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A Reporter's Story About Slavery Leads To A Shocking Discovery About Her Roots

Wanda Tucker, left, and reporter Deborah Barfield Berry hug at the Dulles International Airport after returning on separate flights from a 10-day trip to Angola, from which they traced their ancestors.

In 1619, the first Africans are believed to have arrived in America. Destined for a life of slavery in the New World, 350 people were taken from Angola and stuffed onto a ship named the San Juan Bautista.

Phoenix resident Wanda Tucker believes her family may have been descended from the survivors of that journey.

So when USA Todayreporter Deborah Barfield Berry learned about Tucker as part of the newspaper's coverage of the 400th anniversary of slavery's beginnings in America, she thought she'd be telling a story about one family's roots in Africa. She never expected to become a part of the story herself.

Berry's reporting led her to take DNA tests that revealed she was not only related to Tucker, but that she, too, could be descended from the first Africans in America.

It's a discovery that Berry says she is still processing.

"I'm still kind of overwhelmed by just the whole story," she said in an interview with NPR's Weekend Edition.

The Tuckers, she said, "lived with their belief for decades, generations. I've just got to know my great grandfather's name like a month ago."

There are so few records of Africans who were brought to America because their history was not considered worthy of documenting.

"Even looking through the census records I felt some kind of sadness that I could only go so far," Berry said. "Even when I tried to go back further, all I could find was records that said 'free colored' or 'slaves.' There were no names attached to those people, so we weren't even counted."

Initially, Berry was assigned to a different story. But as she learned about the Tuckers from a colleague, she began to discover coincidences between their history and her own.

"I was listening, and I was thinking 'Hmm. My grandmother's name was Tucker,' " Berry recalled.

As these coincidences added up, her editor suggested she take a DNA test. Berry agreed.

The first ancestry test showed that she was from present day Cameroon, less than 1,500 miles away from Angola, where Wanda Tucker believes her ancestors took their last steps as free people.

To find out whether she was related to Tucker, a male from her family and a male from Wanda's took a DNA test. It was a match.

"I don't know what I expected, but I don't know if I was prepared [for the result]," Berry said. "It showed that I'm actually related to a woman I've been writing about."

As Berry dug deeper, she realized she needed to go to Angola, where the San Juan Bautista departed in 1619, to tell a fuller story.

"Wanda said it would be the journey of a lifetime," Berry said. "She would love to go."

"Part of it was not so much to be able to prove everything," Berry said. "Because we don't know that we can prove ... it was to go back to the motherland to see if she could trace where she believes her ancestors came from. Walk the walk that they walked. Go to the places where they might have had to be held."

"It turned out to be very emotional," Berry said. When they first arrived, Tucker "just broke down."

Berry hopes her story encourages others to do the work to learn how they fit into the American story.

"We all have a story, and especially as African Americans, we've contributed much to the making of America," she said. "In some way — whether your great grandmother was enslaved in South Carolina, whether your grandfather was a sharecropper — all of them have played a role in what America is today."

"So if you have time, and you have the passion, then take the time to go find out more about your family."

NPR's Hanna Bolaños and Dorothy Parvaz produced the audio version of this story. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.