Former Hesston College instructors Sharon Cranford, Wichita, Kan., and Dwight Roth, Hesston, have released their book, “Kinship Concealed: Amish Mennonites/African-American Family Connections” (Legacy Book Publishing, 2013) – the story of Cranford’s, an African American Baptist, and Roth’s, a white Mennonite-Episcopalian, unexpected shared heritage.
Part semi-autobiographical and part historical fiction, the book documents the historical multi-racial lineage of Amish brothers Jacob and John Mast who immigrated from Switzerland to Philadelphia, Pa. Jacob, Roth’s ancestor, stayed in Pennsylvania and became the first Amish bishop ordained in the United States while John, Cranford’s ancestor, left the Amish church and moved south during the peak of slavery in America. John’s grandson, Rueben, became a slave owner in North Carolina and fathered a child with a slave girl – the child became Cranford’s great great grandfather, Charley Mast.
The duo will celebrate the book and family connections with a gathering for descendants of Jacob and John Mast on July 29 at Conestoga Mennonite Church, Morgantown, Pa., near where Jacob Mast lived and ministered more than 250 years ago.
Cranford and Roth did not know each other until they were both teaching in Hesston College’s social science department – and they definitely didn’t know about their common lineage. During a casual lunch gathering on campus in 2004, Roth’s attention was grabbed when he overheard Cranford’s tell another colleague that her great grandmother’s maiden name was Mast. He quickly noted that his mother’s maiden name was also Mast.
Roth, who taught at Hesston from 1973 to 2010, had an interest in his family’s genealogy and asked a few questions of Cranford to see if they might stem from the same Mast branch. When Cranford answered Roth’s questions correctly, the two made their way to the college library to further explore their unexpected discovery in the C.Z. Mast Geneaology book. There, their suspicions were confirmed when they found both family lines.
It was several years after their discovery that Cranford and Roth decided their family’s story needed to be told. Both set out on research trips to the areas where their families originated – Pennsylvania for the northern Amish Masts and east Texas and North Carolina for the southern Masts – to talk with relatives still living in the area and visit cemeteries and other historical family sites.
Throughout the book, Cranford and Roth use imaginative history to look into what their ancestors’ lives may have been like – their struggles, pain, fears and celebrations.
“I have felt my great great great grandmother’s presence – Charley’s mother – as I have gone through this whole process,” said Cranford. “As a slave, not much is known about her, but as a mother myself, I can empathize with what it must have been like to have her child torn away. Writing about it has calmed my spirit. Our ancestors propel us. Because of that compelling spirit, they drive what I say and feel.”
For both authors, writing their ancestors’ stories was a personal experience full of growth and understanding.
“This was a profoundly spiritual and emotional experience for me, which is why I think it is about something larger than Sharon and I meeting,” said Roth. “Our ancestors wanted this story to be told.”
Aside from telling an interesting and unexpected story, Cranford and Roth hope their book will encourage others to be open minded to the realities of bloodlines that may exist even in their own families, but in an even broader sense, to realize how connections across races exist.
“I hope our readers will recognize the strange American phenomenon about color and how tied up we are in that,” said Cranford. “I hope they will take a more internal look at ‘self” and who we all are as a people.”
Books can be purchased for $19.95, plus $5 shipping and handling, by calling 316-461-8989 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Local book readings, signings and opportunities for purchase will be at 12 p.m., Sept. 1, at the Black Arts Festival Senior Luncheon at McAdams Park in Wichita and at 1 p.m., Nov. 16 at Wichita Public Library, Central Library branch.