As a black teenager in Compton, California, in the 1970s, Hiram Johnson began to wonder about his father’s fine curly hair, and the light-brown skin that strangers sometimes thought was white.
Hiram knew only a few things about his father’s childhood. Fred Johnson was raised in Jackson, Mississippi, by his mother, Bernice. Fred said that Bernice was a “beautiful black woman,” but he never said a word about his father. All Hiram knew was that his grandfather probably wasn’t black.
He often pestered his dad for more details. Do we have a mixed heritage? Who was this man? What did your mom ever say about it? But Fred wouldn’t budge.
Over the next three decades, Hiram got married, had two daughters, and went into law enforcement, climbing the ranks at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. On a visit to Fred’s house one day in 2008, Hiram asked the usual questions about their roots. This time, the 79-year-old finally opened up.
Fred said his mother, Bernice, had been convicted of killing a neighbor and served two years in the infamous Mississippi State Penitentiary, better known as Parchman Farm. She gave birth to him shortly after her release. So his father could have been anyone — another inmate, a guard, the warden, even the governor.
Hiram was floored. That day, he launched what would turn into a decadelong hunt to identify his grandfather. After years of poring over state archives, court transcripts, and prison records, a genetic test last year finally gave him a definitive answer.
Like millions of Americans mailing tubes of spit off to DNA testing companies, Hiram followed his genetic results to distant cousins and discomfiting family secrets. But unlike most of today’s amateur genealogists, Hiram also dug up evidence of two horrific crimes: one committed by his grandmother, the other by his grandfather.
Both were deeply entangled in the racism and sexism of the 1920s American South. Both caused trauma that soaked down through generations. That pain, in subtle but real ways, is still spreading today.
Growing up in a leafy, well-off suburb of St. Louis, Bruce Kenamore enjoyed all the privileges of his town’s racial segregation. He and his sisters went to the whites-only school and had access to the $100,000 whites-only swimming pool that the town built in 1949, just before Bruce entered the sixth grade. He didn’t really notice the inequality. “It was a nice place to grow up, pretty bland,” Bruce, now 81, told BuzzFeed News. “In retrospect, pretty conservative.”
The town’s small black community protested, and in 1953, the city council voted to open the pool to anyone who wanted to use it.
Three years later, Bruce graduated from high school — in the last segregated class. “In a way we were oblivious,” said Jane Kenamore, the classmate who later became Bruce’s wife. “We grew up, had all these things, and we were oblivious.”
Bruce went to Princeton, determined to become a doctor like his dad. But his world shattered in the spring of his freshman year when Bruce Sr., just 46, died of a heart attack. Bruce’s mother, Sophia, was pregnant. Just three weeks after her husband died, she gave birth.
Suddenly without income, Sophia had to lean on her family and get a job for the first time. Bruce moved home to help her, transferring to Washington University.
He did end up in medical school, at the University of Missouri. By then, the civil rights movement was in full swing; he remembers arguing with pro-segregation classmates. Later, during his internship and residency in Galveston, Texas, he found the hospital still had separate wards for white and black patients.
He and Jane had two daughters and went on to live all over the country before settling outside of Chicago.
A couple years ago, Bruce’s son-in-law was digging into the origins of the Kenamore name and found that it had German roots. That came as a surprise to Bruce, who had always been told the name was Scottish. Curious to know more, he bought a test from AncestryDNA.
The results showed that he did have some Scottish ancestry, though the Kenamore name was indeed German.
After that, he ordered a 23andMe test, which is similar but looks at different genetic markers. Bruce was just curious whether the second test would “give a different spin on things.”
It did. When he opened up the 23andMe website, he was surprised to see, near the top of his list of genetic relatives, a black man.
Still shocked by the news that his grandmother had been imprisoned, Hiram started poking around online. He discovered the Mississippi Department of Archives and History — a century-old state agency whose mission is historic preservation — and sent in a formal request for records related to Bernice’s time in prison. Soon, a thick stack of papers arrived in the mail.
Bernice had died long before Hiram was born, and his father had told him little about what she was like. So these documents came as a revelation.
On August 16, 1926, according to court transcripts, 21-year-old Bernice Johnson got into a fight with another young woman in their neighbor’s yard. Bernice, about 7 months pregnant, was mad at Carrie Berkley for flirting with her husband. Testimonies about the day from Bernice, Carrie, and other witnesses don’t match up, so it’s impossible to reconstruct exactly what happened. But at some point, Carrie slashed Bernice’s arm and hand with a knife, and Bernice struck Carrie with an iron bar.
As Bernice retreated to her home, she ran into Carrie’s mother on the street. The two began striking each other with bars and clubs, and then Carrie joined in too. According to Bernice’s testimony, Carrie came at her with the knife, saying, “I am going to cut that damn baby out of you.”
Someone broke up the fight, but Bernice heard Carrie’s mother threaten to kill her. So Bernice went home to get her pistol and returned to the street, where the fight continued. By the end, Bernice had fired at least three bullets from the gun. One of them hit Carrie’s 11-year-old sister in the stomach, killing her.
Bernice had given birth by the time of the trial. She claimed she had been acting in self-defense. But the jury found her guilty of manslaughter and sentenced her to two years of hard labor at Parchman.
In her appeal to the state Supreme Court a few months later, Bernice’s own lawyer called the incident “an ordinary negro woman fight” and said that most of the testimonies should be discounted — except for the sole white man’s — because “a so-called solem oath, has little, if any, restraining influence on this character of witnesses.”
Bernice arrived at the notorious Parchman Farm — “destination doom,” as William Faulkner called it — in June 1927. Its 20,000 acres turned a profit for the state, effectively creating a government-backed slave plantation, with the mostly black inmates overseen by white guards and administrators.
Prisoners worked long days in the fields and were often whipped and terrorized. As Mose Allison put it in his 1957 song “Parchman Farm”: “Well I’m puttin’ that cotton in an eleven-foot sack / With a twelve-gauge shotgun at my back.”
The female inmates, almost all black, did this hard labor too, as well as cooking and sewing. A few of them worked as domestic servants at the homes of prison administrators and state officials, including the governor, according to T. Dionne Bailey, a historian at the University of Virginia.
“To be a black woman incarcerated at Parchman meant that the prison had access to you — their access to you was boundless,” Bailey told BuzzFeed News. “They had access to you physically, mentally, and then of course, sexually.”
Hiram has few records of what happened to Bernice during her time in prison. But what he does have is chilling. When she arrived at Parchman, the prison conducted a medical exam. A one-page form notes her “stocky” build, round face, small mouth, and a scar on her left arm, presumably from the fateful fight the previous year. After “Education,” it lists the number 6, and notes she could read and write.
The form also says “Previous Illness: None (Three months pregnant).”
Nothing else is documented about that pregnancy or a resulting baby. Hiram assumes that, given all the stress and physical labor, Bernice miscarried. “It’s not a stretch,” he said. In any case, roughly nine months after Bernice entered the prison, she conceived his father. And Fred was born on November 19, 1928, just 13 days after she was released from Parchman.
The Archives staff didn’t find any records about Bernice’s release. So Hiram didn't know why she got out after serving just 16 and a half months — well short of her two-year sentence.
Bailey, the historian, noted that Parchman had a nursing ward for babies born to inmates. Given that Fred could have been birthed there, it’s plausible, she said, that prison administrators chose to release Bernice instead because they knew rumors would swirl about the baby’s light skin.
“No one was giving her a pass in allowing her to have her child outside of the prison walls,” Bailey said. “Someone else was being protected.”
As Hiram updated his dad on his historical research, Fred would try to fill in holes with his patchy childhood memories.
He grew up in the 1930s with his mom and her husband, a black man named George Johnson, as well as the couple’s three other kids. Fred’s skin was much lighter than his half siblings’, and he told Hiram that he thought his mother coddled him because of it.
Bernice worked as a maid for the local sheriff, a white man, and Fred always wondered if that man was his dad.
Then there were the random gifts. Occasionally, Fred remembered, a couple of white girls would show up at their door with food and clothes. One time, a football uniform appeared. Little Fred was so enamored with the outfit, he told Hiram, that he even wore it to school.
“I could just envision him with the helmet and shoulder pads and everything, sitting at a desk in class,” Hiram said.
Fred had no idea who those white girls were. Bernice told him they were his sisters. But whenever he asked his mother who his father was, “she advised him, in no uncertain terms, that he should keep quiet,” Hiram said. Even Fred’s birth certificate was a mystery, with his father’s name listed as “John Henry Luck.”
“That was part of the whole game, right — we have to keep this anonymous,” Hiram said. He suspected maybe his grandfather — if the clothes and food were even coming from his grandfather — rationalized his actions as virtuous: “I’m going to be gentlemanly enough, to have enough heart to support my kids even though they are mixed race. But I don’t want anybody to know about it.”
One day on the phone in March 2009, Hiram told his dad about a recent conversation with Rosie, Fred’s younger half sister.
Hiram had asked his aunt whether she remembered any stories about Fred’s father. Rosie said she thought he was a deputy sheriff in the prison and owned a furniture store in Jackson.
Fred, who didn’t get along with his half sister, was skeptical of her theory. “Oh, come on, man. That girl don’t know nothin’ about nothin’,” he said, according to a recording Hiram made of the call. “I don’t think you can believe anything too much she said because she didn’t know nothin’, you know. She wasn’t even born then.”
But it would make sense if it were true, right, Hiram asked. “Yeah,” Fred said, “he may have been a prison guard or something.”
As a kid in the 1940s, living in the white area of the St. Louis suburb, Bruce took a long train ride every summer to visit his mother’s family in the Deep South.
Her father, Carl Fox, was a prominent lawyer, serving as Mississippi’s assistant attorney general before working for the Mobile and Ohio Railroad.
Bruce remembers his grandfather as taciturn but pleasant, “a total gentleman.” One of Bruce’s earliest memories, around 1947 or so, is sitting on Carl’s lap in a rocking chair reading the L.L.Bean catalog. “He was drinking a Budweiser and I think I asked him what it tasted like,” Bruce said. “It was the most awful thing I ever tasted.”
When Bruce was a little older, he went a few times to West Point, Mississippi, where he’d swim, fish, and fox hunt with his cousins. He had a great time in Mississippi, though he could barely keep track of all the aunts’ and uncles’ and cousins’ names, let alone how they were related.
But these familial connections were important to his mom, Sophia, a woman who would make offhand comments about the “dastardly Yankees” and tell stories about the accomplishments of Confederate forebearers. As Bruce explained it: “If you meet someone from the East, they will ask you, ‘Where did you go to school?’ In the Midwest they ask, ‘Who do you work for?’ And in the South it’s, ‘Who’s your family?’”
In 2011, three years after Hiram learned about Bernice’s time in prison, he and a cowriter published a creative memoir about her life titled Reason to Fight, based on historical documents, family memories, and poetic license. When it was adapted as a screenplay, they held two staged readings, one at the Black Academy of Arts and Letters in Dallas, the other at the Actors Co-op Theatre Company in Hollywood.
His father had died a couple of years earlier, but Hiram sent copies of his book to several relatives on his dad’s side, hoping it might stir up old memories about Bernice. It did. In 2014 he heard from his dad’s second cousin, Edith Weaver. She was the celebrity in the family: Under her stage name Ta-Tanisha, she had appeared in television shows throughout the 1970s, including Room 222, Good Times, and Sanford and Son.
Edith loved Hiram’s book. “I was moved by it,” she told BuzzFeed News. She couldn’t believe what Bernice had been through, and was left wondering, “my goodness, how often does that happen?”
At the time, Edith mentioned the story to her 87-year-old mother, Susie, whose husband was Bernice’s first cousin. Susie indeed remembered Bernice: The two women had lived together sometime in the 1940s, in a big house near Chicago, with Fred.
“She remembers that your DAD ‘looked white,’” Edith wrote to Hiram. “She says she heard that BERNICE killed someone, went to jail in Mississippi, and was raped. MAMA says she heard back then that THE WARDEN did it……!! Wow...”
To Hiram, Edith’s note was a provocative lead, but far from proven fact. He didn’t know her well and had never met her elderly mother. Plus, by that point, she was one of several relatives floating theories of the case. “It was just another supposition, just another possibility,” he said. After a long career in law enforcement, he wanted more concrete evidence. “I put a lot of credence in DNA lab proof.”
So he sent spit samples to a couple of DNA testing companies — a small outfit called Genebase and the behemoth AncestryDNA. He was encouraged, at first, to see white people showing up on AncestryDNA as genetic matches on his dad’s side. He wrote to a few of those new relatives, but the conversations never went anywhere. They would share the regions where their families had lived and the top surnames in their trees. Nothing seemed to fit with what Hiram knew about Bernice’s life. “It was a dead end,” he said.
Then last year his cousin, who worked at a local DNA lab, convinced him to try 23andMe. “I was actually a little averse to it because I thought, well, I’ve already submitted two DNA samples. What good is another one going to do?”
But he tried anyway. And not long after getting his results, he heard from Bruce.
Bruce had never known of any black cousins, but it made sense that he would have some: He knew that most African Americans carry markers of European ancestry in their genome, remnants of sexual contact of the past. He was eager to see where Hiram fit into his tree. So, without much thought about the possible ramifications, he sent him a message.
“According to 23 and me we are second cousins,” he wrote. “I am interested in trying to establish the links to my African-American relatives and hope you might have some historical knowledge.”
At first, Hiram wasn’t all that excited. He and Bruce only shared 2.04% of their DNA, according to the website. But he was game to respond — why not? “Hi Bruce, I am very much interested in establishing links to my Caucasian relatives.”
Bruce mentioned that his mother’s family was from Mississippi. Now Hiram’s ears perked up.
“Bruce, Wow!” he replied. Did any of his Mississippi relatives, he asked, ever work at Parchman prison? His grandmother had been imprisoned there.
“Yes I had a relative who was Warden of Parchman,” Bruce replied. “I wish I could say that your grandmother’s and the warden’s relationship was based on mutual consent,” he added, “but I am sure it wasn’t.”
Reading that message at his computer, Hiram was overwhelmed with emotion. “It was like fireworks went off and a tremendous weight was lifted off my back, all at the same time,” he said.
In search of the clean certainty of DNA testing, Hiram and Bruce had instead found a far messier reality. They both knew about the ugly imprint that racial oppression left on American history. But their genetic results had made that broad category of historical injustice suddenly very specific — and deeply personal. They were not alone: For thousands if not millions of people, DNA tests are making old wounds hurt again.
The newfound cousins kept exchanging messages, and then eventually began talking by phone. Before that first call, Hiram was giddy with anticipation. “I was like a kid on his first date,” he said, laughing. “It was like calling my girlfriend for the first time.”
Over several weeks, they pieced together the full story. Bruce told Hiram how he knew about the warden: Many years ago, he found an essay written by his late mother that recounted a day when, as a little girl, she went to visit one of her Mississippi relatives, the warden at Parchman.
A wagon pulled by mules picked her up at the train station. Scared stiff, she sat up front next to the driver, a convicted murderer. At the prison, she described seeing a whip — a “cat o’ nine tails” — hanging on the wall.
Bruce told Hiram his mother’s maiden name was Fox. From his research, Hiram had already found out that the man in charge of Parchman during Bernice’s time there was also named Fox: Lee Thomas Fox.
Bruce looked up his family tree, and sure enough, one of his grandfather Carl’s siblings was named Lee Thomas. So that day in the wagon, Sophia was going to visit her uncle, Bruce’s great-uncle.
By coincidence, just a few days after connecting with Bruce, Hiram and his wife, Donelle, had a trip planned to Mississippi to visit relatives. While there, they made the two and a half hour drive to the gravesite of Lee Thomas Fox.
Hiram’s feelings about the visit are complicated, and he has trouble putting them into words. At first, he was happy to have found it: physical confirmation that this man, his grandfather, was real. L.T., as he was known, was born in May 1870, meaning he was 57 years old when he raped Bernice Johnson, who was about 22. He died in 1960, at age 90, and is buried beside his wife, Stella, and the three of their six children who died before they were grown.
Hiram and Donelle snapped some photos and chatted with one of the cemetery’s caretakers, who said the prison wasn’t too far away. By that time, though, Hiram’s happiness had faded. He just felt weird, a little empty, and tired from the drive. They didn’t make it to Parchman.
Bruce and Hiram continued to call each other, sharing the basics about their families and jobs. And speculating, of course, about the man whose brutal crime lay at the juncture of their family trees. “A good deal of our initial conversations were centered around L.T. and L.T.’s habits,” Hiram said. “And what he may have done with other inmates.”
L.T. was trained as a medical doctor, but worked managing farms most of his life. Archived news articles show that he was appointed to the top position at Parchman in 1924. For several years before that, he had been the general manager of a 7,000-acre estate divided into five profitable plantations. “This experience, it is held, qualifies him for the position,” according to the Daily Herald.
The next year, according to another article, Parchman brought in $485,000 to the state’s coffers. Later, L.T. asked the state for $200,000 for improvements to the prison, including replacing all wooden barracks with permanent brick buildings, “reducing the number of escapes.” Fox’s last day on the job was December 30, 1928 — the month after Bernice was released.
Hiram told Bruce he suspected that L.T. had at least one other black descendant besides him. His top match on 23andMe was a young black woman who shared a large portion of his DNA — 13.1% — making them probable first cousins. Hiram sent her a message on the website, but never heard back.
Bruce looked at his matches and found the same woman. They shared 1.45% of their DNA, making her another possible second cousin.
Bruce and Hiram immediately grasped the implication: If this woman is a first cousin to Hiram and a second cousin to Bruce, then L.T. Fox was her grandfather.
Hiram wrote her another brief message, and again heard nothing. But then six months later, in October of last year, a message popped up.
“First cousins huh? That’s a little wild,” the woman wrote. She didn’t know much about her paternal grandparents, she said. “My Dad is in his 60’s and I’m 32. He swears his mother never told him who his dad was, but we believe he was white.”
Her dad, in other words, was born sometime in the 1950s, at least 20 years after Hiram’s father was born. L.T. would have been in his eighties.
Hiram sent her more messages, suggesting that they were probably related to a man named L.T. Fox. “There’s a lot to talk about concerning L.T.,” he wrote. But she again went quiet. (The woman declined an interview for this story.)
Census records and obituaries show that L.T. and Stella had three children who survived to adulthood. Only one was a girl, and she was grown by the time Fred was a kid. So Hiram doesn’t know if or how L.T. was related to the two young girls who had shown up at his father’s childhood doorstep with gifts.
All three of L.T.’s known children have died. Only one is known to have had a child, and there are no known grandchildren. So L.T. appears to have no living descendants from his marriage, but at least one and quite possibly two black grandchildren from other women. Maybe more.
I asked Hiram if he thought other descendants were likely to emerge, especially given the long time span between Fred and this woman’s father. “I wouldn’t doubt it,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of matches.”
Hiram’s family secret was more dramatic than most. But DNA tests are unearthing all kinds of long-buried truths. Studies suggest that roughly 2% of people don’t know the true identity of their biological father — a “non-paternity event” in genealogy jargon.
When Jane Kenamore got her own genetic test results back, for example, the names of nine relatives she’d never heard of popped up. She found out later that a family member had been a sperm donor in his youth. “Nobody knew it — not even his mother,” Jane said. Thanks to DNA, she said, the family has identified 21 of his biological offspring, and counting.
After the shock of the discovery about L.T. wore off, Bruce began to feel the weight of it all. “The question was, well, should I feel guilty about this or not?”
“This is obviously a rape, a horrible thing,” Bruce continued. But he also was delighted to have found a new part of the family. “I guess I can best sum it up by saying that in 1928, something horrible happened. And in 2018 something very nice happened.”
In February of this year, Bruce and Jane flew to California and stayed with Hiram and Donelle for a weekend. They all went to church together. One of Hiram’s daughters took off work to meet her new cousins. And Hiram video-chatted with Bruce’s two daughters. They were all, suddenly, family.
That’s not to say that Hiram’s emotions are all sorted out. “I don’t know if I feel any animosity,” he said. “I guess I’m glad that I’m alive.”
He feels genuine warmth toward Bruce, he said, and cherishes their frequent talks. And he’s proud that he finally cracked the case that had pulled at him since childhood.
But it also hurts him to think about Bernice’s experience in prison. For Hiram knows more than most about the immense authority that a prison warden wields.
Last week, Hiram retired from his job in, of all places, a women’s jail. It’s the largest in the country. As one of a handful of supervising sergeants there, Hiram was responsible for ensuring the health and safety of roughly 2,100 inmates.
Thinking about his grandma made Hiram more empathetic toward the women under his charge. “I’ve tried to encourage them — I’ve even shared my story with some of them.”
But he’s under no illusions. He’s seen women miscarry from the stress of being locked up, just as he believes Bernice did after she arrived at Parchman. And he knows that other terrible things happen there too. For the past couple of years, the jail has reeled from claims by at least six inmates about being sexually assaulted by a deputy.
“Nothing has really changed much,” Hiram added. “Just as she was vulnerable back then, these inmates are vulnerable today.”
It’s not lost on Hiram that he and Bruce both forged professional paths that followed his grandfather’s: Like L.T., Bruce was trained as a doctor. Also like L.T., Hiram had worked in a correctional facility. Neither of them believes their career pursuits were in their genes. For Bruce, it’s just an eerie coincidence. For Hiram, it’s “providence.”
But they do wrestle with L.T.’s legacy. One day when Hiram was on the phone in Los Angeles, Bruce and Jane, on the other end in Chicago, apologized to him for L.T.’s actions.
Hiram had never expected an apology, and never wanted one. He just wanted to find hard facts about what had happened. Still, when he heard them so genuinely trying to make amends, he was moved.
“It did my heart good to hear them talk about it,” he said. “They can’t be responsible for what he did. But the fact that they admitted it, were willing to talk about it — it was healing for me.” ●