Alex Lee is a young black man from Texas who has become famous for his work as a genealogist. Discovering the surprising history of his maternal grandfather’s family led him to begin to do research into his ancestry. Since then, he has made many exciting discoveries, increasing national interest in African-American genealogy.
Tracing family trees has become an important activity for many African Americans, both to establish connections with distant family members and to place their family history within the context of the nation itself. In recent years, one young black man from Texas has not only become acclaimed for tracing his own family’s history, but has also helped others to make connections with long lost relations. Alex Lee’s work has provided information that has often been unexpected, sometimes joyful and occasionally unsettling.
Who is Alex Lee?
Alex Lee was born in Beaumont, Texas in 1988 to Peter Thomas Lee, Jr. and Tina (LaFleur) Lee. His family, including his two brothers, moved frequently throughout Texas when he was a child but, even so, kept in close contact with their extensive group of relatives. They frequently meet on weekends for get-togethers that included even distant cousins – third and fourth removed – this gave Alex a strong sense of family. It was his maternal grandfather – his mother’s father – who would turn out to hold the key to his passion for genealogy.
From a young age he worked for his grandfather’s, construction company, Alex LaFleur. Alex Lee noticed that not only did his grandfather and grand-uncle speak Creole, but so did many of their employees – particularly when they didn’t want the young man to know what they were saying! He also noticed that local people would refer to his grandfather as “white” or “Mexican”, but never describe him as “black”. Alex recalls, “When people asked me what was his race, I would say, ‘He’s a Frenchman,’ since that was how he often referred to himself.”
One year, on a family trip to Louisiana when Alex was just 19 years old, his grandfather introduced the younger generation to relatives they had never known about. One of them was “one of the most beautiful older ladies” that Alex had ever seen in his life. A fair-skinned woman with snow-white hair: This was his grandfather’s sister, Lillian LaFleur-Redeaux. Welcomed into her home, redolent with the heavenly smell of Creole food, the young man noticed a picture of what appeared to be a white man on her wall. When he asked his grand-aunt who the white man was, she laughed and replied, “Oh, no, sha, my baby. That’s my dad Ellic. That’s your grandpa’s father.” Stunned to discover that his name and roots began with a man who appeared to be white, Alex caught what he calls the “family digging bug.”
Alex catches the genealogy bug
As soon as they returned to Texas, Alex began to contact as many of his relatives as he could find, and began to construct the basics of his family tree. Although he had begun classes at Texas Southern University, his work in genealogy began to take so much time that he left college. Working for a local bottling company allowed him the chance to combine his time in the field with his growing research. He purchased a scanner to record photographs of relatives and began to use resources on the Internet to expand his research. Over the years, he began to get the reputation as the family historian and encouraged his relatives to gather information. With time and experience, Alex learned how to do research in libraries, courthouses and churches, citing sources and validating leads.
Time after time, his research took him back to Louisiana. His grandfather’s paternal first cousin (a genealogist learns to be precise), Emma Joy LaFleur, and her husband Ronald Donald Andrus welcomed him into their house, giving Alex a place to stay whenever he was in the area. They also provided a way for him to meet many of his relatives in Louisiana, who he came to know well and with whom he formed close relationships.
Opelousas: the key to his family
St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, became the centre of his research, particularly the town of Opelousas. For generations, stretching back to just after the American Revolution, Alex’s ancestors have been closely associated with the area.
While tracing the family history, he discovered that one of the original settlers was an Italian-born soldier named Donato Bello, who was not only married to Suzanne Moreau from Alabama, but also maintained a long-term relationship with a New Orleans-born mixed-race woman named Marie Jeanne Talliaferro. One of Bello’s children with Talliaferro was named Martin, who in adulthood took the name Martin Donato. As a free black man, Alex discovered, Martin Donato was not only one of the wealthiest planters in the parish but himself owned slaves until his death in the 1840s. In his will, he dictated that a dozen of these slaves were to be freed… because they were his own children!
Joyous discoveries but some unsettling
This not only partly explained to Alex why some of his Creole ancestors were so light-skinned, but also opened up the issues of slavery – both slaves and owners – within the same family. His work also revealed other, happier, information. He discovered that two professional basketball players, Paul George and Joe Young, both on the Indiana Pacers team, were two distant cousins through the Martin Donato family. This discovery brought Alex a great deal of publicity, which also increased awareness of the importance of genealogical research for African Americans.
Although still in his mid-20s, Alex Lee has gained prominence in the field of genealogy. He has given a seminar in Louisiana, which attracted visitors from throughout the South. The conference helped to connect white and black family members of this extended family and has resulted in long-term friendships. With a collection of hundreds of thousands of photographs and documents, Alex hopes to someday be able to found a museum to house his research and benefit the families of St. Landry Parish. He has published articles in such media as Creolegen (see “Martin Donato of St. Landry Parish,” Creolegen, posted April 21, 2015, http://www.creolegen.org/2015/04/21/martin-donato-of-st-landry-parish/), maintains a Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/Alexgenealogy) and uses Twitter (@AlexGenealogy) to stay in touch with people interested in his work.
“I think that genealogy is going to be a tool to keep families together,” Alex Lee says, “since we don’t know who can be related. I myself had no idea that I was related to practically half of my graduating [high school] class. That, itself, is a way to get people together.”