We were riveted. Even those who don’t “get” poetry understood on Inauguration Day because Amanda Gorman spoke for all of us. This self-described “skinny Black girl descended from slaves” made us gape at our screens in silence as she led us up “The Hill We Climb.”
Like the countless others ambushed by her presence and immense talent, I had to know more about Amanda Gorman, so contributed to her inaugural Google spike. But as a genealogist, I kept going and dug deeper — four to six generations on every branch of her family tree to be exact. As a result of that sleuthing, here are a handful of discoveries about her ancestry.
1. It Could Have Been Bean
If not for a quirk, Amanda Gorman could have been Amanda Bean. We tend to assume that surnames are passed from father to son down through the generations, but while that’s a handy first guess, many families have plenty of exceptions to this pattern, and Ms. Gorman’s is one of them. One of her ancestors used both his biological father and stepfather’s surnames over the course of his lifetime. His children went with Gorman, the name of his stepfather, thereby derailing Bean as the name that would have otherwise been hers.
Other surnames that adorn her family tree include Alexander, Bowles, Brown, Carter, Ellison, Gaffney, Harmon, Heath, Hopkins, Hunter, Jackson, James, Kirkwood, Knighton, Lester, Pettigrew, Shoals, Smith, Totten, Walker, Wicks, Willis, and Woods, so if you share any of these in your pedigree, there’s at least a whisper of a chance that you’re a cousin.
And one of Ms. Gorman’s third great-grandmothers — born about a century and a half before her standout descendant — was also named Amanda, so whether intentional or not, there’s a subtle echo of family history in her first name.
2. Location and Migration
Clarksville, Texas and Holly Springs, Mississippi have the loudest bragging rights for Ms. Gorman as they’re the towns that hold the largest chunks of her history. Holly Springs gets an assist from the Tula vicinity of Lafayette County in Mississippi, and a number of other places in Texas contributed to her family tree. Due to the Great Migration, the more recent past belongs largely to Chicago and Sacramento.
But if you go back in time, her family presents an eerily tidy illustration of the second Middle Passage, the forced migration of the enslaved from the Upper South to the Lower South, a movement which shredded families in the pursuit of profit.
All of Ms. Gorman’s maternal great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents were born in Mississippi and all of her paternal great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents were born in Texas. Such geographic consistency is rare. Once you push back from these generations, the trail leads to Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. On both sides of her family, South Carolina and Virginia play an outsized role, much as you would expect given the history of slavery in America. While this diaspora is painfully common, I can’t recall ever seeing it quite so starkly played out.
3. On Their Shoulders
Not surprisingly, Ms. Gorman’s grandmothers are both very proud, explaining that she began writing as a young child. Hers is a family that values education and it shows.
I’m sure she returns that admiration as both of her grandmothers, as well as others in the family, have served as role models. For instance, Villirie Harmon, her maternal grandmother, was singled out as a top graduate by faculty at Englewood High School in Chicago. Several years later, a younger sister would receive the same honor.
To put this in perspective, this school’s graduates include Gwendolyn Brooks (first African American recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry), Lorraine Hansberry (author of “A Raisin in the Sun” and first African American woman whose work was produced on Broadway), Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr. (first African American astronaut), and Nichelle Nichols (born Grace Dell Nichols, groundbreaking actress whose roles included the iconic Lieutenant Uhura on “Star Trek”).
And this is not a glory-days family that coasts in later years as evidenced by this tribute from the Illinois Senate for the family, work, and charitable contributions of one of her older sisters when she passed away.
Ms. Gorman’s paternal grandmother, Bertha Gaffney Gorman, is also impressive. A pioneering Black journalist for “The Sacramento Bee,” she went on to serve sequentially as a corporate, government, and non-profit executive — most of this at a time when doing so was rare for a woman or African American, let alone an African American woman.
You can see for yourself by watching “Coffee with Mom” (by her son G. Glen Gorman). This is the first time in all of my years of researching that I was able to take a shortcut by watching an interview with a family elder. She and her son matter-of-factly discuss the family’s history in Clarksville, Texas, and along the way, trip onto unexpected topics such as her interview with David Duke when he was the grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
Like all of us, Ms. Gorman stands on the shoulders of those who came before her, but the ones she stands on are among the sturdiest and she’s making the most of her inheritance.
4. The Arc of History
It’s no secret that Amanda Gorman is a fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” so I’d like to think she’d be pleased to know that her ancestors did not “throw away their shot.” As mentioned earlier, her Gorman line once sported the name of Bean, and in 1867, when formerly enslaved men had their first opportunity to register vote, her fourth great-grandfather, Butler Bean, wasted no time. But he wasn’t alone. So did fellow fourth great-grandfathers Jacob Knighton and Sam Gaffney.
Although the right to vote had been legislated by Congress, doing so wasn’t without its risks, and of the three, it was Sam Gaffney who was taking the greatest chance as he lived in Clarksville, Texas.
While most whites in Texas were antagonistic to Blacks gaining any rights including the vote, a Freedmen’s Bureau agent described those in Clarksville as “the most bitter, prejudicial, vindictive, malicious and unreliable” in Texas. Aptly dubbed a “blood-thirsty hole,” Clarksville was a place where murders of Blacks were routine, as were attempts on the lives of whites who dared try to assist them. That Sam Gaffney registered to vote was an act of bravery.
Given that the prospect of voting was unprecedented to Ms. Gorman’s forefathers, not to speak of the dangers associated with it, it’s unlikely that in their wildest imaginations that they could fathom an America …
And the notion that this would be their own descendant? Preposterous. Even so, they registered.
As “The Hill We Climb” conveys, history has a frustrating way of doubling back on itself, but it’s through our determination and actions that things ultimately inch forward. Her ancestors were among those who did not allow themselves to be “turned around or interrupted by intimidation.”
5. Six Generations of Separation
One of Ms. Gorman’s ancestors who registered to vote in 1867, Jacob Knighton, was married to Charlotte. If you take a look at their family in the 1880 census, you might notice something. Charlotte’s father was born in Africa.
Think about that for a moment. The husband of a woman whose father was kidnapped into slavery from Africa was able, however briefly, to vote. And there are just six intervening generations between Africa and Amanda.
For many of us, progress can never move quickly enough, but take heart. As Ms. Gorman’s family history shows, history is closer than we think.