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Man discovers Black ancestry after reconnecting with aunt who left him handwritten family notebook

He found out several stories about his family and the violence they faced due to racism and assault.

Man discovers Black ancestry after reconnecting with aunt who left him handwritten family notebook
Image Source: Getty Images/Uwe Krejci

Experiencing different cultures is a profound thing for anyone. Zachary Hocker is driven by a deep-seated interest in discovering and exploring different cultures, including his own family's. Having studied anthropology at Yale and traveled to various countries, Hocker relishes interaction with diverse groups of people and immerses himself in their religions and languages, per PEOPLE. Despite his mixed heritage of Japanese American, Black and Native American descent, Hocker was largely unaware of his family's Black history until one day in October 2017 when he took notice of a photograph hanging on the wall of his family home in San Jose, California.


He was captivated by the image of a pale, fair-haired man in a pinstripe suit and Hocker became curious about his identity. Upon examining the picture more closely, he discovered that it had been taken in 1953 and was signed by his aunt, Martha Annette Hocker Bradley, who had given it to Hocker's grandparents, Alma and Andrew Hocker. The man in the photo, turned out, was named Uncle Tom and was the very embodiment of Hocker's newfound curiosity about his own family's Black history.

After Hocker observed a photo hanging in his family home in San Jose, California, he felt compelled to reach out to his aunt, who was then 82 years old and living in hospice care in New Jersey due to stage 4 colon cancer. Despite the physical distance between them, the two quickly developed a close relationship as Bradley shared stories about their family history that dated back to the late 1700s. Over the course of a year, they spoke regularly and Hocker recorded their conversations until Bradley passed away in 2018. Hocker said, "I'm just so grateful that I had this time with her because I could have very easily gone my whole life without talking to this remarkable, beautiful angel of a woman."

Bradley wrote down portions of their family history in a 55-page lined notebook, which she gave to Hocker. These stories were primarily passed down from her grandmother, Rebecca. In addition to the stories, Bradley drew a map of her grandmother's old neighborhood in Virginia, which she included in the notebook. Hocker was touched by the love and care that Bradley had put into this notebook and he will always cherish it as a connection to his family's past.

Hocker's great-great uncle was the fair-skinned man named Uncle Tom (in the photo). Bradley revealed that his real name was Tom Lewis from Richmond, Virginia. Hocker learned that Tom's mother, Ida, was raped by a White man, and Tom was the product of that assault. Hocker explains that "Uncle Tom was not really proud of his White skin," and he began to identify strongly as Black. Tom married a Black woman named Bessie and their love story was a remarkable example of resilience and devotion. When traveling on trolleys, Tom would sit with Bessie at the back. However, the police would insist that he sits up front since he was White. But Tom wouldn't budge, insisting they had paid their fare and wouldn't leave Bessie's side.




After completing their year-long project of sharing family history, Bradley passed away peacefully in her sleep about a month later, leaving behind a legacy of memories and stories for her nephew, Hocker. Hocker said, "These were stories literally passed down over generations, stories that otherwise would've been forgotten or overlooked. It all started with that picture that I saw hanging on the wall in our living room."

Hocker listens to the recordings of his conversations with his aunt almost every day to keep her memory and that of his ancestors alive. Despite having listened to them countless times, he finds comfort in hearing her voice. He compares the experience to revisiting a favorite book, movie, or picture. In his view, his aunt left him a valuable legacy by sharing their family history with him.

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