As a child, I heard rumors that my family’s roots could be traced back to Matthew Henson, an African American explorer remembered by historians as a member of the first successful expedition to the North Pole, in 1909. In fourth grade, when my teacher assigned a family-history research project, I made it my mission to turn the rumors into reality.
The possibility of connecting myself to a globetrotting adventurer nourished a childhood fascination with exploring nature. The forest in my neighborhood in suburban Maryland was less perilous than the Arctic, but at 10 years old, my imagination made Henson’s expeditions seem so close to my own.
I gleefully scanned every document my mother surfaced for me and began drawing my family tree to Henson, who turned out to have married a maternal ancestor of mine. When I learned that Henson and I shared not only a first name but also a middle name, Alexander, it felt like my birthright to be his descendant.
However, just when I thought I’d found the X on the treasure map of my ancestry, my mother sat me down. Matthew Henson had married into our family, she explained; he was not a blood relative. I pushed back, bringing up my middle name as a last line of defense against a truth I refused to accept. That’s when my mother broke the news that my middle name had nothing to do with Henson: she’d simply wanted my middle name to start with an A, like that of my older brother, Michael, who got Anthony.
Henson may not have been an ancestor by blood, but my mother had been heroic in encouraging me to think about my heritage in new ways. And I had become an explorer in my own right during this first foray into historical inquiry, venturing into the ambiguity and mystery of my family tree. That journey was something to celebrate back then, and it continues to motivate me today, as I pursue a graduate degree in history.
Fourth grade would not be the only time history revealed its capacity to surprise me. Five years ago, as the historian of Amherst’s Black Student Union during my senior year, I began researching the pipeline between Amherst and Dunbar High School, a Black public school in Washington, D.C. For several years in the first half of the 20th century, Dunbar students made up the majority, if not the entirety, of the Black student population at Amherst College. Dunbar’s Black teachers and principals were the best and brightest intellectuals in a racially segregated nation’s capital, and they invested in their students.
Under the guidance of professors Frank Couvares and Khary Polk, three classmates and I met weekly in the Amherst College Archives for a senior year independent study to uncover and interpret the lives of Black Amherst alumni. Unlike in elementary school, I did not go into the archives looking for my own ancestors.
But they found me anyway.
Through this research, I unexpectedly learned about my paternal grandparents, Nathaniel Randolph and Ruth Walker. Ruth died of cancer before I was born, and Nathaniel passed away in 2017. Ruth was among the first Black women to graduate from the Bellevue School of Nursing in New York City. She taught nursing in D.C. until her retirement. I always knew my grandparents had attended D.C. public schools, but until I began my research at Amherst, I had paid no attention to which schools. Then, in the College Archives, I came across Nathaniel’s name in a list of Dunbar war veterans. I began to appreciate that I’ve had Dunbar blood in my veins all along.
Nathaniel Randolph’s trajectory was worlds apart from that of another Dunbar alumnus, Charles Drew, Amherst class of 1926. The namesake of the Black culture house at Amherst, Drew discovered the way to preserve blood plasma during World War II. My grandfather, in contrast, contributed to his country on the battlefield. In his Dunbar senior yearbook, Nathaniel dreamed of becoming a chemist. In another reality he, like Drew, might have changed the scientific world.
But after graduating from Dunbar in 1943, Nathaniel left immediately to fight in the war in Japan. He survived; returned to marry Ruth, his high school sweetheart; and worked as a postman, a middle-class federal job that offered stability to raise a family. His Dunbar experience gave him an appreciation for education that he would pass down to his sons and daughters. If Nathaniel could not go to college, he would find a way for his children and grandchildren to do so.
No matter what joy or tragedy historical research may bring to the surface, the journey is always worth it. The failed quest for a Henson blood connection brought me closer to my mother. My grandfather’s war story had a flip side as well: it brought me closer to my alma mater. Nathaniel and I have a Dunbar-Amherst connection of our own. As a war veteran who worked hard and provided for his family, Nathaniel planted seeds of opportunity for my father and me. He lived to see me graduate from Amherst, to complete the Dunbar-Amherst circle in our own unique way.
Randolph is a history Ph.D. student at Stanford, where he focuses on the African diaspora. He contributed to two of the Amherst Bicentennial books: Eye Mind Heart, for which he was a research assistant, and Amherst in the World, for which he wrote a chapter on Dunbar High and Amherst. His mother is Monique Randolph ’81. Her experience as a Black woman at Amherst at the start of coeducation is a source of inspiration as he trains to be a historian. He lives in Oakland, Calif.
Illustration by Anthony Russo