Putting Together the Pieces of Ma Ma’s Surprising Family Story

by Tony Moore

My beloved grandmother Marjorie Elizabeth Bryant (Ma Ma) was very near and dear to me. I decided one day to ask her about her own grandmothers. I had seen pictures of her mother’s mother, but what about her other grandmother?

What I eventually found was a confirmation of family lore: My grandmother Marjorie’s paternal grandmother was an Irish immigrant who had married an African American man. Even though I was always told they were married, I couldn’t see how they could have done so.

Through family interviews, DNA testing, and records I found on Ancestry®, I was able to piece together some rich, long-lost details of my family story.

The Story Behind Francis Powell Bryant

My grandma Marjorie’s dad was named Francis Powell Bryant. My mom met him, and she told me stories about Francis and what he looked like.

Mom said her grandfather Francis was very fair-skinned. I found this echoed in a WWII draft card.

A WWI draft registration card
The WWI Draft Registration Card for Francis Powell Bryant (Ancestry®)

The draft card listed Francis as “Negro” and under complexion it said, “light brown.”

The back of a WWI draft registration card, showing details like race, height, and weight
The registrar’s report, on the back side of the draft card (via Ancestry®)

I kept digging and found other details about Francis’ life, like his occupation. He worked for the Chicago and Northwestern Railway Co, according to a 1942 record.

I went back to records from 1910 and found his parents, “Cornel(i)us” and Margaret, listed along with a 5-year-old Francis in a census record. Who were these great-great grandparents? What details could I uncover about them? I was going to find out.

 Finding Love in Chicago

One of the questions in my mind was, “When and how did Cornelius and Margaret even meet? When would they have crossed paths?” Some of the answers were waiting for me.

I eventually was able to find the marriage record for Cornelius A Bryant and Margaret J Powell. They were married in 1900, in Chicago.

A print depicting the tracks and bulidings and a busy street near the Elevated Railroad in Chicago in 1900
The Elevated Railroad in Downtown Chicago in 1900. From the Photochrom Prints Collection at the Library of Congress (via Wikimedia Commons)

At the time of their marriage, Cornelius was 30 and Margaret was 31. Neither, it turned out, had roots in Chicago.

Margaret Powell had come to America about 13 years prior, in 1887, according to a 1900 census record. She was recorded in that census as being a servant, along with two other servants and a cook, for a Chicago family named Ingalls.

A census record, showing Margaret Powell as living in Chicago in 1900
Margaret Powell in the 1900 Census, living in Chicago, with a family named Ingalls (via Ancestry®)

Cornelius Bryant, I learned from his 1916 death certificate, had been born in Missouri. From the same record and multiple census records, I learned his parents Abraham Bryant and Jane Graves had both been born in Kentucky.

I’m not sure exactly when Cornelius moved to Chicago. But a 1900 census record showed 30-year-old Cornelius living as a single man in Chicago. He was renting a room in a couple’s home and was working as a railroad porter.

A census record showing Cornelius working as a railroad porter in Chicago in 1900
Cornelius in the 1900 Census, living in Chicago and working as railroad porter (via Ancestry®)

Now I had confirmed where they had met and married. But an interracial marriage was illegal in 1900 in the U.S.

How Love Triumphed

So how were Cornelius and Margaret able to marry?

As I began to do the research on Cornelius, I noticed he was listed as different races in various records:

    • ~ In the 1870 Census, Cornelius and his entire family were recorded as White.
    • ~ In the 1880 Census, his father was identified as Black, but 9-year-old Cornelius, his mother, and all of his siblings were noted as Mulatto.
    • ~ In the 1900 Census, Cornelius was recorded as Black.

In the 1910 Census, a 40-year-old Cornelius was recorded as White, along with his wife Margaret and son Francis. He was working at a cafe and owned the Chicago home where they lived.

A census record, showing Cornelius and his wife Margaret and son Francis in 1910
Cornelius in the 1910 Census, recorded as White, along with his wife Margaret and son Francis (via Ancestry®)

Suddenly all of the pieces started to fit together. I realized that multiple records supported what I’d heard about Cornelius being very light-skinned. So it was entirely possible he married Margaret by indicating he was White.

Picking Up the Family Story

Cornelius died in 1916, at the age of 46.

Somehow about four years after Cornelius’ passing, his 15-year old son Francis was living with an aunt. I think that’s partly how we lost track of our connection to Margaret. I have yet to find a death record for her.

A census record, showing Francis living with an aunt in 1910
Cornelius and Margaret’s son, Francis in the 1910 Census, living with an aunt (via Ancestry®)

But through DNA testing of myself, my mother, siblings, and other cousins, I was able to discover previously unknown extended family. I have found three of Margaret’s sisters and one brother, along with their descendants. My grandmother Marjorie never had knowledge of these great aunts and uncles and cousins.

In addition to DNA, I have used available records and family trees to give us what could be the names of Margaret’s parents and their birthplaces: Peter Edward Powell and Anastasia “Annie” Phelan from Kilkenny, Ireland. Their known children are my great-great-grandmother Margaret(e), Susan, Bridget, Mary, and Peter Edward II.

A grey-colored Kilkenny Castle in Kilkenny Ireland, surrounded by greenery
Kilkenny Ireland has many historic buildings, including Kilkenny Castle, built in 1195 (via Wikimedia Commons)

All of Margaret’s siblings appear to have immigrated to the U.S. at varying times. Three of the sisters came to Chicago and one (Mary) went to Philadelphia. It looks like Peter may have come to Philadelphia also, but I have not completely confirmed.

There’s still more I want to learn about my family. But I am so proud to be a direct descendant of an Irish woman and an African American man, two people who came to Chicago looking for new opportunities, found loveand then were brave enough to hold onto that love, against all odds.

They built a family, my family. And now I have the puzzle pieces, along with new connections to living relatives.


What Family Stories Can You Unlock?

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About the Author: Tony has been a member of Ancestry since 2014. His grandmother Marjorie, known as Ma Ma to her 13 grandchildren, passed away, but her legacy of love for family lives on. Tony is proud to be descended from her and from her grandparents, Cornelius Bryant and Margaret Powell. In addition to researching his family history and connecting with living relatives on Ancestry, Tony is part of the African American Irish Diaspora Network.