Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009 | Dolores Van Rensalier of San Diego was one of thousands of people to win tickets in congressional lotteries to attend the Jan. 20 inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States.
Like others going to the inauguration, she’s excited and exuberant. But she feels there’s something extra special about landing this ticket. That’s because years ago she explored where she fit into the worlds of black and white, and eventually found her place as an African-American — although she had been raised as white.
Ironically, she had always felt torn about her roots and wondered what they really were. Like somebody named Barack Obama.
“I feel a kinship with him,” the 68-year-old woman says.
Born of mixed-race parents, Van Rensalier grew up in Clairemont, lived in Los Angeles, then the East Coast before returning to San Diego several years ago. Along the way, she conducted exhaustive research that revealed the truth about her past: she is the great-granddaughter of an African-American abolitionist who was involved in the Underground Railroad.
She also feels a “connection” with Obama, because like him she went on a quest to find her roots and anguished about her identity.
As a senator from Illinois, Obama wrote a bestseller that detailed his journey to find his ancestors and resolve his past. Obama’s father, a black man from Kenya, and his mother, a white woman from Kansas, separated when he was just two. Obama wrote about how he started thinking strongly about his identity when he returned to Hawaii, his birthplace, to live with his grandparents and mother. Obama became conscious of racism and his own feelings about being an African-American.
“I’m multi-racial also, and have a special understanding of the issues he’s had to face in his life,” Dolores Van Rensalier said of Obama. Hers was a long and sometimes painful journey, too.
As a child in San Diego, her classmates, who insisted she was black, hounded her. No, she said: I’m white. That’s what her birth certificate indicated, and her parents raised her as white, hiding the fact they had African-American blood and were mixed race.
“I told them I wasn’t colored. In those days, that was the word — colored. They beat me to the ground. I ran home,” she said of her classmates, recalling her not-so-wonderful school days. She kept asking questions, bugging her parents. Her mother said she was a descendent of William Van Rensalier, whom she characterized as “East Indian” and her great grandfather. Her grandmother called him a “conductor” on a railroad. William was born free, she said, and it was never clear whether her great-grandfather or her great-great-grandfather came to America.
As she became a teenager, Dolores Van Rensalier was convinced she was black. By age 17, she decided to live as an African-American.
In the 1980s, she moved to the East Coast and spent days studying her heritage at the Paterson, N.J. Public Library. She found out more about Van Rensalier. She said the family’s oral history said he came from East India and “hid along the Nile River.”
And then Dolores Van Rensalier learned that her great-grandfather was a “conductor” in the Underground Railroad, helping to run the escape routes for slaves from the south to the north. When she found records in the Paterson library that were convincing evidence that Van Rensalier was involved in the Underground Railroad, her reaction was: “Oh my God!!”
Huntoon and Van Rensalier were actually partners in running the Paterson Underground Railroad station, she learned later. Dolores Van Rensalier thinks her great-grandfather later assumed the Dutch name as a free man.
Van Rensalier has continued to be a civil rights advocate. She directed a senior citizen program in Los Angeles and co-wrote a book about her experiences, “Bridge Street to Freedom.”
When Obama won the presidency, Van Rensalier’s voice cheered with millions around the world. She hoped beyond hope that she would win a lottery conducted by Congresswoman Susan Davis that would enable her to go to the inauguration. Chances were not great: fewer than 200 could attend the inauguration out of more than 1,000 seeking them.
But Davis’s office picked Van Rensalier’s number. She hit the jackpot. She’s going to the inauguration and taking her daughter.
“I have a strong belief that each generation has to carry forward the essence of the Declaration of Independence,” she said. “I know Obama feels that way, too.”
Correction: The original version of this story has been updated to reflect that William Van Rensalier was the subject’s great-grandfather and that he was born free, not as a slave. We regret the errors.
Joe Cantlupe covers San Diego issues in Washington, D.C. Please contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.