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Wide-ranging roots, multicolored leaves

Several years ago, the L.A. artist Toni Scott created a self-portrait for the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art. She depicted herself alongside old photographs of her ancestors.

There was a black man circa 1920, with round glasses, a stiff tie and a dignified air. And two Native American men who posed a century ago with revolvers and cartridge belts, as if they were about to head off for a gunfight.

“My grandmother always had this picture,” Scott told me, holding the gunslingers in an ornate frame that once graced a Pasadena living room. “But it was always a mystery to me exactly who these people were.”

Several commissions later, and with the help of an uncle who has spent years studying the family’s genealogy, Scott has put names behind those faces and dozens more. And she’s built her family tree into a three-dimensional work of art that brings together a seemingly unlikely cast of American characters.

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There are slaves, slave owners, Native American farmers, L.A. entrepreneurs and an orphan taken in by a white family. Their story goes back to three different Southern plantations — and also to Italy and Germany, with side tracks into Mexico and a “black beach” from the days when sand and surf were segregated in Southern California.

Scott’s family tree is on display at the California African American Museum, the portraits of her ancestors arranged like leaves on a series of branches. Listening to Scott and her uncle tell me about the lives of the people on that tree, I was surprised by how familiar their stories sounded.

“My dad said they were so poor, they didn’t have shoes,” Scott told me, speaking of her father, John Prexy Sims, who grew up in the Oklahoma countryside.

“I grew up being told that my mother’s grandfather was white,” Richard Procello, Scott’s maternal uncle, told me. “I found out that wasn’t true.”

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Los Angeles is a place working people have migrated to for more than a century to escape histories rooted in rural poverty. My family is from Guatemala, but we too have secrets, orphans, runaways and shoeless relatives in our near and distant past.

Chances are you do too, if you’ve got ancestors from Korea, Mexico, Ireland, Eastern Europe, Louisiana or any of the other places that have sent their wandering progeny to this city. Their ambition and resilience is one of the things that have made L.A. so prosperous for much of its history.

“Who am I?” Scott asked in her initial self-portrait. The answer: the daughter of an ethnically diverse family whose members always seemed to return, again and again, to the sturdy trunk of African American culture.

“All this has given me greater ownership of this country than I ever felt before,” Scott, 52, tells me as we stand in her Chatsworth studio, among dozens of images and old documents she’s assembled in researching her family history. “I literally feel roots growing out of my feet into the ground.”

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Scott has learned about her maternal family from her uncle, who tracked down old family stories at the Mormon Church’s Family History Library in West L.A. “I practically lived there for several years,” Procello, 71, told me.

Eventually, Procello’s explorations took him back to Fayette County, Ga., and to the slave owner Drury B. May, who is Scott’s great-great-great-grandfather.

Before the Civil War, May fathered two sets of children — one with his white wife and the other with his slave, Louisa. In recent years, the two sets of Mays have confirmed their shared heritage through with DNA tests, Procello said. Just the other day, Scott received an e-mail from one of the white Mays that began “Hello, cousin.”

Louisa May moved to Oklahoma, where her son Solon was listed in various census records between 1870 and 1920 as black, “mulatto” and white. Procello grew up believing Solon was white, though his 1929 death certificate lists him as “black/mulatto.”

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Solon’s son, S.B.W. May, was a train porter. His travels brought him to L.A., where he became a prominent Central Avenue entrepreneur in the 1920s. He also invested in a hotel in Manhattan Beach overlooking a stretch of sand open to black families.

S.B.W. May also was one of the first black men to run for Los Angeles City Council, in 1925, finishing fourth. “He did well in the black precincts,” Procello told me. “But not so well in the white precincts.”

And yet, for all Procello and Scott know about their family, there are many mysteries. Procello’s father’s surname is Italian, but he has no idea when or where the original Procello arrived in the U.S. He isn’t even sure if his father considered himself black or white.

There are other unknowns on Scott’s father’s side of the family tree.

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The greatest is her great-great-grandmother, the orphan daughter of a Cherokee Indian, a man who was said to have been “run off by the law.” The family that took her in — and treated her cruelly until she ran away at age 13 — called her “Fine” because she looked sturdy and healthy.

“Fine” married into a family that was unambiguously black, as did Albert Hardiman, Scott’s great-great-grandfather, who was born into slavery as the son of a white overseer. Frank Knoll, an immigrant from Bavaria who is Scott’s great-grandfather, married into a black family too — though later he started another family in Mexico and told stories about being robbed by Pancho Villa’s army.

There are many more tales, enough to fill a novel. One has Drury May, the slave owner, asking on his deathbed that his family take care of all of his children, black and white. Another has her father’s mother, a maid, fighting to keep her children when illness struck her in Oklahoma.

“Many of those stories were painful, but I realized something,” Scott told me. “All those people survived.” From the cruel calculus of slavery to the parched farms of the Great Plains, her ancestors kept moving forward.

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“That strength has to be passed down to us,” she said. “We have it.”

Next to Scott’s family tree at the California African American Museum, there’s a slave cabin she’s built as part of a larger installation celebrating black history.

On the ceiling, she’s placed pictures of dozens of people born into slavery, including a man with a well-groomed mustache who was emancipated after the Civil War. Albert Hardiman’s many descendents include teachers, professionals and the L.A. artist who today celebrates his fortitude.

hector.tobar@latimes.com


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