NEWPORT, R.I. —
A search for a woman named Fascination has turned into a fascination for Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport software developer Brandon Massey, a resident of Newport, Rhode Island. A University of Rhode graduate who was hired in 2004 by NUWC Newport’s Information Technology Division, Massey finds work-life balance in researching and documenting his family’s history.
It was seven years ago when Massey took an interest in his family’s genealogy and asked an aunt to tell him about his mother’s side of the family.
“She said she had an aunt named Fascination. Her name was FASCINATION?” Massey said. “So I went on from there. I was looking for a Fascination Massey. That’s not going to be too difficult because who is named that?”
It only takes a few moments of speaking with Massey about his family’s genealogy to see the passion he exudes for the project. He has spent countless hours of his free time sifting through census records and reports on Ancestry.com, filming his findings along the way for a YouTube documentary series as he connects the dots. The research has provided a number of interesting findings, but also some important perspectives.
“Everyone should do their ancestry,” Massey said. “One of the big takeaways I got from this is when you do genealogy, and you hear about people throwing away pictures or selling them. I’ve seen pictures at antique shops where it’s just a box of old pictures where people don’t care about them.
“It just kind of kills you because when you get into genealogy, you see everything as a historical document. Every picture I take of my daughter is a historical document. It’s not just a picture.”
It was in the search for Fascination, though, that Massey gained a greater portrait of his family’s history. In this process, he found out he was not the only one looking for Fascination. Though he was unaware of her existence before the search, a cousin, Sha’ron Downing, Fascination Massey’s great-granddaughter, was also looking into her family history.
Once they connected, Downing and a friend of hers, science fiction writer James Lee Nathan III, became the principle researchers — along with Massey’s brother, Roshawn — in what has become Massey’s largest project to date: “The Madam of Crystal Palace.”
Downing had heard a rumor from one of her uncles that a relative of theirs ran brothels in Fargo, North Dakota, in the late 19th century. It sounded unlikely, but at the same time too interesting to completely dismiss.
“I started looking, but I hit a bunch of dead ends. I decided to look for keywords: Massey, brothel and prostitution in Fargo. Then her name [Melvina] kept popping up,” Massey said. “Apparently she was a hot item back in Fargo, so her name kept popping up.
“I couldn’t understand how a black woman in 1870 could get away with so much because she’s doing a lot of stuff, and she’s making a lot of money. She’s always in the paper.”
Through articles and records from the time, Massey uncovered all sorts of interesting snippets about Melvina, Fascination’s grandmother and Brandon’s great-great-great-grandmother. An arrest record shows that she was the only woman in the Fargo State Penitentiary in 1901 — oddly enough, for bootlegging and not for running a brothel.
“In one paper it sounded like she was made an example of more so than anything else,” Massey said. “There was a story about her brothel burning down, and she built it back up the next year while she stays in another house that she owns.
“We have that, and we have all these interesting things where they’re always talking about her in the paper — how she got away from a raid, how this one cop was coming through trying to shut brothels down and was taking bribes. Then there was another article about how a church next door had to hook up their pipes to her house. That was a big thing because you have a church hooking up their water pipes to a brothel.”
Much of Massey’s current research on Melvina centers on how she came to such prominence as an African-American in the later 19th century. Looking at his family history, Massey theorizes that Melvina was able to pass for being white (Melvina is listed as "white" on the 1900 census), which allowed her to avoid scrutiny.
Ironically, Massey is not the only one researching Melvina. North Dakota State University also has investigated her, and in 2017 the results of studies by museum studies and anthropology students led to the opening of “Uncovering Vice in Fargo-Moorhead, 1871-1920,” an exhibit at the Bonanzaville Pioneer Village and Cass County Museum.
“It’s very interesting, and now we’re kind of at a head with North Dakota State University. One of their researchers believes she was visibly black. We don’t believe she was,” Massey said. “The big thing is we’re trying to find a picture because the mugshot book that they had, the picture is gone. It’s exciting trying to figure out that next part.”
Massey’s research of his family has extended beyond Fascination and Melvina, though. It is believed Melvina’s son, Henry — Brandon’s great-great-grandfather — was the first African-American member of the Pawtucket Police Department and also helped found the Union Baptist Church in Pawtucket in 1893.
“We have a picture of him in his police uniform,” Massey said. “He’s a police officer in Rhode Island, and his mother is a brothel runner in Fargo. The contrast is crazy.”
Massey has gone onto trace other roots in his family tree, including one leading to Moselle Gray, who in part is chronicled in the book, “If Jane Should Want to Be Sold, Stories of Enslavement, Indenture and Freedom in Little Compton, Rhode Island” by Marjory Gomez O’Toole for the Little Compton Historical Society.
“We have about three instances where we believe our ancestors are descendants of slaves and slave owners, or indentured servants and those with whom they were staying,” Massey said. “That’s been interesting to us in that we’re finding out this ancestry.
“My great-grandfather, Milton Coyle Massey [Melvina’s grandson], I guess he told everyone that he was black, Irish and some form of Native American — I want to say Blackfoot. We’re starting to see in the DNA results where we see the Irish, and I can actually pinpoint where people are coming from.”
There is an overarching theme in Massey’s research. Much like the cyber networks Massey operates in during his working hours at NUWC Newport, there is connectivity within people.
“They say, genetically, everyone on Earth is related by at least two common ancestors. When you take that into account and look at things — I’ve been looking at a lot of videos on the history of Rome and the history of all kinds of countries,” Massey said. “The thing you notice most is how many people were killed. Every time a country is reformed, there are all these thousands of people that are killed.
“The thing is, we kill so much but we’re probably killing our relatives — a distant cousin or member of our family. That was a big thing — just figuring out how interconnected we are with people that we didn’t know.”
Massey elaborated on this thought while reflecting on the current national climate.
“My cousin once said, if you just took a person who was racist about someone or bigoted about someone and made them do a DNA test, it would definitely change their mind,” Massey said. “It would change a lot of the animosity that goes around — especially around this time. We’re in a weird position in our country right now.
“Having these bigoted thoughts in your head doesn’t make sense to me logically, but when you see the DNA breakdowns it REALLY doesn’t make sense. I don’t think anyone in America is pure anything. I haven’t seen one DNA match that says they’re just one thing.”
NUWC Division Newport, part of the Naval Sea System Command, is one of two divisions of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. NUWC Division Newport’s mission is to provide research, development, test and evaluation, engineering and fleet support for submarines, autonomous underwater systems, undersea offensive and defensive weapons systems, and countermeasures. NUWC’s other division is located in Keyport, Washington.