Two Worlds, One Name, One Blood, Part II: Marion West and Vy Higginsen...What's the Connection?

Jan 11, 2008

Mack and Marion WestIn 1959, Marion West and his new bride, Mescal Alma West—affectionately known as “Mack”—established their home in a rural stretch of Poplar Bluff. Together they grew the West Cattle Company and kept that “backgrounding ranch” rolling for nearly half a century, as it handled light yearlings and sent them out to feedlots in 10 states across the country.

West Cattle began bringing operations to a close in 2005. Now the only part of the 156-acre spread Marion West visits virtually daily is the area where his “prayer pine” stands apart from a distant grove. Here, in the pre-dawn hours, West has long had the custom of collecting his thoughts and praying at the start of each new day. (The Oprah Winfrey Show crew is shown prepping a shot at the “prayer pine”, right, for the show’s January 21st broadcast)

2005 was the same year Marion West responded to a Tennessee-based relative’s request to undergo Y-chromosome DNA testing for a family heritage project. The Wests have had an enduring interest in investigating their roots, and now they found they could apply ever-more-accessible genetic technology to the task. Marion West’s test results were added to an online database for men surnamed West. Based on his results, he was soon notified of his certain kinship to a Richmond, VA-born Episcopal priest named James O. West.

James West, for 49 years the beloved “activist pastor” at Calvary Episcopal Church in Washington DC, died in 2006. A light-skinned African-American man whose recent genetic-ethnicity test had determined 52% of his makeup to be European, Rev. West had had his own Y-chromosome DNA test results submitted by a niece to the West-surname database shortly before his passing.

That niece was Harlem-based stage producer Vy Higginsen.

Marion West’s recollection of those days suggests no “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”/”Wo! It’s Sidney Poitier!“-style shock involved in the cousins’ first meeting. According to West, the relative working on his family-tree project had shared all he’d so far learned of the New Yorker, in discussion of the Marion West/James West DNA match. For her part, Higginsen had assumed Marion West might be white from what she’d already been able to gather of the West-surname database itself.

Of their racial difference, West says, “It is what it is, is what I figured; so I gave her a call and said, ‘Hey, kiddo, looks like we’re cousins!'”Mack West arranging her Santa display at home, Christmas 2007

West and Higginsen began exchanging information on the spot, andMarion West at the ranch, 2006 soon started planning their first meeting, which would see Higginsen stepping out of the hustle and bustle of her own vibrant urban setting, and into the more deliberate, seasonally-tempered rhythms of southeast Missouri life.


(photos provided by the West family) 

Don’t miss “Two Worlds, One Name, One Blood, Part III: Marion West Gets Ready for His Close-Up”, coming next Wednesday to the homepage!

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