December 20, 2014

Elyria
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Quest for relatives restores his roots

Each piece of paper shows well-worn creases from the many times Mark Griffith has read the words of the newspaper article from 1990 that chronicled his search for his birth mother or looked at the grainy black-and-white photos of his brother and sister.
Now 51, the Elyria man has always known he was given up as a baby, but since he turned 18 searching for his parents and any siblings he may have had — the people so many others take for granted as familial anchors — has been his No. 1 priority.
He thought the pinnacle of his search was reached years ago when he found out who his mother was, Delores Wooder, and went to her home in Pennsylvania.
But that feeling of elation at finding yet another piece of the puzzle returned this year.
A phone call in early May let Griffith hear the voice of his brother and sister for the first time, reminding him of why he started the arduous task of searching for his roots so many years ago.
“I’ve never met any of them,” Griffith said about the siblings he learned who number at least six or seven from his mother. “We were all given up or sent to live with other relatives, and all of us went to different places. Really, I didn’t know I had brothers and sisters until I found a cousin some time ago and he told me.”
Hearing the voices of two people who, despite being far away — Griffith’s sister Tina Rigney lives in Kentucky and brother Bruce Alexander resides in Maryland — have long been near to his heart, has been indescribable for Griffith.
“Who wouldn’t want to find their family?” he said. “I mean, I grew up with a great lady, but I always wanted to know where I came from.”
Foster mom
Griffith said he got lucky. Growing up, he had Ethel Pierce. She was a small, grandmotherly black woman who took in a biracial baby when he was 6 months old and raised him as her own. She had three children of her own but fostered almost a dozen motherless children over the years.
Some came and went from her home near 12th Street and West Avenue in Elyria, but Griffith stayed the longest.
“I think she just loved children,” he said. “I didn’t know about her working when I was growing up. I think we were her full-time job.”
Griffith said the woman he called ‘Mom’ always encouraged him to find out the rest of his story. He stayed with her until after he graduated from high school.
“An all-around beautiful person,” he said. “Oh, man, I mean, she was the best. I never wanted for anything. I got lucky. No, I think ‘blessed’ is a better word, because I know a lot of other foster kids can’t say that.”
Pierce died Nov. 3, 1982. She never got to see the boy she raised fulfill the goal of finding out who had given birth to him.
“But I know she would be happy for me,” he said.
Getting to the point where he could rattle off the names of family members or recount the tale behind his birth — his white mother had an affair with a black man and he was the result — has not been easy. Griffith said his birth mother made sure she left no information about her identity when she gave him up, and other family members did a good job of keeping the secret.
Chance meeting
Then, one day in late 1989, Griffith said he walked into the Burger King on Broad Street and stood behind a man in line who was wearing a high school letter jacket. The name on the hem read “Griffith.”
“I started talking to him and telling him a little of what I knew about my people,” he said. “Believe it or not, he said ‘I think I’m your cousin and I know who your father is.’ I felt like a huge weight was lifted off me.”
One family member led Griffith to another. A cousin introduced him to an uncle who introduced him to an aunt and before long, Griffith said he had a vague sketch of his family tree. He met his father, Dewitt Lumpkin, several years ago and got a chance to get to know him before he died.
“I had seven years with him. He apologized to me, so I’m good,” Griffith said.
Alexander, 45, who was the first of the two siblings to talk to Griffith, said he really didn’t know he was being sought for so many years.
“All those years living in Ohio growing up, Mark was practically down the street,” he said.
Alexander said he didn’t know with certainty that he had any other siblings beyond Rigney, with whom he was raised.
“When I was in seventh grade, I remember my mom talking to me about a sister and two brothers, but I never really thought about it again,” he said.
But a passing thought to reach out to someone distant in Ohio changed that. About two months ago, he called up an aunt who broke the news to him that a man claiming to be his brother was looking for him.
“Ever since then, I have been on the Internet trying to do searches,” he said. “It’s crazy and I’m a little anxious about what I may find. I didn’t realize I had so many.”
Alexander said beyond Griffith, whom he hopes to finally meet sometime this year, he was told about two possible brothers, Lenny and Calvin, who are somewhere in California, a sister, Lindsey, somewhere in Georgia, and another brother and sister named Leonard and Rochelle.
“I can’t confirm all of these, but it’s like eight. But I can’t be too sure if there aren’t more out there. It’s highly likely she may have had some other kids. The true story about any of them died with my mother and her brother. No matter what, she always came back to him, and they were the only two who really knew anything truth wise.”
Not one to harbor ill feelings toward his mother, Alexander said he can’t wait to get to know his brother better.
“We’ve seen pictures of each other,” he said. “Mark is a little darker than I am because he is biracial, but if I get a suntan we look exactly alike. It’s weird.”
Rigney said the similarity doesn’t just extend to the look of both her brothers.
“He sounds just like the brother I have known for years,” she said.
Rigney, 47, of Monticello, Ky., said she hopes to one day meet Griffith and introduce him to her family — husband, Billy, who she has been married to for 27 years, and their three children.
As a mother, Rigney wonders how her mother could have lost touch with so many children over the years.
“I couldn’t imagine having kids and not knowing where they were at or not taking care of them,” she said. “I would hope that my son would say I am a great mom.”
Rigney proudly talks about her grandchildren and hopes they get to know Griffith as a part of their family.
While a visit is not planned as of yet, Rigney said she is getting to know her brother through phone calls. They talk a few times a week.
“I’ve seen pictures of him, and he looks a lot like my brother, Bruce,” Rigney said.
Griffith said he is planning to do a fundraiser in the future to help with the expense of bringing his family members back to Ohio. He also has a wife and daughter he would like Alexander and Rigney to meet.
“I should have been a detective, because I found everyone,” he said.
Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.