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White senator discovers family's African-American roots

  • Story Highlights
  • North Carolina Sen. Tony Rand had no idea some of his relatives were black
  • Family patriarch "Hal" Rand fathered children with his white wife, black mistress
  • Tony Rand and his son, Ripley, plan to attend the 2009 Rand family reunion
  • Next Article in Living »
By Dana Rosenblatt
CNN
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(CNN) -- It's often said that a real Southerner can "claim kin" with anyone.

Tony and Ripley Rand

Tony Rand and his son Ripley learned last year that some of their relatives were African-American.

Tony Rand realized the same could be true for him. Rand, whose family can trace its roots back to the 1700s, is a Democratic state senator in North Carolina. Until he watched the 2008 CNN documentary "Black in America," he had no idea that some of his relatives were black.

Although firmly anchored in the South, the Rands are spread across the country. What connects them is their link to a common ancestor -- the family patriarch William Harrison Rand.

"Hal" Rand, as he was known to most, was a white farmer and slave owner. In 1842, Hal married Sarah Ann Mullens and they had seven children. Hal also fathered seven children with his mistress, Ann Albrooks Rand, a black woman.

Every other year, hundreds of African-American descendants of Hal Rand get together at a different location for a massive family reunion. It's a time to catch up and share stories, eat barbecue and have a good time. The 2007 Rand family reunion, held in Atlanta, Georgia, was featured in "Black in America." After the program aired, dozens of viewers across the country had the same revelation -- they, too, were related to the Rands.

"I was sitting there, that Saturday night, just up reading the week's papers and watching the program," says Rand with a hearty Southern accent. Video The Rand family's missing link »

Encore Presentation
CNN's Soledad O'Brien unravels the mystery of the Rand family's mixed-race heritage and examines the successes and struggles faced by black women and families -- 40 years after the death of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Tonight, 8 p.m. ET

"Then I hear, 'We are the Rands. The mighty, mighty Rands," he recalls, referring to the words sung by family members as they embarked on their bi-annual pilgrimage.

"And then I said to myself, 'What?'"

Tony Rand listened as the family historian, Martha Rand Hix, described the family's patriarch.

"When they were talking about William Harrison Rand, I knew that was the William Harrison Rand in our family," he said. "Then they started talking about North Carolina, and I said, 'Well, God oh mighty,' ... it was just amazing."

The next day, he telephoned his 41-year old son, Ripley Rand, and asked him to contact their black relatives. Soon, Tony and Ripley Rand were invited to attend the next Rand family reunion in July in Sacramento, California. Photo See photos of the Rand family members »

But, what Tony Rand didn't know was that his son, a North Carolina Superior Court judge, had already been diligently working on the family genealogy. Ripley Rand had begun typing out a hand-bound version of a 100-page manuscript compiled by his great-uncle, Oscar Ripley Rand III, and started to create a digital version.

Oscar Ripley Rand III was a Rhodes Scholar and retired Army colonel who spent years researching the family's history, according to Ripley Rand. Although Oscar Ripley Rand III had scoured the National Archives and spent years collecting information about the family, his memoirs contained no mention of William Harrison Rand's relationship and children with Ann Albrooks Rand.

"My whole life I have heard about the history of our family and we had no idea about [the African-American side of the family]," Ripley Rand said. "The most surprising thing about it," he added, was that his great-uncle "probably never heard anything about it."

Ripley Rand said he plans to attend the Rand family reunion this summer with his father and has updated his great uncle's research to include the story of the black side of the family.

Both he and his father say they're looking forward to meeting their cousins.

"I think it will be fun to see what the connections are," Ripley Rand said. "There's a whole group of family members who we did not know existed until last year."

The revelation has inspired a few jokes among the senator's family and friends. "I always knew you were one of us," an African-American friend told the senator with a nudge and wink.

Tony Rand is also quick to crack a joke about anything from sports and politics to food. Namely chitterlings -- a traditionally Southern delicacy made from pig intestines -- and barbecue pork. A few of the things a "Yankee" might not know much about.

"There's an old joke in the South," he explained. "If somebody was cooking chitlins and collards at the same time -- the smell was so strong that the fire would try to break out of the house."

A proud member of the Wake County Chitlin Club, a group of politically active men who gather every year at the annual Chitlin Dinner, Tony Rand is proud of his Southern heritage. Calling North Carolina barbecue "good" won't do for the senator, who insists his state has the best "pig pickin."

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"North Carolina is a great place, we've got the mountains, we've got good college basketball and we've got good barbecue," he said. "What more could a good person aspire to?"

Given that barbecue is also a tradition at the Rand family reunion, there's already some common ground for the lawmaker and his kin. Even though he's "expecting to meet some interesting people" at this year's reunion, he's not expecting much in the way of barbecue "given that it's in California and all."

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