Cicero Ross Jordan was not her father.
Debra Biagini was nearing her 60th birthday, and that fact leaped from her computer screen, delivered in an email from MyHeritage.com, a global family history and DNA website.
When a friend suggested she look into her family tree to celebrate her birthday back in March 2018, it never occurred to her she’d uncover her mother’s secret, but there it was.
49% DNA match.
“My heart started to beat hard inside me,” she said. “I scrolled down a little more.”
Theodore Roosevelt Britton Jr.
Why do I know this name? she asked herself. Why do I know this name?
Three years before Biagini’s birth in 1958, Britton’s and her mother Elizabeth’s paths crossed at Carver Savings and Loan, where the two worked on New York’s Long Island. Most of their time together had been spent at the bank with Ted, happily married, sometimes giving Elizabeth a lift home. When she abruptly left the bank one day, they never saw or talked to each other again.
But Ted was never far from Elizabeth’s mind. Growing up, Biagini overheard her mother talk about him often.
“She’d say he was so wonderful, such a nice man,” Biagini recalled recently. “He did this. He did that. You know he’s an American ambassador now.”
Still glued to her computer, Biagini decided to Google Britton’s name and found a YouTube video of him being interviewed about the longevity of African Americans. Britton was a young 92 years old at the time.
Biagini beckoned a friend who was visiting at the time.
“Dad is not my dad,” she said.
What do you mean?
“Cicero is not my biological father,” she told him.
Maybe they made a mistake, her friend responded.
Both Biagini’s mother and the man who raised her were dead now. Cicero died in 1990 and Elizabeth followed in 2002.
The year Cicero passed, Debra divorced and moved to Rome, Italy, where she now runs a successful florist and event design business. Britton, a former U.S. ambassador to Barbados and Grenada, had remarried and was living here in Atlanta. He, too, had received notice from MyHeritage that he had a daughter in Italy. Even though he’d visited over 150 countries in his lifetime, Britton was certain he’d never been romantically involved with anyone in Italy, plus he didn’t know one person with the name Biagini.
Desperate to contact him, Biagini reached out to a client at the U.S. Embassy. He gave her Britton’s telephone number and address.
For nearly a week, she kept getting an answering machine. Then finally one Sunday in April, nearly a month after making the initial discovery, Britton picked up.
“I’m Debra,” she told the voice on the other end.
“Finally,” her father said. “Ask me anything you feel you need to ask.”
“I only have one question,” she told him. “Did you know about me?’
“No, I did not,” he said.
For nearly an hour that night, they talked.
“It wasn’t like we’d just met,” Ambassador Britton said recently. “It was like we’d always known one another.”
They planned to meet Sept. 4 in Katowice, Poland, where he was scheduled to attend a conference that weekend in Europe. The moment played out as it had over the phone. It felt good to finally seal their connection with a father-daughter embrace, to talk face to face.
Biagini found Britton’s likeness to Cicero uncanny. They were both gentlemen. Both smooth in their demeanor. Both World War II veterans. Both open-minded and worldly.
They had a lot in common, too. They were lovers of art, haters of lamb. Both spoke Italian and Spanish. Neither of them had ever met a stranger.
Britton wasted no time sharing the news of his daughter with the rest of his children. Of the five, only Ted III was dead, killed in a drowning accident in 1976. It was Gabriel, one of Britton’s 13 grandchildren, who first welcomed Biagini to the family.
We want you so if you want us, you’ll have a family with us, Gabriel told his new aunt.
Next Gabriel’s mother Renee penned a letter. I’m so glad we found you, she wrote to her sister.
Biagini felt like she was in a dream.
“I never expected any of this,” Biagini said. “I thought I’d get a hug (from her father) and we’d go on with our lives.”
Theodore Britton would never let that happen. For centuries, people of African heritage were traded and sold, nameless, at will, tearing families apart. How could he deny his own daughter?
Soon after meeting in Poland, they met again early this year in Albania, where Ambassador Britton was presented a Mother Teresa Medallion for humanitarian efforts and where Biagini was introduced to Britton’s wife, Vernell, and her oldest sister Renee, her younger brother Darwin, nephew Gabriel and a host of Britton’s influential Albanian friends.
Since then, the siblings have stayed in touch, chatting via FaceTime, Messenger or WhatsApp.
Last Saturday, they gathered again, this time in Atlanta to celebrate their father’s 94th birthday and to attend a banquet honoring him and other Montford Point Marines, men who broke the color barrier in the U.S. Marine Corps, the last branch of the military to admit blacks. It wasn’t until recently that they were fully recognized for their service.
It was hard to tell, though, which star shone brightest, Britton’s or Biagini’s, the new sister basking in the warmth of even more Brittons — children, grandchildren and the two remaining siblings, Warren of Texas and Charon Hannink of Florida.
On Saturday, they will gather again. This time in New York, where Renee plans to introduce Biagini to even more of the Britton clan.
“I had a good family,” Biagini said, referring to the parents who raised her and three brothers on her mother’s side of the family. “Now I know I have an even greater family.”
Yes, she does.
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