Pekitta Tynes is an entertainer who has worked as both an actress and stand-up comedienne, but she has also put in more than 30 years of work into finding her biological family, an experience which culminated with a book titled “Thank God I was Adopted ‘Cause DNA Is No Joke!”.
The Virginia native lived in Las Vegas for 18 years before moving to Orangeburg to be near her grandchildren.
Her book is in the Orangeburg County Library, but Tynes has also shared with lighthearted humor the story of her childhood abandonment and eventual adoption by loving parents, along with the story of how DNA testing helped her find her biological family, at area churches. She also served as a guest lecturer at South Carolina State University in honor of Women's Recognition Month in March.
‘They’re wonderful people’
“I was abandoned when I was about 4 or 5 years old. I don’t know when I was born, how old I am, what my real name was, where I am from, and I didn’t know any information about my biological family at all,” Tynes said.
She and her little sister were left in Newport News, Virginia, with the “mother” of the neighborhood.
“In every neighborhood, you got that one person that keeps everybody’s kids. Well, this lady happened to have a shot house. I think here they might call it the bootleggers’ or the moonshiners’ house. This man who was supposed to have been my father left my sister and I with this lady, told her he was going to look for a job and he never came back. And that’s kind of how my story began,” she said.
Pekitta was apparently the name given by her original family, but she did not know how to spell it at the time.
She continued with her story of being abandoned and left with “Mama Nancy.”
“One of her friends came to the house and said, ‘You really need to put Kitty Boo in school.’ That was my nickname. So she takes us over to the school. At that time, you did not need a lot of shot records and things that you need now to put your children into school.
“So when I got to first grade, my first grade teacher said, ‘Honey, what is your name?’ I said, ‘My name is Pekitta.’ And she said, ‘How do you spell it?’ I said, ‘I don’t know how to spell it, but that’s my name.’ And she went to the board and she spelt it 'Pekitta,' and that’s the way I’ve been spelling it ever since,” she said.
Social Services officially placed Tynes and her sister in a foster home after they had lived with “Mama Nancy” for five years. She was in the second grade at the time, but it was when she had entered third grade that life for her and her sister would experience another change.
“My third grade teacher would have been Ms. Tynes, and now today my last name is Tynes. She couldn’t have children for 13 years of marriage, and when she found out I was in a foster home, she went over to Social Services to inquire about me and wanting to adopt me.
“Social Services told her, ‘Well, Ms. Tynes, we cannot let you just adopt Pekitta. You have to adopt her sister also because we know nothing about these two children.’ So she said she went home and was telling my dad. He said, ‘Well, I guess we’ll have two girls,’” Tynes said.
The family later grew because “14 months later, she got pregnant with our brother,” she said.
“They’re wonderful people, kept us in church Monday through Sunday. I write in the book that I don’t know how I got any homework done, I really don’t, but they were just a good overall family. My dad has like 12 brothers and sisters, and my mom has like 11 brothers and sisters. So it’s just a big family of aunts, uncles and cousins,” Tynes said.
She had found a wonderfully loving home with Hampton, Virginia, couple John and Charlotte Tynes, but that wasn’t the end of her story.
‘You really need to know’
Tynes had talked about her story at many speaking engagements, but still didn’t have all the answers she would eventually seek.
She is featured in the book titled “Finding Our Place: 100 Memorable Adoptees, Fostered Persons, and Orphanage Alumni.”
“I made all three categories. Maya Angelou is in the book, Faith Hill, Orson Welles. It’s a whole bunch of us in this book ... I’m in the book right next to Orson Welles. So when this book came out, someone says, ‘Pekitta, you have got to tell your story,’” Tynes said.
That was when she began delving into DNA testing.
“I went to Denver as a keynote speaker for the American Adoption Congress Conference, and they were talking about DNA testing. Well, prior to that, DNA testing was $3,000, $4,000, $5,000 just to test. Right? But now you had access to Family Tree, and that’s how I learned about it.
“Then there’s Ancestry.com and 23andMe. So when I was telling my story, I’m attending the different workshops and they had breakout sessions and a lady says, ‘Have you taken your DNA test yet?’ I was like, ‘Nah, how much is DNA now?’ They’re like, ’$99.’ I was like, ‘I got $99.’ And that’s kind of how it started,” Tynes said.
Immediate results from the DNA testing were not gained in the search for her biological family.
“I took it with Family Tree, and when my results came back, I had third, fourth, fifth cousin matches. Then about a year and a half later, I took a DNA test with Ancestry.com. When my results came back, I had a first cousin match. At that time I had been searching like 33 years. If you caught me on the street and said, ‘You look just like my cousin,’ I’m like, ‘Who are they? Where they from?’” she said.
“So now I had a name with this first cousin match, but she didn’t respond to me on Ancestry.com. I never had so much anxiety over somebody wanting to reach out to me. Remember, I’m an entertainer. So if you talk to me, it’s good. If you don’t, it’s OK, too. Right? But I wanted this person to call me so bad,” Tynes said.
She learned a lesson in patience while in the midst of her search.
“It took about a month and a half until one of my other DNA cousins happened to have been a chief of police. I think he was more excited about finding my family than I was. He was a retired detective who had traced his family tree back from Cleopatra to Pocahontas because that’s what he was doing in his retirement.
You have free articles remaining.
“He says, ‘I cannot believe someone that’s some kin to me don’t know when they was born.’ So I think his creative juices and energy kind of energized him. And it helped me even more because I now have a good support system with DNA,” Tynes said.
The detective helped her track down her first cousin match.
“I think he called some of his friends at the police department and said, ‘Look, can you look up this email address and tell me who this is connected to?’ ... So he gave me a phone number, and I called and left a message. They still don’t call me back. He gives me another number and it’s to her daughter. And so I called the daughter.
“To get her in a comfortable mode, I said, ‘Feel free to Google me. If you Google me, you know I’m legitimate, you know that the senator in Nevada helped me get my passport because I couldn’t get it because I was adopted. So could you please just Google me and tell your mama to give me a call?’ And that’s kind of how DNA put me in connection with first surnames that’s connected to me,” Tynes said.
She said it is interesting how individuals are able to create their own family trees using websites.
“You have people who are creating their family tree on Ancestry.com. And they have a lot of detailed information that you are probably looking for as an adoptive person. They now have search angels that will help ... and Facebook sites called DNA Detectives. It’s all free because you need to know the benefit of knowing your biological family.
“You really need to know. Then after you find them, then you have to deal with that part,” she said, noting that the discovery doesn’t have to be contentious.
“So I found my first cousin. She was some kin to me on my biological father’s side. My biological father had died in April of 2010, and I found them like in September or October of 2014. But my biological father has a twin sister, and when I reached out to her, I told her about the DNA and she said, ‘Honey, if you say you some kin to us, then you some kin to us.’ I mean, I felt so good,” Tynes said.
It was her police detective cousin who also helped her track down her biological mother.
‘That void becomes closed’
“He realized that she was related to him and 33 days later, he found her. Based off of him putting together his family tree, he reached out to some cousins that he figured were in Virginia and asked,” Tynes said.
“He had me write a small one-page bio including my nickname, Kitty Boo, and where I was and who I thought I may have belonged to and what my name could had been. ... He then took that information and called one of his cousins and says, ‘Look, I really think person is some kin down there in Virginia.’
“And she said, ‘You know what? I remember my cousin and I were talking a couple of years ago, and she said she had two children that just went missing and that she had been looking for them but didn’t even know where to begin.’ So he kind of put the pieces together, called biological mother and said, ‘I think I have found your children,” she said.
Tynes said she was faced with all of the information “all of a sudden” about her mother, who was living in Washington, D.C.
She said when her mother failed to provide important information, including who her real father was, she asked her to perform a DNA test.
“My initial thing was, ‘So I’m gonna need you to take a DNA test.’ She says, ‘I know I'm your mother.’ I said, ‘But I don’t know that you’re my mother.’ ... So I bought her a kit, I sent it to her house, she took the DNA and, lo and behold, she really is my mother,” Tynes said.
Tynes’ adoptive father and mother are 84 and 79, respectively, but she also keeps in touch with her biological mother, who will turn 76 in January.
“I would say that our relationship is OK. It’s cordial. She doesn’t like to talk about what happened. She said it brings up too many memories of her relationship with her boyfriend. She said it was abusive and that he drank a lot. So it kind of brought up a lot of those old feelings and emotions that she had during that time,” Tynes said.
She said having found her biological parents had its advantages, even making her appreciate the way her adopted parents raised her more.
“It is absolutely the best thing, which is the reason why my book is titled, ‘Thank God I Was Adopted ‘Cause DNA Is No Joke!’ I don’t think I would have had the same lifestyle that I have today (without) having grown up with my adopted parents. What I really found out is my biological mother never really kept us. We stayed with a husband and wife family. During that era of time, if you were a single mom, it was a stigma. It was a lot of guilt and a lot of shame that people placed on you because you had a child out of wedlock,” she said.
“But they’re still living. The lady is 91 and her husband is like 84 or 85 years old. To this day when she calls me, she says, ‘Hey, Kitty Boo!’” Tynes said, smiling.
She said she still needed to know, however, who her biological mother was.
“There’s a book titled ‘Life is a Puzzle Until You Find the Missing Pieces.’ It’s a quick easy read and I kind of pattern my book after that particular book. Your life is a puzzle, like scrambled all over the place until you find the missing pieces. So that void becomes closed.
“And that’s enough. I don’t need to have this all-the-time relationship. I do send gifts for Christmas and birthdays, which is kind of what you would normally do with anybody. But my biological mother treasures the gifts so much. Like, I’ve given her a trillion of something,” Tynes said.
The entertainer feels she has come full circle.
“I do. I think I have a lot of closure. And I now try to figure out, ‘Now what you gonna do with your life?’ because for 35 years, that’s just been searching and looking and trying to find things out. Now, I don’t have that hovering over me all the time,” she said.
Tynes likes to help other individuals who are adopted, in foster homes or who were not raised by their families find their biological families.
“I did a book tour and 22 people come to the book signing. I spoke for 16 minutes and when I finished, 15 people bought the book. It wasn’t the fact that they bought the book. It was the fact that every last one of those 15 people had a story, like one who said, ‘I have a coworker and she’s adopted, and I think it would help her so much if she was to find out who her family was,’” she said.
What does she hope individuals get from her book?
“I hope the people who are holding on to some secrets learn to let it go, not taking it to the grave because in an era of time, people said that they were taking the family secrets to the grave, and that’s what they did. Now that we have DNA, people are digging up your grave trying to find out some answers and some truths. And they’re gonna find out because I believe biblically that the truth is going to prevail,” she said.
Tynes added, “But the people who get the truth, they really need to know how to manage that truth. And on top of that, people who know their moms and their dads and say, ‘Oh, I haven’t talked to my parents in five years.’ That’s another thing that floors me. And here it’s been 35 years that I’ve been searching for these people that you can’t even talk to. So whatever has happened -- and things happen in families -- we’re gonna have to find that forgiveness.”