Cover image for Pearl's secret : a Black man's search for his white family
Pearl's secret : a Black man's search for his white family
Henry, Neil, 1954-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Berkeley: University of California Press, [2001]

Physical Description:
321 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
E185.97.H46 H46 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
E185.97.H46 H46 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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Pearl's Secret is a remarkable autobiography and family story that combines elements of history, investigative reporting, and personal narrative in a riveting, true-to-life mystery. In it, Neil Henry--a black professor of journalism and former award-winning correspondent for the Washington Post --sets out to piece together the murky details of his family's past. His search for the white branch of his family becomes a deeply personal odyssey, one in which Henry deploys all of his journalistic skills to uncover the paper trail that leads to blood relations who have lived for more than a century on the opposite side of the color line. At the same time Henry gives a powerful and vivid account of his black family's rise to success over the twentieth century. Throughout the course of this gripping story the author reflects on the part that racism and racial ignorance have played in his daily life--from his boyhood in largely white Seattle to his current role as a parent and educator in California.

The contemporary debate over the significance of Thomas Jefferson's longtime romantic relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, and recent DNA evidence that points to his role as the father of black descendants, have revealed the importance and volatility of the issue of dual-race legacies in American society. As Henry uncovers the dramatic history of his great-great-grandfather--a white English immigrant who fought as a Confederate officer in the Civil War, found success during Reconstruction as a Louisiana plantation owner, and enjoyed a long love affair with Henry's great-great-grandmother, a freed black slave--he grapples with an unsettling ambivalence about what he is trying to do. His straightforward, honest voice conveys both the pain and the exhilaration that his revelations bring him about himself, his family, and our society. In the book's stunning climax, the author finally meets his white kin, hears their own remarkable story of survival in America, and discovers a great deal about both the sting of racial prejudice as it is woven into the fabric of the nation, and his own proud identity as a teacher, father, and black American.

Author Notes

Neil Henry is Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

A white bloodline in a black family isn't unusual, but documentation of it is. Journalism professor Henry possessed such documentation in a photograph of his English immigrant great-great-grandfather A. J. Beaumont and in a letter acknowledging the parentage of his great-grandmother Pearl Brumley. Using his old reporter's skills and tenacity, he learned about the white branch of his family and how years of American racial history had treated his white kin. He admits complex feelings about the search as he recalls his more immediate family's struggles with Jim Crow in St. Louis and later the more subtle discrimination in Seattle, where he was raised. He discovered that Pearl secretly maintained contact with the white relations for years and that the descendants of a wealthy white landowner forebear suffered economic setbacks and lowered social status, whereas the descendents of a former slave became doctors, engineers, and writers. Henry's account of the complicated warp and woof of American race relations manifested in one family proves most moving. --Vanessa Bush

Publisher's Weekly Review

Shortly after the end of the Civil War, Laura Brumley, a young, educated mulatto ex-slave entered into a "loving" involvement with A.J. Beaumont, a white overseer on a plantation in Louisiana. A photo of Beaumont, his crinkled newspaper obituary and his deathbed note acknowledging his mixed-race daughter, Pearl, were passed down as heirlooms on the African-American side of the family. These fragile links were the end of the story until Brumley's great-great grandson Henry, associate professor of journalism at U.C.-Berkeley, used his investigative skills to try to locate his white relations. The more Henry searched, the more he examined his own troubled life as a black man, which he retells in a stream-of-consciousness style that is exasperatingly repetitious. But buried in the flashbacks and flash-forwards are some gems. For example, he recalls his mother telling him about reciting "I pledge allegiance to the rag," a common utterance among African-American schoolchildren during the days of Jim Crow that's rarely been mentioned in other memoirs. Henry's recollections of his Princeton days of being alienated from both the preppy Beach Boys culture and the lingo-speaking fans of the O'Jays are quite moving. He piques further interest by briefly mentioning his grandmother's 1920s trip to the Soviet Union, where she had heard blacks were treated as well as whites. In the end, Henry succeeds in his mission, but the emotional insights this memoir brings are the reward received, for both author and reader. Photos not seen by PW. Agent, Jill Kneerim. (May) Forecast: Readers who enjoyed James McBride's The Color of Water may find Henry's tale equally compelling. Additionally, his journalistic connections (the book mentions many Washington Post writers, and the jacket has a plug from Bob Woodward), may help the book garner high-profile media attention. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Henry's (journalism, Univ. of California, Berkeley) family biography is an engaging, emotional, genealogical adventure into ethnicity and self-acceptance. The author, who is black, is a former reporter for the Washington Post, and he uses his investigative instincts to create an intriguing "back to the future" page-turner as he searches for the white branch of his family tree. What sets this biography apart from other family biographies, like Alex Haley's Queen (Morrow, 1993), is Henry's riveting personal narratives of his genealogical research and childhood accounts. His trials and tribulations in researching provide the book with its protagonist and antagonist. Henry's tell-it-like-it-is approach will provide a clear picture into the origins of human nature and ethnicity. Fascinating and compelling, this book will have a place in public and academic libraries. Veronica Davis, Henrico Cty. P.L., Glen Allen, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Henry (journalism, Univ. of California, Berkeley) joins a growing number of American writers, black and white, who are telling the stories of their biracial families, explaining their own heritage even as they discover and relate the stories of their families on the other side of the racial divide. As he does this, Henry also tells the story of America's recent racial past: what did it mean to grow up black during the frightening 1950s and the tumultuous '60s? In both respects, Henry makes an important contribution to the literature; the book is both a tale of investigative reporting and a highly readable memoir. Henry's years as a journalist with the Washington Post and Newsweek inform the entire book, from the clarity of the prose, to the pacing of the narrative, to the architecture of interwoven stories spanning the last century and a half. Although not unique in terms of its broad outlines--many Americans have a white or black branch of the family somewhere-- Henry's personal quest becomes increasingly central and compelling for the reader as each new chapter unfolds. Instructive and a good read. All collections. J. A. Zoller Houghton College

Table of Contents

Preludep. 1
Beginning Family Treep. 15
Part 1 Search
1. Clues in Microfilmp. 19
2. Road Mapsp. 63
3. Natchezp. 109
4. Jim Crow's Shadowp. 157