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An old diary throws him a curve

He could grasp having a black ancestor way back in the 1600s. But in the 1800s? A slave? It had to be a mistake. What would his family think?

May 16, 2010|By Joe Mozingo, Los Angeles Times | Part Two

She pulled out two photos for me. The first showed her filling a giant beige bra before she had a double mastectomy a few years back. She laughed. The other was of her granddaughter Tanya.

In 1973, Amy's daughter, Beth, was a 16-year-old dropout and alcoholic who ran away from home to live in near-squalor with her older sister Lynn in Florida.

Beth called home one day to say she was pregnant and that Lynn's two kids were hungry.

Amy and family headed down Interstate 75. When they approached the house, her sister Carol noticed that they were in the "black section" of town. They saw Beth and Lynn in a backyard and a little black boy playing. Carol pointed to Beth's belly and said, "Is that ni-gro too?"

Beth nodded. Three weeks later, Beth was back home and refusing Amy's order to get an abortion. While Amy never shared or understood her neighbors' antipathy toward black people, this was as taboo as it got in Greensburg.

Beth named her baby girl Tanya (the first syllable rhyming with "man") because she had a tan.

Amy and her late husband Maury fell in love with the baby. She still chokes up talking about it and calls Tanya her "greatest blessing."

Amy and Maury ended up raising her in Indiana. She was the only black child in school, and Amy protected her with a vengeance. The family — Bud included — embraced her.

Tanya, now 36 and a single mother of three, lives in nearby Columbus, Ind. She recently quit her job at a Toyota parts plant to go into nursing, and is working at a nursing home.

"My grandparents spoiled me," Tanya would tell me later. "Had they not been there for me, my life would have gone in a totally different direction."

I told Amy about Edward Mozingo and showed her the colonial court's description of him as a "Negro man." She was delighted and wanted a copy to needle Bud with. "I'm so happy for Tanya," she said, tearing up.

After leaving her house, I met Bud and his brother Stan to go look for Mozingo graves.

Stan was a thin 67-year-old fence builder with pale blue eyes, jug-handle ears and two missing front teeth blown out by the flying metal hook of a come-along winch. He lived deep in the country and broke mules. He was impeccably polite, with the Southern courtesy of saying your name in almost every sentence. But he exuded a much more potent venom than Bud toward black people.

I asked him why. He said he hated only the ones he called "niggers."

"I have colored friends," he said. "A colored man, Jack Strode, taught me more than anyone else I know about breaking mules."

Bud's and Stan's bigotry wasn't inflexible: If they were thrust into a situation with a black person and got a decent impression, that person would be exempted from their rancor.

I was about to let the issue go when Bud mentioned the Ku Klux Klan.

"Were Mozingos in the Klan?" I asked.

"Oh, heavens, yes," he said. "Grandpa Joe was a Klan member. Edwin was a Klan member."

They must have been the only Bantu white supremacists in the United States.

During our drive and in later conversations, I tried to talk to Stan about the name Mozingo. Had he wondered about it? "It doesn't sound like Brown or Smith or Jones," I said.

"Yeah, but it doesn't sound like Obama, either, heh-heh-heh," he said.

Would he have a problem if it was African?

"No, it wouldn't be no problem, Joe, nuh-uh. No, it wouldn't be no problem. Because the way I look at it, God made all us people. And you know, we just know it's not African, Joe."

"You know it's not African?" I asked

"It's not African, no. The first I heard is from Hungary, Northern Italy, somewhere like that."

I told him about Edward being black, about the generations of mixing that made us white.

"OK, it's not African, Joe. I ain't never seen a colored Mozingo. . . . Back when they brought the Africans over here, they had a first name but no last name. And the Mozingos used to own slaves, and they took their masters' name."

Now I let it go.

There were a few highlights to the reunion that afternoon, besides meeting dozens of people who welcomed me with a hospitality I didn't think existed anymore. A woman with a striking resemblance to Benjamin Franklin besieged me with dubious family gossip. Bud irked his wife by walking around with his blue briefs pulled halfway up his belly. I met his favorite granddaughter, a social worker who worked with minority kids. Tanya arrived with her three children, and Amy set out big photos of them on the mantel.

Why was it so hard for us to accept that white people could descend from a black man, after many generations of mixing, when we accept the opposite without a thought? Here was a white line of people turning black, by their definition, in a single generation with Tanya.

Stan showed me a printout titled "Historiography" of Mozingo. "The surname Mozingo . . .is believed to be associated with the Spaniards, meaning 'one who was young in appearance.' "

There was another printout on the mantel, "The Surname History of the Family," that said, "The Italian surname MOZINGO was from the English given name, James . . ."

I watched everyone talking and laughing and griping, the children playing outside, throwing water balloons at a grinning Bud, and thought this was Spencer's epitaph, for better or worse.

joe.mozingo@latimes.com

Next: The racial divide.

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