Duane D. Perry, Sr. is a treasure hunter. The treasure he hunts for requires patience, curiosity, focus, resiliency, single-mindedness, and luck. The gems he finds are pieces of the past, and all share a common denominator: his DNA. Perry searches for his family, and a by-product of his efforts is enriching his life.
Genealogy is defined as: ancestry, roots, bloodline, race, or origin. Genealogists are detectives, and as stated above, they are also treasure hunters.
“I begin with a question and find and following clues, with one question leading to many more [questions],” says Perry, who launched his foray into genealogy eight years ago when he retired from his career as a Field Service Engineer with Philips Medical Systems. “I am rediscovering my ancestors’ stories.”
Growing up, Perry did not have a relationship with his paternal grandfather. He found it awkward to introduce himself to someone and, when asked, not be able to share any pertinent information on those relations. This consistently bothered him, so at the age of 62, Perry began his genealogical quest. He began with a DNA test through Ancestry.com and also utilized GED Match.
“Those two sites started me on a rollercoaster ride that has been non-ending,” says Perry. “My first DNA match was my cousin, Perry Hill III. He informed me that my father had a sister, my Aunt Sylvia Jean Perry-Mullins, and she was still alive and living in St. Louis. I drove over to meet her that weekend.”
Perry’s search results have taken him to St. Louis, Los Angeles, and to Mississippi — to a plantation where his ancestors were enslaved. Many Black genealogists have specific challenges that others do not: if an ancestor was enslaved, identities were erased, and cultural traditions were literally white-washed away.
“So many had their origin story ripped from them as they [our ancestors] became enslaved,” said Linda Lewis Everett, the author of I Still Hear The Drums, during a presentation at The Indianapolis Propylaeum in late July.
Perry has experienced some lucky breaks and Divine intervention along his genealogy journey. He started meeting people via his DNA results and discovered that his father had a sister that was still alive, living in St. Louis. Perry drove over that weekend (October 2015) to meet his Aunt for the first time. During this weekend, he learned of a cousin, age 99, who lived in Los Angeles. Her name is Katie Mae Simmons-Henry. A month later, Perry flew out to the west coast to meet Simmons-Henry, who shared even more of his history (Simmons-Henry passed when she was 105 years old). When Perry arrived in Los Angeles and drove to her home, she had three other people waiting to see him. He was greeted by Dr. Earl Jennings Perry, Jr. and his wife, Willianne, and one of her sister’s daughters, Connie Noah. Earl is the great-grandson of Perry’s great-Aunt, Mary Jane Perry-Little, who was born in Noxubee County, Mississippi on the Paulette plantation. Perry’s grandfather (Mary Jane’s nephew) was the 12th of 12 children, born in Shuqualak, in Noxubee County, Mississippi in 1901. This link opened the floodgates for Perry, whose next trip took him to the deep south.
There’s an African saying, “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.” Fortunately, oral histories have been preserved in Perry’s family, which includes a book of over 800+ pages. Through linkages found in genealogy on Perry’s mother’s side, ancestry dates back to Scotland, making him eligible for Sons of the American Revolution (SAR), and he is likely a descendant of Jamestown.
Two years after Perry became a genealogist, he joined the Indiana African American Genealogy Group (IAAGG). A few years ago, Perry lead a presentation on his family lineage via Zoom to the IAAGG. Sharon Morgan was in attendance. Morgan created the Our Black Ancestry online community. At the end of Perry’s talk, Morgan unmuted herself and stated, “You need to get your ass down here!”
Not only does Morgan live in Noxubee County, located north of Jackson, MS, she is the Secretary of the Historical Society of Noxubee.
So in August of last year, Perry was the guest speaker for the Historical Society of Noxubee. After Perry’s presentation, a member of the audience’s family used to own the plantation (in the 1940s) that Perry spoke of and offered to take him to it the following day. Perry was overjoyed. The only building still standing is the commissary and it is now an event center. In an oral history obtained by Perry, his cousin chronicled the memories of his grandmother, which includes this commissary.
As written in the Perry Family History by Ruben Bester Little, cousin to Duane, Duane Perry discovered the following:
“Now, let me tell you about my grandmother’s maiden name – Perry, and where the Perrys came from as my grandmother told it. Grandmother Mary Jane Perry’s grandfather was named Jethro. He was from the Island of Madagascar, which is off the east coast of Africa. He was a Diplomat, on his way to Timbuktu, in the country of Mali when he was captured. He was brought to Beaufort Island, SC in chains. [His captors] kept him there for three years. Grandmother Mary Jane said she heard the white people say it took three years to train slaves how to work and talk English. Then he was sold to a plantation owner in the Savannah, Georgia area. There the plantation owner had many overseers. One of the overseers was a little nicer than the others. His name was Mr. Perry. Jethro liked the name because he was nice. So, the name Perry was adopted by the family.
Jethro and his family were sold to a plantation owner over in Noxubee County, Mississippi. The plantation owner was Judge Ames. The place was familiarly known as “Ames Hill” so named for Judge Ames. The little town where Judge Ames’ plantation is located is 13 miles east of Noxubee. The little town is now known as Paulette, Mississippi. Many people in that area still refer to the town of Paulette as the “Old Judge Ames” place.”
Perry’s foray into genealogy is driven by a desire and curiosity about his roots. Some could call it an identity crisis.
“All of this has led me on a journey in retirement that I LOVE: Meeting relatives, documenting their stories, and my own. I am never bored,” shares Perry. “And now I help other people learn about their history.”
The deep dive into the Perry Family has opened up more possibilities, including assisting Indiana Landmarks with the Greenlawn Cemetery project.
When Eunice Trotter, Director of Indiana Landmarks Black Heritage Preservation Program, reached out to the IAAGG for help (See related article on the Henry St. Bridge project and Greenlawn Cemetery), Perry and five others answered the call.
A bit of background on the Greenlawn Cemetery: it opened in 1821. Union and Confederate soldiers were buried there. President Benjamin Harrison and his wife Caroline’s infant daughter was buried there. Thousands of Black people were buried there over the course of time. Downtown Indianapolis was expanding and the Greenlawn Cemetery had fallen into disrepair by the time the Crown Hill Cemetery opened in the 1860s. Many who could afford to, relocated their loved ones. Note the key words, “afford to”. Greenlawn officially closed in the mid-1890s and not all of the bodies were moved.
The Greenlawn Cemetery map (see image) indicates a”Colored” section marked in pink along the river, where there’s evidence of erosion. Tombstones have been found in the river, with many bodies thought to have been washed downstream. After the closure of the cemetery, as it was being commercially developed by the Diamond Chain Corp., headstones were taken from one of the white sections and tossed into the river to be used as riprap.
The focus of the Indiana Landmarks Black Heritage Preservation Program project is to identify and trace ancestry of those buried between 1871 – 1882. It is known that 1,300 people of color were buried at Greenlawn Cemetery during this decade. Included among these 1,300 souls are: the first Black property owner in Indiana, a woman named Cheny Lively, and it’s rumored that the great-great-grandfather of Muhammad Ali was laid to rest there. Each of these 1,300 individuals left a legacy, and the genealogy team is committed to rediscovering these forgotten stories.
“There has never been an excavation of the Colored section of Greenlawn,” states Trotter, whose work encompasses preservation of Black Heritage across Indiana. “The historic maps show excavations in other locations, but not here.”
The show 60 Minutes recently shared a story from Clearwater, Florida, titled “Grave Injustice”, featuring a commercial development built over a Black cemetery. This is not uncommon, and I will give you a hint as to why: racism.
“Telling the story of our ancestors is very important,” states Perry. “Knowing your genealogy adds a richness to life.”
The team of genealogists working on the Greenlawn project include: Pamela Griffin, Andrea Price, Doris Fields, Victor Stuart, Pamella Lomax, and Duane Perry, Sr. They hope to share the stories of those at Greenlawn, in hopes of enriching the lives of others through their treasure hunting.