Raymore’s Lyle Gibson set out 25 years ago in search of his roots. An African American, Gibson’s goal was to pinpoint his ancestor’s origin in Africa.
His research led him to pore over centuries-old records. He also interviewed scores of relatives who may have retained some clue to his lineage in their memories of parents’ and grandparents’ stories.
History is his passion; he is also a professor of the subject at Metropolitan Community College – Penn Valley.
“It’s part of my DNA. This was part of my purpose — my purpose is to research and to document,” Gibson said.
Gibson’s expansive genealogy research was the basis of his 2003 book, “Black Tie White Tie.” Years later, Gibson was approached by a former student about creating a documentary based on the book.
The partnership of Gibson and Jermaine Thomas started in 2010 and culminated in a documentary released this year, under the same title as Gibson’s book.
The documentary aired Feb. 23 at Penn Valley. It weaves interviews with family members together with resources for researching family history, such as DNA testing, census records and property documents.
“For me, it’s about finding a sense of time and finding a sense of place,” Gibson said. “When you research your history and find that information, it validates part of your life, your experiences.”
Gibson’s research led him to identify his third great-grandfather, Elijah Reed. Reed was a slave fathered by a white man, Lemiah Christopher Columbus Adkins, and a slave known only as Mariah. Gibson traced his lineage back to Reed and discovered a listing of his ancestor in an 1860 Census record in Louisiana.
The listing only identified Reed by his age, gender and shade of his skin — mulatto. Gibson said other shades in the Census were black, yellow and copper.
“It’s interesting how America has always been obsessed with the color of one’s skin,” he said.
Reed was later freed after the Civil War, and his white father left him a portion of land equal to what he left his white sons, Reed’s half brothers.
Gibson said that compassion attests to the contradictory nature of slavery, which historians call the “peculiar institution.”
“Slavery was brutal, without a doubt,” Gibson said. “Some slaves were bought and sold as commodities. Parents were separated from children. Some males were castrated. But then you run across a primary document where a slave owner left acreages of land to one or more of his slaves.”
Gibson’s work led him to discover ties with a diverse range of ancestors whom otherwise he would have never known. Those ties led him to feel an interconnectedness with others — a theme of the documentary.
Thomas, who directed the documentary, said he was inspired to tell Gibson’s story.
“I felt that people needed to see that in truth we are all really connected in some way and all of our stories make up the American story,” Thomas said.
Rebecca Givens attended the airing of the documentary at Penn Valley. She first met Gibson at a function held by the Midwest African American Genealogical Interest Coalition, MAGIC. ( Visit MAGIC’s website for more information about African American Genealogical organizations.)
At the time, Givens was doing family research of her own. She said the best way to embark on a genealogical search is to begin recording conversations with relatives.
She traced her roots to Tennessee and attended a reunion there where she interviewed relatives.
“The most rewarding thing has been to be able to know these people through history and what they’ve done, and to be able to make connections with them,” Givens said.
Joshua Hale, a student at Penn Valley, also attended the airing. He was moved by Gibson’s dedication to seek a connection to his past. For Hale, the documentary was reminiscent of a biblical teaching that we are all brothers and sisters.
“To me, that gave me a deeper understanding and it furthered my interest to understand my genealogy and share that with my family,” Hale said.
Though Gibson has traced his lineage back to western Africa, he is not finished, nor does he ever expect to be.
“As a historian there’s still more because we will always ask questions,” Gibson said.
But a key clue in his search for his family’s origin in Africa came one day in 1999, when Gibson traveled to Senegal.
At the time, he’d discovered the name of one of Reed’s daughters: Virginia “Sankonie” Reed. The unusual nickname given the daughter led Gibson to believe it could have been inspired by the language of Reed’s African roots.
And in Senegal, he met someon who could help with his hunch: a professor who had traveled to Ghana.
“I said, ‘I have these funny sounding names. Do they make sense?’” Gibson said. The professor then told him about a village in Ghana that was very similar phonetically to Sankonie: SankAna.
“You don’t pull that name out of a hat,” Gibson said. “It’s too close and too relevant.”
With that conversation, Gibson believed he had narrowed his ancestor’s location to near that Ghanaian village, before being wrenched from their continent.
Gibson said MCC students interested in researching their own ancestry have access to Heritage Quest, a comprehensive treasury of American genealogical sources, through the school library’s online database.
But though Gibson’s quest brought answers, it has not been immune to painful moments.
“I had to dive into those records of the slavery era. I started to think, you know, do I find a bill of sale or property tax record because they had to pay taxes on property? That’s when it started to hit me: I’m going to be exposed to a dark chapter in American history,” Gibson said.
He wrestled with the fact his ancestors were treated as property, likely brutalized and certainly dehumanized.
But he said the search also revealed the resiliency of the human will, how his ancestors were able to endure through the mechanisms they created, such as stories, song, faith and family.
“That’s what I really want to tap into as an individual and as a father,” Gibson said. “When you literally are in a living hell, you can find a way to survive.”