We had a dream ... he’s one of us

Monday is Martin Luther King day. In the year of The Gathering, wouldn’t it be amazing to discover he was Irish? He just might have been, says Jonathan deBurca Butler

IN THEIR recently published book More Stuff Irish People Love, Colin Murphy and Donal O’Dea point out that “a fleeting reference to Ireland … in a Hollywood movie or Australian soap stirs a bit of pride in us. We almost treat it as though we’d unexpectedly heard our name on the radio — Hey!”.

The same could be said of our love of people with even the tiniest drop of Irish blood in them.

Sure isn’t everyone Irish? Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, JFK, Bernardo O’Higgins, Che Guevara. Heck, maybe even Margaret Thatcher has a bit of Irish blood coursing through her veins! Bring her on board, sure!

So imagine the hooley and statue unveiling that would go on if we discovered that the most famous civil rights activist in history, Martin Luther King Junior, was a Paddy. According to some evidence, he might just be.

King Junior was born in Atlanta, Georgia on Jan 15, 1929. His father Michael (later called Martin Luther Sr) was born in Georgia in 1899. Michael’s father was born James Albert King in 1863 and his father Nathan was born either in Pennsylvania, Georgia or, yes, you’ve guessed it, Ireland.

So why the confusion?

“The possibility of Irish heritage appears to be from Dr King’s paternal grandfather, James Albert King,” says Dave Jorn Beals, research assistant at the Martin Luther King Jr Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. “There are conflicting reports of James Albert King’s father’s birthplace, including the 1910 US census which lists his birthplace as Ireland.

“Information regarding James Albert King’s lineage is contradictory,” continues Beals.

“The1900 census reported that he was born in Ohio, his father in Pennsylvania, and his mother in Ohio. In 1910, though, the census listed his father’s place of birth as Ireland, while the 1920 census reported his place of birth as Georgia, an unlikely location given the absence of records placing James Albert King or his father in Georgia before the 1890s.”

As is often the case, the census records leave more questions than answers. It is assumed that Nathan King was black and therefore genealogists think there is simply no possibility that he was born in Ireland.

“It’s a bit of a jolt I suppose,” says Turtle Bunbury, presenter of RTÉ’s Genealogy Roadshow. “A black man in Ireland is exceedingly unlikely at that time. But that’s not to say there weren’t some black people in Ireland at the time. There have been since the Battle of the Boyne, in fact. But it’s still unlikely.” Although black slavery was rare in Ireland, there have been small numbers of black people in Ireland since the 16th century. Many were servants of wealthy families and lived in the bigger cities.

US genealogist Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, who played a big role in the research of Barack Obama’s Irish ancestry, thinks tracking down King’s Irish roots might be tough.

“It’s not that I don’t think there’s an Irish connection,” she says. “Especially given that DNA testing has determined that the progenitor of his direct male line was European, I’d say that the odds are pretty good that there is. But based on what I saw of the paper trail, it would take a lot of digging to unearth. It’s one of those no-guarantees situations, but it just might be doable.”

The DNA test that Smolenyak Smolenyak refers to was conducted using samples from King’s son, Martin Luther King III, in 2010. It discovered that the relevant Y-chromosone originated in northern Europe.

But that of course still does not prove that Nathan King was born in Ireland. Indeed, there is a more likely, and perhaps more sinister, explanation.

“If we look, for example, at Michelle Obama, her great-grandfather was Dolphus Shields, and Dolphus was the son of a slave girl who worked on a plantation in Georgia,” says Turtle Bunbury.

“But his dad appears to be from the American-Irish family who owned the plantation. So it looks like one of the three sons of the man who owned the plantation had sex, one way or the other, with Melvinia and they had a baby boy. And the baby boy adopted the name of the Shields family. It was relatively common to adopt the surname of the people who you worked for on the plantation back then.”

Of course, the adoption of the surname often occurred regardless of whether the owner had sired a child with one of his slaves or not. Slave owners having children with their slaves was quite common, though. Ancestry website Africanancestry.com estimates that one in three African Americans have some white blood running through them, mostly as a result of liaisons between slave owners and their slaves.

But there is one other possibility that may have been overlooked. There appears to be a small townland in Ohio named Ireland. It is surrounded by streets such as Ireland Road, Murphy Road and O’Neill Road, which are barely discernible on a map. Could one of these places be where Nathan King or James Albert King was born, therefore explaining the mention of ‘Ireland’ as his birthplace?

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