In fact, the more I dug, the more reason I found to believe that his family had been free for some time – well into the 1700s.Regrettably, I was unable to find documents that could explain how or when the Hawkinses secured their freedom, but at least one branch of the family claims Native heritage.He wouldn’t exist and the rest of us would be considerably less Happy.We wouldn’t Get Lucky and those Blurred Lines would remain clearly demarcated.Every one of us is an amalgamation not only of all our ancestors, but of their decisions, and in 1831, Ambrose Hawkins was contemplating moving his family from America to Africa.Had he done so, his son Joseph would have been raised in Liberia instead of North Carolina and never would have become Pharrell Williams’s third great-grandfather.
His tree is populated primarily by common surnames – Williams, Johnson, Allen, Edwards and Cooper among them – but also peppered with intriguing first names such as Cain, China, Fenner, General, Hilliard, and my favorite, Napoleon Bonaparte, known to his friends as “Bone.” But of all those ancestors, it was Ambrose Hawkins who caught my attention.
As it happens, Ambrose did go to Liberia, but opted for a solo round trip, rather than a family migration.
If not for this last minute change of plans, the gene pool that would eventually produce Pharrell couldn’t have crystallized.
He was, in the parlance of the day, a “free person of color.” Had he been enslaved, he would have been reduced to a nameless entry of gender, age and race (typically, black or mulatto) on the slave schedule of his owner – a genealogical reality that robs descendants of critical clues for uncovering the lives of these relatives.
But Ambrose and his family members, like roughly ten percent of African Americans at the time, were free before the Civil War and that meant there would be more of a paper trail to follow.
A heartbeat later, I flashed back to the Swarovski crystal-encrusted Adidas Pharrell wore on SNL, Good Morning America, and Ellen, and realized that his roots were claiming him after all.