American adoptee’s discovery of his birth parents reveals a story of interrupted romance and African regal ancestry
Marty Johnson is the adopted brother of my late life partner Joslen (Johnson) Shaw. About 1o years ago his search for his identity led him to the discovery of his birth parents and the story of their interrupted romance and his regal ancestry. Marty was the product of a brief union between an American caucasian woman and a Nigerian foreign exchange student. He grew up in an African American family in Omaha, Neb. When I wrote this story Marty was just about to embark on a journey to meet his biological father, a tribal chief in Nigeria. Marty comes from a long lineage of chiefs and by birthright he is a prince himself. His journey became the focus of some national media coverage, including a GQ Magazine spread and an appearance by Marty and his wife Laura on “Good Morning America.” For various reasons my story was never published, until now.
Marty visiting family in Nigeria
Marty and Laura on “Good Morning America”
American adoptee’s discovery of his birth parents reveals a story of interrupted romance and regal ancestry
©by Leo Adam Biga
The crowded, cantankerous West African nation of Nigeria, where ju ju charms still hold sway and civil unrest brews, is where former Omahan Marty Johnson travels in December for his initiation into a royal lineage he uncovered this year.
The 38-year-old mortgage broker, a resident of Eagan, Minn. with his wife Laura and their children, Alyssa and Jacob, is the rare adoptee to find exotic origins. The product of an illicit interracial union, he was adopted at age 3 by Omahans George and Juanita Johnson, then Omaha Public Schools educators and the parents of a daughter, Joslen. The black couple raised Marty as their own. They and their extended family were the only relatives he knew until a few years ago. All he knew of his biological parents is that they were college students.
His search for answers began in earnest two years ago when his birth mother, the former Kathleen O’Connor, contacted him and he tracked down his natural father, John Ogike. Marty was conceived during a 1964 summer fling in Cedar Falls, Iowa. She was a pretty, red-headed Irish-Catholic University of New Mexico student visiting family in the college town, where her father headed the United Way, and he was a dashing Nigerian-Catholic exchange student studying for his master’s in education at the local University of Northern Iowa.
The unplanned pregnancy was scandalous and the idea of marriage, which Ogike proposed, impractical. She went off to a home for unwed mothers in Minnesota while he completed his degree and returned to Nigeria. Soon after his birth, Marty was put up for adoption.
For Johnson, who showed scant interest in his roots growing up, pursuing his Nigerian background has acquainted him with a large, wealthy, well-educated African family with a major presence in America and a prestigious position in Nigeria. What began as an odyssey to fill-in the missing pieces of his unfinished life has become something larger since the discovery early this year that as the first-born son of John Ogike, the latest in a long line of tribal chiefs among the Igbo (ee-boo) people in the southern state of Imo, Johnson is regarded as a prince and, by tradition, chief-in-waiting. The revelation he is the eldest son of the Ude-Ekeh, or chief came as news to the clan, none of whom knew of his existence, as his birth was kept secret by Ogike until inquiries by Johnson reached him two years ago.
As Johnson finds out new things about his rich family legacy, the emerging story is more than he ever bargained for, such as his late grandfather described as “a powerful man that ruled with an iron fist and served as one of the first senators in the Nigerian parliament after the country declared independence from Great Britain. Really, truly something new gets added to it each time I talk with my Nigerian family. It was all overwhelming from the beginning,” he said, “and so this royal thing is like, Oh, well, here’s another cool thing to add to my story. Now, what’s next?”
Next will be the pilgrimage he, his wife and children make to Nigeria during its December high season. The trip to the Ogike hometown of Old Orlu, a city of 1.5 million and the Imo seat of power, will mark his first face-to-face encounter with his father.
The journey, which NBC News is to chronicle, will coincide with a celebration commemorating the feats of Johnson’s grandfather. If the experience of a Nigerian-American cousin who visited her ancestral homeland for the first time is any indication, then Johnson will be feted like a prince during a spate of parties introducing him to relatives, including seven siblings he’s never met. He’s been told his father is likely to lavish him with gifts, but he doesn’t want special treatment. “For me, it’s just a part of my heritage. I’m excited to see what it’s like over there and to see how my family lives and to be able to honor them.”
Marty’s late sister, Joslen
Prior to learning his African ancestry’s high pedigree, Johnson ignored clues the family provided about the esteem in which his father is held and the respect he, as the eldest son, commands. First, there was a letter from an uncle Bonifice welcoming him “to the Ogike dynasty.” A second letter, from an aunt Theresa (his father’s oldest sibling) said he would need “to prove his claim” with photos of himself from early childhood on. “When they were saying these things I thought it was just some kind of African cultural terminology to call your family a dynasty and I didn’t think anything more of it,” he said.
He next got a sense for his lofty status visiting his aunt Uloma’s and her husband Hilary’s house in California. Now, he said, it’s clear the meeting was meant for John Ogike’s oldest, most trusted relatives to “check me out to see if I really was” his son. “My aunt Uloma opened the door, her eyes got big and almost the first words out of her mouth were, ‘Well, there is no doubt — you’re my brother’s son,’ because I do look very much like my father.”
An example of how avidly he’s been accepted by the Ogikes is the scene that played out when he and his family arrived at the home of a cousin in California. “We knocked at the door and one of my cousins opened it and he just stopped and stared at me and announced, ‘He’s here.’ Suddenly, people are pulling me inside and there’s like 20 of them talking and tugging at me,” he said. They sat us down and served us food. Everyone was talking. There was just this great outpouring of joy for me as their long lost cousin. It was just crazy…totally overwhelming.”
As he’s learned, “family is extremely important” to the Ogikes. “They’re very honorable, hospitable people,” he said. “They treat me as a lost family member they’re happy to see and want to make feel welcome. Now, it’s nice to be able to have these other people in my life who are family… because I know what family is.”
Still, it wasn’t until January when he first met one of his new siblings, a sister named Obianuju, that his elevated place was revealed. “That’s when she started asking, ‘What have you learned about our family?’ We told her we kind of knew this and that and who was who. And she said, ‘Well, you understand that because of who my father is you’re considered a prince in the Igbo culture?’ And I just kind of looked at her and went, ‘Huh? What do you mean?’ And she explained the Ude-Ekeh or tribal chiefs were, before there was central government, the main ruling people over large areas with the power to declare war and their children were all considered royalty in a sense. And I was like, ‘Wow, that’s new.’”
Soon, talk turned to the inevitability of Johnson traveling to Nigeria to assume his rightful, privileged place among the elite clan. He said, “It was never IF you come to Nigeria, but always ‘WHEN you come to Nigeria…there will be a tremendously big celebration. My father will probably give you a house.’” His father’s slowly filling him in on more family lore and on what it means being a chief.
The next order of business was sorting out any problems among kin who may have viewed Johnson as an interloper infringing on their own favored status.
“It’s a big deal that I am the first born son. More so than I would have ever guessed,” he said. “Added to that is the fact I have three brothers, one of whom for 37 years knew himself to be the oldest son of John Ogike. So, one of the biggest concerns I had and that my cousins had was that my presence would be upsetting to him. But I have since actually talked to this brother and he’s been very welcoming, too.” Johnson, has no intention of usurping anyone’s position despite what he’s been told is due him. “It’s nothing that I want,” he said. “The royalty thing is so far off the map of what I care about. It’s just an interesting side note to what I’m about.”
However he feels about it, an American finding a princely African lineage extending back generations makes good copy and it made news in January when a Minnesota reporter filed a story. Picked up by the Associated Press, the item was widely published. He’s taken some ribbing along the way. “Oh, God, yes. People bowing to me, saying, ‘Oh, the prince is here.’ A local morning radio DJ gave me a hard time with cracks like, ‘If I were you, I’d be asking where’s the money.’ The implacable Johnson took it all in stride. The teasing took a harsher tone at Alyssa’s school.
Adding to the story’s appeal is the courtly, magisterial way Johnson, a large man with a dignified demeanor, carries himself. More than once, he’s been told that he looks the part of a prince. “He’s always been a gentleman,” his sister Joslen said. His regalness is most evident when wearing one of the majestic, flowing kafkans given him by his Nigerian aunts. His wife Laura hardly needed confirmation, saying, “I’ve always seen Marty as a prince. Everyone says this couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Marty’s so humble. At first he had me tell his story, and it’s fun to finally see him tell it as he identifies more with his African heritage.”
Johnson only researched his biological roots after prodding from Laura. Until then, he said, “I never felt compelled to find out. I mean, I had some curiosity, but no burning interest to actually take some action. I was so fortunate I grew up in a really good family and thankfully my life turned out very good.” After graduating from Omaha Central High School in 1982 and from Drake University in 1988, Johnson worked in the food industry in Des Moines, Iowa and St. Paul, Minn. before transitioning into the mortgage brokerage business in 1996. He married Laura in 1993 and it was she who got him to think about his origins. “Laura was always asking, ‘Aren’t you just dying to know?’” What turned the tide, he said, was the birth of their kids. “I thought I should probably find out something to, one, know about my parents’ medical histories and, two, if they’re still alive, get to know them.”
He’d just begun making inquiries with online adoption registries when an envelope arrived at his adoptive parents’ home from Catholic Charities addressed to John Martin Johnson.
“My mom, Juanita, called and said, ‘I think this is a letter you probably want to see,’ and sent it. It was a form letter saying, ‘Someone from your family would like to contact you…’ So, I filled in all the information and about three weeks later I got an e-mail from Kathleen Wang (O’Connor) saying she was my birth mother. She just happened to start looking around the same time I did. She said she was nervous and didn’t know what to say and basically I e-mailed back saying, ‘Hey, don’t be nervous, I was looking for you, too. Let’s talk.’ She called me about 10 minutes later. I told her about my two kids and my wife and I asked her if she has any other kids and she told me I have two sisters. We just talked about family and…really get into the details of the story. I didn’t want to put her on the spot the first time we talked because it had to be tough enough for her already.”
Between that conversation, some e-mails and visits they made to each other’s homes, mother and son “got to know each other.” He said when the time was right, “I asked the one question I’m sure every adopted child asks — why did you give me up? I was prepared for the worst. But for me it wasn’t so much knowing why as what was going on in her life that she had to make this kind of sacrifice. It had to be hard.”
Marty with his two moms, Juanita and Kathleeen
He found the adoption was the best option for a biracial child born to single parents who’d only known each other a few months and who lived on different continents. “My father returned to his life in Nigeria, where he and his brother ran a school their father founded. He later married and fathered eight children,” Johnson said. “My mother didn’t want to go to Africa. She just didn’t feel like it was going to work. Besides, she had this boy friend back in New Mexico.” She resumed her college studies, married and bore two daughters. She and her family have resided in California since the late 1960s. Ironically, all these years she’s lived 20 minutes away from John Ogike’s sister — and Marty’s aunt — Uloma, but didn’t know it until being reunited with her son.
As for his first three years of life, Johnson lived with two foster families before being adopted. He has memories of the farm he lived on, near Dubuque, Iowa, that his second foster family worked. He recalls the farm’s friendly dog, its fearsome, fenced-in bull, the litter of kittens he sheltered in a bed of hay inside the barn and the mewing dairy cows. He vaguely remembers the day he met the Johnsons, who drove up to Dubuque. Juanita Johnson said they took Marty out to eat and that he and Joslen interacted so well at a playground that “he seemed ready to join the family.”
He remembers flying, escorted by a nun, on the propellor-powered plane that took him to Omaha to start his new life with the Johnsons, who promptly brought him to a picnic that found Joslen proudly showing off her gregarious little brother. “He talked so much,” Juanita said. “He didn’t seem to have any hangups. The most important thing was how well he and Joslen got along. She took his suitcase, showed him where they would be sleeping and got him unpacked.”
His adoptive mother is “glad” her son has found his blood roots. “I think it makes any individual more complete to know their background,” she said. She’s intrigued, too, by his impending African trip because her late mother traveled extensively there as a missionary teacher. For his part, he said, “I would love to be able to take my parents, Joslen, Kathleen and my other two sisters there some day.” Meanwhile, Marty and Laura are soliciting sponsors to help defray the cost of their Nigerian sojourn. They plan essaying their trip via video, still photography, audio and print in the hope of producing a documentary and/or multi-media presentation they can share with school and community audiences.
So, has he ever wondered what life would be like had he grown up in Nigeria? “Uh, for about half a second.” Despite the hoopla over his new found roots, he said, “I don’t place any more importance on that than the relatives I knew before. My family’s still the Johnson family. I just have more family. That’s the best thing about it. A question I get a lot is, How has this changed you? And it really hasn’t changed anything. I’m still just Marty. I just get to learn some things about me I didn’t know before. For me, this just kind of completes the puzzle of what I am.”
As Laura put it, “When all this broke, I was creating a family tree and now I just have to add more branches.”
With his African adventure still ahead, his story is “to be continued,” he said. Then there are the sagas of his birth mother’s family emigrating from Ireland and of his adoptive father’s grandfather escaping slavery, “but that’s a whole other story.”
Marty’s African halfl; Photo courtesy of Mark Seliger