Hesston professors who learn they are cousins to hold book signing, talk at Watermark

Sometimes truth is indeed stranger than fiction – or maybe just more unbelievable. In their recently released book, “Kinship Concealed,” two former sociology professors at Hesston College use fiction as a vehicle to tell their family’s story. After working together for two years, Sharon Cranford, an African American from Texas, and Dwight Roth, an Amish Mennonite from Pennsylvania, realized they were cousins. On Saturday, they will share their tale at Watermark Books and Cafe.

“You study everything and everybody else and this just hits you,” Cranford said. “Dwight and I believe that we were meant to tell this story. There were just too many coincidences.”

Cranford and Roth, who is now the director of the lifelong education program at Hesston, use facts to tell a multi-generational, multi-ethnic tale that spans more than two centuries. Because some of the details are missing from both the oral and written records, the colleagues spin the tale into a tapestry sewn with real-life and fictionalized characters.

Cranford tells the story of a young slave who escapes. He tries to get her great-great-great-grandfather to join him. The young man and the incident are real, but there are no records of where he went or what happened to him. Cranford and Roth use tales from other people’s lives to flesh out the story.

“Kinship Concealed” follows a Swiss immigrant family across several states. The authors speak of slavery, war and Jim Crow. They write about compassion, struggle and relentlessness. But most of all they speak of family ties and the bonds attached to kinship.

Cranford grew up in Eastern Texas. Her father was a descendant of John Mast. Dwight Roth grew up in Eastern Pennsylvania. His father was a descendant of Jacob Mast, John’s brother. Both John and Jacob emigrated from Switzerland in 1750. Cranford grew up hearing stories of the Masts. In Roth’s house, it seems the Bible was spoken of almost as much as the Mast family history.

“In a figurative sense it rested next to the Bible,” Roth said. “My mother would sometimes talk about the Masts at bedtime and on Sunday afternoons.”

Because Jacob Mast was the first ordained Amish bishop in the U.S., Roth said, in his family Jacob became a larger-than-life figure – almost mythical. During Roth’s childhood, he would go out his front door and look over at the cemetery on the hill where Jacob and his other Mast relatives are buried.

“This image was indelibly etched in my mind,” Roth said.

Just two weeks ago, Cranford, Roth and their many relatives gathered at that cemetery. These two cousins both grew up hearing stories of their ancestors.

The tales Cranford heard as a child began in North Carolina. She learned of slavery and mixed-race children.

The stories Roth heard included North Carolina, but they did not include the mingling of the races. However, the facts were documented in his family’s history book. Roth did not notice that page until he met Cranford and began to research.

In 2004, in a room at Hesston College, Roth heard Cranford speak of the Masts. Within five minutes he had his coworker and friend poring over the Mast family history books in the library.

“As an anthropologist, I was intrigued by that kinship line,” Roth said. “At first it began as an intellectual effort. As I delved on, it became more of a spiritual exercise.”

The two distant cousins began a quest that led them to meet Northern and Southern family members, attend reunions and pick up more details for the book they had decided to write.

“We were overwhelmed with the welcoming we received,” Cranford said. “There is so much negative information coming out about race relations. It’s important to know that the opposite is still going on out there.”

The two are not only touring bookstores, but community centers, churches and libraries to discuss their book, which was published in July by Legacy Book Publishing. Their message is simple – we are a family.

They hope their story may help people realize that common bloodlines across races exist.

“I don’t believe that our story is as unique as people think,” Cranford said. “It (the book) will open your eyes if you let it.”