Two Worlds, One Name, One Blood, Part I: Marion West's Remarkable DNA Discovery

Jan 09, 2008

It’s not every day that a Poplar Bluff-related story comes to resonate deeply with Americans throughout the country, but national coverage of “The DNA Cousins”—as Marion West and Vy Higginsen have unofficially been dubbed—suggests a collective chord has been struck, and with considerable feeling.

Indeed, Oprah Winfrey’s January 21st show will feature the West/Higginsen saga as part of Winfrey’s birthday tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s homepage will introduce you to who’s who and what’s what in this captivating family tale before the January 21st national broadcast!


2007 was a year like no other for retired Poplar Bluff cattle rancher Marion West. But it’s a fair bet that, as increasing numbers of Americans begin to investigate their own genetic makeup and blood ties, more of them will be making thought-provoking family discoveries similar to the one he did as 2006 drew to a close.

By now you may have learned—through featured stories on 60 Minutes and The TodayPoplar Bluff's Marion West with cousin Vy Higginsen of New York Show, or from The New York Times or more local reportage—how West’s lengthy search for living descendants of his paternal ancestors met with success. He discovered, through DNA testing, the existence of a cousin in New York City; not long after, the Caucasian cattleman learned that his Big Apple cousin was, in fact, African-American.

The subsequent cross-country kinfest has involved several family visits, as well as promises from both sides to forge a bond that might serve as a living symbol of transcendence over the nation’s prejudice-plagued past.

The “New York” branch of the family actually has tendrils extending to other U.S. states Mack West and Vy Higginsenand Europe; it is populated by figures established in the arts, business, education, ministry, and law. A committed Christian long dedicated to the politics of racial equality, Marion West, at 78, sees his link with this West line as the basis for “the most important work God has ever given me to help this country”.

West and Higginsen at December 2007 gathering of family and friends, Holiday Inn, Poplar BluffThat conviction is what drove the normally reserved West last year onto the media circuit with new-found cousin Vy Higginsen, Harlem-based co-writer and producer of the record-shattering ’80s stage musical Mama, I Want to Sing. Amazingly, Higginsen’s own independent genealogical research had eventually dovetailed with West’s; today, the ordained Interfaith minister shares West’s vision of their link having the potential to heal and inspire as a new American century takes flight.

How did West and Higginsen finally meet? What has the ensuing press attention been like for West and wife Mack in their retirement? Who is Vy Higginsen, and what has made her a critical force in the resurgence of the celebrated Harlem arts scene? How did media powerhouse Oprah Winfrey come to have a role in the telling of this unique family story? And, at least equally intriguing in all this, from a hometown perspective–what’s the Myrtle’s Place diner connection?

In the run-up to Oprah’s special King Day Edition on January 21st, we’ll be getting to the heart of these questions and more in our five-part series, Two Worlds, One Name, One Blood, on the homepage. We hope you’ll be along for every step of an American journey to remember!

Check back Friday for Part II: Marion West and Vy Higginsen–What’s the Connection?