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West family and friends reunion in St. Louis

Marion West of Poplar Bluff greets Vy Higginsen of New York on Thursday, June 27, 2013, for a West family and friends reunion at the Renaissance St. Louis Airport Hotel in St. Louis. DNA tests revealed the two are cousins. Photo by Erik M. Lunsford,

It isn’t every day that the phone rings and a new family member is at the other end of the line.

That’s exactly what happened when Marion West called Vy Higginsen. West is a white cattle rancher from southeast Missouri, and Higginsen is a black theater producer and head of a youth arts foundation in New York’s Harlem. They never dreamed they were from an interracial family.

DNA tests revealed that Higginsen and West were both related to Claiborne West, a Virginia man who lived from 1759 to 1822.

After that first call in 2007, they became telephone buddies and eventually took turns visiting, which quickly garnered the attention of Oprah Winfrey, The New York Times, and CBS “60 Minutes.” After the Times story ran, they began getting more calls from potential relatives and, even today, they continue to learn more about the mysteries in their family background.

On Thursday, Marion West and Higginsen met other family members in St. Louis for their annual reunion. Once a year, they leave their hometowns all over the country to spend time with their extended family members.

“We don’t look too similar,” said Aramynta West, a “cousin” from Bermuda.

Through these reunions and by encouraging family members to submit DNA, they have found more “cousins” in Virginia, Florida, and even Australia. They will spend time this weekend sharing stories and enjoying each other’s company, but their ultimate goal is to keep expanding the family tree until they know their entire shared history.

Higginsen said one reason they chose St. Louis for their reunion is to encourage local families with the West surname to get their DNA tested. Adding more people to the West database increases their chances of finding more relatives and filling in the missing branches of their family tree.

Family Tree DNA, the genetic testing company the Wests’ use, is even offering a discounted rate for the test, which runs around $100. The West surname project has nearly 400 members with Family Tree DNA, which represents 25 separate family lines.

They’re trying to prove they’re connected to Thomas West, also known as Lord de la Warr, whom the state Delaware was named after and one of the original settlers of Jamestown, Va., in 1608. Proving the connection to de la Warr would not only be evidence of royal blood in the family, it would bridge the family between the new world of America and the old world of Europe.

“I think what it does is help us all to know just a little bit more about why we look the way we do and why we think the way we do,” said Higginsen, who began bringing everyone together in 1978 when she became interested in knowing more about her family background.

Genealogy research relies on public and family documents to trace one’s inherited background. DNA provides a lot of scientific information about family connections, said George Holder, one of the genealogists of the group. Male DNA is more reliable in establishing family connections because the Y chromosome found only in men doesn’t change when it is passed from father to son.

The study of genetic ancestry can be almost spooky, finding unexpected connections that go back centuries. Aramynta West, for example, is connected to Higginsen through two separate bloodlines. The West ancestor is one; the other is a DNA match with Higginsen’s sister’s daughter-in-law’s mother.

While DNA tests don’t prove exactly how Marion West and Higginsen are related, they speculate that Higginsen is related to a slave on the West family plantation in Virginia.

She said she doesn’t know what to think about that part of their connection until she has all the facts, but no matter what, it’s part of their family history.

“You want to maybe uncover those secrets because we are all children of America,” she said.

Most Americans’ ancestry is a mishmash of genetics from all over the world, Greenspan said. It’s relatively common for black families to discover DNA with white roots, which is exactly what happened with Higginsen and Marion West.

“The great thing about this is that everyone is probably going to have an interracial family,” Aramynta West said.

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