Pursuing her long-lost grandfather and her life-long yearning to know her extended family resulted in retired NBC Universal executive, Paula Williams Madison, meeting more than 300 Chinese relatives and finding lineage that dated back more than 3,000 years.
Her book and documentary by the same name, “Finding Samuel Lowe,” is a memoire that leads from New York to Jamaica to China where Madison finally meets the family of her maternal grandfather, Samuel Lowe.
“I had no idea that my family from China would be so large and we were blessed because of the way they reacted to us,” she said. “There were many possible responses, but the Lowes embraced us and opened a future to us all.”
Madison will be the keynote speaker at the 14th annual African American Family History Conference, Discover Your Roots, Saturday, March 12, at 1209 South Manhattan Place in Los Angeles.
Alma Bailey, organizer of the Roots Conference, said, “We feel very fortunate to have Paula as our keynote speaker. She not only brings an impressive resume of researching her family history, but a resume of accomplishments in many areas of her life.”
Madison’s honors reflect both her African American and Asian background. She was named one of the “75 Most Powerful African Americans in Corporate America” by Black Enterprise Magazine in 2005 and recognized in 2014 as one of the Outstanding 50 Asian Americans in Business.
Growing up in Harlem, Madison and her two brothers knew they were different from their predominantly Black neighbors. Their mother, Nell Vera Lowe, was half Jamaican and half Chinese, with Asian features that distinguished her from even her children. Despite this, she always stressed the importance of family.
“Unlike the large, extended Harlem families in our community, I knew very few relatives and asked my mother: if families are so important, where’s our family?” Madison said. “I could sense my mother’s sadness around this issue when she responded that she didn’t know.”
When she was a baby, her Jamaican mother cut off Nell Vera Lowe from her Chinese father, Samuel, after he announced he was taking a Chinese bride.
By the time Nell was old enough to travel to her father’s retail business in St. Ann’s Bay, he had taken his family back to China, never learning what became of his eldest daughter. Madison’s mother eventually left Jamaica to start a new life in New York.
As a child, Madison would have imaginary conversations with the grandfather she would never meet.
“When I was a little girl I would talk to my grandfather even though I did not know much about him,” she said. “I would ask him, ‘where are you? Why did you leave?’”
After retiring from her corporate career, she began her search.
“I had promised myself that I would find him–that the lost puzzle piece would be restored, that the broken story would be continued, that the interrupted lives would be repaired,” she said. “And I did, and they were.”
Acknowledging the importance of family history research, Bailey noted, “Like Paula, we all yearn to discover where we come from and the Roots Conference is a great resource.
“Both beginners and experts at tracing their family trees will find workshops geared to their individual abilities.”
She explained that when people of African American descent attempt to research their family history, they often hit roadblocks because accurate records were not always kept for slaves and many families were separated due to slavery or forced migration.
Bailey said the conference addresses these challenges and that there are increasingly more genealogical records available.
“From 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., the conference will provide more than 20 workshops for all levels, ” she said. “The registration cost is $30 before February 17.”
The California African American Genealogical Society, the San Diego African American Genealogy Research group and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are working together to make this event possible.
For those who have purchased in advance Finding Samuel Lowe, Madison will be available to sign copies of her book at the conference.
For more information or to register online visit DiscoverYourRoots.org or call 800-533-2444.