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Neil Henry investigates his past in 'Pearl's Secret'

May 14, 2001
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

Neil Henry was in a Davis grocery store near his home a couple of weeks ago when he saw a woman standing in the check-out line with a copy of his book, "Pearl's Secret," under her arm.

"I wanted to ask her so many questions," he said. "Why did she buy the book? What did she think of it? Did she like it?"

Instead, this former Washington Post investigative reporter and foreign correspondent let the opportunity slide. He didn't bother the woman and he didn't get his questions answered.

In fact, the whole marketing and promotion aspect of book publishing leaves Henry feeling uncomfortable. Davis is his home and one of the things he's always liked about this town, which is so full of writers and academics, is that he is left alone to do his work.

But having written "Pearl's Secret" (UC Press, 2001) he certainly wants people to buy it and read it. It's a conundrum.

"The writing was the hard part but that's done," he said in a recent interview. "Now I have to go and talk about it. That could be exciting," he added, as if to convince himself.

"I don't like being in the spotlight," he added. "I'd like the work to speak for itself."

"Pearl's Secret" is the story of Henry's family and his search for distant relatives. The fact that Henry is black and his relatives are white gives this otherwise merely interesting memoir a big edge.

In it Henry chronicles the rise of the American black middle-class, which just about exactly parallels his life.

In fact, if you want a portrait of a middle-class life, try this: Henry grew up in a comfortable Seattle suburb, the son of a medical doctor. He attended Princeton, then Columbia where he earned a master's in journalism in 1978. He was hired as an intern at The Washington Post and that turned into a career, which included stints as a local reporter, investigative reporter, editor and foreign correspondent (covering 35 countries between Egypt and South Africa).

Henry left Africa in 1992, moved to Davis to be close to the woman who would become his wife, and began teaching at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He is now a tenured professor who commutes to Berkeley two or three times a week.

But this middle-class resume omits every detail of race, which directly defined each of these experiences.

In "Pearl's Secret" Henry describes his search for his white relatives and his role as a black man in America and Davis.

Part of the search takes place at the Davis branch of the Yolo County Library where he describes peering through microfilm copies of old small town newspapers looking for his relative's name.

Henry's great-great-grandfather was a white Englishman named A.J. Beaumont who came to the United States in 1856. He settled in Louisiana where he was the overseer on a cotton plantation.

He fought in the Civil War as a Confederate officer. After the war he had an affair with a freed slave named Laura Brumley. The result of that union was a baby named Pearl.

In 1890 Brumley took her daughter and moved north to St. Louis. Shortly before his death, the wealthy Beaumont wrote a letter to Pearl acknowledging that she was his daughter.

A photograph of Beaumont, a copy of his obituary and his 1901 letter to Pearl became Henry family keepsakes.

The trail seemed to end more than once, but Henry stuck to the task. Ultimately, he successfully located his long-lost relatives.

"I had no idea that I would be able to find those people," Henry said. "This town gave me the time and space to search."

When he finally met his closest white relative, Rita Beaumont, in 1998 at her home in Louisiana, he was welcomed warmly. But he found that the Beaumonts had fallen hard and fast from the wealthy life of Henry's great-great-grandfather. The boll weevil destroyed the cotton industry in the South and along with it the lives of millions of people, black and white. "The search has informed my life, it has not transformed it," he said. "Our lives are still separate."

Henry added that his family, his parents and brothers and sisters, appreciate the book for its historical content.

"It's a bond we all share," he said. His sister teaches school in the same neighborhood they grew up in when they were the only black family in the area. "Now it is highly representative of all races," said Henry. His sister teaches "Pearl's Secret" at the school they attended as children. Henry uses the book in his classes, too.

"In my (journalism) classes I have talked about this book in many different ways," he said. "I talk to my students about many of the same things I wrote about including race, press and class, the civil rights movement and my father's (segregated) training to become a doctor.

"I talk about the importance of the civil rights movement. Before that, you didn't see black people in a newsroom. I also talk about my personal life. My students are fascinated," he added.

Many of his Asian and Hispanic students have backgrounds defined by race, too. "I give them an example of how I pieced things together and how they can do that in their own lives," he said.

Henry said he might like to continue to write books, but not about himself. He has an idea brewing about a man named Woodrow Wilson Strode, a black man who was a World War II hero, a pro football player for the L.A. Rams, and a trailblazer in Hollywood movies. He was, in reality, everything that people thought John Wayne was but wasn't. Strode played a black valet to Wayne in the movie "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance."

But even if Henry doesn't write another book, he'll continue to be productive. Not only does he have a busy family life (his wife, Letitia, teaches African studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey and his daughter, Zoe, 8, attends Patwin Elementary School) but he is committed to his teaching career. On two occasions he has taken groups of Berkeley journalism students to South Africa and has traveled to Ethiopia several times to help set up an independent journalism program there.

He has a life beyond "Pearl's Secret," readings, and publication parties. "It's exciting, but I'd just like to go back to my life," he said.

(Reach Neil Henry at nhenry@socrates.Berkeley.edu)

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