In my house, we are forever on the lookout for outstanding athletes named Cohen. We believe such figures will open our minds to alternate futures and possibilities. We have enough lawyers and endocrinologists, enough journalists and accountants. We have plenty of criminals, but they tend to be of the white-collar variety. We want people who can advance the ball, play the body, work above the rim. Which is why I was so pleased when the Chicago Bears, my favorite football team, selected, with a fourth-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, its second “Cohen” in five years. There’d been Landon Cohen, who’d played 13 games as defensive tackle for the Bears in 2013. Now there’d be Tarik Cohen, a fleet running back. He was ours and we’d take him—“Tarik Cohen Had Some Bears Fans Searching for Jewish Connection,” is how the Chicago Tribune headlined it—though he did not fit the profile of a typical congregant of North Shore Congregation Israel. It wasn’t that he was short—only 5 feet, 6. A lot of us are short. Or that he worked harder than almost anyone else. Some of us have that ethic, too. It’s that he was black. Landon Cohen is also black, as are most of the Cohens who have played in the NFL. Landon, Abe, Tarik, Dustin, and Joe—among them, only Dustin and Abe were “white” and only Abe was Jewish.
There are plenty of black Jews from Africa. You probably know about the Ethiopian Jews who carried their ancient Bibles into exile, or the Lemba, a South African nation that claims Jewish heritage. “[They] have a tradition that they were led out of Judea by a man named Buba,” Nicholas Wade wrote in The New York Times in 1999. “They practice circumcision, keep one day a week holy and avoid eating pork or pig-like animals, such as the hippopotamus.” What’s more, “a team of geneticists has found that many Lemba men carry in their male chromosome a set of DNA sequences that is distinctive of the cohanim, the Jewish priests believed to be the descendants of Aaron.”
Hence, black Cohens.
But Landon Cohen comes from Spartanburg, South Carolina, and Tarik Cohen grew up in Bunn, North Carolina. It’s said both men were in fact raised in a part of the South where Cohen, a name that we tend to identify with the Hebrew priestly caste, is not unusual among African-Americans. According to a recent census, Cohen is the 871st most-common surname among African-Americans, two places behind Hayden and eight places above Lomax. Of the 87,266 Americans named Cohen, 4,806 are black. How did that happen? Where do all the black Cohens come from? It was a riddle. If I could answer it, I would not only improve myself as a Bears fan, but possibly come to understand more about the tangled history of my nation.
I began to search books and papers, talk to historians, genealogists. Everyone had a notion but no one seemed to know for sure. It was like a detective story. I compiled theories, a handful of ways to explain the mystery. There was not one answer, it seemed, but many—a half dozen tributaries coming together to form a mighty river of black Cohens.
Some told me it was adoption—Jewish couples named Cohen adopted black children who went on to have Cohen children of their own, some taking up professions in law, some in medicine, some in the NFL. But 871st on the list translates into many thousands of people, most of whom are not Jewish, meaning adoption alone can contribute only modestly. Zev Chafets, in The New York Times Magazine, said just 2 percent of American Jews are black. Most black Cohens are in fact Christian.
Some told me that many black Cohens had been “Civil Rights babies,” the product of pairings between Jewish activists and black activists, the result sometimes being long marriages and family-filled houses and sometimes being short flings and fatherless children who carried the name—Cohen.
One professor told me that some black Cohens surely came from black power movements, activists who’d identified themselves as members of a lost tribe or as “the real Jews,” then further identified as Cohens, high priests. Mention was made of Michelle Obama’s cousin, Rabbi Capers Funnye, leader of a black Hebrew congregation on the South Side of Chicago. Funnye converted to Judaism in the 1970s, seeing in the faith a better way to worship. “When he went off to college at Howard University … he was the conventionally Christian son of upwardly striving parents,” Zev Chafets wrote, “but he was moved by the radicalized atmosphere of the day. Black nationalism, Afrocentrism and cultural separatism were in vogue, and Funnye came to see Christianity as an alien religion imposed on blacks by white slave masters.” Funnye currently sits on Chicago’s board of rabbis. Presumably, there were thousands like him, some who became Cohens.
Common sense suggests that many black Cohens descend from slaves and that these slaves had been named for their “owners.” Among the most common African-American surnames are Washington and Jefferson. Didn’t the first and third president own slaves? So what about Cohen? Could the prevalence of the name in the black community—871st—be a shameful reminder, a never to be scrubbed off scarlet A or scarlet S, of a time when Jews, who each Passover spoke of the flight from bondage, took their place among the slave masters and slave traders? Many black Cohens do come from the former slaves states, especially in the vicinity of Charleston, South Carolina, which was once a great Jewish metropolis.
At the start of the 19th century, there were more Jews in Charleston—close to 10 percent of the white population—than any other American city. It was an elegant town of fine wooden houses overlooking the harbor, Baltimore clipper ships edging the horizon. Many Jews worked in the rice, cotton, and lucrative indigo trades—the color blue, grown and processed, barreled and shipped to mills in England. Among the great merchants was Mordecai Cohen, a Polish Jew who emigrated in the 1700s. Cohen built a fortune, led the town’s first congregation, worshipped God, said prayers, and owned slaves. He bought his son Davy a plantation, “Soldier’s Retreat,” which, according to Susan Ashton writing in The Forward in 2014, was “a large estate of over 1,000 acres overlooking the Ashley River.”
Davy Cohen was known as a mean and vicious master. Having escaped Soldier’s Retreat, a slave named Jim made it to Maine, where, in 1838, he told his story to abolitionists.
You’d suspect that no small part of the modern community of black Cohens descended from the slaves of Mordecai and Davy Cohen. But you’d mostly be wrong. The Charleston Cohens owned, at most, 30 slaves. According to Eli Faber of John Jay College, the Jews of that city, as of 1790, altogether owned 93 slaves—not nearly enough to give birth to the current population. What’s more, contrary to myth, most freed slaves did not take the names of their former owners. Most chose new names after Emancipation, which is probably why so many black families are called Washington and Jefferson. Those were the founders of the country, the heroes of every church and school. In other words, some blacks took the name Cohen just because they liked it.
Most black Cohens probably result from consensual relationships, lived long ago. Many such affairs happened in the Caribbean, especially Jamaica. In the first years of colonial settlement, much of that island’s population, described in documents as Portuguese, was in fact Jewish—Sephardim who’d come across the sea, a step ahead of the Inquisition, which the Spanish imposed wherever they ruled. Jews under Spanish rule either converted and followed Jesus—“New Christians”—converted but kept up their old practices in secret—conversos—or fled. Many arrived in Jamaica from Brazil, where they’d been in the sugar trade. They lived in grand houses in Kingston; big porches with sweeping views of the ocean. They worked in every industry on the island. Some in sugar. Some in construction. Others “turned to a more adventurous—and dangerous—life at sea,” Gil Stern-Zohar wrote in The Jerusalem Post. “Captaining ships bearing names like the Queen Esther, the Prophet Samuel, and the Shield of Abraham, Jewish sailors began roaming the Caribbean in search of riches.”
Among the most notorious of the Hebrew pirates was a Cohen, Moses Cohen Henriques. “Together with Dutch folk hero Admiral Piet Pieterszoon Hein, Henriques captured a Spanish treasure fleet off Cuba’s Bay of Matanzas in 1628,” Stern-Zohar wrote. “The booty of gold and silver bullion amounted to a staggering 11,509,524 guilders, worth around U.S.$1 billion in today’s currency.”
Another Jewish pirate, Yaakov Koriel, having seen through the artifice of life, gave up the sea for the holy city of Safed, where he studied the divine immanence with famed kabbalist Isaac Luria.
Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean—hundreds of them worked in square-rigged ships where a sea-hawk patois mixed with Ladino. They paid special attention to Spanish vessels, seeking vengeance on that nation for what it had done to the Hebrews. The most legendary of these buccaneers—if he was indeed Jewish; there is debate—was Jean Lafitte, who teamed with General Andrew Jackson to drive the British out of New Orleans in 1815. Lafitte is sometimes said to be a variant of Levite. The following words were found in Lafitte’s Bible after he died in 1823: “I owe all my ingenuity to the great intuition of my grandmother, a Spanish Jewess, who was eyewitness to the Inquisition.”
Over time, the Jews of Jamaica, and not just Jamaica, intermarried and had children, many of whom were black and few of whom were raised as Jews. They procreated their way right out of the narrative of the exile, begat and begat until the old Jewish names, including Cohen, became common surnames. About 424,000 modern Jamaicans are said to descend from that old Sephardic community, though just 20,000 currently identify as Jews and only around 200 keep the faith. There’s an old synagogue on the island—Shaare Shalom, in Kingston—but it’s often empty. In Jamaica, Cohen is like that synagogue—a relic, an artifact, a shell emptied of its original meaning, kin to the chipped gravestones at the Jamaican Jewish cemetery at Hunts Bay in St. Andrew, said to be the oldest Jewish cemetery in the hemisphere, the Hebrew letters faded, the spread-fingered hands indicating the graves of long-gone Cohanim.
Thousands and thousands of Jamaicans emigrated to the United States over the centuries, and many were named Cohen. That’s a large source of black Cohens. Take, for example, Vincent Cohen, a great black attorney of the Civil Rights era. Born in Brooklyn in 1936, he was the son of a pharmacist who had emigrated from Jamaica. Vincent Cohen won a basketball scholarship to Syracuse University, where he roomed with Jim Brown. Taken in the NBA Draft, he skipped the pros and went to law school instead. He worked at the Justice Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, then became the first African-American partner at his firm. According to the obituary that ran in The Washington Post in 2011, “Mr. Cohen, who was raised Catholic, often had to explain how he acquired his last name, which is typically associated with people of Jewish origin. According to family lore, the name derived from a group of black Jews who had settled in Jamaica.”
Something similar happened in the United States, contributing to the population of black Cohens—intermarriages and affairs that can be intuited from scant details in family trees. Many black Cohens seemingly descend from a single relationship. Circa 1750, Moses Cohen, an impoverished Portuguese Jew, sailed from London to Charleston, where he became one of the city’s religious leaders. (Special thanks to Dale Rosengarten, historian and curator at College of Charleston, for help with the history of the Jews of South Carolina.) Moses had two sons, Abraham and Solomon, who he sent north to Georgetown, South Carolina, which even now looks like a watercolor of pastel shacks, sleepy inlets and sea grass. Georgetown was in the process of becoming an agricultural hub. By 1840, the port would ship half the rice in the United States. It was a Jewish center as well. “Although proportionally only 10 percent of the white population, Jews held a disproportionately large role in civic life,” according to The Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina. “Before the beginning of the 20th century, there had been 5 Jewish intendants—or mayors—of the city: Solomon Cohen, Abraham Myers, Aaron Lopez, Solomon Cohen, Jr., and Louis Erlich.” Georgetown was also a slave capital. The largest slaver in the United States—Joshua John Ward, “King of the Rice Planters,” he owned more than a thousand slaves—lived in the area.
Abraham Cohen made a fortune in Georgetown, planting rice and indigo, and trading human beings. What did he look like? Probably like everyone else you’ve ever met, only in old-fashioned clothes, shiny boots and brass-buttoned velvet coat. He never married but had a long-term consort, a kind of common-law wife. She’s identified in records as “Peggy (Margaret) McWharter (b. abt. 1745-d. 1806) a Free Person of Color.” Genealogist and independent scholar Sadie Day Pasha, who has made a study of the black Cohens, unearthed a legal document akin to a will in which Cohen left his money and property to McWharter and her offspring. There’s no way to prove that these were Abraham Cohen’s children, but come on.
So here, in the way of Adam and Eve, you likely have the mother and father of a great number of modern black Cohens. A generation or so later, an emancipated slave named Jim Robinson—he was himself of mixed parentage, a child of a slave named Melvinia Shields and an unknown white man—had a son named Fraser Robinson, who grew up and married a Georgetown woman named Rose Ella Cohen. Rose Ella is only a name on a tree—we know nothing but her name and city of residence, but those two points suggest she might have descended from Abraham Cohen and Peggy McWharter. Fraser Robinson and Rose Ella Cohen had a son of their own, Fraser Robinson Jr., who moved to Chicago and married LaVaughn Johnson, who had a son named Fraser Robinson III, who, before he retired and returned to Georgetown, had a daughter named Michelle Robinson, who become the first African-American First Lady of the United States.
In other words, the story of the black Cohens is the story of America—it’s the sin and the redemption, the good and the bad, it’s Abraham and it’s Peggy, it’s love and inheritance. It’s a hodgepodge, a puree, a mess, and a beautiful thing. It’s everyone being part of everyone else, all stories mixed together and shook up and poured out. It offers reason to blame and reason to forgive. “An important message in this journey is that we’re all linked,” Michelle Obama said of her antecedents. “Somewhere there was a slave owner—or a white family in my great-grandfather’s time that gave him a place, a home, that helped him build a life—that again led to me. So who were those people? I would argue they’re just as much a part of my history as my great-grandfather.”
Rich Cohen is the author of 11 books, most recentlyThe Last Pirate of New York.