Lazaretto Lazaretto
Source: The Flint Journal
Date: February 16, 2006
Byline: Shena Abercrombie

Man's interest in rights advocacy may go back generations

FLINT — Tendaji Ganges has always been bold about speaking out for equal rights, even when it meant taking on his junior high school principal about capitalizing the letter N in the word negro.

"They said I was being mannish," he recalled of the incident that earned him a trip home.

These days, Ganges, 57, executive director of the University of Michigan-Flint's Office of Educational Opportunity Initiatives, uses his voice as an advocate for minority and underrepresented students and a defender of civil rights — something he's found he has a knack for.

Soon he may discover if it's a trait he shares with his ancestors.

Before Internet search engines such as Google, Ganges said he used the most traditional method — phone books in cities he visited — to search out his kinfolk. And his method was working.

"We've been able to trace direct lineage back to some Ganges brothers who fought on the side of the North in the Civil War, who lived right across the Delaware River in Trenton (New Jersey) and Philadelphia," said Ganges, a New Jersey native who now lives in Flint. "We even found a grave site. We've been able to trace a great deal of the Ganges (family)."

His longtime investigation of his family history recently led Ganges to a group of Africans involved in one of the earliest cases of slave trade violation in American history.

In 1800, 39 years before the Amistad, two slave ships were captured by the U.S. Navy sloop Ganges off the coast of Cuba, according to a November 2005 article in Pennsylvania Legacies.

The 134 African survivors wound up in Philadelphia while the case made its way through federal court for violation of the 1794 Slave Trade Act. The survivors took on Ganges as a surname.

"Our family, our people, are all from that area," said Ganges, who is ready to take it a step further. "We're thinking seriously about DNA (testing)."

Consider it "Roots" at the next level. In addition to trekking through Census records and calling up family elders to connect the dots, blacks are using genetic testing to trace their lineage back to their ancestors' countries of origin. And it may not be Africa.

That's what Dr. Mae Jemison discovered during the four-part PBS series "African American Lives," which began airing in February.

In the documentary, host and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. uses DNA to research the family histories of notables such as Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones. Jemison, a medical doctor and the first black female astronaut in space, traced her family back to parts of Asia.

In Ganges' family, the only link to Africa so far is a family legend involving an Ethiopian general named Ganges who conquered land all the way to present-day India, where the famous river was named for him.

Ayanna Ganges, 23, of Normal, Ill., said her father's quest has opened her eyes to the importance of family history.

"Four years ago, we drove hundreds of miles to a graveyard in Pennsylvania that had a lot of Ganges," she said. "That's when it struck me how important this was."

Now she wants to pass it on to her daughter, 7-month-old Annaya.

Is DNA the future of the family tree? Local genealogists say probably not. But the documentary may have boosted interest in the hobby.

"Usually classes are half full, but this month and next month are full," said librarian Michael Madden, who heads the Michigan and local history-genealogy program at the Flint Public Library.

"(DNA testing) might make it easier, but part of the thrill is answering the question of who they were, how they got here, what went on in their lives and what choices they made."