Uprooting the Family Tree

With a past tangled in slavery, Americans are looking for reconciliation everywhere from plantations to DNA sequences.

by Kenna Beban

*Four people in this story have their names removed. Their pseudonyms are Lucille, Pierre, Jean Paul, and Jacqueline.*

The view across a road, looking into a garlic field with grasses bending in the wind and trees in the background.

A garlic field across Highway 115 in Bunkie, Louisiana.

In Louisiana, people are buried above the ground. The land is swampy, waterlogged, and during heavy flooding, caskets can float to the surface, long-dead ancestors popping back up to remind you who you came from. Disturbing the dead, disturbing the living. 

So they’re encased in a cement shell and set to rest on top of the soil, in a casket-shaped mound called an individual crypt. Long rectangle slabs of smooth white marble, or pockmarked dark stone, with a cross, or tombstone, or placard at the head. Not long after burial, like everything in Louisiana, the land soon takes over. Wildflowers poke up along the base, moss blooms from the corners, and, still bound to that swampy, waterlogged soil, one end or the other will sink, titling the crypt just slightly as it settles into the earth. All lined up in rows, like a crooked set of teeth. 

When Karen Compton Ward first heard of the above-ground burials, she was disturbed.  “I told my kids, when I die, burn me and put me in the ocean,” she said. “I want to see the world.” 

Karen, 58, looks right into your eyes when she talks to you, and never with judgment. She’s black, on the lighter side (the much lighter side); her skin has an amber tint where the sun reaches, and, where it doesn’t, is “whiter than white.” Her hair is countless reddish brown ringlets that fall in Mississippi-river bends down her shoulders, her eyes heavy-lidded, big and brown, always with a thick stroke of black eyeliner making them bigger and browner.

Karen looked out of the passenger’s side window. Her daughter, Laroya “La La” Compton, was driving. Karen called her Princess La La, and the car was decorated accordingly: leather-and-rhinestone seat covers, bedazzled crown decals, fuzzy pink pom-poms swinging from the mirror. It was early April. Gusts of wind pushed the car as we drove south on Route 71 from Alexandria, Louisiana to Bunkie. Surrounding us was agriculture. Rows of dirt topped with tufted crops, grass-like, bending in the wind, the acres of land broken up by slow-moving bayous and dirt roads and clumps of mossy trees. 

170 years ago, Karen’s ancestors were enslaved in this area.  

“I try to imagine what they looked like in the fields,” Karen said. In her mind, the tractors and plows faded away, replaced by the women and men who worked the land with their hands. “Bent over, picking. The babies on their backs. Where the house would’ve been.” 

The land, and her ancestors, are just starting to get familiar. Karen grew up with the same knowledge of her history as many black Americans; that her family was enslaved, but with no idea by whom, or where, or until when. That is, until recently. She first met her distant relatives over the internet 12 years ago. Then, in 2017, made the trip to Louisiana to visit some of those relatives. And in 2019, 170 of them gathered in a family reunion, flying in from across the country, all brought together by Karen’s search to find out where she came from. 

It all started with a picture.

  

Looking for Viola

Growing up, Karen’s mother said it more and more. When they passed each other in the hallway, she’d look at Karen’s face, and in a Southern drawl teetering on the edge of song: 

“There go Viola, there go Viola.”

Karen had always been told of her resemblance to Viola Pearl Compton, her father’s mother.  Same eyes, same lips, same skin. But her parents separated when she was young, and she was raised by her mother’s side of the family. 

“I knew I looked like Viola, but I didn’t get a chance to meet Viola,” Karen said. Karen was left with no face, no picture, just her mother’s memory — “there go Viola, there go Viola,” — of her paternal grandmother. 

She didn’t think much about it. Her mother’s darker skin, just a fact of existence. The Compton in her name, just remnants of a family she no longer belonged to. 

But her father’s whiteness followed her. He was African American, but white-passing — while no one would mistake Karen for white, she still stood out against her black schoolmates in Chicago’s Washington Park Housing Projects. They would tease her, as kids do, calling her “white girl.” When she was twelve, her mother remarried, to a Navy police officer, and the family relocated to NAS Alameda in the San Francisco Bay Area. The kids there were more diverse, and the teasing stopped. But that feeling that she was different stuck in the back of her mind, right next to the mystery of Viola’s face. Some part of her story was missing. But Karen’s 20s were preoccupied with raising La La, who she had at 18, and her brother Brannon, who she had at 20. 

“It didn’t hit me until I was in my 30s that I really, desperately wanted to know about her,” Karen said. “Just all of a sudden. I’ve gotta know, I’ve gotta know, I’ve gotta know.” 

And so began Karen’s search for Viola. Saturdays turned into her version of self-care days, trips from Bakersfield to Los Angeles filled with manicures, hair appointments, and hours in the Inglewood Public Library digging through records, hunting for Viola’s face. 

Months passed, then years. No picture. Compton this, Compton that, Viola nothing. 

One of those Saturdays in the early 2000s, Karen’s eyes fell on the library’s phone book section. She remembered something — a promise made by her older half-sister back in Chicago, before the family split over two decades before.

“My sister said she’s always gonna be in the phonebook,” Karen said. “And sure enough, there she was.” 

They hadn’t talked in years, but Karen got straight to the point. Did her sister have a picture of their maternal  grandmother? She didn’t, but she knew someone who might: her half-brother, now in Mississippi. 

Not long after, the picture arrived in the mail. 

“I opened it up and I got to see her face.” Karen said. There were the lips: evenly rounded, with a flourishing V-shaped dip in the middle. There were the round cheeks, and the eyebrows, angled up and thin at the tails. And there was that same light amber-brown skin tone against Viola’s polka-dot collar, obvious even through the black and white. “I just sat, and I just cried. To look at the picture and say, wow, you did exist. You were real, you were alive…. you had a life, you had children, and you have grandchildren and now you have great-grandchildren.” By now, Karen could see some of Viola in her own children. “It was like a whole different world opened up to me.”

Viola Compton was the first of many. 

“I thought I was finished,” Karen said. “I thought I was gonna be satisfied just seeing her face. But then I wondered, well where did you come from?” The fire was lit. “Well who was her father? Who was her dad? And who…”

Twenty-two years later, it’s still burning. 

“What’s past obsessed?” her black DNA cousin, Brenda Compton, said. “Is there a word that’s past obsessed?” 

DNA cousin is a not-so-scientific term. It’s what those in the Compton lineage call the family members who pop up as branches on their Ancestry.com trees, branches connected through blood tests and gene sequences and great-great-cousin-aunt-uncles they’d never heard of. Karen’s search for Viola has evolved into two Facebook pages, one big family reunion, and a web of 400+ blood relatives all connected, somehow and some way, to the Comptons. 

She started with Facebook, friending every black person, last name Compton, she could find (“You got my last name, I’m asking questions”). Messaging them. One of those Facebook Comptons created a page, Compton Family Connections, to crowdsource their history. People slowly joined, posting sepia toned photos of great-great aunts in front of churches, microfilms of property deeds and census records, going back decades, some in fading, slanted cursive. The pieces of the Compton family puzzle began to fall together. Before dispersing to big cities (Chicago, Houston, St. Louis), the Comptons populated Rapides Parish, a collection of smallish towns, one biggish town, a major highway, and farmland smack in the middle of Louisiana. That’s where Viola was born in 1899. And that’s where the first sign of the white side of the family appeared. 

Enslaved people are voids of information, genealogically speaking. Only after the Civil War were they recorded as human. Venture beyond the 1870 Census, and family timelines fade away into sales records. Personhood reduced to age, gender, and skin tone. The only way to regain footing is through last names passed down from white slaveholders. In Karen’s case, from Leonard Briscoe Compton. Grandson of wealthy Englishmen, the family immigrated to Maryland in the 1700s, where he was born. He and his three brothers then moved to Rapides Parish in 1799. They purchased land, and purchased people to work that land. 

Fauchon Morres was one such person. Leonard bought her in 1819 for $16,000. She was 35. On the sale record, she’s described as mulatto, and “overwhelmingly European.” Upon giving birth to Leonard’s first son in 1825, he freed her. They lived together as man and wife, sharing the estate, sending their son to Ohio to be educated as white. And when Leonard died, he left Fauchon everything. Everything, including a tract of land along the Red River, 91 bales of cotton, and the people he enslaved, including the seven children she had before him, the seven black children he had purchased along with her. Legally, she owned her own kids. 

“I’d like to think that they did love each other,” Karen said. “But what else was she gonna do? Because she was his slave….she had an obligation. She wasn’t gonna leave her children.”

For a brief few months, Fauchon was the wealthiest black woman in Louisiana. Until Leonard’s brothers sued her, taking her inheritance. The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that, as a formerly enslaved person, she couldn’t own property. Fauchon died a year later. The only thing passed down from their relationship was a blended skin tone and the shock of white faces popping up in a black family tree. 

  

The Bunkie House

A sunny walkway through a patch of grass, the brick and wood siding visible behind.

The walkway to Brenda’s house in Bunkie, Louisiana.

Brenda Compton hosted the first meet-and-greet at her home in Bunkie, Louisiana. Now, the house is empty; Brenda’s getting ready to sell. But five years ago, it was full of furniture, gumbo, family maps, and strangers-turned-family as it hosted the first Compton gathering. 

The house sits across highway 115 from garlic fields, simple and sturdy, sun-basking on a healthy blanket of grass. A wide-angled roof, fading brick, wrought iron over the windows, and a cotton plant that keeps peeking up no matter how many times they try to bury it.

As a kid, Brenda’s family made the 4-hour drive from Houston to Bunkie for summer breaks, winter breaks, every holiday — “not just the major ones,” she said, “e-ve-ry holiday…if school was out that Friday, by Saturday we were in Bunkie.” 

Brenda is quintessentially Southern, speaks slowly and laughs quickly. She’s 73, wears her hair short, lipstick red, and usually doesn’t have “white folks” in her home. 

“It was scary at first,” she said. Originally just Brenda, Karen, and their siblings, two of their white DNA cousins who lived nearby joined the meet-and-greet. Lucille and her grandson Pierre. Karen had been warned about mixing with whites in the South; that things were different than in California, discrimination was worse, the police would be after them. So she and Brenda were nervous, very nervous. Luckily, Brenda’s brother Donnie would be on the lookout for cheeks. 

“You know what,” he told her, “I think that when white people doesn’t feel comfortable around you, they cheeks get red,” Brenda laughed. “I said what in the hell, where did you get that from…that’s foolish. But my brother is funny, he’s comical.” 

The white folks arrived a half hour after Karen and her Mississippi brother. It was pecan season, and nuts dropped from the shady tree out front. Pierre got out of the driver’s seat, Lucille from the passenger’s. She was a little old lady. Wavy gray hair, sharp brown eyes, purple blouse, purple cardigan, purple reading glasses. They’d driven in from Pineville, another Louisiana town 40 minutes away. And though they looked different — very different — there was one thing they’d for sure have in common: Southern hospitality. 

“Some people say they can make gumbo, and some people can’t,” Brenda said. “Some people can’t make gumbo.” Thankfully, Donnie could. It filled their mother’s biggest pot — chicken, okra, file in a thick green stew — and after 82-year-old Lucille tried a “little bitty bowl,” plates abounded. Mustard greens, cornbread, fried drumsticks from Chicken Palace. That was when Karen and Brenda learned that their chatty tendencies weren’t just on the black side; “[Lucille] can talk,” Karen later told me, “talk talk talk talk.” 

Lucille told them about how she was a descendant of John Compton, Leonard Briscoe Compton’s older brother. A generation ahead of Karen, she was John’s second-great-granddaughter. The brothers were business partners, and had neighboring land along Bayou Robert and Bayou Boeuf — land that Route 71 now cuts through, where Karen looked out of the car window, imagining her ancestors in the fields. Leonard’s choice to marry Fauchon had divided the family, and John was the one who led the charge in taking her inheritance. Leonard’s children were left out of the family genealogy book: “he never married,” it reads, with no mention of the nasty legal battles after his death. 

But the family knew that Leonard had mixed. According to Karen, Lucille told her  John’s white descendants always suspected they had black cousins — “we just never knew how to find you, where to find you.”

Even with that suspicion, not every white Compton was on board with the blooming family tree. One, still living on former plantation land, had shut the door on a relative who’d gone looking for bibles he’d inherited — bibles that often had enslaved people’s names and family trees written in the lining. One even ghosted Karen after months of emailing back and forth when she finally said something that revealed her blackness. 

Not Lucille though. Not only did she enthusiastically bound into the meet-and-greet, the records she brought with her were more than Karen and Brenda could have imagined. Once the meeting, greeting, and eating were done, the DNA cousins got down to business sharing their genealogy collections. 

“They brought it all in one book,” Karen said, the same book that conveniently left out Leonard’s black wife and children. “They unrolled the maps, and they had pictures of the plantations, and the bayous, and oh man, it was just a wealth of information.” 

The discrepancies between the black and white collections were obvious. Since finding Viola, Karen had spent hours upon hours in different genealogy libraries, finding the tiniest scraps of information to piece together her family puzzle. A social security application, a marriage license, a property deed. 

But they lacked much of the big-picture story. One piece in particular had evaded their grasp; Leonard’s property, called the Lodi plantation. Where Fauchon and her kids lived, where the family first mixed. 

“We knew that it existed because of word of mouth,” Karen said. No one on the black side had been able to find definitive proof of the Lodi plantation. “Even when we went to court houses and all of that,” she said, “we just could not find that information. And then when we met with the white cousins, they had it right there in print. Everything.”

It was nice, to hold a photo up to your face instead of zooming in on the computer. To flip through pages and pages of your family’s timeline. To trace your finger along a bayou, find the exact section of riverbank where your ancestors must have seen gators and turtles bobbing their heads. 

“They really existed,” Karen proved to herself over and over. “It’s something I have to take a picture of, or I have to get a copy of, or I have to possess the realness of the fact….It’s not an idea. It’s not a thought. It’s not a what if. Here’s an actual fact of something that existed.” 

Four hours of amateur genealogy and steady chit-chat came and went. Karen and her brother had a long drive home. Full of sweet potatoes and sweeter tea, the cousins said goodbyes, leaving Brenda with her brothers. 

“Okay, Donnie, you were gone watch cheeks. What did you get?” she asked. 

“Brenda, they were comfortable around us. I was reading cheeks.” She called him silly again. “No no, they were real comfortable around us.” 

Brenda felt relief — awe, not just at unflushed cheeks, but at how well they got along. How the white folks didn’t deny their kinship. How they didn’t need the DNA tests to feel like family. 

“I thought it was just bomb-diggity,” Brenda said. “That’s my word for it. Bomb-diggity.”

  

Princess La La

Looking at the back of a woman's head driving a car, her sunglasses, gold hoops and curly hair visible, along with the princess crown decal on her steering wheel.

Princess La La driving her princess-themed car.

La La was stranded in the desert. It was 2018, and she’d been trying to move from Bakersfield, California to Mississippi, where Karen was living at the time. In the middle of the four-day drive, her car broke down in New Mexico. Or maybe it was Arizona. Somewhere with miles of empty dirt and no one around to help. She was with her youngest son, and starting to panic. 

She caught rides from gracious strangers, ending up in Arlington, Texas three days later. There, a bald black man with La La’s same sparkling smile picked them up in his Toyota Camry. They’d never met before, but it didn’t matter. It was her cousin Ben. Karen had connected with him as a DNA match on Ancestry.com a few years ago; when her daughter was in trouble, she knew just who to call.

“I didn’t feel like it was a stranger helping me,” La La said, even though it was the first she’d heard of him. “I felt safe with him. And I was safe with him, thank god.” He took them into his home in Irving, Texas until she was able to get back on her feet. She now lives nearby, and they’ve been close ever since. “That’s family. I can’t explain it,” she said.  

It doesn’t take much for La La, 41, to laugh. Contagious giggles punctuate many of her thoughts, whether absurd, or poignant, or just plain funny. She has a thing for glitz; this is Princess La La we’re talking about. When I met her and Karen in Louisiana, she was wearing knee-high leather boots, jeans, a black beret, and a bedazzled Gucci shirt. Her father is black, and she takes after him: her complexion a little darker than Karen’s, head a little bigger, and ringlet curls a little tighter, jet-black, and shiny. She was grateful when Uncle Ben took her in, but she wasn’t surprised. She would’ve done the same. 

“We give,” she said about the Comptons. She’s noticed some similarities among the DNA cousins. “We’ll always be the first ones to say, I’ll do it. I’ll pay, I’ll….” 

Before moving to Texas, both she and Karen had careers in social work. La La worked for AmeriCorp, specializing in the end-of-the-road schools no one else wanted, mentoring kids just out of juvie, or still inside. She remembers candy-striping with her grandmother at NAS Alameda, where she grew up before moving to low income neighborhoods.

“I’m from the hood, so to speak,” La La said. After moving out of NAS Alameda when she was twelve, the family made its way south along California’s San Joaquin Valley. NAS Lemoore, then Hanford, and finally Bakersfield. All places where miles of flat sidewalks bounce the sun into a haze, dissolving any moisture in the air, all places where grass browns in the summer and rainfall is a pleasant surprise. And all places where La La had to come to terms with what it meant to be black in America. 

“When I first started seeing family members getting harassed by the police for nothing,” she said, remembering when she noticed something was off. “You’re trying to understand what went wrong, and you loved the police, and you’re just a kid, you don’t know nothing.” She struggled to make sense of the world. “Or being in school, and someone’s getting more privileges than you’re getting, or something goes wrong and they immediately turn to you. That’s learned. I didn’t grow up thinking that.” 

As she got older, she was the one to get pulled over by the police, forced to get on the ground for loosely fitting a description. She saw how the media generalized people who looked like her, as though they were all the same person. “You see a black person rob somebody, we’re all robbers. And it’s hard to grow up, and to know that. It’s hard.”

La La was raised in a melting pot. Being a Navy brat, she had friends of all races, grew up around different cultures, languages, religions. It opened her eyes to how similar we all are as human beings, taught her that the conversation doesn’t have to end just because someone isn’t like you. But it also made the differences in how she and her family were treated so much more obvious.

 “You start to grow this fear, and this hatred,” she said. “A lot of it’s towards maybe policing and government,” she said, and though much of the discrimination came from white faces, her feelings weren’t necessarily towards individual people. “I’ve never hated anybody. I don’t hate white people.”

There was one white man, though, that might deserve a little hatred. She told me about being on the track team at NAS Alameda. About being the third-fastest, and almost making the junior Olympics, and how “it was, like, the best thing ever.” About their coach, and how the team worshiped him the way kids worship their favorite teacher, hanging onto his every word. And about the time, one day in the weight room, that coach called her the n-word.

“I was a kid. And it broke me. It broke me. I loved that man, that was my coach, he was everything,” she said. La La was ten or eleven at the time. “And he called me a nigger.” 

She quit the team. The coach arrogantly tried to make her apologize, which she refused to do. To this day, she wishes she could talk to him, tell him how much she had loved him, and how much he hurt her. 

“When you start seeing that stuff, from childhood on, it’s just like, ding, ding, ding, it’s clicking in your brain, till it finally just stays there, and you’re like, this is just what it is. How do I survive it.”

  

First Encounters

After Brenda’s Bunkie meet-and-greet, the groundwork was laid. The other cousins on Facebook were jealous of the mini gathering. So, the Comptons banded together and organized a blended family reunion. 

170 of them met at the Courtyard Marriott Inn in Alexandria, Louisiana. It was October 18th, 2019. The day was sunny, the air was humid, the parking lot was crowded, and La La was afraid.

“I was standing behind my mom like a lost puppy,” she said. “I was scared.” A big group of whites and blacks, getting together, in the same place? “I didn’t know if they were gonna hate us, if people were gonna fight, I just didn’t know.” She’d never seen it before. None of them had. While they all shared DNA, the individual family units were all-white or all-black. Black kids with black parents, white kids with white parents. It seemed like the Comptons had all stuck with what they knew, and La La was second guessing everything. But she knew how hard Karen had worked for this moment, to see everyone finally in a room together. So La La got out of her car and walked inside.

She approached the registration table in the hotel conference room. The volunteers, all Compton family members, had alternated black-white-black-white. As people checked in, La La saw them working together, figuring out who belonged to which family line, finding name tags. The churning in her stomach stopped, replaced by curiosity. 

Well, this is pretty cool… she thought. Let’s just see how it goes. 

They’d all shown up at the same place, but the distance was still there. Especially at Kees Park. They gathered there in matching cerulean blue t-shirts, pulled taught over drooping bellies of old men, hanging loose on skinny children, styled into teenaged scoop-necks. 

Compton Family Reunion, the shirts read, with a medieval-looking family crest. Alexandria, Louisiana. 2019.

The blended Compton family had set up a tent canopy, picnic tables, folding chairs, and an awkwardly unintentional racial division. “The whites sat on their side, and the blacks sat on their side,” La La remembered. Stereotypes ran through their minds. Were the whites expecting them to be loud, acting foolish? Were the blacks expecting them to be stuck up and snobby? They eyed each other from across the way, but no one really knew how to start. So La La and Karen began crossing lines, going to the different sides, asking people how they were doing. Conversations started: “before you know it, everybody’s talking to everybody,” La La said. 

The adults were easy. They’d shown up. The decision to have an open mindset, get to know their colorful cousins, was already made — once the ice broke, they had no trouble talking. Lucille was there, genealogy book in hand. Her grandson, too, and son, and Brenda. But the children were struggling. Luckily, La La had plenty of experience dealing with kids at AmeriCorp. And she liked hanging out with them more, anyway. 

She sat with a group of black girls. “I was helping them do little crafts, stuff like that, and a little white boy comes over, just talking, dadadada.” The girls ignored him.  Didn’t make room for him in their circle. “I’m like, ohhh no.” Most of the families were from the South, where, so it seemed, there wasn’t much mixing between the races. 

“The little boy had a comment,” she remembered. “He said, there’s nobody that looks like you where I come from!” La La laughed. “Oh, he’s in shock! They’re more in shock than us, because they don’t know what’s going on. They’re kids. Like, where are all these black people coming from? Mom, what’s going on?” It was refreshing, seeing their honest reactions. “Kids have no filter,” she chuckled. So, just as she had with the adults, La La played ice-breaker. She asked the boy his name, showed him the crafts, and soon the girls were playing along without a thought. 

The Comptons had quite the weekend planned. A BBQ luncheon, smoked brisket and baked beans and gallons of Southern sweet tea. A Mardi Gras event, purple and green and gold glitter, beads and masks and a hidden King cake baby. Presentations on family history, from 16th century England to 20th century America. At Kees Park, the kids jumped in the bouncy house, grandparents danced the electric slide, and the Compton blended family looked forward to their next few days together. 

But again, La La was reminded of where they’d all come from. She overheard phone calls between white women and their husbands who “weren’t too happy, let’s just say that.” They were telling their wives to come home, stop the mixing, skip the rest of the weekend. 

“That was kind of sad, because they were open, and their other half was not. So that was a hard thing to hear” she said. “I hope this isn’t hurting nobody’s family.” But the ones that did show up knew it was the right decision.  “Man, if he could only see,” she thought. “Everybody’s dancing together, drinking together, having a good time, telling stories,” she said. “It was just great.”

They all shared the same mindset: we’re family, there’s no way out of it, so let’s just enjoy it. As with any family reunion, they started finding similarities. A chin, a nose, a smile, a laugh. A strong faith in God, love for all his children, prayers before every meal. And that ability to go on and on and on about anything, with honesty, openness, and good humor. 

“It broke a lot of barriers,” La La said. “We’re more alike than we know.”

The reunion helped put some of La La’s negative feelings to rest, her fears that differences would overcome similarities. Until she ran into the same revelation Karen had at the Bunkie House meet-and-greet: the whites had the records. Lots and lots of records. Along with the history presentations, the family archives had been photocopied, laminated, and compiled into binders. La La flipped through, and it left her heartbroken. 

“Growing up, it felt like we’re the only culture that don’t really have a culture. We had to make our own culture, because it was stolen from us,” she said. “So to know that you have some records that would probably help lead us back to some form of an identity, yeah, that was hurtful.”

She had assumed the black side of history was just lost to time, lost in the minds and hearts of people who weren’t allowed to read or write or raise their own children. The world had just left them behind, she thought, forgetting that black people were there, that slavery happened. But clearly that wasn’t the case. “That gave me the chills,” she said. “They have the pictures. They know what happened, they have records of who they owned, like wow.” She was shocked. “All the stuff that we need answers to, you have already.” 

Suddenly their absence felt more sinister, intentional. The truth had been hidden, but only from black eyes. And that hurt. But it also made her think. 

“What are they going through, too?” she wondered about her white cousins. “They have to deal with the fact that, I come from a family who has slaves,” she said, that their not-so-long-ago ancestors had done horrible things to innocent people, that everything they have today came from suffering. “Who wants to admit that? Who wants to say, oh yeah, I’m part of that family who did that.”

It was decades too late, but the fact that they’d brought the records to the reunion helped. Opened her up to more understanding, and less hate. 

“Maybe it’s not so much that they were purposefully trying to sweep it under the rug,” La La said, “it’s just that they’re hurting too. We’re hurting, but they’re hurting, because we’re in a different era. To know that you’re a part of that? It probably affects them a lot more than we know,” she said.

“I think we need to not forget that. Both sides are hurting.”

At the blended Compton reunion, the DNA cousins watched their family grow, strangers turn into aunts, uncles, cousins, friends. They learned dances, jokes, traditions from people they would’ve walked past on the street without a second thought.

La La had a good time, she said, and didn’t tell the white cousins how much their records, sealed away for so long, had hurt her. “I don’t want to be the cause of any more pain. I just wanted to be happy,” she said. “Just accepting that you’re family, we’re family now, that’s all I can take out of this. I don’t want no animosity, and I don’t want any anger. We’re in a different era now, let’s just grow each other and love each other.”

  

A Word from the Whites

Jean Paul standing on the road by his house.

Were my ancestors enslaved?

For most black Americans,  it’s hardly even worth asking. The answer is built into the color of their skin. 

Did my ancestors enslave people? 

For whites, the answer is less clear. Whether or not they’ve benefited from it — that’s obvious. But if their ancestors were directly responsible? If stealing generation after generation of time and health and family is baked directly into their DNA? 

Once you find out the truth, what do you do? 

“We don’t ever talk about it,” A white Compton DNA cousin, Jacqueline, said. “If the white family talks, we only talk about the good part.” 

Jacqueline is in her seventies, and grew up in Louisiana. Her ancestors owned neighboring plantations to the Comptons, and the family lines crossed at multiple points throughout the years. A DNA test with Karen proved that they were related. 

“It’s a two sided coin. You’re proud of your heritage, you’re proud of your grandparents, they did well in life and they handed things down to you, property, buildings, money, prestige, the name.” Her family heirlooms include old black-and-white plantation photos; she took them to frame shops, has them displayed them in her house. 

“But the same didn’t happen for them,” she said about her black cousins. “They were cattle.” 

One plantation photo shows a two-story house, long rectangle windows, wraparound porches with pillars shaded by large trees. There are figures standing in front of it — someone holding a baby, riding a horse, sitting on the porch. Behind the house is a fence, and what looks like a barn, washed out by sunlight. When Karen visited Jacqueline at her ranch, Jacqueline felt the need to hide those plantation photos. Felt like she had to explain why she had them, why they were in those frames (oval, gold, inscribed in loopy cursive). Absent her black cousins, the old family land was a source of pride. Now, showing them to Karen, Jacqueline was embarrassed. 

“Is my family directly responsible for you not knowing your language, or who your three times great-grandmother was? Is it specifically my family? Is it an overall thing?” It was a different time. A lot of people owned slaves. But not everyone. And not everyone now lives on a ranch, like Jacqueline does. “And then you feel…guilt. Guilt.” 

Since meeting her black cousins, she’s thought more about what it must have been like for their ancestors 200 years ago. 

“I try to put myself in that position,” she said. “Well, what would I feel like if they had taken everything from me, including my name? Well, how would I feel?” She thought about her own family. “I look at my grandchild and I think, oh my gosh, what would I do if somebody owned me and just walked up and took her?” she said. “What if they sold her to some abusive master? What if I never ever saw that child again?”

She was happy to find Karen, of course. Her black DNA cousins are lovely, sweet and nice and “just so good to us.” But when she talks to them about their shared history, she still feels that queasy burst of shame, embarrassment. 

“I know how I got my name, and my money,” she said. “Sometimes I wanna run away from that guilt, just, out of sight, out of mind. But then I would miss the people that I’ve met that I like so much.”

  

A Facebook Story

A few months ago, Karen got a call from a DNA cousin. Did you see what Jacqueline posted on Facebook? No, she hadn’t. So she logged on, searched up Jacqueline, but instead of her profile picture, Karen found a padlock icon and a message: this content isn’t available right now. 

Jacqueline had blocked her. 

Karen was confused. For older ladies, Facebook is sacred, like the watering hole, the town square, the bingo tournament. There are unspoken rules: always wish people a happy birthday, check in safe when there’s a disaster nearby, repost anything and everything relatable. And never, ever block someone. Karen called up Brenda to ask if she’d seen the post. Brenda looked, and found the same blank page. She, too, had been blocked.

Neither of them ever ended up seeing it. Their other cousins told them it was a political cartoon about Kamala Harris, who Karen loved. Something mocking her. Something Jacqueline knew would offend her black cousins. But she posted it anyway, and tried to block Karen and Brenda from seeing the post, but accidentally ended up blocking them from her account entirely. 

The blended Compton family was born on Facebook. They grew together, sharing, posting, commenting. It was instrumental in Karen’s search for her family, in the reunion, in keeping the relationships they’d made since. Some had friended each other outside of their genealogy group, occasionally seeing glimpses of their lives outside of the Compton bubble. There were political differences, of course. To be expected in a family with hundreds of members and vastly different backgrounds. But it had never really been an issue until after the reunion. 

“Later, when the election started,” Brenda recalled, “Oh my goodness. We saw different things. We saw true colors.”

Jacqueline’s blocking wasn’t the first upsetting thing she’d done on Facebook, but it was the most jarring. She and Brenda were already at odds at the time we spoke, before the blocking occurred. 

“First time I met her, I loved her,” Brenda said. “Jacqueline is another me. She’s a white me.” They had a good back and forth. “She’ll say stuff to see what your reaction is gonna be, but I’ll counteract her, I think that’s why we like each other.”

In November of 2021, Brenda recounted, Jacqueline shared a picture of George Washington, with a caption about ‘taking the country back.’ Brenda replied in the comments, with an emoji — an emoji with a little more attitude, one that rolled its eyes and said, keep scrolling…. 

Jacqueline shot back. She didn’t think it was fair that Brenda’s emoji was looking side-eyed at her post. Jacqueline didn’t look side-eyed at Brenda’s posts when she saw something she didn’t like. 

Brenda replied. “It’s okay if you do,” she typed. “You can look side-eyed at what I say, and you can say, keep scrolling, and I will still love you. ‘Cause you’re my cousin.” 

Then, one of Jacqueline’s friends — “one of her little racist friends,” as Brenda calls them — replied saying she didn’t think anything was wrong with the George Washington take-back-the-country post. In fact, she thought it was perfect. 

That’s when Brenda got annoyed. Her little friend had no business popping in on that post. No one was talking to her in the first place. She could have really gone off. 

“In my head, lord, Michelle Obama says, when they go low, we gotta go high,” Brenda told herself. “And we gotta stay high right now.” So she reigned herself in, replied, agree to disagree, with a smiley face. It was the end of that conflict. She didn’t post anymore, Jacqueline didn’t post anymore. 

But tensions were high, and Brenda remembers another incident soon after when her brother Donnie posted a photo of the black Peanuts character, Franklin, at a Thanksgiving table with other multiracial Peanuts characters. Jacqueline commented: where are the white children? 

Brenda grew up in segregated Houston, in a redlined neighborhood. The deed to her house still says it should be sold “strictly to a colored.” So she knew it was entirely possible that Franklin didn’t have any white friends to sit around and have a holiday meal with. 

So Brenda replied. Did you go to school with any colored people?

Jacqueline: I went to high school during segregation and I enjoyed it because I got to meet new people.

Brenda: You did not answer my question. Did you go to school with integration? 

Jacqueline: I went to high school and I was so glad to meet new people. 

Brenda was annoyed. “I stopped. I said, we need to talk. She said, well, if you would call me, we could talk now. I said, no, it will be a face-to-face conversation, and I need to talk to you face-to-face. And then she didn’t answer me anymore. I don’t think she liked that. But it’s okay, and I’m not angry with her, I’m really not.”

Brenda’s okay with disagreement. “It would be weird if we all agreed with each other,” she said. There’s a reason God made us all different, in her eyes. We shouldn’t all think like each other. But she does, of course, disagree. 

“They’re still stuck,” Brenda said about many of the white Compton’s political views, “way back in prehistoric times, far as I’m concerned. They mad about the statues being pulled down,” referencing the Confederate monuments that were removed during protests. “Y’all, what about us? Yeah, I’m going along with Black Lives Matter! I’m black!”

La La hears about the back and forths on Facebook, but mostly through her mom. “I keep my distance,” she said. It’s sad, seeing some of the posts from people she laughed and talked with at the reunion. “It’s hard for me, when I see stuff like that, because it just goes to show that the racial tension is still there,” she said. “But we have to understand too, these people had a life before us.” 

To Jacqueline, it’s a matter of sensitivity. She feels like her comments are taken out of context, blown out of proportion depending on how easily hurt someone is. Most of the black cousins, she classifies as “sensitive.” Brenda less so, but there’s still some tension there. But she can talk to Karen about anything. Everyone can. 

“Karen’s very comfortable, being that bridge,” Jacqueline said. If anything’s bothering anyone in the blended Compton family, they call Karen. That’s what happened when Jacqueline posted that political cartoon. 

“It’s a big weight to carry,” La La said, and Karen often takes time to react to any situation, no matter how much it hurts her personally. She’ll hear someone out, then call La La, who keeps herself removed enough to be a good sounding board.

“We’ll just talk about it and she’ll just try to find the best course of action while still keeping the family together,” La La said. “One thing that’s big for us is, family’s gonna fight. They’re gonna go through things. But like, whatever you do, don’t push them off as family.” Karen will wait for things to calm down, sort out her thoughts, and explain why she thinks something wasn’t okay. “She has a good deliverance,” La La said, “she has a calming weight to say what she has to say.” 

It’s not a job for everyone. But Karen doesn’t see it as a burden. She likes being the person that anyone can go to, accepts, even welcomes, the fact that she’s probably the first black person her white cousins have expressed their honest opinions to. In some cases, the first black person they’ve had a close relationship with. 

“I get to be the one,” she said, “I get to be the one that they get to spend time with and get to know.” She said Jacqueline had told her once, “I’m so glad that you don’t make me feel responsible about how we got to be cousins. I’m glad that you don’t put that guilt on me. We just get to be cousins.” Karen will disagree with some Facebook posts, she says, but she’s not gonna love them any less. 

But still, some of them sting. They sting Karen just as much as they sting Brenda, just as much as they sting the black cousins who have decided not to put up with it any more. The blocking has gone both ways, and the Compton Facebook family has shrunken since the election, since COVID, since the George Floyd protests. 

“Why do you have to say such hateful things,” Brenda said about the Facebook posts. “That hurt my heart. Well, what do we have a reunion for, to get to this?” She’s tired. “I don’t wanna be angry. I’m already angry, about the way I see the world, and the United States.” Brenda intends to wean herself off of Facebook. But she’s still a firm believer that God made us different for a reason, and the last thing she wants to do is shut down conversation. 

“I would still rather them be part of it,” Brenda said about her white cousins. “We just need to sit around, have a round table discussion,” she said. “If it gets heated, whoever gets heated, we gone call a stop, have the time out, let us go breathe and drink some water, get you a shot of whiskey or whatever it’s gotta be. But we’re coming back to the table, ’cause it shouldn’t be like that.”

But that round table is a pipe dream, and for the most part, they’ve talked less and less over the years. She thought they could get past it. They all did. But still, their agree-to-disagree political differences always seemed to boil down to race. 

“We had nothing to do with our ancestors. Who they slept with, who they didn’t sleep with, who’s black, who’s white? What daughter they put in the big house, who had to pick the cotton, we had nothing to do with that,” Brenda said. “But now all of a sudden, we let an election come between us? And it’s back to black and white, slaves and masters? That kinda hurt my feelings. A lot.”

  

Coming Home

The side of a worn wooden house with light shining through overgrown grass at tis base.

The back of Jean Paul’s house in Pineville.

It was late afternoon in Rapides Parish. Sunlight hit the sequin ornament on La La’s review mirror, sprinkling pinpoints of light across the ceiling. She and Karen were reminiscing about their younger brothers, singing along to Phil Collins, when we drove across a bridge. A river ran under us. Deep blue, with folds of muddy auburn swimming in shallow wind-rippled waves. 

It was either the Red River, or the Atchafalaya, we weren’t sure. This was Karen’s first time giving a tour of the area; usually, Brenda, or Lucille, or Jacqueline guided her. 

“I think it’s the Atchafalaya,” Karen said, explaining how some of the unusual names in the area came from Indigenous-turned-French-turned-English pronunciations. We crossed. It was wide, not Mississippi-wide, but healthy, with bright green banks snaking off into the distance. On the other side of the bridge, once we’d reached land again, the GPS did a funny thing. 

The blue Google Maps arrow pointed to go straight, straight, straight – then abruptly circle around on a side road and turn back. Back the way we’d come. 

“What — I’ve never seen it do that,” La La said. Strange. We made sure the address was right. It was. That blue arrow was definitely telling us to reverse direction. So La La circled around in someone’s driveway, heading back up the road, approaching the bridge once again. On this side, there was a sign, white letters on emerald green: 

RED RIVER

They both gasped. The GPS seemed to take on a life of its own. “It just wanted her to see the Red River!” La La said.  “And to know that it was the Red River!” I’d gotten a picture the first time we crossed, thinking it was the Atchafalaya. We were moving on down the road. But that little blue arrow told us to turn around. 

Maybe it was a glitch. Maybe we’d missed a turn. But to Karen and La La, someone was sending a message through Google Maps.

“Those ancestors were pulling us that way,” Karen said. “They’re speaking loud and clear. And when we come to town, they get active. They get seriously active.” 

Karen feels them every time she visits Louisiana. Like she enters another dimension, she said. Weird things happen when she visits. The GPS was just the first. 

“That was incredible,” Karen said after we crossed the bridge a second time. “Something significant happened on that Red River,” she said. “We gotta research it.” 

The GPS had no more tricks up its sleeve, and we were on the right path now, to the Solomon Northup House. Solomon was a free black man living in New York City who, on a 1841 trip to Washington DC, was drugged and kidnapped into slavery. He got sold into the Alexandria area, cut off from his friends and family, eventually suing his way back into freedom and writing a book about it — 12 Years a Slave. He’d helped build a Creole cottage while enslaved, which is now a museum on LSU Alexandria property (officially called the Epps House, after the slaveholder, but Karen and La La use Solomon’s name). Every time Karen visits the area, she goes to see the house. But she always comes on weekends, when the doors are locked, and she has to peer through the windows to catch a glimpse of the artifacts inside. 

It was windy; La La giggled at Karen as she tied her hair into a springy top-knot, keeping her Mississippi-river curls from flying in her face. We approached the house, and Karen began peering into the windows, as she always did, always unable to get inside. 

“Can you see the rocking chair?” she asked. She always looked for the child-sized rocking chair in one corner of the room. But a dresser had been moved in front of the window, blocking it from view. “Oh, shoot,” she said, disappointed. We circled around the back, looking for more windows to peek through, when we heard a bang and a shriek. 

“Oh my god!” La La said, “the door, the door just opened!” A gust of wind had caught the back door, blowing it open just as she rounded the corner. “Y’all, I swear to god it was not open before,” she said. We approached. The latch was broken, and the screen door unlocked. 

Ancestors again. Looks like Karen would finally get to go inside the Solomon Northup House. 

We walked into the cottage. La La and Karen were spooked, wide eyes, giddy smiles. There was a desk with a computer, an office chair, sticky notes and pens, a rack of historical site brochures. But besides that, everything was dusty. The house was filled with artifacts recreating the lives of enslaved people. Brooms, buckets, washboards, carved wooden bowls, mallets and farm quilts. No one had been in there for months, or if they had, they hadn’t bothered cleaning up. A thick layer of grime coated a display case of intricate woven baskets; dust rose when I titled the rocking chair Karen had only ever seen through the window.

Looking into a display case of woven sweetgrass designs, coated with a thick layer of dust.

The display of sweetgrass designs in the Solomon Northrup House.

We wandered around the four rooms, snapping pictures, moving swiftly. The heebie jeebies were creeping up on us. There was a banging sound coming from the attic; probably the wind, but it was locked, so we couldn’t investigate. Before we left, Karen beckoned me over to a map on the wall titled, “The Bayou Boeuf Country.” It showed the divisions of land in Rapides and Avoyelles Parish, a grid of uneven rectangles labeled with plantation owner’s last names. She leaned in, trying to read through the rusted wagon wheel leaning against it. 

“That’s my great-great-great-grandaddy’s land.” She pointed to a large square on the map with “LODI” in the center. Bayou Roberts crossed through its upper right corner. Just above, on the banks of the Red River, there was another square with his first name. Leonard, in cursive. Another L. B. Compton a few miles down the road, next to a J. Compton. His brother. The more you looked, the more Compton plots appeared. Neighboring other plantations, isolated, by water, on the main road. The Comptons had surely left their mark. 

We exited the Solomon Northup House through the blown-open back door, the fateful gust of wind confirming to Karen that their ancestors were guiding us (“I’m telling you, they’re here”). It was nearing sunset, and we set off towards Pineville, driving across what very well might have been Compton land not too long ago. 

La La turned down Taylor Street. It was the kind of road with couches on sidewalks, corrugated steel roofs, leathery old men waving from porches and stray cats underfoot. 

We were there to see Jean Paul. He was a white DNA cousin, Lucille’s son. He greeted Karen and La La with a glowing smile, big hugs and chatter about how he finally understood what depression meant. They told him about the GPS and the blown-open door, and he agreed that it was the ancestors looking out for them. Jean Paul helped set up picnic chairs alongside the park benches, folding chairs, and stools circling his fire pit. The backyard was overgrown in a comfortable, loving way. Long wispy grass, vines curling around a chicken coop, a curtain of bamboo rods casting light green shade over wildflowers. 

Jean Paul is lean and sinewy, with sun-spotted skin, a ponytail, and barefoot feet. He’s the outdoorsy type, who married each of his ex-wives exactly ten years apart (‘77, ‘87, ‘97), who can tell you his Myer-Briggs personality type (INFJ) and the genus of each and every little weed in his backyard. 

“You’re gonna like him,” Karen and La La told me on the way there. They certainly did. He carries the chatty Compton gene, and as long as he’s comfortable, as long as anyone’s listening, he’ll go on about his life philosophies with a self-assured confidence that no one really sees the world like him, and he’s okay with that. Jean Paul talked about what race Jesus was (“wake up people. He was clear. He’s invisible. He’s a spirit. Duh!”), how he’d rather be in nature than out partying (“if I wanna be a tree, all I gotta do is say, I am the tree, and the tree is me. It’s that simple.”), that Compton generosity (“I’ll eat tuna fish and crackers all day, old beans, but I’ll buy someone else a $9 hamburger”). Karen nodded along, laughing, adding her own thoughts about our spirits and alternate dimensions. They were glad to have each other, to see the world through the same lens.

Sunlight stretched through the trees, turning the backyard golden green. We were about to leave, and I needed some background info, so I asked Jean Paul how old he was. 

“I just turned 63,” he said, “on the 29th of March.” 

I smiled, surprised. “Oh, that’s my birthday!” 

Karen and La La whipped their heads around to look at each other. The same wide eyes and giddy smiles as when the wind blew that door open. “Nooo way,” Karen said. “What!” 

“I told you,” La La said, “God is in the works. This is crazy! Ha-ha!”

If your great-great-great-grandma could send signals from the dead, what would she say? Where would she lead you? I probably wouldn’t notice if she smacked me across the face. But Karen and La La felt their ancestors there, pulling, speaking through the fields and houses and rivers. If the ancestors weren’t there, something was. Maybe just a feeling, maybe something contrived. But I saw it in La La and Karen, in Jean Paul, in the way they thought, and laughed, and looked out over the land. In the way they wondered who was there, what it was like, where they’d come from. They felt their ancestors inside them, right alongside them, sure as they felt themselves.

  

The Matriarch 

A backseat view of a woman with sunglasses and curly hair sitting in the passengers seat in a car, wearing white gloves.

Karen always put on white gloves after getting into the passenger’s seat of La La’s car.

After leaving Jean Paul’s, we met Lucille at Outlaws BBQ in Alexandria. Lucille, who had showed up to Brenda’s Bunkie house, took a nibble of gumbo, and cracked open her genealogy book. She’d brought it to the barbecue restaurant, too. Lucille was 84 now, but still drove her car, took care of her daughter, and made sure to Facebook message her black cousins whenever they were in town.  

“You’ve gotta meet Lucille,” Karen said. The old lady ordered the loaded baked potato, sat across the linoleum table from Karen, and talked under a humming fan and wailing country music. And she can really talk. Like Jean Paul, but instead of musing about invisible Jesus and becoming one with the trees, she went on about old family lineage and new family drama. Her son’s ex wife, her deceased Air Force husband, her great-great-grandmother’s marriage to her great-great-grandfather. The chatty Compton gene, respect for elders, and Karen was accustomed to listening, uninterrupted, to Lucille’s long daisy chain strings of thought. 

Finally I got a question in:

Before all of this, did you ever think you could be related to black people?

“With my ancestors being — I don’t like to call them slaveholders, but they were plantation owners,” she said. “There were blacks all over the place who needed to work. And they’d been brought over here, and if you run a plantation, if you run a plantation you have to have workers, you know?” Karen was sitting to my left. There’s no way she agrees with that, I thought. But she didn’t react, so neither did I. We both kept our eyes on Lucille, listening. “The Compton family were a good family, and they were not mistreated. But I’m sure sometimes somebody’s been mistreated, ‘cause we mistreat our own children sometimes when they get out of hand.” 

Lucille went on. “Karen was saying my grandmother or great-grandmother was raped by the plantation owner, and I said, well, you don’t know that Karen. There were beautiful black girls, good-looking white men, they were human beings! She might’ve done some little smiling and batting her eyes at him, or, you don’t ever know. And especially, I’ve read that they put the prettier ones in the house to do the seamstress, or to cook, or to be the house cleaners.” Karen’s eyes were still trained on Lucille, ears still open, not a word. “Well, here these kids grow up,” Lucille said, “and the black mammies nursed the white babies, and we haven’t ever talked about that, but they did, they nursed the white babies.” 

Karen nodded. “Right along with their own kids, yep,” she said. Lucille continued. 

“And it’s the milk, it’s the milk from God, and God created us all, and you’ve got a lot of stupid people here in America, probably all over, that’ll wake up and smell the coffee burning, but we’re all children of God, and we all have souls. The only reason we have different colored skin is because of what part of the world God put us in. And that protected us,” she said with a rightful nod. 

Karen, sitting across from Lucille at the barbecue restaurant, had heard it all before. She selectively nodded, with a quiet mmhm, at things she could agree with — yes, the black mammies nursed white babies. Yes, we are all children of God. The other things Lucille said were met with silence. But not the cold, disapproving silence you would expect. Karen just looked at her with her big brown eyes, warmly, with the same unwavering eye contact, not one speck of judgment.

“God knew what he was doing,” Lucille said. “We’re the stupid ones.” A nod from Karen. “But I think it’s fascinating, I really do.” 

Lucille’s talk about God, about milk and souls, reminded me of Jean Paul’s philosophical ramblings. There were definitely parallels. But Jean Paul disagreed with his mother’s views on slavery, he’d told us earlier, disagreed with her on a lot of things. 

“You give it your all, and then you either give in or give up,” he said. For his three failed marriages, he gave up. His mother, though? “I can’t give up on my mother,” he said. “So I had to give in.”

  

Reconstruction

A bridge over a blue river, the riverbank with lush green trees in the background.

The Pineville Expressway, crossing the Red River from downtown Alexandria into Pineville.

“My family was so little,” La La said. “And my family is so big now. I feel like I belong to something.” 

La La doesn’t pursue individual relationships, like Karen does, or talk to her white cousins one-on-one. She doesn’t want to get hurt, caught off guard by a racist comment, or have to sit through whitewashed myths about slavery. “I just wanna be happy,” she said. “When the happy things come, I participate.” So she’s there for the reunions, the Rapides Parish trips, the times her mom finds a new ancestor to fit into their family puzzle. 

“When you don’t know something it’s hard to put it behind you. How do you put it behind you when you have missing pieces?” she said. “You need every piece of it to start letting it go, to heal.”

A few weeks after my visit, Karen texted me. She’d found out the significance of the Red River. She and La La had toured the Kent House, an Alexandria plantation site, and their tour guide showed them something. Look closely at the red pillars in the slaveholder’s house, the ones holding up its wide Southern porch, and you’ll see small oval divots in the brick. On one end, a ridge where someone pushed into the wet clay to turn the brick in its mold. On the other, a faint streak — like a comet tail, fizzling out into the pillar, frozen in time. They’re fingerprints, Karen told me, fingerprints and footprints from enslaved people who made the bricks. Most likely children; their fingers were smaller, could slip between the brick and its mold. And they got the mud from the Red River. 

Brenda’s ancestors, enslaved somewhere along those lazy bayous and twisting rivers, might have made those bricks. Pressed into not-yet-dry clay, felt the unfinished brick slip under their thumbs. I asked if she’s thought about her black ancestors more since the family reunion, what life was like back then, and she took a deep breath. It’s hard for her to think about. “They were mistreated, they were killed, they were maimed,” she said. “They told us we came from monkeys, we weren’t human, we didn’t feel pain.” 

But Brenda’s made it to 73, alive and well. “When I look at, from that time, down to this time, I’m proud of my black ancestors,” she said. “I’m so proud of them. They endured so much for us to get to this point.” 

Brenda sees her white cousins on Facebook, mad at BLM protesters, wanting to take the country back, mocking the first Vice President that looks even a little bit like her. And she doesn’t understand why they’re still so angry. 

“If it’s anything, you all oughta be happy that you got free labor,” she said. “You got free labor. Come on now. Y’all didn’t know how to do any of that. You don’t wanna do all that hard work, you don’t wanna plant tobacco and pick it, you don’t wanna stay in the hot sun, you don’t wanna stay in a shack and eat the trimmings from the chicken and the hog, all of that. You didn’t wanna do that.” 

Brenda still sees that inequality today. And La La sees it, has been seeing it since she was a child, in big businesses with generations of white CEOs, in her caucasian cousins with nicer clothes and cars, in the AmeriCorp kids she mentored, their programs cut, roads potholed, schools out of books. 

 “They’re living off of something we built. And we’re still struggling, I don’t think that’s changed,” she said. “They’re living off of generational wealth off of the backs of us. We built this, and we still can’t catch a break. Nobody, still, acknowledges that we were done wrong.” 

157 years since emancipation, and no form of reparations has ever seriously been considered for black Americans. 

“Why do you not want to help us? Why do we have to fight so hard just to get a little piece of survival, just to have a home, just to have a family? Why do we have to fight so hard, when others don’t?” she said. “There’s a lot of healing that needs to happen, but it’s not gonna happen until they acknowledge us. And try to make some kind of amends. They’re not even trying.” 

She doesn’t hate her white cousins. She loves them. She’s changed since meeting them, grown, become more understanding. But it was never really about them. 

“It hurts me a lot because I feel like the government’s betrayed us. I don’t think that part of it’s changed.” 

_______

In Louisiana, people are buried above the ground. But they weren’t always. 

Leonard Briscoe Compton was originally interred on the Lodi plantation in 1841. He was 59, and for years before his death, he maneuvered his assets around, disguising donations as sales and granting favors to politicians, trying to pass his wealth to his children and common-law black wife. He failed, of course, and Fauchon died one year later, at 58, leaving two free white-passing children, seven enslaved black ones, and no record of her burial. 

Leonard’s body was moved to a different plot of family land a few years later, according to Lucille’s genealogy book:  

When removing the casket, so it is said in family circles, it was noticed to be exceedingly heavy. On being opened, it was found that the body had become petrified.

In August of 2018, Karen visited his grave in Lecompte, Rapides Parish. Jacqueline and Lucille led them through the pines, and Karen and Brenda followed, machete in hand, hacking their way through the woods. It was before the reunion, before the election and protests and Facebook blockings. Lucille was joking around, Jacqueline’s heart was full at helping her cousins find their roots. 

They reached a clearing in the trees. The Compton family cemetery was surrounded by a low stone wall and wrought iron fence, a sparkling spot of green in the forest. Leonard’s resting spot was marked by a grave ledger; a long rectangle slab covering the full length of the grave, head to toe, flush to the ground. Splashes of watery white and dark gray, like someone had tie-dyed the marble and stretched it out to dry in the sun. 

Karen knelt down, laying across the grave. It was on a bed of pine needles, tufts of grass growing along the base. Her Mississippi-river curls spilled over her shoulder. She thought about the man six feet below. Sunshine warmed the marble, and in the summer glow, she pretended like he was holding her. “Finally,” she said, “I get to sit on my third great granddaddy’s lap.”