A White Woman Searches for Her Black Family

Christen Jacobsen. Image: Natalie Keyssar/The Wall Street Journal

Christine Jacobsen grew up thinking she was white. She was raised by white parents. One day, she took home a DNA test.

Ms. Jacobsen, 67, learned she has West African ancestry, which led her to the discovery that her biological father, a man she never knew, was black. She has been trying to reconcile those facts ever since.

Her journey has led to both painful and revelatory experiences—with new relatives and existing ones, especially her 31-year-old son, Alek Marfisi. He disagrees with Ms. Jacobsen’s idea that her African ancestry changes her identity from what it has always been, a white woman.

Along the way, Ms. Jacobsen acknowledges, she has stumbled. She pushed a new relative to take a DNA test, and then felt remorseful when it revealed a family secret. She bought an African head wrap and skirt and wore the ensemble to a local cultural event, intending to show affirmation and celebration of her paternal ancestry, she said. She was taken aback when her son and some of her new relatives criticized her choice.

“Race is not biology or genetics, it is your experience in this world,” Mr. Marfisi says he told his mother. “She has had no experience as someone who is black.”

Ms. Jacobsen said she feels the DNA results matter, not just her life story, which in fundamental ways was incomplete. “In my heart, I feel a connection.”

The growing popularity of consumer DNA tests has allowed millions of people to trace their ancestry and learn more about family history. It has also prompted difficult questions about one of the nation’s most fraught issues—racial identity.

Ms. Jacobsen took her first consumer DNA test in 2016. When the test revealed 22% African ancestry, it appeared to confirm a story she was told, once, when she was 16 years old.

She grew up in Queens, N.Y., the only child of parents born in Denmark who immigrated to the U.S. in 1949. Her mother, Jytte Jacobsen, was a beautician whose alcoholism eventually prevented her from working. Jack Jacobsen, her father, was a sound engineer, who worked on the Oscar-winning movie “Apocalypse Now,” among others. Her parents had other relationships, she said.

The couple went out frequently to jazz clubs and nightclubs, making a point to meet the performers after the show. The party often continued back at the Jacobsen home.

One afternoon in May 1968, when she was 16, Ms. Jacobsen returned home from school and got into an argument with a man she knew was her mother’s lover. In the heat of the moment, she recalled, the man blurted out a secret her mother had confided in him: Ms. Jacobsen’s biological father wasn’t the man raising her. Her actual father was black.

Ms. Jacobsen’s mother, upset, started pacing around the room, but said it was possible. She pulled out a picture tucked inside a book. It was a publicity photo of a man, a dancer. The man was from the Bahamas, her mother said. His name was Paul. Ms. Jacobsen remembers thinking he had a beautiful smile, and a face that felt familiar in a way she found difficult to express.

“I think this might be your father,” her mother said.

The incident shocked Ms. Jacobsen. Later that evening, after her father got back from work, she recounted what happened. Her father dismissed the idea out of hand, telling Ms. Jacobsen it couldn’t possibly be true, and that she looked just like his own mother.

The next morning, Ms. Jacobsen went hunting for the photo but it was gone. She never discussed the subject with either of her parents again.

“I loved my father. He was the most important person in my life,” said Ms. Jacobsen. “I recognized that the only semi-stable person in the whole dynamic was my father, Jack, and I didn’t want to lose that.”

After the 2016 DNA test, Ms. Jacobsen came to believe her mother had been telling the truth. But she didn’t know how to verify the identity of her biological father. Her parents were both dead.

The DNA report noted she had relatives who shared common DNA segments, but none close enough to offer clues to her paternity. When she contacted three new distant cousins through the testing-company site, trying to figure out how they might be related, no one responded, she said.

She told her family and close friends about the test results. When she “found out her father wasn’t her father, her whole life changed,” said Angelo Marfisi, Ms. Jacobsen’s husband of 34 years.

Based on huge advances in genetic research, many scientists today believe there is hardly any connection between genes and race.

In 2003, scientists from the Human Genome Project announced they had essentially completed mapping of the human genome. The resulting genetic blueprint indicated that humans are 99.9% identical. The remaining hundredth of a percentage point, scientists said, likely contains clues explaining differences such as skin color or increased risk of certain diseases.

Some of those are connected to ancestry—where your predecessors came from thousands of years ago. Race, on the other hand, researchers say today, is a complex combination of factors from physical appearance to family stories and how people are treated as they move through the world. In other words, for many people, it is in large part subjective, not measurable.

After consumer DNA tests took off, customers have found themselves armed with increasingly specific details about their historical relatives. People don’t just have European ancestry; it can be broken down into a British or German component. Or they may be told their ancestry traces to Congo, not only Africa.

The information is based on migration patterns that happened thousands of years ago, through regions and among populations whose names, members, and borders have changed, says Wendy D. Roth, associate professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies the effect of DNA tests on racial and ethnic identity. “But the tests present it as if it determines who you are today,” she said.

As Ms. Jacobsen found out, these kinds of results, when they reveal an ancestry that seems at odds with racial identity, can unsettle a life that had been stable for decades.

In May 2018, she decided to take another DNA test. She wanted to learn whether her African ancestry raised her risk of potential health issues.

To her surprise, she matched with someone in the company’s database who shared enough DNA segments in common with her to likely be a first cousin. Ms. Jacobsen was thrilled. A first cousin would share her grandparents and might know her father.

She sent a note through the testing-company’s website asking to try to figure out how they were related. She says a woman wrote back, asking “What are the names of your parents?”

“I am not sure of my bio dad’s name,” Ms. Jacobsen wrote, “but I think he was from the Bahamas.”

The woman responded that her family was from the Bahamas.

“I’m from New York,” Ms. Jacobsen continued. “My mother told me she had an affair with a dancer who was from the Bahamas.”

“My mom’s brother was a dancer from the Bahamas,” the woman responded, “so I’m 99% sure your dad was my uncle Paul.”

Uncle Paul was Paul Meeres. This man, Ms. Jacobsen concluded, must be her biological father. She considered it convincing information, even though it wasn’t absolute confirmation.

He had died in 1986. Armed only with the name, Ms. Jacobsen started piecing together the history of her biological father’s family.

She reached out to a Bahamian genealogist, Phil Roberts, who had created an extensive Meeres family tree. He told her that her grandfather, Preston Paul Meeres, was from the Bahamas but left for work in the U.S., where he met his wife, Thelma. The couple started dancing together, appearing on stage as Meeres and Meeres.

In the press, “they were the Negro Astaires of the 1920s,” said La Vinia Delois Jennings, a professor of 20th-century American literature and culture at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The couple danced at the Cotton Club.

Despite their fame, like black performers of that era, when Meeres and Meeres danced at a club, they had to go somewhere else to get their meals “because they didn’t have the freedom to rub elbows with the wealthy white patrons who came to the clubs,” said Prof. Jennings.

Ms. Jacobsen found a newspaper clipping stating that the couple had two children, Paul K. Meeres, who she believes is her biological father, and a daughter, Gloria.

The couple divorced in 1930 and Preston Paul Meeres went to Europe, where he danced—and was photographed—with Josephine Baker. He eventually returned to the Bahamas in 1939 and opened up a night club in Nassau that drew celebrities including Elizabeth Taylor.

His son, Paul, became a professional dancer too, appearing in clubs in Europe and the U.S., including the Cotton Club. He was a stuntman in “Bronco Billy,” a Clint Eastwood movie, and at the time of his death at age 61, worked as a dancer and musician in a Titusville, Fla., restaurant, according to his obituary.

Ms. Jacobsen spent hours every day researching the Meeres family and the Harlem Renaissance. She read books about African-American history, and took the train from her home in Goshen, N.Y., into New York City to pore over archival photos of her biological grandparents and father in their dancing costumes, kept in collections at libraries such as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

Ms. Jacobsen contacted anyone she could find online who might have known Mr. Meeres. She tracked down one of his old friends and, after finding records online for previous marriages, located a former wife.

They filled in the personal details she craved. Her father liked to eat a spicy dish of pigeon peas and rice and spoke five languages. He played the conga drums and knew how to tune a piano. He had a temper but was also charming and a ladies’ man.

One time, she was told, Mr. Meeres got pulled over by the police for driving erratically and to prove he wasn’t drunk, did a headstand on the roof of the car. The police fined him $35 for disorderly conduct.

Most of all, Ms. Jacobsen wanted to meet members of the Meeres family. When her parents died, she said she felt like an orphan. Now she found the obituary for Mr. Meeres that listed four children, who she believed were her half-siblings.

One was deceased, and two she couldn’t locate.

Another half-sibling, Paula, lived in Queens, N.Y., around two hours drive from her home.

She wanted to meet Paula, but was afraid to go. She didn’t know how she might react to her showing up.

In August 2018, Ms. Jacobsen was visiting a friend in Long Island. She learned her half-brother was buried in a cemetery there and decided to visit, bringing sunflowers that she placed on his grave. “I wanted to pay my respects,” she said, “and see if I felt some kind of connection.”

From the cemetery, on a whim, she drove to Paula’s home in Queens and knocked on her door.

There was no answer. Disappointed, Ms. Jacobsen started walking back to her car. Suddenly, she heard a voice coming from a small window in the basement, asking who was outside.

“My name is Christine,” Ms. Jacobsen said she answered. “I am looking for Paula.” She waited while the woman climbed the stairs. “I know this is going to sound really weird,” Ms. Jacobsen said, when the door opened. “But I did DNA testing and…”

After a few minutes of conversation, the two figured out they were likely sisters, talked about getting lunch and exchanged phone numbers. Ms. Jacobsen took a selfie of the two of them.

In a phone call the next day, Ms. Jacobsen described her research. She says Paula told her that she knew Paul Meeres was her father, but he didn’t raise her.

Paula shared some medical information, Ms. Jacobsen recalls, and then said something that took her by surprise.

“She told me I had a good life and a husband and son, and shouldn’t look for more family because it was going to make me sad,” said Ms. Jacobsen.

In her journal, Ms. Jacobsen recognized her pursuit inevitably affected other people’s lives. “My desire to know can clash with your desire to forget,” she wrote in one entry. “My neediness conflicting with another’s fear of connection. My fear of connection conflicting with another’s neediness.”

Paula didn’t respond directly to interview requests from the Journal. Through Ms. Jacobsen she said she didn’t want to comment.

Soon after, Ms. Jacobsen’s research led her to another possible relative, who was also searching for information. Marcia Meeres posted on an online genealogical site that she was hoping to find out more about the family of her father, who was a son of Paul Meeres.

Ms. Jacobsen sent a message on Facebook to Ms. Meeres and explained she had taken a DNA test and believed that Paul Meeres was her father. “So ur my aunt?” Ms. Meeres wrote back.

Ms. Meeres, who is African-American, told Ms. Jacobsen she met Paul Meeres once, when she about 12. He was her grandfather. “Paul was excited to meet us. He showed us off. He took us around Brooklyn to meet the family,” she said.

Almost immediately after connecting, Ms. Jacobsen asked Ms. Meeres if she would take a DNA test. She wanted to be sure they were related. Ms. Meeres agreed.

When the DNA test results came back, Ms. Meeres learned she had no DNA in common with Ms. Jacobsen, or any of the other members of the Meeres family she thought were her relatives.

Ms. Meeres confronted her mother with the DNA results. Her mother brushed them off, saying she knew who Ms. Meeres’s father was. Then she cried. Ms. Meeres’s mother died from cancer soon after, so she never got answers about the identity of her biological father.

Ms. Jacobsen felt guilty that she had broken open a family secret.

Ms. Meeres didn’t see it that way. “I know that put Christine in an awkward position,” she said. “Here she comes into my life and pushes this DNA test on me and now my world is upside down. I had to reassure her, no, you came into my life and you brought truth.”

Hoping to celebrate her newly discovered ancestry, Ms. Jacobsen bought an African skirt and head wrap, and studied YouTube videos to learn how to properly wrap it. In March, when her local Toastmasters club sponsored a cultural awareness evening, she wore the outfit.

When she texted a photo of herself to her son, Alek Marfisi, he told her he was upset. Ms. Jacobsen argued that African ancestry was part of her heritage, and the clothes were a way of expressing appreciation for and identification with her newfound identity. Their differing viewpoints about the incident remain a point of contention.

“The luxury we have is we can sift through the culture and only take the good, but there is so much else that goes with being black or African that we don’t have to participate in,” Mr. Marfisi said. “It’s not right to take some ownership in culture and not take the whole thing.” He felt his mother’s choice of adornment would be considered insulting to many people.

“My mother wants to get a sense of belonging to something,” said Mr. Marfisi, who is her only child. “We all need to belong, but that’s not the way to do it.”

Ms. Jacobsen’s husband, Angelo Marfisi, said after she got the test results, she was constantly doing research. When she tracked down family in the Bahamas, they went to visit.

Mr. Marfisi, who was born in Tripoli, Libya, always felt he had a large family. During their stay in the Bahamas, he said he realized, “Christine has the biggest family.”

In April, they visited Nassau in the Bahamas, where Ms. Jacobsen’s grandfather operated his nightclub and many family members still live. She met Antonio Aranha, a cousin with whom she shares great-grandparents, and his extended family.

During the visit, Mr. Aranha showed her photos of the Meereses that belonged to his mother. Ms. Jacobsen never discussed her racial identity or asked him about his. Mr. Aranha said, “I consider Christine mixed. We are mixed as well.” He said he has white aunts and black uncles and black aunts and white uncles.

One of Mr. Aranha’s nieces thought she and Ms. Jacobsen looked so similar, they took a picture cheek-to-cheek. “We consider Christine and Angelo family,” Mr. Aranha said. “We got together and we had a great time.”

After Ms. Jacobsen’s visit to Nassau, she went to Florida, where she and her husband own a condominium. Ms. Meeres, whose family secret was revealed by the DNA test, lives in Florida and the two finally met in person.

The women sat close together, on a sofa, talking after a meal. They discussed the death of Ms. Meeres’s mother, and her grief. At one point, Ms. Meeres tried to reassure Ms. Jacobsen of their connection, despite the DNA test that showed they weren’t related.

“You are still my aunt,” Ms. Meeres said.

“You are still my niece,” Ms. Jacobsen replied.

Ms. Jacobsen said her DNA test also turned up new relatives of European ancestry on her mother’s side, but she hadn’t pursued those relationships the way she had with the Meeres family.

Ms. Meeres didn’t find that surprising. “She knows about white people. She grew up as a white woman. She was more intrigued by the African side of her,” said Ms. Meeres.

When Ms. Jacobsen shared the story of wearing the African head wrap, and her son’s criticism, Ms. Meeres agreed with the son.

“You are wearing it because you are fascinated,” Ms. Meeres said, “but these are the same things blacks are vilified for.”

Last year, Ms. Jacobsen was looking through military records online, trying to learn more about Mr. Meeres’s service in the Marines from 1943 to 1946, when she noticed he had been demoted from corporal to private. “I wondered is that normal?” she said. “It bothered me. It kept gnawing at me.”

Ms. Jacobsen said she feels shame that she never thought about the black experience until she learned that her biological father was black. She knew racism existed, but didn’t consider it a problem relevant to her life. Now she wondered how it had affected her father.

She obtained a copy of Mr. Meeres’s death certificate by filling out a form online stating she was a family member. With the death certificate, she was able to get his discharge records from the National Archives.

One afternoon, she wandered into a photo exhibition in Brooklyn that included photos shot by Marines. She struck up a conversation with a Marine who was there and told him the story of her father’s demotion. He asked where her father served. She told him he had trained during the 1940s at Camp Montford Point in North Carolina.

Montford Point had been a segregated training base during World War II, before the integration of the U.S. armed services.

“That was a special group of Marines,” he responded.

When Ms. Jacobsen got home, she went online to learn more. Congress authorized the Congressional Gold Medal be awarded to the Montford Point Marines in recognition of their service and valor. “I wondered if he could be awarded the medal,” she said.

The head of the New York Metro chapter of the Montford Point Marine Association told her that if she provided documentation, such as Mr. Meeres’s discharge papers, she and her family members could receive his gold medal posthumously at a ceremony in November.

Ms. Jacobsen never got a clear answer about the demotion. His military record states it came after Mr. Meeres was AWOL for an hour. During war, infractions could bring about harsh punishment. In some cases, prejudice also played a role. “People brought their prejudices with them into the military,” said Master Gunnery Sergeant James Carr, president of the association’s New York Metro Chapter-3.

The demotion shouldn’t take away from Mr. Meeres’s service, he added. Mr. Meeres was honorably discharged.

Ms. Jacobsen invited Paula, her half-sibling, to come with her to the recognition ceremony. She also wanted her son to attend.

The ceremony brought up complicated feelings for Mr. Marfisi. When his mother invited him, “the first thought that went through my head is I know there are other people who exist who have some sort of closer connection to him. Why is my mother receiving the medal?” He didn’t share that thought with his mother and agreed to attend.

The medal recognized the achievements of a group of black Marines, who fought who fought with valor during World War II. This time, Mr. Marfisi felt his mother’s claim to the medal was stronger than for wearing the African head wrap. They were at the ceremony because of his mother’s research. By contributing to Mr. Meeres’s story, and bringing him recognition he wouldn’t otherwise have received, she now had a personal stake in it.

“The fundamental difference here is she’s connecting with a person rather than connecting with a race,” he said.

After the ceremony, Ms. Jacobsen drove Paula home and walked her to the door. Paula didn’t ask about keeping the medal, and Ms. Jacobsen didn’t offer to share. “I felt the medal was mine,” she said. “This is part of me reclaiming my identity.”

Another moment from the same evening stands out. In a video of the event, Ms. Jacobsen and Paula waited together at the front of the packed room.

The women look overwhelmed, like they might cry. They stood side-by-side, and, as sisters often do, held hands.

Write to Amy Dockser Marcus at amy.marcus@wsj.com