Author Interviews
2:42 pm
Sat November 24, 2012

A White Face With A Forgotten African Family

Originally published on Sat November 24, 2012 3:26 pm

Growing up blond-haired and blue-eyed in Southern California, Joe Mozingo always thought his family name was Italian.

But as an adult, Mozingo became skeptical of that theory when friends and co-workers began to ask him about his unusual-sounding last name.

The journey to discover the truth about the Mozingo name took him from the libraries of Los Angeles to the courthouses and plantations of Virginia and, finally, to Africa.

Mozingo spoke with weekends on All Thing Considered guest host Jacki Lyden about his first book, The Fiddler on Pantico Run: An African Warrior, His White Descendants, A Search for Family, which chronicles that journey.


Interview Highlights

Wondering about his mysterious family name

"I always had kind of a longing to understand the history of the place I lived in, and I think that kind of came from the fact that I had no family history that I knew of. ... Then when people started asking me my name ... I kept wondering, how is it that we don't actually know where this name came from?"

Discovering Edward Mozingo, the ancestor who gave the family its name

"I met a professor, who was Sherrie Mazingo, and she was black, and she had done a lot more research than I had on our genealogy, and had been to a family reunion in North Carolina. [She] came back with the news that the name was African, and that we all descended from the same person, and he was, in her words, a 'Bantu warrior.' My uncle, out of nowhere, said we did in fact come from Virginia, where this slave had landed."

"There was the period in Virginia, that I had never known about, where free blacks and poor whites were mixing and even getting married."

Edward Mozingo's arrival in the new world

"We think he landed when he was about 11 years old, near Jamestown, and basically when these Africans arrived, you know they figured they wouldn't live more than a couple of years — there was no reason to have a lifelong slave — so they treated them as indentured servants.

"Edward appears to have had a contract with his master to work a certain amount of time."

On visiting a white Virginia cousin who denied the story

"[Junior Mozingo] didn't want to hear about it at all. He had lived literally on the spot where Edward Mozingo had lived 300 years before, yet, he had this myth that they were Italian and they had gotten here in the 1800s — when, in fact, you could trace his linage straight to Edward. Edward was his seventh great-grandfather.

"My initial intention was to go there and make people's heads explode with the news that they were black, even though they weren't. But, you know, someone invites you into their house, and they are very nice, and you realize that this guy lived a very hard life."

Crossing the color line and leaving it behind

"There was this brief period when Edward did well, and then the rich classes really wanted to put the squeeze on the poor to create this system of slavery, which really marginalized the poor whites and the free people of color. Their fates went downhill really fast; they were suddenly out of money. One of them even re-indentured himself to pay off some debt.

"They basically started leaving the area, and that was the time they could reinvent themselves. Those that were light-skinned enough could say they were white, and wherever they landed they came up with a new myth. You know, people said they were French Huguenots, Portuguese — anything but African."

Meeting Cameroon playwright Victor Musinga (no relation) in Africa

"He starts telling me a story about how his grandfather landed in jail. Well, the day he got out of jail, his son was born, and they named his son Musinga, and he said that Musinga was a thread, or a linking of people, which just blew my mind because that's what I was trying to do with this whole book — draw this link from Edward Mozingo in Africa, all the way across the Atlantic to me in California, and just through the people along the way."

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Growing up blond and blue-eyed in Southern California, Joe Mozingo thought his name was Italian. But the family history on this father's side had always been a bit of a mystery. On the journey to discover the truth about the Mozingo name, Joe travels from the libraries of Los Angeles to the courthouses and plantations of Virginia and finally to Angola.

Along the way, he learns about 300 years of Mozingos, from abolitionists to members of the KKK. Joe Mozingo joined us from NPR West to tell us how the journey began and the book he's written about it called "The Fiddler on Pantico Run."

JOE MOZINGO: I always had kind of a longing to understand the history of the place I lived in. And I think that came from the fact that I had no family history that I knew of. And then when people started asking me my name, as you mentioned, I kept wondering how is it that we don't actually know where this name came from?

LYDEN: So it's somewhere around the time that you go to journalism school that you make a connection, sort of your aha moment, if you will.

MOZINGO: Yes. And I met a professor, who was Sherrie Mozingo, and she was black. And she had done a lot more research than I had on her genealogy and had been to a family reunion in North Carolina and came back with the news that the name was African and that we all descended from the same person, and he was, in her words, a Bantu warrior.

My uncle, out of nowhere, said we did in fact come from Virginia where this slave had landed. There's this period in Virginia that I'd never known about where free blacks and poor whites were mixing and getting married even.

LYDEN: So, let's go back to this ancestor whose name is Edward Mozingo. He's abducted from, you think at the time, Cameroon - later on you think Angola. He's only a child. And tell us what happens.

MOZINGO: We think he landed in - when he was about 11 years old near Jamestown. And basically, when these Africans arrive, they, you know, they figure they wouldn't live more than a couple of years. There was no reason to have a lifelong slave, so they treated them as indentured servants. So Edward appears to have had a contract with his master to work a certain amount of time.

LYDEN: This is fascinating. You are actually able to trace Edward Mozingo's freedom papers, if you will, to 1672 in Virginia.

MOZINGO: And it's a complete miracle that that paper survived. The records surrounding it were burned in the courthouse in Williamsburg, and then they were trucked to a courthouse in Richmond, which burned during the Civil War. His volume just happened to be gone the day that the Richmond courthouse burned, but was lost, presumably for good, until it turned up in the Virginia Historical Society in a pile of mutilated, tattered documents. But there it was, this one intact page with his ruling.

LYDEN: He turns up at the courthouse in Jamestown - I think it's October 5, 1672.

MOZINGO: Yeah. And I went to that courthouse and saw the exact spot he would have walked out when he got his freedom looking up the James River as it kind of winds up into America. I mean, it was a - it's a beautiful spot.

LYDEN: You stumble across many people with the name Mozingo in this book. And there in Virginia, you meet a character, Junior Mozingo. A lot of these people didn't really want to think about having an African ancestor.

MOZINGO: He didn't want to hear about it at all. I mean, he had lived literally on a spot where Edward Mozingo had lived 300 years before, yet he had this myth that they were Italian and they had gotten here in the 1800s, when in fact, he could trace his lineage straight to Edward. Edward is his seventh great-grandfather.

LYDEN: And you handled that in a pretty gingerly way.

MOZINGO: I did. My initial intention was to go there and make people's heads explode with the news that they were black, even though they weren't. But, you know, someone invites you into their house, they're very nice, and you realize this guy lived a very hard life.

LYDEN: When does the line sort of bend? When is this family crossing the color line?

MOZINGO: There is this brief period where Edward did well, and then the rich classes really wanted to put the squeeze on the poor to create the system of slavery, which really marginalized the poor whites and the free people of color. Their fates went downhill really fast. They were suddenly out of money. One of them reindentured himself to, you know, pay off some debt.

They basically started leaving the area, and that was the time they could reinvent themselves. Those that were light-skinned enough, could say they were white. And wherever they landed, they came up with a new myth. You know, people said they were French Huguenot, Portuguese...

LYDEN: Anything but African.

MOZINGO: Anything but African, exactly.

LYDEN: In the second half of on this book, you actually decide that you must go to Africa, and you meet another Mozingo. And his name is Victor Musinga, and he's a very famous playwright. What does he tell you?

MOZINGO: He starts telling me a story how his grandfather landed in jail. The day he got out of jail, his son was born, and they named his son Musinga. And he said that Musinga is a thread or a linking of people, which just blew my mind because that what I was trying to do with this whole book, draw this link from Edward Mozingo in Africa all the way across the Atlantic to me in California and just through the people along the way.

LYDEN: The closing scene of your book, you're at your cousin's wedding in Virginia Beach. She's a white woman. She's marrying a black man. And it's a bit heartbreaking. Her father refuses to attend because it's an interracial marriage.

MOZINGO: It's hard to believe that people can't get past these things. You know, when her grandfather came up to me when I first met him, went on and on about how she was his favorite granddaughter, how much he loved her, how proud of her he was, and when he found this out, he just went ballistic and fell into a deep depression and subsequently had a lot of health problems.

LYDEN: I gather that branch of your family hasn't been coming to book readings.

MOZINGO: No. Well, some of them have. I mean, and she who got married, I mean, we're friends.

LYDEN: That's Joe Mozingo. His new book out is called "The Fiddler on Pantico Run." Joe, thank you so much. It's really fascinating.

MOZINGO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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