The Denver Gazette


The upcoming 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre sent Denver’s Sheryl Renee down a rabbit hole and back up a wildly expanded family tree. It has been a mind-blowing odyssey that is culminating this weekend with Renee in Oklahoma to experience the centennial of the bloody event.

Award-winning Denver singer, actor and entrepreneur Sheryl Renee is proud of her family, her performing career, her two businesses, her skin color and even, in many ways, her country. What she takes no pride in is her birth name: Lynch. “That word is associated with one of the worst acts you can do to a person,” she said. “Lynching is a crime that was perpetrated against thousands of African Americans.”

But what’s in a name is nothing compared to what’s in a chromosome.

The looming 100th anniversary of one of the worst massacres in American history has sent Renee down a rabbit hole and back up a wildly expanded family tree. One that includes ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War. It has been a mind-blowing odyssey that is culminating this weekend with Renee in Oklahoma both to experience the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre first-hand and meet a dozen relatives for the first time.

Renee sang the national anthem for Barack Obama — proudly, she says — at the signing of his 2009 Economic Stimulus Bill. But, like most Americans, she only recently learned about the violence that erupted a century ago in the thriving Greenwood district of Tulsa on May 31, 1921. That’s when a white mob destroyed the “Black Wall Street,” killing an estimated 300 and wounding 800 more as planes dropped explosives that burned 30 blocks of Black-owned businesses, homes and neighborhood churches to the ground.

Renee always has known that she has some family in Tulsa and other cities in Oklahoma. But when she finally learned about this largely unknown massacre a few years ago, she felt an immediate need to know if any members of her family had been impacted. But because of ongoing systemic racism in acknowledging and even counting Black human beings throughout American history, tracing family lines beyond just a few generations can be much more difficult for people of color. Renee turned to, “and it was the greatest gift I have ever given myself,” she said.

But she was not just in for a shock. She was in for shock after shock

after aftershock. The biggest? “My bloodline goes through both the Trail of Tears — and the damn Mayflower!” she said.

Yes, Renee’s DNA test showed that she is 8% European — meaning white.

The Dean surname has long figured prominently in Renee’s family tree, notably her great-great-grandmother Narcissis Dean, who married four times and lived to be 110.

But Renee was not expecting to learn that this particularly long family branch traces back 200 years to a white plantation owner in Wake County, N.C. Renee’s research turned up an undated family photo that, she says with a laugh, “looks like the Beverly Hillbillies.” The patriarch was a white man named Ausley Dean, who fathered many children, including a woman of color named Molly Dean — Narcissis’ mother — born in 1865.

While the exact circumstances of Molly’s birth are unknown, it was not at all uncommon for Black Americans to have ancestors who were raped and impregnated by their white slave owners. Still, the news that Renee has white in her blood caught her offguard. “I would never have guessed that – due to my hue,” she said demurely, pointing out that she is 35 percent Nigerian.

But get this: Because tracing the lineage of white people back for centuries is comparatively easy, Renee then quickly discovered that the Dean branch leads back to a British ex-con who came to America on the Mayflower. The irony that an entire line of white oppressors began with a man who had been a prisoner himself was not lost on Renee.

And then there’s this: The Dean line also includes members of the Freedmen, a group of indigenous Black people who were kept as slaves not by white men but rather by the Choctaw Nation, who themselves had came to Oklahoma under duress as part of the deadly forced journey west known as The Trail of Tears. At the end of the Civil War, the Choctaw begrudgingly agreed to give the Freedmen tribal citizenship according to terms of a treaty with the U.S government. And the Freedmen’s descendants are still waiting.

This particular branch of Renee’s family tree has been somewhat unknown to her throughout her life. But she is meeting many of those relatives for the first time this very weekend in Tulsa. She’ll be hosting a barbecue for all comers at a house she is renting. And if someone should happen to ask her to lift every voice and sing – well then, she will have a microphone and a portable amp at the ready.

Almost every line in Renee’s family (except the Deans) started as laborers and servants. But the divide in this country between the haves and have nots does not go neatly down the center of Renee’s family tree separating black and white. Renee’s great grandparents on her mother’s side, for example, both built successful businesses at a time of extreme segregation: Edward Starks owned a chauffeur business and “Mamma Stell” catered to the elite of Houston, making for an extremely wealthy family. “And wealth,” said Renee, “changes everything.”

To date, Renee has not uncovered evidence that any of her family members were among those murdered in the Oklahoma massacre. But, underscoring a previous point: No one in the 100 years since has been able to produce a list of those who died. But considering this was one of the most affluent Black districts in the country at the time, a place where Black residents came from all over Oklahoma to shop, see a dentist or talk to a lawyer, it seems no one who survived was unaffected.

“May 31, 1921, was just another episode of tragedy and terrorism that Black Americans have been been going through for hundreds of years,” Renee said. “I think it’s shameful what human beings do to other human beings. But we have made progress, and I am living proof of that. I am by no means a wealthy woman, but I am living in a palace compared to how my relatives lived 200 years ago. I think about what my ancestors went through so that I can live the life that I am living right now.

“To me, the lesson is you’ve just gotta keep living. The day after that bombing, the people of Greenwood were going through the rubble. The day after that, they were rebuilding their lives. And the Sunday after that, they were back in church. It makes me proud that I am the descendant of all those people who just kept living. It makes me proud of what my ancestors went through so that I could get to where I am today.”

Denver Gazette contributing arts columnist John Moore is an award-winning journalist who was named one of the 10 most influential theatre critics by American Theatre Magazine. He is now producing independent journalism as part of his own company, Moore Media.





The Gazette, Colorado Springs