My Black Wife

She doesn't look blackish. In fact, she's a blond. Her mother is Swedish, and she has a bunch of second cousins in Jonkoping. But it turns out that her grandmother, Jane Helm of Drake, Missouri, was passing all her life. And she carried the secret to her deathbed.

Suddenly it all made sense. The face powder. The parasol. The elbow-length gloves. The high-necked dresses. It wasn't Victorian formality carried into the 20th century. It was a cover-up.

The evidence of Jane's ancestry comes from two sources: Census records and a mitochondrial DNA test.

Jane Helm had a brother - my wife's great-uncle. Born April 4, 1893. Strangled by the umbilical cord. The mother's "nativity" is Negro. The son's race is black.

We don't have the birth certificate for Jane. But we know that the mtDNA test, which traces ancestry through the mother's line, lists L-type haplogroups, which are typical of West Africa, Ethiopia and Mozambique.

Jane Helm's father came from Switzerland to America, bought a farm in rural Missouri after the Civil War and married a black woman. I imagine that only a foreigner would have done it. Southern Missouri is still the South, even today.

The ironic part is that Jane's living children, even after seeing the mtDNA results and the Census records, won't accept her heritage. They talk about the "Mohawk" in the family - a phrase that Southerners tell me is a codeword.