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In search of the meaning of 'Mozingo'

Curious about his unusual name, a journalist and father traces his lineage to the 1600s — and unearths a conflicted past.

May 16, 2010|By Joe Mozingo, Los Angeles Times | Part one of three
  • Joe Mozingo explores the creek near Warsaw, Va., where his forebear, Edward Mozingo, grew tobacco and raised livestock as a tenant farmer after suing for his freedom in 1672.
Joe Mozingo explores the creek near Warsaw, Va., where his forebear, Edward… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from the Northern Neck of Virginia

My father's family landed in 1942 Los Angeles as if by immaculate conception, unburdened by any past.

Growing up, I knew all about how my mother's grandparents came to California from southern France and Sweden. But my dad's side was a mystery.

All I heard were a few stories about my grandfather as a youth in Hannibal, Mo., how he found a tarantula in a shipment of bananas at his dad's corner store, how he and a friend once rode motorcycles out west. But no one talked about Mozingos further back, or where they came from.

I might never have given the subject any thought except for a strange word: our name. All my life, people had asked me about it.

I began to look into it, and the more I learned, the more I realized our history had been buried. My curiosity turned to compulsion. I had to unearth the truth about our origins and the forces that had obscured them for centuries. I wanted to know my forebears and feel myself among them, to see if their forgotten personalities and struggles and secrets somehow still lived within us.

I set out last year to learn our story, traveling from the Tidewater of Virginia to the hollows of Kentucky and southeastern Indiana and beyond. At times, I struggled to absorb what I was finding, and I met Mozingos who were skeptical of it, or ambivalent, or fiercely resistant.

I learned that our early ancestry reflected not so much a quirk of American history as the messy start of it, seeding a furious internal conflict that continues today.

With us, the whole battle was embodied in a family — and a name.

My parents always said they thought "Mozingo" was Italian. But this was offered only as theory.

We were open to suggestions.

One came from an acquaintance who said he found a bunch of Mozingos in a phone book in the Imperial Valley and was told they all were Basque shepherds. On this authority, we became French Basque.

Next we heard that "Mozingo" was an Americanized version of "Mont Zingeau," a mountain in France or maybe Switzerland I could never find on a map.

All of this was beginning to feel a bit dubious when I met Sherrie Mazingo, whose name is a variation of ours. Sherrie was a broadcast journalism professor at USC when I was a grad student there in 1996.

She was black — and she had news.

She'd learned from genealogists at a family reunion in North Carolina that the Mozingos probably descended from a "Bantu warrior" from the Congo who became an indentured servant in Virginia in the 1600s.

That would mean that all Mozingos in America — including me, who grew up in Dana Point, the blue-eyed, surfing son of a dentist — had a Bantu last name.

My first reaction was to laugh. But upon further reflection, it seemed feasible. Ten or so generations had passed. Traces of a race could easily disappear in three.

My family took the news as a great lark, while duly noting that my grandmother would roll over in her grave.

My uncle Joe, an information systems manager for the city of Los Angeles, took to regaling his two black secretaries with claims of his Bantu warrior roots. (He swears they thought it was funny.)

My dad recalled an episode from when he first opened a practice in Tustin with a dentist who had an Italian name. A black woman showed up at the offices of "Anthony Mumolo and J.D. Mozingo, DDS." She took one look at my father, asked "He's the dentist?" and left in a huff. A colleague, hearing the story, took to calling them the "witch doctors."

I started poking around on the Internet. An entry in a genealogy forum noted that the earliest known Mozingo was Edward, a "Negro man" freed by the Jamestown court in 1672 after nearly three decades of indentured servitude.

This was the first piece of hard information I'd seen. Maybe Sherrie was right: We came from Africa.

I holed up in the genealogy stacks at the Los Angeles Central Library and the Mormon Family History Center in Westwood. I paged through books of early immigrants to America, census, tax and court records.

I found the reference to the 1672 ruling — in the "Minutes of the Council and General Court of Colonial Virginia" — but little more.

Who was Edward? Were we related? How does anyone know if he was Bantu?

I was becoming obsessed. But there was no time to look further. I was finishing school and needed to get my career going. I had to let it go.

Over the ensuing years, little moments kept my curiosity smoldering. White people who commented about my name assumed it was Italian. Black people tended not to volunteer opinions until the Miami Herald sent me to cover the instability in Haiti in 2004. In that country, with its tenacious African customs and language, I got an invariable response when I introduced myself: "That's an African name."

Then I got married, had a son, Blake, and moved back to California.

Rocking Blake to sleep when he was just learning to talk, I would sometimes say our name, Mo-ZEENG-oe.

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