I am a New Yorker living in Nashville, but my family is deeply rooted in the Natchtosh Parish of Louisiana, so I hope you can forgive me.
Incredibly, my New York connection began in Louisiana.
In the 1930s, my great-grandmother Laura Perrault married John Donnelly, an Irish New Yorker, in her hometown of Louisiana. After they got married, they moved back to his hometown of New York. South to North adaptation must have been great for Laura. I later learned that she not only left her family and culture behind, but also her name and race.
My mother and mother Marion (Laura’s daughter) were raised French and Irish by Laura (in NY she was called “Louise”). My Grammy was so proud of her French heritage. One day, after going through some boxes of old family photos, I saw a picture of her maternal grandmother standing next to my Irish great-grandfather John Donnelly on their wedding day. It was perfectly clear that Laura was not white.
Twenty years later, I am still grappling with the meaning of that photograph and all that represents who my family was and still is today. and her family were censused as black, mixed-race, Mexican (Latina), and eventually white.
Who is Laura Perrault? And who was I?
In all transparency, I was frustrated that Gram was hiding our legacy. Simply the amount of work required find out who i was Stacked around me.
Determined to solve the mystery, I interviewed a family in New York last year and met a new family in Louisiana. I was exhausted and didn’t know how to continue this journey of not only finding my roots, but explaining them.
A woman named Naomi Drake changed my perspective.
From the same era as Laura, Drake headed the New Orleans Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1949 to 1965. Her personal mission was to “kick out” people who believed they had African or colored ancestry despite her birth certificate being white. In her view, this racially low-pedigree classification is necessary, and she often infuses into personal genealogies, with the intention of finding one ancestor labeled “colored,” or relative. ‘s obituary to see if anyone in the family has one. Services at a traditional “black” funeral home. If anyone rejects Drake’s racial determination, she will withhold her birth certificate entirely.
Trying to survive in the Jim Crow era was incredibly difficult for non-white people.
Louisiana didn’t overturn the “one drop rule” until 1983. It was a year after Laura died and only three years before I was born. Under that rule, you had to be 1/32 African American to be considered a person of color. I grew up white, but if I was just a few years older, Louisiana wouldn’t be like that.
I used to think Laura was ashamed of where she came from, but now I know all too well.
What seemed like self-destruction to me was her attempt to protect her family and children from the most dangerous enemy: their own legacy. It was brave and heartbreaking at the same time. We had both privilege and discrimination. We were white and people of color. We were both Yankees and Southerners. Our family history seemed like a little bit of everything.
Danielle Romero loves uncovering secrets and telling long-forgotten stories.View the document series “Finding Lola” on YouTube.
This article was originally published in Nashville Tennessee. Personal Essay: How Discovering My New Orleans Roots Shaped My Identity