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Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., listens as Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden introduces her as his running mate at Alexis Dupont High School in Wilmington, Del., Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. (AP) Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., listens as Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden introduces her as his running mate at Alexis Dupont High School in Wilmington, Del., Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. (AP)

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., listens as Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden introduces her as his running mate at Alexis Dupont High School in Wilmington, Del., Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. (AP)

Ciara O'Rourke
By Ciara O'Rourke August 14, 2020

If Your Time is short

  • In 2018, Donald J. Harris, Kamala Harris’ father, said in an essay that he is the descendant of Hamilton Brown, an Irish man who enslaved people in Jamaica.
     
  • We found a user-created lineage on FamilySearch that seemingly connects Brown to the Harris family, but we couldn’t corroborate it with official records.
     
  • A family tree on FamilySearch also indicates that Harris is a descendant of a woman named Jessian Prince, who is listed on birth and death records as a “labourer.” In Jamaican history, “labourer” was a term lent to emancipated slaves and their descendants who were kept on and paid.
 

Since presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden named Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate, attacks on her heritage as an Asian American and Black woman have grown online. 

Several Facebook posts, such as this one, seem to be trying to undermine her credibility among some voters by connecting Harris’ family to a slaveholder named Hamilton Brown. 

"The American Left went from ‘defund the police’ & ‘remove all monuments to slave owners,’ to ‘let’s elect a cop whose family owned slaves in Jamaica,’ in less than 3 months," the post says. 

That claim has also gotten pushback from Harris supporters like writer Lauren-Ashley Howard

"I have news for you about the descendants of enslaved Africans," Howard tweeted on Aug. 11. "Damn near ALL of us have a Hamilton Brown in our family tree. Because enslaved women were regularly raped by the white men who owned them." 

The Facebook post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.) 

We reached out to the Biden campaign about the claim and about what we discovered looking into it, but did not receive a response. 

Records and online genealogy archives suggest Harris’ great-great-great-grandfather was a slaveholder. But there’s also evidence that Harris is descended from people who were enslaved. Here’s what we know. 

The ancestry claims of Kamala Harris’ father 

On Jan. 13, 2019, Jamaica Global Online published an essay that Kamala Harris’ father, Donald J. Harris, wrote in 2018.

In "Reflections of a Jamaican Father," Donald Harris, an emeritus economics professor at Stanford University, recounts both his childhood in Jamaica and visits he made to the country with his own children. Recalling his family history, he also says that he is the descendant of a "slave owner" — Hamilton Brown, a man born in Ireland who enslaved people in Jamaica and managed plantations there. 

"My roots go back, within my lifetime, to my paternal grandmother Miss Chrishy (nee Christiana Brown, descendant of Hamilton Brown who is on record as plantation and slave owner and founder of Brown’s Town), and to my maternal grandmother, Miss Iris (nee Iris Finegan, farmer and educator, from Aenon Town and Inverness, ancestry unknown to me)," the essay reads. "The Harris name comes from my paternal grandfather Joseph Alexander Harris, land-owner and agricultural ‘produce’ exporter (mostly pimento or all-spice), who died in 1939 one year after I was born and is buried in the church yard of the magnificent Anglican Church which Hamilton Brown built in Brown’s Town."

Miss Crishy, who died in 1951 at the age of 70, according to Donald Harris, "often said" that "her ancestor" built the Anglican church. He also named other family members in the essay: "My dear mother ‘Miss Beryl’ and loving father ‘Maas Oscar.’"

According to the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership at University College London, Hamilton Brown was an attorney and "resident slave-owner in Jamaica" who founded Brown’s Town in Saint Ann, Jamaica. He was born in County Antrim in Ireland and died on Sept. 18, 1843. (His birth date is unknown, according to the center.) Snopes, which looked into this claim in 2019, when Kamala Harris was still a presidential candidate, found a document held by the U.K. National Archives that shows Brown owned at least 121 slaves in 1826. 

Investigating the Harris family tree

Academics we contacted who have studied slavery in Jamaica suggested we check FamilySearch, a free family tree database run by the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"Most Jamaican vital records have been microfilmed by the Latter-day Saints," said Trevor Burnard, a professor of slavery and emancipation at the University of Hull in England. 

It’s important to note that anyone can edit the family trees on FamilySearch, even people who aren’t members of that family. A spokesperson for the service said the community self-governs but recommended referring to original source documents before coming to any final conclusions. 

To cut to the chase: We found a lineage seemingly connecting Hamilton Brown to Kamala Harris. But the family tree we traced it on has a number of holes and inconsistencies, and it was created by FamilySearch users, some of whom were actively editing it as we reported this story. While we found corroborating records for some of the relationships, we couldn’t confirm all of them. And some of the sources used to build this family tree aren’t official documents. Donald Harris’ essay is among the sources cited.

When we reviewed the family tree on Aug. 12, we found a Hamilton Brown Jr., who was listed as being born in County Antrim, Ireland, in 1775 and dying in Brown’s Town, Jamaica, in 1843. From there we traced his lineage to Kamala Harris. 

According to the family tree, Hamilton Brown Jr. had a son named Hamilton Brown, who, with a woman named Jessian Prince, had a daughter named Christiana Brown. Christiana Brown and Joseph Alexander Harris had a son named Oscar Joseph Harris. Oscar Joseph Harris and Beryl Finegan had Donald Harris. And, finally, Donald Harris married Shyamala Gopalan, and the couple had Kamala. 

But the details of that lineage are not nearly so tidy. 

There were six children listed for Hamilton Brown Jr. when we looked on Aug. 12, including a son also named Hamilton Brown. But we could only find corroborating records for two of the kids: Mary Melvina Brown and George Hamilton Brown. 

The family tree listed multiple partners for the younger Hamilton Brown, including Jessian Prince. We didn’t, however, find any records connecting the two people. Still, the family tree said she bore two children with him: "Unknown Brown" and Christiana "Miss Crishy" Brown. A scanned civil registration record from Jamaica shows that a woman named Christiana Brown was the daughter of Jessian Prince. We didn’t find anything identifying her father. 

Miss Crishy, who would be Kamala Harris’ great-grandmother, had four children with Joseph Alexander Harris, according to the family tree, including Oscar Joseph Harris. A civil registration record shows that Oscar Joseph Harris Brown was the son of Christiana Brown. 

Oscar Joseph Harris had a son with Beryl Finegan, according to the family tree: Donald Jasper Harris. This appeared to be Kamala Harris’ father: it said he married Shyamala Gopalan, which is the name of the vice presidential candidate’s late mother. 

Neither Kamala’s name nor her sister Maya’s name appeared in the family tree. And it also reflected that Donald Harris died in 2002, but he is still alive. 

There were other discrepancies. Two of the women listed as the mothers of Hamilton Brown’s children, for example, were also listed as his sisters. And when we revisited the family tree website on Aug. 13, Donald Jasper Harris’s listing was gone entirely. "Person not found," the website said. "This person does not exist, has been removed, or is restricted in FamilySearch." We got the same error message for Christiana "Miss Crishy" Brown.

Expert insight

Burnard, who wrote a book about Jamaican slave overseer Thomas Thistlewood, told us that if Kamala Harris’ father says he’s a descendant of Hamilton Brown, "I would be inclined to believe him."

It wouldn't be unusual for Harris to have "some slave owner heritage," Burnard said. "That would be extremely normal for members of Jamaica’s middle class, especially the educated elite, which is where Kamala Harris comes from."

While some official records have survived since Hamilton Brown was alive, Tom Zoellner, who wrote about the Jamaican rebellion of enslaved people in his book, "Island on Fire: The Revolt That Ended Slavery in the British Empire," noted that other records likely never existed at all. The slave-owner class in Jamaica wouldn’t necessarily want to document all of their descendants, some of which, he noted, may have been borne from raping an enslaved person.

It seems possible that Kamala Harris is as likely a descendant of a slave-owner as she is an enslaved person. Jessian Prince, who the family tree identified as Miss Crishy’s mother and would therefore be Kamala Harris’ great-great-grandmother, is listed on birth and death records as a "labourer." Almost always, Zoellner said, laborers in Jamaica at that time were "people of African extraction who were the children and grandchildren of enslaved people who had been freed in 1838."

Enslaved Africans forced to work on sugar plantations in Jamaica rebelled numerous times before they were finally emancipated. In 1808, an abolition bill was passed and the slave trade was declared "utterly abolished, prohibited and declared to be unlawful," according to a history of the country on the Jamaican government’s website. Emancipation and apprenticeship started in 1834, but enslaved people were not fully free until 1838.

From 1834 to 1838, the term "labourer" meant "apprentice" — "basically a paid slave," Zoellner said. After emancipation, "the energy of planters was now to be directed towards converting a former slave labour force into a permanent plantation labour force," according to the government. "From the perspective of the planters, it was the same rider on the same mule, cantering towards the same destiny."  

Snopes unearthed a death certificate for a 70-year-old Christiana Brown who died on June 11, 1951. That’s the year Donald Harris said in his essay that Miss Crishy died at age 70.

The birth record we found for the Christiana Brown who was born to Jessian Prince tracks with this timeline. According to the document, she was born on Aug. 13, 1888. She would have been 70 in 1951.

Context is important, and it’s missing from recent social media posts about the senator’s family. In the end, though, we don’t have enough documentation to put this claim to the Truth-O-Meter. If new evidence comes to light, we’ll update this story appropriately. 

 
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Our Sources

Facebook post, Aug. 11, 2020

Jamaica Global Online, Reflections of a Jamaican Father by Donald J. Harris, Sept. 26, 2018

Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership, Hamilton Brown, visited Aug. 13, 2020

FamilySearch, Hamilton Brown Jr., visited Aug. 12, 2020

FamilySearch, Hamilton Brown, visited Aug. 12, 2020

FamilySearch, Christiana "Miss Chrishy" Brown, visited Aug. 12, 2020

FamilySearch, Donald Jasper Harris, visited Aug. 12, 2020

FamilySearch, Jessian Prince, visited Aug. 12, 2020

FamilySearch, Beryl Finegan, visited Aug. 12, 2020

FamilySearch, Shyamala Gopalan, visited Aug. 12, 2020

Jamaican Information Service, Emancipation, 1994

Jamaican Information Service, Jamaican history, visited Aug. 14, 2020

Tweet, Aug. 11, 2020

Snopes, Did U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris’ ancestor own slaves in Jamaica? July 2, 2019

Interview with Tom Zoellner, Professor of English, Chapman University, Aug. 12, 2020

Email interview with Trevor Burnard, Wilberforce Professor of Slavery and Emancipation, University of Hull, Aug. 13, 2020

Interview with Paul Nauta, FamilySearch PR Manager, Aug. 13, 2020

 

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