My great grandmother hid who she was. 20 years later I understand why | Opinion
I'm one of those New Yorkers living in Nashville, but perhaps you will forgive me since my family has deep roots in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana.
Incredibly, my connection to New York began in Louisiana.
In the 1930s, my great grandmother Lola Perot married Irish New Yorker John Donnelly in her Louisiana home town. They moved back his hometown in New York after getting married. The adjustment from South to North must have been massive for Lola— not only did she leave behind her family and her culture—but I later learned she also left her name and her race.
My mom and her mother Marion (Lola’s daughter) were raised as French and Irish by Lola (in NY she went by “Louise”). My grammy was very proud of her French heritage. One day, after going through some boxes of old family photos, I saw a picture of my mom’s grandmother on her wedding day, standing next to my Irish great grandfather John Donnelly. It was completely obvious that Lola was not white.
20 years later, I am still grappling with the meaning of that photo, and everything it represented about who my family was, and still is, today. Throughout the course of my great grandmother’s life, she and her family were censused as Black, Mulatto, Mexican (Latino) and eventually White. It shook me to the bottom of my perhaps not-so-French core.
Who was Lola Perot? And who was I?
In all transparency, I harbored frustration at Gram for hiding our heritage. The amount of work required to simply find out who I was piled up around me.
Determined to solve the mystery, I spent this last year interviewing family members in New York and meeting new family members in Louisiana—clawing at the stories in the most frantic way. I was exhausted, and unsure of how to continue of this journey not only finding my roots, but explaining them.
A woman named Naomi Drake change my perspective.
From the same era as Lola, Drake headed the Bureau of Vital Statistics in New Orleans from 1949-1965 where it was her personal mission to “out” any people whose birth certificates said white but she believed to have African or Colored ancestry. In her view, this racial hypo-descent classification was necessary, and she would often pour over an individual’s family tree, intent on finding one ancestor labeled as “Colored,” or scour obituaries of relatives, looking to see if any family member had a service at a traditional “Black” funeral home. If someone rejected Drake’s racial determination, she would withhold the birth certificate entirely.
Trying to survive in the the Jim Crow era was incredibly difficult for non-White folks.
In Louisiana, the “one drop rule” was not overturned until 1983—a year after Lola passed away, and only three years before I was born. Under that rule, one only had to be 1/32 African American to be considered Colored. I was raised white, but if I had been just a few years older, Louisiana would have said otherwise.
I used to think Lola was ashamed of where she came from, but now I know better.
What looked to me like self-destruction, was her attempt to protect her family and her children from the most dangerous enemy: their own heritage. Her decision for our family was both brave and heartbreaking. We were both the privileged and the discriminated. We were both white and Colored. We were both Yankee and Southern. Our family history seemed to be a little bit of everything—and maybe being a little bit of both of something is okay.
Danielle Romero loves uncovering secrets and telling stories long-since forgotten. View the docu-series "Finding Lola" on YouTube.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Personal essay: how discovering my New Orleans roots molded my identity