Reporting from Orange, Va.
On the 19th page of the diary, I saw it.
"Spence Mozingo came to . . . get boards for covering the Tob[acco] house."
I clasped the back of my head in disbelief.
Francis Taylor, a close cousin of James Madison, had kept a journal of their family's daily life in Virginia. And there was my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, picking up lumber on a June day in 1786.
Just seeing the word "Mozingo" in the sphere of the Madisons had the feel of a fantastic anachronism — like seeing my own face among the Founding Fathers on the $2 bill.
I was in Virginia, picking away at the enigma of my family name — thought to be central African and now possessed largely by whites in the South and lower Midwest. I had holed up in old courthouses and libraries, straining to read handwriting so impenetrably florid I found myself cursing town clerks who died two centuries ago. I had met and spoken on the phone with Mozingos whose lack of interest in our origins verged on hostility.
What I knew was this: Every Mozingo in America probably descended from Edward Mozingo, a "Negro man" who lived in the Tidewater region of Virginia in 1644. I could trace myself only as far back as Spencer, who first showed up as a white adult in a 1782 census in the Piedmont, about 80 miles west. Who his parents were, whom he married, where he came from were mysteries.
Fortunately, he had settled in the same small census tract as James Madison.
I had come to the Orange County Historical Society thinking the Francis Taylor journal was a long shot, leaving myself just an hour to get through 500 pages before catching a plane home. Now I skimmed frantically.
"Went down the run to Mozingos to fish . . . caught only two."
"S. Mozingo came here in Evening & expects his wife to [give birth] soon, Let him have . . . Brandy & 2 lb. bro. Sugar."
There were notes about Spencer cutting logs, raising a roof, putting up a stable. He was a carpenter like Edward. Trades were often passed down through family lines.
Then I hit an odd entry. On March 23, 1790, "Geo[rge] Taylor sold Mozingo to Hub Taylor for £60."
What was this? Sold?
It had to be a mistake. The census said Spencer Mozingo was white.
Then this: "Mozingo (whom G Taylor sold Hd Taylor) set off down to his new master."
My great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was a slave?
I could grasp having a black ancestor way back in the 1600s. But in the 1800s? A slave? Spencer died in the 1830s, just 80 years before my grandfather was born.
Were his descendants slaves at the outset of the Civil War? How would we have kept our name? Wouldn't we all be Taylors? This was unfathomable.
But the diary seemed so clear. Mozingo. Sold. Master.
What would my family think?
My wife, Noaki, who was mixed-race — Irish and German on one side and Japanese on the other — surely would be fascinated.
I wasn't as certain about my parents.
They could laugh off a blood connection to the black Edward Mozingo because it was so far back and we could not trace ourselves directly to him. But there was no escape here. My dad, whose skin sears pink in an hour at the beach, may have descended from a slave.
When I told him about the diary, he gave me a mildly intrigued "Hmmm."
My mom was equally inscrutable, never seeming fully convinced of my research, always floating an afterthought. "I wonder why on Google I found a Pietro Mozingo in Italy."
My parents have always been fairly liberal in accepting other people's differences. But recognizing the other as an element of ourselves was harder, especially since our names are so entwined with our identities.
And there's little doubt our name came from Edward.
"We're sure he came from Kongo," said Linda Heywood, a historian who studies the language and history of central Africa and its diaspora.
Until it disappeared in 1914, the Kingdom of Kongo ruled the Atlantic coast and tablelands around the modern-day border of Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its people spoke Kikongo, a Bantu language.
Their enemies, their outcasts, their perceived traitors and competitors became America's first slaves.
At the time of Edward's birth, the kingdom was the most powerful and Westernized in central Africa, with Jesuit colleges and an ambassador to the Vatican. The kings were Mozingos.
Heywood and her husband, John Thornton, both history professors at Boston University, say the name was common back then, pronounced something like Mosinga or Muzinga and spelled a variety of ways. He e-mailed me a copy of a 16th century Portuguese text that mentioned a King "Amosinga."
They suspect that Edward Mozingo — or his father, if Edward was born in Virginia — was a lower nobleman and warrior caught up in the kingdom's political intrigue, then sold.