As a child, blond, blue-eyed Joe Mozingo, the son of a dentist in Southern California, had only a passing curiosity about his unusual last name.

His father had some possible explanations about his family’s heritage – Italian, French, or even Basque. But in the pre-Internet age, information was scarce, gleaned from scraps of family lore or chance meetings with others who had some variation of the name. Mozingo’s immediate ancestors were hardworking people focused more on their day-to-day lives than their distant origins.

As years passed, Mozingo encountered both curiosity about his name and clues to its origins. On his first day of grad school, he met a journalism professor named Sherrie Mazingo, a black woman who told him that they were distantly related. She said that cousins had traced the name back to Edward “Ned” Mozingo, a warrior from the Congo who was brought to Jamestown in the 1600s as an indentured servant.

Learning about the man who brought the name from Africa to America intrigued Mozingo, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.

On a journey to solve the mysteries of his family, he found a fascinating past that included abolitionists and members of the Ku Klux Klan – as well as living cousins who are black, white and every shade in between.

Mozingo’s book, “The Fiddler on Pantico Run: An African Warrior, His White Descendants, a Search for Family,” is the March selection of The Buffalo News Book Club.

After seeing his distant cousins’ research, Mozingo began to tell people that his name came from Central Africa. This drew a wide variety of responses.

A black colleague scoffed. A Rotarian the color of mayonnaise winced as if I were confiding the particulars of a bad circumcision. A prize-winning colleague with a Germanic last name sidled up to tell me that Bantus danced with their butts sticking out. A female Haitian American friend asked me why I couldn’t dance. Some people nodded as if I were bull-----ing them. A beautiful young cashier at a coffee shop tapped her fingers, dying for me to stop talking. Soldiers of political correctness stood in uncomfortable silence, well tutored not to ask the obvious follow-up, about why a white guy bore the name. Plenty of people found it fascinating. One Times editor started calling me Mandingo.

In a phone interview from his home in Long Beach, Calif., Mozingo says that some people who share his name “would just say, ‘Ha, ha, no way, that’s ridiculous, I’m white, take a look at me!’ as if black and white are so far apart that 10 generations couldn’t change everything.”

As he began to explore the mystery of his lineage, Mozingo occasionally found himself transfixed by discoveries. In a crumbling transcript of court records from Colonial Virginia, where Edward Mozingo lived on the Northern Neck, between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, he found the heading, “Mozingo’s ordr for freedom.” The notation pronounces Edward Mozingo, “A Negro man,” to be “free to all Intents and purposes” after 28 years of indentured servitude and the death of his master, John Walker. Seeing his ancestor’s name, Mozingo writes, made him feel “a shot of awe: We might really have come from Africa, not sixty thousand years ago, like everyone on the planet, but with this very man fighting for his freedom in a Virginia court.”

Finding that record while most others from that period had been destroyed seemed almost miraculous, he says. “This was not kept in a library all this time, it was thrown out several times, the library burned down, it trekked from here to there, went missing for decades in the 1800s, and then it resurfaced,” he says.

Among the most pressing questions, in an investigation prompted by the author’s last name, was how Edward Mozingo could have kept his African name.

Because Edward arrived so early, Virginia had not yet worked out a system of slavery. “Since there were no laws or traditions, it was up to the owners to treat the Africans like they wanted,” says Mozingo.

Edward’s situation as an indentured servant for a fixed term was likely different from that of later-arriving Africans, who were considered property and systematically stripped of their names, along with their freedom. In the mid-1600s, writes Mozingo, “Slaves were more expensive and more likely to revolt than indentured servants, and mortality was so high that owning somebody for life didn’t mean much.”

It’s also possible that Edward Mozingo might have been mixed race – “there was a lot of mixing in Angola at that time,” says the author – or even literate. His will listed all his household items, including the fiddle in the book’s title, but mentioned no books, although his children’s wills did. In any case, says Mozingo, “I think if he came across as more sophisticated, he might have just said, ‘This is my name.’ And he might have done it when he was going to court to get his freedom; he could have reasserted it. He could have said, ‘You’re not my master anymore, why would I be Edward Walker?’ if that’s what he was called.”

In delving into his ancestor’s story, Mozingo began to wonder about Edward’s personality and determination in the face of great odds, as proven by his successful fight for his freedom.

“Did Edward say, ‘You are NOT going to be able to hide this, because I am going to leave my name, and you guys will always question where that name came from’?” Mozingo muses. “You could bury it for a while, but eventually, it will come out, that name just travels for hundreds and hundreds of years. It blows my mind now, even after writing the book, that when I say my name to someone I am saying something that came from the African savanna.”

In his search for other branches of his family tree, Mozingo scanned online message boards. There he found a far-flung, fragmented family, many of whom have nothing more in common than some version of the name Mozingo. While a few have done solid genealogy work, newcomers to the boards post lore and rumors in “a surreal cycle of curiosity, willful ignorance and amnesia,” he writes. “The few times that anyone dared to mention that Edward was a ‘negro,’ the statement was politely ignored, in the Southern way, as if the person who uttered it had had too much to drink.”

Theories that “lots of Europeans were called ‘negroes’ back then, including Italians,” are posted, along with claims that the Mozingos are “black Dutch,” Native American, or even “English royalty.”

Mozingo is now 40, married and the father of a son, 6, and a daughter, 3. His son was just a baby when he began his travels to probe the mystery of his family and find the truth to pass on, rather than rumors, half-truths and lies.

“It’s a weird thing to pick up from your day job and travel around the world looking for ghosts,” he says. Besides ghosts, he also found plenty of cousins, larger than life, outspoken and blunt.

“Some called themselves rednecks. They took pride in that, so I let them be that,” he says. “I’ve had my challenges, but that part of the family, especially in the Northern Neck, have lived a really hard life. And who am I to come from California and tell you guys that you’re ignorant?”

Mozingo found that his family included abolitionists and Ku Klux Klan members. “They must have been the only Bantu white supremacists in the United States,” Mozingo writes. Today the family encompasses both proud black families and a white man who begs a researcher not to reveal his centuries-old origins because “he had two daughters of marrying age and he didn’t want them to be embarrassed.”

Some white-looking cousins use the n-word and openly express their racism, which has seared some darker-skinned cousins. One Mozingo man remembers being shooed away from a drugstore lunch counter as a child.

Mozingo travels to places where his ancestors lived, including Virginia, where Edward lived; North Carolina, where Mozingos slipped back and forth across the color lines; and Cameroon and Angola, where Edward Mozingo may have been born.

In some of those places, Mozingo had almost transcendent experiences as he studied the landscape his ancestors knew. “I was reading a book recently where the author wrote, ‘Time becomes thin,’ ” he says. “It felt like that – that time became thin and that they were just here. They had just picked up and left right before I got here, and I could still feel their presence.”

Mozingo’s research uncovered facts that left him astonished. He discovers that his fifth great-grandfather, Spencer Mozingo, lived near future President James Madison’s home of Montpelier and was written in the census rolls by Madison himself.

Another moving moment happened when Mozingo met his cousin Shirlyn, a light-skinned woman whose siblings were all tormented by racism in North Carolina. “We had every shade in our family, and we were all the same race, the same family,” she told him. Then she mentioned that her first husband, an actor, played the father of the baby Kunta Kinte in the television miniseries “Roots.”

Mozingo remembers gasping. “I marveled at the irony; in a sense, of course, I was looking for my own Kunta Kinte,” he writes.

In Cameroon, he unearthed a subtle but inspiring fact about the very name that started his investigation. The word “muzinga” means “thread, something that binds.” Having searched landscapes, old records, DNA and family stories for the indelible linkages, he writes, “A simple thread – I couldn’t have invented anything more symbolic.” He laughs, and adds, “If I wrote that in fiction, people would be like, ‘Oh, come ON! That symbolism is a little in your face!’ ”

The fascinating journey to tell his family story changed him, says Mozingo.

“After I explored my ancestry for the first time, I saw myself in this long continuum of people. It makes you feel like you are part of something incredibly larger than yourself. Feeling that connection to something much more vast gives me comfort on several different levels. Whatever my flaws are, I feel like it’s not solely my fault, because it came from somewhere, at least partially.”


Live chat

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Joe Mozingo and his publisher, Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, have provided The News with 15 signed copies of his book to be distributed to Book Club readers. To be considered for a copy, email or send a note to Anne Neville at The Buffalo News, 1 News Plaza, Buffalo, NY 14240. Tell us why you would like to win a copy, and be sure to include your name and mailing address.

The Fiddler on Pantico Run by Joe Mozingo

Free Press/Simon & Schuster

305 pages, $25.99