Paula Madison shocked her colleagues when she walked away from television in October, 2011. She was 58 and an executive vice president at NBC.
“I wanted to find my family,” she told me. “I knew that everything I had done, from majoring in black studies at Vassar College to studying the Caribbean and China, then being a reporter and developing my world view, all of this, I realize was getting me ready for something.”
It was getting her ready to report the greatest story of her life. Her own.
Paula Williams Madison and her brothers Elrick and Howard grew up in Harlem, raised by their immigrant single mother Nell Vera Lowe. There was a time when they depended on welfare to get by. Paula recalls a lecture from her mother. “I came home from elementary school one day and handed my mother my grade card. She told me ‘I did not come to this country for you to get a B. I came to this country for you to be wealthy.’”
It was an extraordinary vision with, it turns out, deep roots. Paula and her brothers didn’t look like most black people in Harlem. They had no relatives there. There was something different about their facial features.
“My mother looked Chinese,” Paula says. “I grew up knowing my mother had Chinese ancestry.” The family story was that Paula’s mother was born in Jamaica and that her maternal grandfather’s name was Samuel Lowe, a Chinese shopkeeper in Kingston, Jamaica. “My grandfather’s first two partners were black Jamaican women whom he did not marry. His family sent a Chinese wife for him to marry — sight unseen,” Paula says.
Lowe had fathered several children with the other women. The family story was, one day Samuel Lowe left Kingston and went home to China and died. The story, as with many family stories, was not complete.
In April 2012, six months after she retired from her executive jobs at KNBC and NBCUniversal Paula Madison began her quest to discover the real story of who she was. One thing, she was was successful. She and her brothers had invested in real estate and other businesses and amassed a fortune. They bought the WNBA basketball franchise, the L.A. Sparks, which she sold this year to Magic Johnson. She and her brothers bought the majority share of The Africa Channel television network.
She expected it would take years to unravel the family’s past.
“The first thing I did was log on to Ancestry.com. I built a family tree around my mother’s name and plugged in a lot of names of my Black relatives. New connections began to appear. Then I turned to FamilySearch.org and I found birth certificates as well as aunts and uncles.” She found ship’s logs that listed her grandfather Lowe’s travels from China to Jamaica where he went to work at a sugar plantation in 1905. It was a time when many Chinese traveled to the Caribbean to work. There Samuel met Paula’s Jamaican born grandmother. Paula’s mother, Nell Vera Lowe, barely knew her father. In 1945, she took advantage of relaxed U.S. immigration laws and moved to New York. Everyone assumed Samuel Lowe had lived a lowly shopkeeper’s life.
But Paula Madison could not settle for assumptions. On a trip to Jamaica, she started nosing around the shops known by locals as “Chiney shops,” places opened by Chinese immigrants. She asked if anybody had ever heard of a shopkeeper named Samuel Lowe and was surprised to find people who knew him, she also found relatives who helped her begin to understand the Jamaican-Chinese culture and migration patterns.
She discovered Samuel Lowe had expanded his businesses significantly in Kingston and after 30 years on the island, traveled back to China. Paula found out that many Chinese-Jamaicans had come from a group of North Chinese who had been driven from their homes to South China. They were called the “Hakka” and every four years the Hakka descendants held a reunion. Only a couple of months after her search began, she and her brothers hustled to attended one of those reunions in Toronto, where they met with a group of Hakka who pledged to help her find her Chinese family.
Her new Hakka friends told her there were only two villages in South China where you would find the Lowe name. One of those towns was a village called Niu Fu, the other seemed like a natural fit-Lowe Swee Hap, a Chinese city that included the family name. Her Hakka friends began contacting relatives in China and within a matter of weeks, the lines were connected. She found that she was related to a cadre of previously unknown aunts, uncles and cousins living in Shenzhen, China.
In August, now only five months after she began her search, Paula made the trip to China to meet her lost family. She returned to China in December 2012 with her brothers and 16 family members to piece together the lost family stories.
Her Chinese kin greeted her warmly and told stories about Samuel Lowe. The family was surprised to learn that Paula’s mother was likely Samuel’s oldest daughter and would have held a high place of honor had they known of her.
Since meeting her new extended family in China, Paul and her brothers have gone into business with cousins shipping Napa wines and Maine lobsters to China. In 2015, Harper Collins will release a book on the whole odyssey. The documentary “Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China” is making the film festival rounds and will eventually end up on television and The Africa Channel.
For Paula, unraveling the mystery helped her makes sense of her own life. She now knows her own drive to invest and develop businesses comes from her entrepreneurial Chinese grandfather, even though they never met. She said she wants to open people’s eyes to help them want to know more about their family’s past and continue family legacies.
“This is a universal story, we are all immigrants, we come from all over and most of us have lost pieces and bits of our story along the way. My grandfather used his full Chinese name when he gave it to the ship’s clerk heading for Ellis Island, that he had to pass through from Jamaica to China. The clerk reduced the name to Samuel Lowe,” Madison said. But because Lowe had to stay at Ellis Island for quarantine, his name showed up in the National Archives. “For African Americans, slavery in the United States interrupted and destroyed family histories. Part of my goal is to help black people understand that slavery is a blip, a horrible blip, but a blip in the history of who they are.”
In Chinese culture, villages sometimes keep family stories. The stories, that go back centuries, are written in a document called Jia Pua. Paula saw her family’s Jia Pua that stretches back three thousand years to 1006 B.C. and there was, of course, no mention of her mother, or of the black Chinese-American family she raised. Not once in three thousand years has the document added footnotes or backdated additions. But Paula Madison insisted on accuracy. “You know I wouldn’t rest until that happened,” she said. Nell Vera Lowe’s name was added to the village history book.
There was a reason Paula Madison had a lifelong gnawing need to know her past. She comes by it naturally. The gates of Paula Madison’s ancestral village of Lowe Swee Hap in Shenzhen, China are topped with a sign with three words. “Family, Education, Prosperity.” Note, that the word “family” comes first.