She tried to hide who she was. After 20 years, I can see why
I’m one of those New Yorkers who lives in Nashville, but my family has deep roots in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, so maybe you can forgive me. It’s crazy, but my link to New York started in Louisiana. In the 1930s, my great-grandmother Lola Perot got married to John Donnelly, an Irish man from New York, in her home town in Louisiana. After they got married, they moved back to his home town in New York. Lola must have had a hard time moving from the South to the North. Not only did she leave behind her family and culture, but I later found out that she also left behind her name and her race.
Lola (who went by “Louise” in New York) raised my mom and her mother Marion, who was Lola’s daughter, as French and Irish. My grandmother was very proud of being French. When I was going through some old family photos one day, I saw a picture of my mom’s grandmother on her wedding day, standing next to my Irish great grandfather John Donnelly. Lola wasn’t white, and that was very clear. Even though it’s been 20 years, I’m still trying to figure out what that picture meant and what it said about my family then and now. During the course of her life, my great grandmother and her family were counted as Black, Mulatto, Mexican (Latino), and then White. It really shook me to my maybe not-so-French core. What did Lola Perot do? Who was I, anyway? To be honest, I was mad at Gram for keeping our family history a secret. The work that had to be done just to figure out who I was piled up around me. I spent the last year talking to family members in New York and meeting new family members in Louisiana.
I was so desperate to figure out what was going on that I screamed at their stories. I was tired and didn’t know how to keep going on this journey to not only find but also explain my roots. A woman named Naomi Drake made me see things in a different way. Drake from the same time period as Lola. From 1949 to 1965, she was in charge of the Bureau of Vital Statistics in New Orleans, where she made it her mission to “out” anyone whose birth certificate said they were white but she thought had African or Colored ancestry. She thought that this racial hypo-descent classification was important, and she would often look through a person’s family tree to find one ancestor who was labeled as “Colored.” She would also look through relatives’ obituaries to see if anyone in the family had a funeral at a traditional “Black” funeral home. If someone disagreed with Drake’s decision about his race, she would keep the birth certificate from that person. During the Jim Crow era, it was very hard for people who were not White to stay alive.
The “one drop rule” wasn’t changed in Louisiana until 1983, which was a year after Lola died and only three years before I was born. Under that rule, to be considered Colored, you only had to be 1/32 African American. I was raised white, but if I had been a few years older, Louisiana would have told me I wasn’t. I used to think that Lola was ashamed of where she came from, but now I know better. What looked to me like self-destruction was her attempt to protect her family and children from the most dangerous enemy: their own heritage. Her choice for our family was brave and broke our hearts. We were both the lucky ones and the ones who were picked on. Both of us were white and black. We were both from the North and the South. Our family history seemed to include a little bit of everything, which might not be a bad thing. Danielle Romero loves to find hidden things and tell stories that have been forgotten for a long time. You can watch the “Finding Lola” documentary series on YouTube.