University of Michigan alumna discovers her African-American roots

Nicole Persley never thought she'd learn her grandfather was African-American

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Nicole Persley grew up in the southern United States and always thought she was a white American. 

That is, until she was a student at Michigan.

"Someone asked me which one of my parents was black, and I laughed and I said 'Neither, I'm a white girl from Virginia,'" she said.

So she decided to do technological DNA testing, which confirmed she is African-American. She also discovered her paternal grandfather, Dr. Alonzo Persley, was black and a graduate of the University of Michigan Medical School in 1915.

When Nicole saw her grandfather's date of birth and handwriting for the first time from archives at the University of Michigan, she couldn't contain her excitement.

"October 15, 1890. Mason, Georgia," she read. "His handwriting looks like a doctor's."

She also discovered he was a Michigan football fan after he wrote he was interested in receiving Michigan football announcements and ticket information.

"He was into football! Yes, go blue!" she exclaimed.

Persley's fandom for football was not in doubt, but one thing that was in doubt was whether or not he identified as an African-American before or during medical school. It was an unknown because Nicole's grandfather died when her father was a teenager, so her father and immediate family members had no idea about their African-American heritage.

Nicole was the first person in her family to question it. With the help of University of Michigan Archivist Brian Williams, she was able to unveil the answer to that generation-old question.

Williams discovered Persley attended undergraduate school at Lincoln University, a historically black university. Williams also discovered Persley lived in a traditionally African American area while at the University of Michigan, and tha he was featured in the NAACP's Crisis Magazine.

With all this information, it appears Persley identified as an African-American.

"I love that," Nicole said. "That makes me feel even more proud of him."

About the Authors:

Andrew Humphrey is an Emmy Award winning meteorologist, and also an AMS Certified Broadcast Meteorologist (CBM). He has a BSE in Meteorology from the University of Michigan and an MS in Meteorology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he wrote his thesis on "The Behavior of the Total Mass of the Atmosphere."