Keenan: Mich. siblings split by bias reunite

Marney Rich Keenan
The Detroit News

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story should have stated Charles Fiedler was a security supervisor for General Motors. His sister Mary Joy Fiedler was the younger of the two siblings. The story has been corrected.

At 81, the man who was born Charles Fiedler had spent his whole life not knowing who he was.

Raised in Flint by a black family who adopted him at age 3, his adoptive mother told him his birth mother was white and "that I was a trick baby," Fiedler said.

As a kid, his light skin color sparked multiple fights, he said. Fiedler was bullied and called "mulatto."

"I was raised as a black person and identified as a black person," he said, "but I was too white to be black and too black to be white."

Fiedler grew up to have a successful career, retiring in 1998 after several decades in law enforcement and later as a security supervisor for General Motors. But deep down there was always a gnawing void, and over the decades Fiedler searched for his origins, hiring three attorneys, all to no avail.

This past October, a last-ditch plea to probate court finally unlocked volumes of secrets, including Fiedler's birth records. And he and his daughter, Gabrielle Clements, put in long hours on and Facebook.

Meanwhile, Randye Bullock, a retired public relations executive in Detroit, was experiencing a similar longing for the brother she believed was dead.

With the help of the Internet, Gabrielle Clements found Bullock and the siblings met within weeks. Fiedler said he encountered a bounty of love that ran true as the blood in their veins.

"This Christmas will be the first Christmas in 81 years I'll be with my expanded family," he said, voice breaking. "It's really something. It's more beautiful than I have words for."

Marriage annulled

Charles Fiedler was born on Oct. 26, 1933, to Evelyn Fiedler, a white woman, and Paul Roger Smith, an African-American. Evelyn and Paul grew up across the street from each other on Parker in Detroit. Both attended Eastern High School, fell in love and married. They also had a daughter, Mary Joy Fiedler. Fiedler was renamed Joseph Charles Clements by his adoptive parents.

Bullock, Paul Roger Smith's daughter from a later marriage, long remembered her father's sadness when he would talk about the son he'd had from a previous marriage to a white woman. Because of the taboo nature of the couple's relationship, both sets of grandparents saw to it that their marriage was annulled and their biracial children adopted out. Bullock said she learned that her father, an Episcopalian, "was excommunicated."

Somehow it was arranged that Mary Joy Fiedler — Bullock's half-sister — was adopted by a black family friend of their grandfather's. "I grew up knowing my half-sister well," Bullock said.

Not so her half-brother.

"My father told me he had gone looking for my brother, but Evelyn's family told him that both Evelyn and his son had died when Charles was 9 years old."

By the early 1990s, Mary Joy became curious. In looking for her birth mother's records, she found a half-brother who was white. Through him, she learned her mother was still alive. But again, because of the race issue, she was discouraged by the half-brother from seeking her mother out.

"Mary Joy was very hurt because of the rejection," Bullock said. "It was quite tragic."

Paul Roger Smith died in 1988 at the age of 74. Evelyn Fiedler died in 2000. Mary Joy died in 2013.

"All of us still thought Charles was dead," Bullock said. "I believe Mary Joy would still be here if she knew her brother was still alive."

'We knew right away'

Meantime, a very much alive Charles Fiedler and his daughter, Gabrielle Clements, were fast connecting the dots of his ancestry. In October, Bullock got the call of a lifetime. She was told her half-brother Charles was alive, living in Flint, and very anxious to see her.

Bullock could not get her car to Flint fast enough.

"The first time I saw her it was like a magnet," Charles said. "We knew right away that we were brother and sister. The connection was that quick."

"What is so ironic is that he looks and acts just like my father," Bullock said. "In fact, my husband kept on calling him Paul. No 'Maury' show needed. No DNA. It's like my dad has been reincarnated."

The resemblances keep on multiplying. Gabrielle Clements looks just like Bullock's daughter, who is the same age. "My son looks just like two of my nephews that I just met," Charles said.

While Charles expresses sadness that he didn't get to meet his sister Mary Joy, he said there is no space in his heart for anger or regret.

"Those were Jim Crow days," he said. "The reason I was adopted was because if you have a drop of black blood in you, you were not to be raised in a white family."

A big family reunion for this spring in Detroit is in the planning stages. For now, impromptu gatherings are frequent and merry.

"Before I found my family, I'd gotten so complacent I just didn't want to do a whole lot," Charles said. "Now that I found these guys, I have so much to do and I haven't even met half the family yet! It's just a great feeling."

Charles' daughter Gabrielle likes to joke: "Here I thought I was going to have him all to myself and now I have to take a number," she said.

"Honestly, I have never in my life seen my daddy so happy."