I wanted to see a ghost.

But I couldn't.

Maybe it was because Edward was black, and I envisioned my ancestors looking like me. When I summoned my deepest instinct, "Mozingo" was still Italian. I heard the name as I heard friends in elementary school saying it, Joey Mo-ZEENG-oe, with the same inchoate associations I made as a child.

I couldn't connect to what I now knew intellectually. Reality had the ring of a joke — my Bantu roots.

Labeling can be a potent artifice. Race doesn't even make sense when you look at it up close, seeing all its gradients and shades. Where does white end and black begin? It is like some Pointillist painting you grasp only at a distance. So why is this abstraction so knotted up with identity? Would I have such a hard time conjuring Edward if he were Hungarian?

I walked back to the car, disappointed with my stubborn mind.

The next morning, I pulled up to a peeling clapboard farmhouse next to an old tractor collapsed in the dirt. In some rickety kennels along a great stand of trees, half a dozen hunting dogs clamored to be let out.

Their owner came down the steps of the back stoop.

"Good to meet another Mozingo," he said.

Junior Mozingo was a short, solid man of 66, pale, with sharp hazel eyes and a broken-veined burl of a nose. He wore a blue flannel shirt with a crinkled pack of Southern Pride tobacco in the pocket, and a stiff camouflage trucker's cap perched high on his head, as if the wind discreetly dropped it there and might soon reclaim it.

Junior invited me in and showed me the heads of deer he and his son Elvis had shot and mounted on the paneled walls.

I asked him if he ever talked to his father or uncle about their background.

"They didn't talk about it and we didn't ask," he said. "We knew not to ask about our old people back then."

His tone suggested an aggressive lack of interest.

Did he wonder about the name?

"It's Italian, isn't it?" he asked, shrugging.

I had not come to the home of a gun-loving Southerner named Junior to prove that he descended from an African tribesman. This was not the "New South." The Obama era felt like some bizarre fever dream out here.

Junior said he had lived here in Richmond County all his life, as had his father, grandmother, great-grandfather and perhaps generations before.

For as far back as anyone knew, the family never amassed any land. They worked in mills or tilled the depleted red soil on rented patches of land, from childhood to decrepitude, rarely getting more than a step or two above subsistence.

Junior worked 44 years at an elastic plant and still mows lawns to help pay the rent.

Was this the invisible legacy of the pariah class? By now I had learned that my line of ancestors was like Junior's, rural people struggling to climb out of entrenched poverty.

My great-great-great-grandfather was listed as a "day laborer" in Indiana in the 1860 census, as was his son, my great-great grandfather Joe, in the 1900 census in Bloomington, Ill. In 1920, nearing 70, Joe walked the streets, ringing a bell, peddling horseradish from a cart.

When he died in 1937, he was buried in an unmarked grave, having told his family to chuck him into a ditch.

This was a family that had, by then, been in America for 293 years.

It took the singular phenomenon of mid-century California for my line of Mozingos to break from their desultory path. Twelve years after my grandfather moved the family to Los Angeles to work as an accountant for Douglas Aircraft during World War II, he owned a 1,400-square-foot home in Studio City with a great brick barbecue in back. My father went to UCLA and earned his dental degree, and I grew up in the prosperous suburbs — a world apart from here.

Junior and I stepped back outside. The fields were brittle with broken stalks of corn. He told me about the Buck Mozingos, a mysterious clan down the road who all had one green eye, one blue eye and a white streak of hair.

What about black Mozingos?

"Never heard that," he said.

Had he ever thought that the name might be African?

His look, with those sharp pupils, was the puzzled stare you might give to someone who, after an hour of conversation, you suddenly realize is insane. It was as if I'd asked if he thought we were descended from a tribe of potted ferns.

He said nothing.

I let it go. I had to get on with my journey.

joe.mozingo@latimes.com

Next: The cousins and a slave named Mozingo.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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