Reporting from Richmond County, Va.
The June air in the Northern Neck of Virginia was humid and electric, almost delirious. Big blue dragonflies bobbed over the tall grass, and cicadas sputtered in the forest. A thundercloud was waking up in the distance, and a restless breeze set the entire landscape in motion.
I had first come here in March investigating the origins of my family name. The place then had no color, no life. My mood was equally bleak as I pored over court archives and had terse meetings with Mozingos who didn’t know or care about the name.
By now, though, I’d met all manner of Mozingos — white, black, racist, tolerant, generous, loathsome, loner-ish, loyal, tragic — and seen shards of our buried history surface in their stories. Many had been curious about the name all their lives.
I returned to hear the tale of two clans: Rhodie Mozingo’s in Virginia and Wiley Mozingo’s in North Carolina.
Rhodie’s was white. Wiley’s was black.
I wondered how each would react to the long-buried fact that our common forefather, Edward Mozingo, was black, and that our surname was Bantu.
It’s hard to tell when Mozingos first passed as white. There was no consistency in how census takers and court clerks defined race.
Wiley’s lineage can be directly traced as far back as a Christopher Mozingo, who was born in 1800 and listed as mulatto in census records but white on a tax list.
Rhodie’s can be traced all the way to the 1600s and Edward.
By the late 1700s, Rhodie’s great-great-great-great-grandfather John was identified as white on tax lists, as were his three brothers. But the brothers also appear on a registry of “Free Molattoes.”
John, who had more money than his brothers and even owned a slave, probably had the clout to keep his name off. From then on, Rhodie’s ancestors were considered white.
I had briefly met Rhodie in March after visiting his older brother Junior. He seemed decent and thoughtful. He sold insurance door to door for 20 years and now worked at a Lowe’s in Fredericksburg. He was raising a grandson, struggling with chronic lung disease and dreaming of retiring to Myrtle Beach.
His father, who managed only about three years in school, had signed his name with an X and never said a word about their roots. Rhodie, 62, didn’t know he’d spent his childhood within a mile of where his ancestors settled in the late 1600s. But he started wondering about family when his father died in 1991. He wanted to give his seven grandchildren a sense of their origins.
When we met at his small ranch-style home, set under two great maples on Fallin Town Road, he asked what I’d learned since we last spoke.
I showed him a printout of his lineage straight to Edward Mozingo, his seventh great-grandfather, and the Virginia court ruling from 1672 calling Edward “Negro.” He looked briefly at the papers, smiled and sighed.
“Well, we’re probably a mix of every race there is,” he said.
We headed down the road to meet the so-called Buck Mozingos, all of whom supposedly had one blue eye, one green eye and a streak of white hair.
We followed two-lane roads through rolling fields of corn and soybeans and stands of hardwood tangled with creeper and wild rose. Rhodie pondered Edward.
“Back in the ‘50s or ‘60s this would have bugged the hell out of me,” he said. “Today, things have changed so much. There’s not just one race anymore. . . . There’s a percentage of this county that can’t accept a mixed president. If he does a good job for me, I don’t care if he’s purple.”
On Drinking Swamp Road, Earl Buck Mozingo, 70, looked up from under the hood of his Ford pickup as we walked up. His dog, chained to another truck, lunged and barked with raw fury.
I couldn’t see the streak of white in Earl’s hair because he was wearing a cap with the Confederate flag. He conveyed — within seconds, using just the word “nuh” — that he didn’t know anything about the Mozingo name and never wondered.
So we stepped inside the vinyl-sided home to chat with his sister, Madeline, 68, who wore shorts and flip-flops and was as cheerful as her brother was curt. She said her sister in Florida had been researching the family tree.
“I said, ‘Quit digging!’ I’m going to find out I’m my own grandma.”
Rhodie told her about Edward in a somewhat tortured way. “He was a dark-complected man. We don’t know if he was Portuguese, Italian, Indian or Negro.”
“That’s why I told my sister to quit digging!” she said.
Madeline brought out printed e-mails from her sister that told three stories about our origins. One said our name used to be spelled d’Monzangeau, “which means Mount Zangeau.” Another said there were several “historical Italian figures with this name,” but didn’t identify them.
The last read like a children’s story: An Italian boy named Moses Mozingo and a friend stowed away on the Queen Mary and were caught by the captain, who threatened to throw them overboard and then forced them to work on the ship for seven years. “When they were finally put on land, it was America and Moses . . . settled in Richmond County, VA, and became a farmer.”
We shifted our talk back to Edward Mozingo — our tribe’s real Moses, who brought our name to America from the Congo region in the mid-1600s. Madeline clearly didn’t care to hear more.
We spoke a while longer, said goodbye and then went to see Rhodie’s grandmother’s grave.
Two cracks ran down the weathered headstone like a strike of lightning. It was a simple, homemade marker of poured concrete, the inscription written by hand, like a child’s name in the sidewalk. “In Memory Of Josephine Hinson, 1903 to 1948.”
What Rhodie had known of the family hit a dead end here. Josephine Mozingo was the matriarch, bestowing her maiden name on her sons, who were born before she married George Hinson.
The single photo of her always made Rhodie wonder. She looks Native American, with high cheekbones, dark hair, dark eyes.
His Uncle Milton had those same cheekbones, as did Rhodie’s sister Betty. And almost all the Mozingos he knew had straight black hair. He assumed they had Indian blood.
He never thought of black, until now.
“It doesn’t bother me none,” he said. “Why would I care? It doesn’t change who I am if he was of the dark race.”
It was clear, though, as we talked further, that his ancestor’s race was not a fact for him to embrace so much as a painful truth to accept. He was born in a time and place where “coloreds” were the only people lower than poor whites in the social order.
There already was a vague sadness about him, a heaviness that spoke to many disappointments. This wasn’t what he wanted to tell his grandchildren. On the phone with me sometime later, he mentioned the Queen Mary story.
“Your research says black. Hers says Italian. I don’t think we’ll ever know.”
“Yeah, probably not,” I said.
The other side of our tribe’s racial split settled to the south.
Down Interstate 95, the soft, leafy forest of Virginia turned drier and more piney. Lone clouds drifted in the pale sky, dragging trails of rain the sun wouldn’t let hit the ground.
In Wayne County, on North Carolina’s broad coastal plain, Wiley Mozingo was waiting in his small brick ranch home in Rollingwood Estates, a black subdivision with a white twin, Foxfire Estates, next door.
He was 59, a stoutish, soft-spoken man with plaintive eyes. He worked as a prison guard for 18 years before retiring because of a painful inflammatory disease called sarcoidosis. Wiley played with his 2-year-old grandson in the den and talked.
In simple terms, Wiley’s family was black. But their experience was vastly more complicated.
Wiley grew up in a wood-frame house his father, Fred Mozingo, had built on the north edge of Goldsboro. Fred was a boilermaker at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, and he raised chickens, hogs and cows. He was mixed-race and could pass as white. He sat at lunch counters and went to white-only restaurants. Wiley’s mother, Naomi, was darker. Wiley remembers going with her to the Woolworth’s lunch counter as a little boy and how they were told to eat on the sidewalk.
Lighter skin afforded such status that Wiley’s paternal grandfather all but banished Fred for marrying a darker woman.
When Wiley was 10, his father died of a heart condition. Naomi and her seven children moved into sharecropper shacks and worked the tobacco fields with other black families. They moved whenever farmers demanded the children pick tobacco instead of going to school.
Wiley continued his story as we got into his Buick and drove around Wayne County.
He said he worked in the fields summers, weekends and after school, picking tobacco leaves. His hands turned so dark with tobacco gum that he dared not touch his eyes for the sting. At night the family scrubbed down with the lye soap his grandmother made. The shacks had no plumbing, and heat came from the single wood stove. “You’d be burning up front, freezing in back,” Wiley said.
The family became firmly entrenched on the black side of North Carolina society.
Yet they didn’t all look black. Wiley and his mother were the darkest, while his youngest brother Ricky looked white. The rest fell somewhere in between.
The spring before ninth grade in 1965, Wiley and three friends signed up to play football at a white high school that had agreed to enroll blacks. “I showed up and my friends didn’t,” he said. “It was the most stress I’ve ever been in in my life.”
Students threw trash at him on the school bus or didn’t let him sit down. He started riding his bike. On Mount Olive Highway, drivers ran him into the ditch. He remembers one particular tormentor, a white boy named Larry Mozingo, announcing: “This is one of my slaves.” (What, if anything, Larry remembers is a mystery; he didn’t return my calls.)
Wiley didn’t answer the abuse. He became a star linebacker and vowed to endure the humiliations.
The harassment never ended. The family kept finding their tin mailboxes blown to shards. When Wiley had the ball on the football field, he heard opposing fans yell, “Kill the nigger!”
I told him then about the origins of our name. He didn’t seem to care.
I thought the news might give him a shred of vindication, a connection to a deeper past. I don’t know why. I’d met his sister Shirlyn in Los Angeles, who told me she thought the name came from Milan. When I countered that it probably came from Africa, she winced.
“I like Milan,” she said.
Maybe Wiley had too much pain in his life for the news to matter. He was struggling with his illness and depression over his youngest son, who was in prison for his role in a drug killing.
The next day, Wiley and I pulled up to the Rexall in Mount Olive’s little downtown. As an adolescent, Wiley was once shooed away from the lunch counter because he was black. We stepped inside. The drugstore looked like a snapshot from the 1950s, Formica counter and all. Two men in horn-rimmed glasses looked down from a black-and-white photo on the wall.
“May I help you?” asked a blond woman behind the counter. She glared at us, hyper-alert.
I muttered, “nuh uh.”
“May I help you,” she demanded.
We ordered coffee and sat at a table. Here was Wiley, wearing a dark blue polo shirt tucked into khaki pants, with crisp white tennis shoes. His Buick LeSabre was parked in front.
She grudgingly poured our coffees while staring as if her eyes were blue lasers.
“They were sure watching me closely in there,” Wiley said outside, in his soft-spoken way. “They always have.”
Wiley’s brother Ricky joined us for dinner that night at Wilbur’s pit barbecue.
Ricky drove a dump truck for a living and was tall and broad-shouldered, with a lean face and thick gray goatee. He wore a camouflage “Best Sand & Gravel” cap and greeted me with a “howdy.”
In any other context, I’d peg him as a good ol’ boy.
In the 1970s, Ricky crossed the color line that Rhodie’s ancestors had crossed in 1800. He identified more as white than black when pressed on the issue, but he didn’t care much for the whole concept of race as his experience with it had been agonizing and isolating.
Ricky and I got to talking, and he seemed to want to say something important. We drove to a bar in Goldsboro.
“My childhood was hell on earth,” Ricky said. “I learned early the wrath people can feel just from the color of your skin . . . Wiley was just dark enough that white people hated him. I was light enough that dark people hated me.”
The resulting resentments naturally ran in opposite directions too.
“People identify with what they look like,” he said. “Growing up, it felt like I got dropped off in the wrong neighborhood. . . . I kind of felt like a mistake for a long time.”
In high school, he tried to look and talk “black.” He put his head under the dome of his mom’s big bonnet hair dryer to get some extra frizz. He had few good friends. “I had guards up against everyone.”
When he went to North Carolina Central University, a historically black college, he gave up trying to be any one race.
“I realized God doesn’t make mistakes,” he said.
Forever being an outsider forced him to find solace within himself.
I had talked to his sister Shirlyn about this. She said Mozingos were mostly loners and outsiders. In my experience, she had a point. We avoided clubs, cliques, teams, movements, fads, organizations of any sort, really. Maybe it was beaten deep into us during our past as a mixed-race “pariah class” — as one prominent historian called it — isolated in a society of whites and slaves.
Who knows where the traits we inherit originate?
Now Ricky came to what he wanted to tell me: There was a “blood covenant” between God and Mozingos.
“My dad, that’s what he left me, his heritage,” he said, his voice low and solemn. “God makes certain people promises that would be passed through their seed forever, to this very day.”
What was the promise?
“An inner circle to secret, spiritual stuff,” he said.
We stepped outside. The night was warm and chattering with crickets. I told Ricky about our name’s origins. He said he’d heard something else: Mozingos were a Lost Tribe of Israel.
He liked that explanation more.
In his isolation, the name always carried a mystique.
“As a kid, I used to think there was something special about being a Mozingo,” he said. “Like it was something mysterious, something to be proud of.”
“Did someone tell you that?” I asked.
“No, it was just in the air.”
I flew to Indiana the next morning to see the distant relatives I met just weeks before.
I thought about what Wiley and Ricky had gone through.
I thought about what our ancestor Edward must have endured as a black man trying to scrape out a life and keep his children out of bondage. I thought of his posterity, scattered through the country, the piece of him in me.
I thought about why we develop our prejudices.
Mine were never about race so much. When I was younger, I denigrated people (in my mind) to protect my own sense of uniqueness. If someone did better in school, then they had to be worse at something else. If they were funnier or better liked or more athletic, they were shallow.
This defensive scorn was aimed mostly at individuals, but typecasts coalesced.
By college, my deepest prejudice was for “frat boys,” which said a lot more about my defects than theirs.
Racism probably derived from the same impulse. Yet instead of flickering in solitude, its fire ran wild, fueled by family, friends and co-workers, by demagoguery, economics and bloody history.
As I got older, married and had my son, the compulsion to lessen the value of the “other” faded. Looking into my ancestry only made it seem all the more absurd.
Seeing the generations that have come and gone with barely a trace, studying gravestones and birth records and yellowed marriage certificates, imagining all the struggles in each of those lives, stripped me of illusions in a most jarring way.
The personas we create are just shadows in the end.
Unless we’re Michelangelo or Winston Churchill or Jonas Salk, all we really leave is our posterity, our blood.
I hoped against my innate skepticism that Ricky was right about that “blood covenant” — which, to me, signified a connection to immortality, to our ancestors, to an African man who found himself in America so long ago.
That was the part of my family’s story that had been swiped from our consciousness, the missing piece of my identity. It was there, entwined in the DNA. I just needed to feel it.
In Indiana, my fourth cousin, Bud Mozingo, 74, was talking about his brother Stan’s goats. We were coming back from a mule ride at Stan’s ranch. Bud couldn’t remember what culture drank goat blood.
“People in New York,” he finally said. “That’s where they all move.”
We passed silos and farmhouses with porch lights on and fireflies blinking in the fields. We talked late over the tenderloin at Trax diner and met again in the morning.
My other fourth cousin, Amy Osting, 78, told me about the time her grandmother went out to the barn to find a young man having his way with her cow. She chased him off, but found him there again a couple of hours later. She screamed, and her son-in-law raised his rifle and winged him.
“Why did he shoot him?” I asked.
“He was screwing the cow!” Amy rasped. “This isn’t California!”
I laughed. Amy was definitely my relative. So was Bud.
I was going home the next day. My baby girl was due in three weeks.
A few of us walked down through the forest behind Rodney Baptist Church to the creek where people have been baptized for 150 years. Amy sang a hymn.
“Shall we gather at the river, where bright angel feet have trod?”
The creek ran through a deep hollow, flowing over shelves of bedrock, falling off steps into ponds where water bugs scrambled between the bubbles on the surface. The current had carved and polished the stone. Pebbles spun in the eddies.
After my relatives left, I floated under a 3-foot cascade in the cool, tannic water, watching the world. The creek came warm and shallow off the shelf, heated by the sun over the rock.
I lay on my back, inhaling to stay afloat, exhaling quickly and drawing the air back in before my face went under. The water below gurgled like the plumbing in an old hotel. The maple leaves above glimmered with the ripples of sunlight reflected off the pond.
These creeks were immortal.
I closed my eyes and saw the orange light glowing through the blood in my eyelids, content that it was my turn, and my children were just beginning.