About 10 years ago, Joan Bryan swabbed her cheek for an at-home DNA test.

The West Ashley woman wasn't surprised to learn that she is 81 percent West African, one of nearly 200,000 Americans with significant roots in the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria, and 8 percent from other parts of the continent. What shocked her was the rest of her genetic makeup: 3 percent Northeastern European, 4 percent Jewish and 4 percent Northwestern European. 

Bryan shared her findings with her cousin, the former director of the Jenkins Institute for Children in North Charleston, Johanna Martin-Carrington. Together, the cousins set off on a quest to understand their ancestry. Along the way, Bryan, now 78, found relatives they had never met, just down the road in Beaufort. And a white cousin in Columbia. 

Martin-Carrington, 86, went back to Jenkins to create an opportunity for North Charleston's youth, particularly those who are descendants of African slaves, to track their roots. With her cousin's help, Martin-Carrington will open the Daniel Joseph Jenkins Cultural and Genealogy Center next year. The center will be formally announced Saturday evening at Jenkins' 126th anniversary celebration in Charleston. Services are free. As are lessons. 

"We are all closer anthro-centrically than we think," Martin-Carrington said. "To acknowledge that may allow an opportunity to engage in a better dialogue on race relations." 

Blanks in history 

In the early days of the South Carolina colony, there were accounts of indentured servants having sex with African slaves and getting pregnant. Indentured servants at that time could have included Irishmen, Jews and French Huguenots, and they were not allowed to marry before completing indenture. Having a child out of wedlock violated indenture. Children of servants and slaves were not legally documented. 

During slavery, South Carolina's Negro Act established that a marriage between a free person and a slave was not recognized, and any child of that relationship could not inherit property from their free parent. The law also dictated that all babies born to enslaved black women, regardless of the race, class or slave status of the father, were born into slavery.

For descendants of slaves, there are no marriage licenses to study. No records of property ownership. No birth certificates. No wills.

In the South Carolina Room at the Charleston County Public Library, Marianne Cawley archives documents and offers free genealogy services to the public. In rare occasions, white fathers tried to help their children they had with enslaved black women.

"There are wills, very few wills, where white men who fathered children with an African-American women, and he wanted the woman and child cared for after his death," Cawley said.

Mysterious case of Pender Gadsden 

Pender Gadsden, an ancestor of both Bryan and Martin-Carrington on their fathers' sides, was born into slavery in 1815. 

In 1833, Pender gave birth to a son, "Kit Gadsden." For a long time, Bryan couldn't figure out how Pender, a slave, took the name Gadsden.

Even more confounding, Kit Gadsden worked as as a sailor and retired a minister. The Gadsdens, an English family, were known as sailors and ministers.

One of the relatives in Beaufort told Bryan she remembered hearing a physical description of Kit.

Then it clicked. 

Kit had long blond hair, light eyes and fair skin. He inherited recessive genes from his father, a man Bryan is "99 percent sure" belonged to the Gadsden family.

"They did give him a lot of freedom to sail up and down the coast," she said. 

At some point in Pender's life, she was bought and freed. Bryan is still trying to track down tangible evidence that could fill in the blanks: Pender's freedom and Kit's father's name. 

No matter the circumstances, the family Bible wouldn't have included Kit and Pender, Cawley said.

"African-American genealogy can present special challenges to family historians," Cawley said.

A will written by Kit's father protecting Pender and Kit may exist. 

Color, race and genealogy

After slavery ended, Southern states devised new ways of keeping children of Africans in the shadows of society. So long as a child had African blood, no matter the race or class of the "white" parent or blood relative, the child was resigned to a lower class with limited rights. 

"Colorism," as Martin-Carrington phrased it, persists today.

"Did you see the new fiancee of Prince Harry?" she said. "Her mother is African-American and her father is English. But she doesn't look it at all." 

Former President Barack Obama, who is biracial, was referred to by the American public as black, Martin-Carrington said, because "he looked it."

After looking at their DNA and meeting white family members, including Kit Gadsen, racial terms like "black" and "white" no longer make sense to Bryan and Martin-Carrington. 

Since the colonial days, white people of both genders "mixed" with Native Americans and African slaves, because of a "need for satisfaction," Bryan said. She suspects 90 percent of Southern whites have Native American in them.  

"They just thought they could walk away. Now this is all coming back," Bryan said. "If we get into the politics of it, the people shouting, 'Take my country back,' what does that mean? Who are these people? Who are you?"

Expanding the Jenkins campus 

The Rev. Daniel J. Jenkins — born a slave on a plantation outside Charleston — was orphaned at a young age. In 1891, he wanted to take in fellow orphaned African children. There was an abandoned warehouse next to a prison. Jenkins convinced the city to let him have it.

The city obliged, eager to rid Charleston of "roaming, thieving wild children." The S.C. Legislature chartered the orphanage in 1892. After the turn of the century, a few "wild children" grew up to form the Jenkins Orphanage Band. They lit up the jazz scene, toured London and Paris and performed for Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft. "The Charleston" dance was improvised during one of their sets. 

Over the years the orphanage's location hopped around the peninsula and eventually settled in North Charleston on the banks of the Ashley River. Jenkins currently houses orphans and accepts children of all races, Martin-Carrington said. 

Martin-Carrington has gutted an older red brick building at the riverside edge of the Jenkins campus. She'll soon replace the roof and plan space for a gift shop, an open gathering space and the genealogy center.

Reach Hannah Alani at 843-937-5428. Follow her on Twitter @HannahAlani.