Father and son

Joe Mozingo plays with his son Blake, 4, at Belmont Shore in Long Beach. He wants his children to know about their ancestry. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Reporting from Richmond County, Va.

The June air in the Northern Neck of Virginia was humid and electric, almost delirious. Big blue dragonflies bobbed over the tall grass, and cicadas sputtered in the forest. A thundercloud was waking up in the distance, and a restless breeze set the entire landscape in motion.

I had first come here in March investigating the origins of my family name. The place then had no color, no life. My mood was equally bleak as I pored over court archives and had terse meetings with Mozingos who didn't know or care about the name.

By now, though, I'd met all manner of Mozingos — white, black, racist, tolerant, generous, loathsome, loner-ish, loyal, tragic — and seen shards of our buried history surface in their stories. Many had been curious about the name all their lives.

I returned to hear the tale of two clans: Rhodie Mozingo's in Virginia and Wiley Mozingo's in North Carolina.

Rhodie's was white. Wiley's was black.

I wondered how each would react to the long-buried fact that our common forefather, Edward Mozingo, was black, and that our surname was Bantu.

It's hard to tell when Mozingos first passed as white. There was no consistency in how census takers and court clerks defined race.

Wiley's lineage can be directly traced as far back as a Christopher Mozingo, who was born in 1800 and listed as mulatto in census records but white on a tax list.

Rhodie's can be traced all the way to the 1600s and Edward.

By the late 1700s, Rhodie's great-great-great-great-grandfather John was identified as white on tax lists, as were his three brothers. But the brothers also appear on a registry of "Free Molattoes."

John, who had more money than his brothers and even owned a slave, probably had the clout to keep his name off. From then on, Rhodie's ancestors were considered white.

I had briefly met Rhodie in March after visiting his older brother Junior. He seemed decent and thoughtful. He sold insurance door to door for 20 years and now worked at a Lowe's in Fredericksburg. He was raising a grandson, struggling with chronic lung disease and dreaming of retiring to Myrtle Beach.

His father, who managed only about three years in school, had signed his name with an X and never said a word about their roots. Rhodie, 62, didn't know he'd spent his childhood within a mile of where his ancestors settled in the late 1600s. But he started wondering about family when his father died in 1991. He wanted to give his seven grandchildren a sense of their origins.

When we met at his small ranch-style home, set under two great maples on Fallin Town Road, he asked what I'd learned since we last spoke.

I showed him a printout of his lineage straight to Edward Mozingo, his seventh great-grandfather, and the Virginia court ruling from 1672 calling Edward "Negro." He looked briefly at the papers, smiled and sighed.

"Well, we're probably a mix of every race there is," he said.

We headed down the road to meet the so-called Buck Mozingos, all of whom supposedly had one blue eye, one green eye and a streak of white hair.

We followed two-lane roads through rolling fields of corn and soybeans and stands of hardwood tangled with creeper and wild rose. Rhodie pondered Edward.