Everyone’s a Wee Bit Irish around St. Patrick’s Day!

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, to celebrate March being Irish American Heritage Month, Mary explains that many of us have at least a little Irish in our family history—including President Barack Obama and Martin Luther King, Jr.

With the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations this week, plus March being Irish American Heritage Month, everyone is feeling a wee bit Irish. And, as it turns out, quite a few of us have actual Irish roots—including U.S. President Barack Obama and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

Irish Diaspora

Population estimates vary, but most historians and researchers agree that the Irish Diaspora (persons of Irish heritage living outside of Ireland) is significant.

By some estimates, at least 10% of the world is Irish (according to the Irish tourism board)—and others report that there are at least seven times as many people of Irish descent in America as the entire population of Ireland! (See Huffington Post article.)

photo of Blarney Castle, Ireland

Photo: verdant scene from the top of Blarney Castle, Ireland. Credit: Mary Harrell-Sesniak.

So when everyone claims to be a wee bit Irish in March, especially on St. Patrick’s Day, you shouldn’t be surprised. Many Americans, including several prominent African Americans, can trace their roots to the Emerald Isle.

The Obamas’ Irish Ancestry

One of the first studies on President Barack and Michelle (Robinson) Obama’s ancestry was conducted by genealogist Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak (yes, she is a double Smolenyak).

She discovered that Mrs. Obama’s third great grandmother Melvinia was the granddaughter of Andrew Shields, a white Irish protestant immigrant, via his son Charles Shields.

The President’s direct immigrant Irish ancestor was Falmouth Kearney, a native of Moneygall in County Offaly. He left his homeland in 1850 to escape the great famine (which lasted 1845-1852). Once the people of Ireland learned this, there was much celebration and pride in being connected to the U.S. President. See:

DNA Study of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Family

Another historical figure connected to the Republic of Ireland is Martin Luther King, Jr. (15 Jan. 1929 – 4 April 1968).

photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Washington, D.C.

Photo: Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Washington, D.C. Credit: Library of Congress.

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s roots are a wee bit elusive, as traditional research methods using a path of documentary evidence have failed.

However, a DNA study conducted on his son Michael Luther King, III, indicated ties to the Mende people of Sierra Leone on his mother’s side, and Ireland on his father’s.

MLK’s Family Tree through the Paternal Line

  • Jacob Branham & wife Dinnah
  • |
  • Nathan King (a.k.a. Branham or Brannan) & wife Malinda
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  • James Albert “Jim” King & Delia Lindsey
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  • Martin Luther King, Sr. & Alberta C. Williams
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  • Martin Luther King, Jr. & Coretta Scott

In the MLK family tree, note the name change from Branham or Brannan (and other spellings) to King. This occurred sometime between 1870 and 1880, when Nathan appeared on the U.S. Federal Census as a King. The reason for the name change is not clear, but perhaps the family wished to disassociate themselves with the oppressive slavery of the Branham family of Putnam County, Georgia.

No records have been located to prove which Branham family owned the slave plantation where the King ancestors lived, but in all likelihood it was Dr. Joel Branham (1799 – 1877) or his father Henry Branham (or both). The family is thought to have removed to Georgia from Virginia in the 1700s. By 1812 Henry Branham had become active in his community, and he ran for the State Legislature.

article abourt Henry Branham, Georgia Argus newspaper article 7 October 1812

Georgia Argus (Milledgeville, Georgia), 7 October 1812, page 2

The family’s opposition to the abolishment of slavery is indicated by this article of 1837, when Dr. Joel Branham opposed the election of President Martin Van Buren.

article about Joel Branham, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 17 September 1840

Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 17 September 1840, page 2

The Mysterious Reference to James King & Ireland

Several genealogists have presented comprehensive articles discussing the King family’s connection to the Branhams and Ireland (see links below)—and surprisingly, they have identified one mysterious reference to Ireland in connection with Rev. King’s grandfather.

An examination of the records reports a bit more detail.

In 1910, the U.S. Federal Census reported that the James and Delia King family (James King was MLK’s grandfather) were renting a farm on the Jonesboro and Covington Road in the Stockbridge District of Henry County, Georgia. It was the first marriage for James and Delia, who had been married 15 years (so they were married c. 1895). There had been eight children, but only seven were still living. The eldest child could read and write, and the second child could read but not write, and neither James nor Delia could read or write.

The birthplace of Delia and all the children was reported as Georgia—but James King’s birthplace was reported as Ohio. Most interestingly, the birthplace of James King’s father was reported as Ireland.

photo of the 1910 U.S. Census record for James King, Sr.

Photo: 1910 U.S. Census record for James King, Sr. Credit: FamilySearch.org.

photo of the 1910 U.S. Census record for James King, Sr. household

For further reading on this interesting subject, see these articles:

Cluster Analysis of the Branham Irish Origins

So if you accept the theory that one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ancestors was a man named Branham from Ireland, how would one determine where the family originated?

Since early records are scant, a surname distribution map such as the one hosted by the Irish Times is useful. It works by enumerating names found on surveys, such as the 1847-64 Primary Valuation Survey.

Some might criticize this tool for being too late a time period. However, if a significant number of families were only found in a limited area, then a sampling of family (siblings and cousins of the immigrants whose descendants stayed in the area), could be examined.

By searching for Branham, the results showed six households under an alternate spelling of Brangham.

Other related spellings include Brannan, Brannon, Bringham, Brinham, Brennan, etc.—and when they were searched, a significant cluster appeared. It turns out that these families are associated with Northern Ireland, and in particular the counties of Londonderry, Antrim, Tyrone, Down, Armagh and Fermanagh.

Although not conclusive, this at least provides researchers who wish to trace the King Irish ancestry more of a target region.

Further Reading:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: Brief Genealogy & Family Tree Download

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post—in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day—Scott searches old newspapers to find out more about Dr. King’s family history—and includes a free MLK family tree download.

The year was 1968. If you lived it, you know it was a year quite like no other in U.S. history. Certain words and images are indelibly seared into our memories from 1968: Vietnam, Tet Offensive, anti-war riots, Robert F. Kennedy, Apollo, Nixon, “Prague Spring,” and Martin Luther King Jr. to name a few.

It was on 4 April 1968 that our world lost the legendary civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to an assassin’s bullet, as reported in this 1968 Louisiana newspaper.

Dr. King Fatally Shot by Assassin in Memphis, Times-Picayune newspaper article 5 April 1968

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 5 April 1968, page 1

The world was in shock and sadness over the assassination of MLK, and our entire nation was on edge.  As a country, we tried to come to grips with the murder of one of our most stalwart proponents of peaceful humanitarian change.

Since today is the national celebration of Dr. King’s life, as well as the 46th anniversary of his untimely death, I thought I would search GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to see what I could learn about the genealogy and family history of this truly great American.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Father, the Reverend King Sr.

The first thing we need to recall is that while newspapers often referred to him as Dr. King, his full name was Martin Luther King Jr. His father was Rev. Martin Luther King Sr.

Rev. King Sr. outlived his son, dying in Atlanta of heart disease in 1984, as reported in this Texas newspaper. This obituary gives us more information about the family of Rev. King Sr., commenting that “his life was stained by repeated tragedy.” He not only lost his son, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1968 assassination, but his only other son, Rev. A. D. King, accidentally drowned in 1969, and his wife, Alberta Williams King, was killed by gunfire while playing the organ during a church service in 1974.

Rev. King Sr., 84, Dies of Heart Disease, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 12 November 1984

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 12 November 1984, page 1A

Rev. King Sr.’s faith and commitment is shown in the last two paragraphs of this obituary:

“But in his last years, King refused to speak with bitterness about his family’s losses. Nor did he swerve from his commitment to non-violence and his faith in the ultimate designs of a loving God.

“‘I do not hate the man who took the life of my dead son,’ he said at a bicentennial ceremony in Dallas in 1976. ‘I am not going to hate the young man who came and killed my wife. I am every man’s brother. I’m going on with my job.’”

The murder of Alberta King, wife of Rev. King Sr. and mother of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was reported in this 1974 Massachusetts newspaper.

Martin Luther King's Mother Slain in Church, Boston Herald newspaper article 1 July 1974

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 1 July 1974, page 1

MLK’s Personal “Preacher’s Kid” Story & Family Photo

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was part of a group called “preacher’s kids,” as shown in this 2006 Illinois newspaper article. This old newspaper article not only provides a view of what it is like to grow up as a “PK” or preacher’s kid, but also provides us with a photo of the King family in 1963, as well as a very nice biography of Dr. King which lists his wife, Coretta Scott, and his four children, Yolanda, Martin Luther III, Dexter, and Bernice.

Preacher's Kids; Martin Luther King Is Part of a Proud--and often Misunderstood--Group, Register Star newspaper article 14 January 2006

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 14 January 2006, page 9

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Daughter, the Reverend Bernice King

I then discovered an intriguing article from a 1991 South Dakota newspaper about Dr. King’s daughter Bernice. She is the only one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s four children to become a minister. The old newspaper article proclaims: “Bernice King is seeking her own mission and her own identity.” As with so many of our own families, it seems the passion for a profession followed through the branches and roots of the King family with Rev. Bernice King, who is currently the chief executive officer of The King Center.

[Bernice King] Going Her Own Way, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 20 January 1991

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 20 January 1991, page 35

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Grandfather, the Reverend A. D. Williams

It was also interesting for me to note, when I looked up Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s grave on Findagrave.com, that his maternal grandfather, A. D. Williams, was also a Reverend.

Honoring the Memory of MLK

Dr. King’s legacy was recognized and respected by the signing of the bill establishing a national holiday in his honor by then-President Ronald Reagan, as reported in this 1983 Washington newspaper article.

Reagan Signs Bill Setting King Holiday, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 2 November 1983

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 2 November 1983, page 1

His legacy was further elevated by the establishment of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C., on 28 August 2011.

a photo of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial

Photo: Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial. Credit: U.S. National Park Service.

It was an article I found in a 1971 Alabama newspaper that really made me nostalgic. This article is all about songwriter Dick Holler and it reports: “Holler considers ‘Abraham, Martin and John’ his best song to date.” It goes on to say: “He said it only took about 10 minutes to write the song and that he had no idea it would be such a tremendous success.”

Former Mobilian [Dick Holler] Has Musical Success, Mobile Register newspaper article 30 December 1971

Mobile Register (Mobile, Alabama), 30 December 1971, page 30

While all of the memorials and tributes to Dr. King are wonderful, it is Dick Holler’s that I always carry close in my heart!

“Anybody here seen my old friend Martin?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lot of people,
But it seems the good they die young.
I just looked around and he’s gone.”
—Dick Holler

Take some time during today’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day commemoration to reflect upon this great civil rights leader and his legacy of faith, love, hope, and non-violence.

A Free Martin Luther King Jr. Family Tree Download

Start your own genealogy investigation into his life with this free Martin Luther King Jr. family tree template download that contains the names, DOB, and DOD (if applicable) of his parents, grandparents and great grandparents.

Martin Luther King Jr. Family Tree

Martin Luther King Jr. Family Tree 4 Generations

Feel free to share this family tree on your own website or blog using the embed code below.

MLK Genealogy Challenge

See if you can find out more about Martin Luther King Jr.’s ancestry dating back into the 1800s, and fill in some of the unknowns in his family tree. Our African American newspaper archives is a great place to start. Please be sure to share your MLK family history finds with us in the comments!

Related Posts:

Finding Dr. King’s Roots in Slavery

How do I find articles on Blacks in GenealogyBank?

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