RENNARD EAST was looking for some family history. What he found was American history.
For years, East (whose first name is pronounced reh-NARD) had known that his forebears settled in Philadelphia after leaving South Carolina in the 1920s. But he couldn't figure out why they migrated north.
Thanks to Kenyatta Berry, one of the sleuths from the PBS series "Genealogy Roadshow," East has learned that the reason for the family's move was, as she put it, "something that changed American history and African-American history."
East's desire to delve into his roots led him to apply for a spot on "Genealogy Roadshow," which travels the country helping people unravel mysteries about their ancestry. The show taped two episodes locally last fall at the Franklin Institute and Pennsylvania Historical Society.
"The last eight to 10 years, I became interested in where I came from, where my family originated from," said East, who lives in the suburbs but was raised in the same North Philly apartment house, near Broad Street and Erie Avenue, as Kevin Hart. "I knew nothing of the East side of my family growing up. I went to one family reunion when I was 12. It was the only time I saw my East side."
His application to the show's producers contained very little information. "All I knew was the Lowman name," he said, referring to the branch of the family at the center of his quest.
That was enough for Berry, whose digging through newspaper archives and state and local records quickly led her to "one of the more dramatic stories that I've ever done that relates to why someone left the South and came north."
She recalled thinking, "Wow! This was not just this family's story, it was a huge story. American history was unfolding right before my eyes."
For reasons that were unclear to East, his older relatives were reluctant to discuss the family's history. Thus he learned his family's incredible, horrible tale on "Genealogy Roadshow."
Whiskey and gunfire
In 1925, East's second-great-aunt's father-in-law, Sam Lowman, was suspected of receiving a shipment of bootleg whiskey at his Aiken County home, in South Carolina. A law-enforcement team - all in plainclothes - led by County Sheriff Henry Hampton Howard showed up at Lowman's home with an arrest warrant.
Sam Lowman wasn't there, but family members, including Lowman's wife, Annie, 21-year-old-son Demon, daughter Bertha and nephew Clarence, were.
According to online reports of the incident, gunfire erupted, leading to the deaths of Annie Lowman and Howard.
Sam Lowman and his children were arrested; Clarence and Demon were charged with Howard's murder (no one was ever implicated in Annie's death). Everyone else in the house was charged as accessories to the crime.
Sam ultimately pleaded guilty to breaking Prohibition law and received two years' hard labor.
Clarence and Demon were convicted and sentenced to death, and Bertha was given a life term. But Demon was granted an appeal. On Oct. 8, 1926, he was acquitted, then immediately rearrested and imprisoned on assault and battery charges.
Later that day, a mob took Clarence, Demon and Bertha from the county jail to a wooded area and shot them to death.
Three lynching deaths in the South was hardly news in 1926, but the Lowmans' case grabbed the attention of Walter White, at the time the NAACP's executive secretary. White was black but had a light complexion, blond hair and blue eyes, which allowed him to "pass" among the white citizens of Aiken County during the year he spent investigating the Lowmans' deaths.
His findings - and the interest of national media in the case - ultimately led to the first antilynching laws, as well as a sea change in the way lynchings were viewed by white America.
Berry couldn't explain why the family, which had no familial ties to Philadelphia, wound up here. But East already had a handle on that part of the tale.
"The story I heard initially was that one of my uncles was in the military and stationed at Fort Dix [in Burlington County, N.J.], and he had to pass through Philadelphia on a train to get there," explained East, "And he always said, 'When I get out of the service, that's where I'm going to move to.' "
On camera, East's response was somewhat muted as Berry laid out the scenario for him. But, not surprisingly, learning the truth about his ancestors has had a significant impact on East, a professional songwriter who has recorded and toured with the likes of Pharrell and Kanye West (see sidebar).
"It gives me a sense of the strength of the family I come from [which endured] something so horrific, [picked] up the pieces and moved somewhere else to get a fresh start and rebuild," he said.
"It's really like putting the pieces of a puzzle together to let me know where I come from, who I come from. It's something I can pass on to my kids and they can pass on to their kids. It had a very profound effect on me."