Growing up in suburban Ohio, in a white neighborhood, Gail Lukasik was raised by her mother to respect all people, no matter their ethnicity. Her dad, on the other hand, was casually racist. It was simply a fact of life for Lukasik.
So imagine Lukasik’s shock when she learned, in 1995, that according to her mother's 1921 birth certificate, she was listed as “col” (meaning colored). She also found a 1940 census record that listed her as "Neg/Negro." Four years later, in 1944, Lukasik’s mom, Alvera Frederic, left New Orleans, headed north and married Lukasik’s father. She fiercely hid the truth of her origins, especially from her own husband and children. That meant that Lukasik grew up having never seen a photo of her grandfather Azemar Frederic, and knowing nothing about him.
The mystery bugged her. So in 1995, curious about her mother’s father, Lukasik went through the 1900 Louisiana census and made a shocking and very unexpected discovery: Azemar and his entire family were designated black.
At that point, Lukasik’s own son Christopher was 27 and her daughter Lauren was 20. Lukasik embraced the truth, instead of running from it, and told her children about their grandmother.
“My advice to parents is to be honest with their children, to look at the topic of racial heritage as an opportunity for a dialogue with their children about race and race in America, and an opportunity to explore misconceptions. Yes, it’s a delicate subject but if we don’t talk about race openly, we won’t make any progress in understanding race. Everything starts in the home,” she told Megyn Kelly TODAY.
Lukasik's own mother had spent her entire adult life hiding her race. She avoided the sun, she didn’t share her own family photos, and she didn’t visit her family in New Orleans. After her mother’s death in 2014, Lukasik wrote a book about her experience and journey, “White Like Her.”
“I believe in being direct and not pulling punches. So I told my children what I’d discovered on the 1900 census records, about my mother’s birth certificate, and my almost certainty that my mother and her family were mixed race,” she said. “My mother raised me to be tolerant of all people regardless of their ethnicity or race. I raised my children the same way.”
Which meant that for her son and daughter, learning their family truth wasn’t an “oh, no moment, but an aha moment.” Granted, the kids were grown when they learned about their grandmother, which likely made it easier to process and contextualize the information.
Christopher, said Lukasik, “was fascinated and intrigued. Of all my mother’s grandchildren, my son resembles her the most. Also, he doesn’t favor either my husband or me. On the other hand, my daughter is a blend of us. Though I can’t say for sure, but I think the news of our mixed race was in some sense a way for him to understand his physical appearance. Suddenly it made sense.”
Lauren, likewise, “also found the news intriguing. I don’t remember where we were when I told her — most likely at home. My daughter told me that her grandmother was her grandmother and it changed nothing about her feelings for her. She said it wasn’t until she was older and processed it that she understood the ramifications and gravity of it all.”