Presentation given at the Melungeon Conference, Frankfort KY, July 30, 2005
and at the Melungeon Sixth Union, Kingsport TN, June 8-10, 2006
by Frank W Sweet
bout one-third of White Anglo-Americans have African markers in their DNA from ancestors who were born into the U.S. Black community but then passed through the color line to redefine themselves as White. I say “Anglo-Americans” because we already knew that virtually all Hispanics and Muslim Americans are genetically mixed. What was interesting was learning that non-Hispanic White Americans were also mixed. The DNA evidence of this was uncovered in 2001 but it is has been confirmed by many studies and we have begun to see regional variations among groups.
To give credit where it is due, it was the genealogists who got the geneticists interested in this, not the other way around. Ever since the computerization of genealogical records, spearheaded by the Mormons in the late 1970s, increasing numbers of Americans are tracing their roots. White genealogists find that if you go back more than a few generations you often bump into a Black ancestor or two. And Black genealogists uncover White ancestors.
Now, I don’t want to give the wrong impression. Today’s White Americans have much less African in them than, say, White Argentineans, White Puerto Ricans, or White Spaniards. For three centuries White Americans fought to preserve the purity of the “White race” and they were 99 percent successful. Averaged nationwide, Whites have only about one percent African DNA. Two thirds of White Americans have none, and the other one-third average about 2.1 percent. But this varies by region. White Louisiana Creoles and Melungeons average about 5 percent African DNA, judging by Kevin Jones’s mitochondrial DNA samples. This is still less than in Argentina or Portugal, but about the same as in Spain. Other groups have more; Lumbees run about 35-40 percent African admixture, as do the Ramapo Mountain people.
But DNA admixture is not my topic today. Instead, I am going to take off my molecular anthropologist’s hat and put on my historian’s hat. Historians love puzzles. At least I do. And so today I am going to present a historical puzzle. The puzzle is this: when, how, and why did White Americans’ attitude towards having a distant trace of Black ancestry change? I will present the puzzle and its solution in five topics:
First, I shall describe the current situation: that most non-Hispanic White Americans today are very uncomfortable with the topic—even to the point of being upset by it. Second, we shall see that having a drop of Black blood did not bother Southerners before the 20th century. In fact, some considered it beneficial. Third, we shall examine the transition period by looking at court cases that reflected the attitude change. Fourth, we shall inspect the specific evidence that led judges and juries to exile White families to the Black side of the color line because they presumably had a drop of Black blood. Finally, I shall conclude that what the families exiled to Blackness were actually guilty of was compassion.
Many Americans of my parents’ generation and older get upset at the thought of having a touch of Black blood. Brent Kennedy tells of an aunt who burned family records, apparently in such fear. Mark Shriver is the molecular anthropologist who pioneered the field. His mother is still angry because Mark revealed that her father had significant African ancestry, something that she herself did not know. My own mother insists that her parents’ families, which came from Spain, remained completely untouched by seven centuries of African military occupation. (The Moorish conquest of Spain.)
I do not mean to suggest that less well-educated folks fret about Black blood more than professors do. On the contrary, scholars are just as bad. Virtually every paleoanthropologist today agrees that we are primates, that our species first appeared about 160 thousand years ago, that our less brainy human ancestors first appeared two million years ago, and that if you go back five million years we share a common ancestor with chimps and gorillas. That is the scholarly consensus and everyone accepts it.
But there are a still few professors out there who insist that the Chinese descend from Chinese apes, Africans descend from Negroid apes, Europeans descend from Caucasian apes, and so forth. For all I know, they may even teach that Frenchmen descend from frog-eating French apes. The point is that even some professors who accept that we share common ancestry with apes, if you go back far enough, cannot accept that White folks have any common ancestry with Blacks, no matter how far back you look.
2. A Century Ago
Attitudes were different in the 1800s and before. Back then, like everywhere outside the United States today, if you looked White, considered yourself White, and hung out with Whites, you were White. Simple as that. In 1815, two young men from Massachusetts traveled to Virginia on vacation. Their names were George Ticknor and Francis Gray. Like most tourists today, they visited Monticello. Unlike today’s tourists, they carried a letter of introduction from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, who was retired. Jefferson welcomed the young men and gave them a tour of the plantation.
Gray was fascinated by the slaves. He had never seen a slave. Slavery had been abolished in Massachusetts before he was born. He had imagined that slaves would be guys working in the cotton fields, looking like they had just stepped off the boat from darkest Africa. Instead, he saw many slaves who were skilled craftsmen and mechanics, and they spanned the entire human spectrum, some looking utterly White. He asked Jefferson, “How do you Virginians decide which side of the color line someone is on? How do you decide if someone is a slave?”
Fortunately for historians, Jefferson wrote a four-page letter in reply. It has been scanned into the web, and you can download and print it in Jefferson’s own hand. He said that slavery has nothing to do with color. You are a slave if your mother was a slave and she was a slave because her mother was a slave. Slavery descends through the maternal line, no matter what you look like. Whether you are White or Black, on the other hand, depends on blood fraction. In Virginia law, you are Black if you have one-fourth Black blood. You are legally and socially White if you have less Black blood than that. But, Jefferson explained, Black or White have no meaning to a slave. Only free people fall on one side of the color line or the other. Asking whether as slave is Black or White is like asking whether a foreigner is a Democrat or a Republican. The question makes no sense unless the person is a voter. It is meaningless to ask if someone is White or Black unless they are free.
Jefferson concluded his letter with an example. There is a certain young man here, he wrote, an apprentice who is a slave because his mother is a slave, and she is a slave because her mother is a slave, and so forth. But he has only one-eighth Black blood because his mother is one-fourth and he has a White father. His mother is one fourth because her father is White and her mother is a mulatto. When this man is manumitted, he will take his place in society as a White citizen of Virginia, with all privileges.
As it turns out, although Jefferson did not name the young man, we know who he was because there was only one European-looking slave apprentice there at the time. He was Eston Hemings, a teenager with bright red hair and freckled pink skin. He was the image of his father, Thomas Jefferson. Sure enough, when Jefferson died eleven years later and Eston was freed by his father’s will, Jefferson’s prediction unfolded like clockwork. Eston moved to Charlottesville and he was accepted into White society as a citizen.
Do not misunderstand. I am not saying that Eston pretended to be White nor that he passed for White. There was no deception. Charlottesville had only about 300 voters at the time. Everyone knew everyone else. Four years after he moved to Charlottesville, Eston appeared in the 1830 census as a White citizen. In fact, Eston’s mother, Sally, moved in with him in Charlottesville after Jefferson died. The census taker recorded her as a Colored woman living with her White son.
We can follow Eston forward in time. He married a White woman and had two children. When his mother died, Eston and his wife and kids moved to Wisconsin and changed their name to “Jefferson” for obvious reasons. Their descendants, the Jeffersons of Wisconsin are still there today. They are all White, just as Eston and his family were White from the moment that they left the plantation. Incidentally, as an aside, the Jeffersons of Wisconsin are the folks whose Y chromosome has been shown without any doubt to descend from Jefferson’s paternal line. There have also been a couple of African Americans whose family lore traces ancestry to Jefferson. Those who have been tested have been proven not to descend from Jefferson. But let’s return to our main story.
Eston’s becoming White was not an exception. There were hundreds of such cases at the time. His wife, Julia Ann Isaacs was White, as was her mother, Nancy West. But Nancy West’s mother had a mulatto slave mother.
Skip forward eighteen years to 1833. The extended Wharton family of Stafford County Virginia (uncles, aunts, cousins) all descended from a biracial slave woman, but no one knew her blood fraction for sure. And so it was doubtful whether the Whartons were legally White although they were certainly part of the White community. Their men served in the militia, their women were members of ladies’ leagues, their children were popular in the White schools. And so, fifty-one of the leading White citizens of the county signed a petition to the state legislature asking that a special law be passed declaring the Whartons to be perfectly White. The legislature did precisely that, decreeing that they were White “although remotely descended from a colored woman.”
Fast forward a generation to 1853. Travis Epes of the Virginia legislature introduced a bill to change the state’s one-fourth law to define as Black anyone with any Black ancestry at all. The bill was introduced in early December and was debated until the lawmakers broke for Christmas and New Years. In the interim it was debated in the newspapers. The editorial pages went nuts with the issue. Letter to the editors poured in. Everyone had an opinion. When the legislature reconvened in January, they tabled the bill and it died in committee when the session ended in March 1854. The reason? The older citizens of Virginia, the grandparents, had pointed out that the highest, most elite, plantation-owning, slave-owning, tidewater families of upper-crust Virginia all had traces of Black blood from colonial times, and knew it.
Fast forward another two generations to the 1895 South Carolina constitutional convention. The convention was called by Benjamin Tillman to write a new constitution for South Carolina with the explicit goal of revoking the civil rights of African Americans. Let me set the stage. The Civil War freed the slaves. The 14th and 15th amendments guaranteed Blacks both their citizenship and their right to vote. But now there was a backlash and those rights were being taken away again throughout the nation. Pitchfork Ben called the convention to this end.
Let me tell you a bit about Pitchfork Ben. He had been South Carolina governor and a U.S. Senator. He was one of the few politicians of the time who openly boasted that he personally had murdered Blacks trying to vote, that he had organized lynchings in order to set an example for other Blacks wanting to vote. Here is my favorite Tillman quote. You may recall that in October, 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to lunch at the White House to discuss “the race problem.” The press corps approached Tillman and asked what he thought of that. It was a tragedy, he said, because “now we will have to kill a thousand niggers to put them back in their place.”
So there they were in the convention. They had passed articles that Blacks could not vote, could not run for public office, could not own property in certain areas, could not marry whomever they wished, and so forth. Then delegate Johnstone from Newberry stood and moved that “Negro” be henceforth defined as, “a person having any negro blood at all in his or her veins.” His motion was seconded by a friend.
You could have heard a pin drop. No one said a word. The delegates looked at each other in embarrassment. Pitchfork Ben rose to suggest that Johnstone withdraw the motion because it could not pass. The man refused. Another delegate whispered something in Johnstone’s ear. We do not know who it was, nor what he said, because the reporters did not write it down. Johnstone shook his head. Finally, Pitchfork Ben turned to his brother, George, who was also a delegate, and asked him to explain things. George Tillman rose and said:
If the law is made as it now stands respectable families in Aiken, Barnwell, Colleton, and Orangeburg will be denied the right to intermarry among people with whom they are now associated and identified. At least one hundred families would be affected to my knowledge. They have sent good soldiers to the Confederate Army, and are now landowners and taxpayers. Those men served creditably, and it would be unjust and disgraceful to embarrass them in this way.
Now here is my favorite line in the speech. It is my second-favorite Tillman quote:
It is a scientific fact that there is not one full-blooded Caucasian on the floor of this convention. Every member has in him a certain mixture of… colored blood. The pure-blooded white has needed and received a certain infusion of darker blood to give him readiness and purpose.
You see, scientific thought of the time said that the “caucasian race” was intellectual but weak, and the “negro race” was emotional but strong. So the supreme “master race” had to be mainly “caucasian” but with just enough Negro blood to give it strength.
So, there you have it. A hundred and twenty years ago, many if not most White Americans had a real problem with Black people but they did not have a problem with Black blood. Today it is the opposite. Many if not most White Americans have a real problem with Black blood but they do not have a problem with Black people.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that there is no racism any more. There is. And I am not saying that folks who look mainly African do not have a rough time of things. They certainly do, and in many ways things are getting worse.
All I am saying is that it is hard today to find a White community with laws saying that it is every White’s civic duty to crush all hope of Black civil rights. In Tillman’s day that was the norm. On the other hand, in 1895 Whites shrugged off or even welcomed the idea of having a trace of Black blood. Today, Whites can become angry or even violent at the suggestion.
3. The Transition Period
The 180-degree change in attitude towards the idea of Black blood happened between 1895 and 1925—a historical eye-blink. We know this because by 1925 virtually every state had a one-drop law on the books, or something equivalent. These were the laws that gave power to bureaucrats like Walter Plecker of Virginia, Naomi Drake of Louisiana, and similar people around the country—people whose mission was to hunt down any families of mixed ancestry and shove them to the Black side of the color line.
In fact, the transition took only twenty years. Between 1900 and 1920, over a hundred court cases were held to rule whether an accused family was truly White or was secretly, even unknowingly, Black. About forty of those cases were then appealed to state supreme courts, and these are my field of study. Supreme court appeals generate lots of paperwork. They attract historians because we can read the witnesses’ testimony, the lawyers’ arguments, and the judges’ reasoning.
In 1914 South Carolina, the three Kirby children were expelled from the Dalcho public school on the grounds that they were secretly Black, even though their parents might not be aware of the fact. What had happened was that a committee of parents approached the school board saying that “Kirby” was a Croatan name and everyone knew that the Croatans had Black blood. As most of you know, “Croatan” was the name given to the maroons of Robeson County North Carolina before 1953 when they changed their name to “Lumbees.” During the trial a parade of accusing witnesses testified that if the children were not expelled, every White parent in the county would withdraw his children from the school and put them cruelly to work plowing the fields, and they would group up ignorant and illiterate. The Supreme Court of South Carolina ruled that the children were proven to be legally White by blood fraction, and they certainly looked White. But the court said that they had to decide on the basis of the “greatest good for the greatest number.” And so, they ruled the Kirby children to be Black because if they did otherwise, all the other children would lack the benefits of education.
In 1910 Pike County Kentucky, nine-year-old Troy Mullins and his twelve-year-old sister Lucretia Mullins came home from school to tell their aunt and uncle (Miles and Malissa Ratliffe) with whom they were living, that they had been expelled from public school #28 for having Black blood. Again, the problem was apparently their last name. “Mullins” was a Melungeon name, and we all know about those Melungeons.
4. The Evidence
What is interesting about all these cases was the evidence presented in court showing that a family was secretly Black. Not the defense evidence, since the defense evidence was always very thin. The way that it worked was that witnesses would testify why they thought that you were secretly Black. And then you were given the opportunity to present evidence that you were White. But the only valid defense was to show that you had no Black ancestor, no matter how far back. This, of course is impossible. They knew it. Even the judges knew it. In a couple of cases, the judges even complained that it seemed unfair to ask people to prove the impossible, but that was the way that the law was written, and the law must be upheld. Defense was impossible because, as you genealogists know, ten generations ago you had a thousand ancestors. There is no way that you can track them all down. Twenty generations ago you had a million ancestors. And so, once you were dragged into court accused of secret Blackness, it was a done deal. You had no way of avoiding being exiled from the White side of the color line to the Black side.
Being expelled from Whiteness to Blackness back then had serious consequences. Once you were Black, you could no longer vote, you could not run for public office, you could not live in a decent neighborhood, you could not send your kids to a decent school, you could not marry whom you chose, you could not own certain kinds of property.
In addition to the written laws, there were also unwritten rules of behavior. You had to defer to every White person and could not talk back nor get uppity. If a Black person and a White one approached each other on the sidewalk, the Black was supposed to step off the curb, do a little foot-shuffle, bow his head, tip his hat, and say “sir.” A Black businessman was not supposed to display his financial success. And, heaven forfend, a Black teenaged boy was not to flirt with White girl.
The punishment for violating society’s unwritten rules was far worse. You risked being tortured to death in a public ritual, a human sacrifice attended by hundreds, sometimes thousands of spectators called a “lynching.” And there were thousands of lynchings back then. And they were held all over the nation, not just in the South. Sometimes they averaged one per day for weeks on end.
Finally, being exiled from the White to the Black side of the color line had an old-testament-like quality to it because it was not just the offender who was punished, but also his children’s children and his grandchildren’s grandchildren, presumably forever.
And so, since the consequences were so serious, it is interesting to look at the evidence presented to argue that families were secretly Black. What strikes you is that in not one of the forty cases was any genealogical evidence produced. In no case did an accuser reveal an ancient birth certificate, marriage license, school record, or the like. Not one.
Instead, the testimony was always that: An aunt was seen laughing at a joke told by a Black maid. An uncle was seen shaking hands with a Black carpenter who had been hired to build a chicken-coop. A 15-year-old niece was seen flirting with a Black boy of the same age. The testimony was always about establishing one-on-one family-to-family relationships across the color line.
And so, now that we know these things, the reason why White families found themselves exiled to the Black side of the color line by law courts suddenly becomes clear. The pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place.
It is a well-known law of group psychology that when a powerful group bullies a weak group, any member of the bullying group who befriends and tries to defend a victim will be expelled to the bullied group and become a victim himself. The phenomenon has been known for centuries. Those of you who are elementary schoolteachers have seen it unfold countless times in the playground at recess. When a group of bullies attacks a member of the victim group, if one of the bullies makes friends with a victim, he is also bullied. During this period, the White community was bullying the Black community. And so, any White family that befriended a Black family was expelled from Whiteness and made legally Black.
The puzzle becomes even clearer. Now that we know how horrific were the consequences of a family’s exile from White to Black, we can understand their fear and denial of any suggestion of Black blood. A family’s very survival as middle-class Whites depended on preventing any rumor from ever starting that they had any Black ancestry, no matter how distant. Such rumors had to be prevented at any cost because the consequences were disastrous.
In short, the United States went through a period in history where any suspicion of Black blood could ruin a White family. And so White Americans back then taught fear and denial of African ancestry to their children, our grandparents. And our grandparents taught it to our parents, and they taught it so us, and we presumably will teach it to our children. The irony is that the wave of Jim Crow terror ended over half a century ago, but the fear and denial live on, even though nobody remembers any more how or why it all started. And that, folks, is why White Americans today get angry when you suggest that they have African ancestry. That is why they cannot explain, even to themselves, why they get so angry.
So far, everything I have said is simple, verifiable fact. You will find all the stories of all of the court cases, with all of the the references to my primary sources right here in my latest book, Legal History of the Color Line. Yes, it was time for a commercial break. But what I am going to say now is speculation. It is my conclusion based on what I know about human nature.
I do not believe that those families were dragged into court on the first offense. People simply do not work that way. The witnesses testifying that a family was secretly Black were always neighbors. And neighbors always warn each other first.
I believe that what would happen was like this: You would be sitting and home and there would be a knock at the door. You would open it to see someone whom you knew and respected: a schoolteacher, a minister, a police chief, an alderman, a councilman. They would say, “John, we need to talk.” They would come in and sit down and say, “John, your fifteen-year-old niece was seen flirting with a Black boy. You know that we cannot have that sort of thing going on.” And now was the critical moment.
If you said, “Oh, my word! I am so glad you told me. I will make sure that it never happens again!” then it would all blow over and life would go back to normal. But if you said, “My family’s friends are our own business and no one else’s,” then you were doomed. It all came down to community: whether your own community wanted to expel you.
I stress the importance of community because a couple of cases veered from the expected path. My favorite anomalous case was one where the community lined up to exile a family to Blackness, but then changed their minds smack dab in the middle of the trial.
Rock Lick Virginia is in Buchanan County, fifty-odd miles north of Bristol in the heart of the Cumberland Plateau. In 1910, when this story starts to unfold, coal mining had become the local industry. The railroad had come in just two years before and already railroad cars full of anthracite were rumbling down the tracks. Before the railroad, timber was the local business. The men cut trees and floated the logs down the streams to the rivers below. Earlier, during Civil War times, the county had been sheep-raising country.
The Looney family had lived in Rock Lick for generations. George Looney and his wife and children had a boarder—George’s older brother. Henderson Looney was 44 years old, a bachelor, and appears as a dependent on George’s 1040. George also had a third cousin who was schoolmaster of the local school.
The Spencer family had immigrated to Rock Lick several years before the turn of the century. Jordan Spencer and his wife Alafair had trekked from Kentucky with their toddler, George, and their baby, Jack. As this tale unfolds, George Spencer has grown to manhood, married, and he and his wife have a seven-year-old boy named Melvin who is in third grade at the local school. Jack, the baby, has become a strapping 19-year-old who has married his 15-year-old high-school sweetheart, Nancy. They live in a tiny log cabin perched on a hillside and have a corn patch, some beans, a few chickens, and a pig.
We shall never know why independent, self-reliant, married, 19-year-old Jack Spencer killed dependent 44-year-old bachelor Henderson Looney. It may have been self-defense or perhaps an accident of some sort. We just don’t know because Jack was never charged with the death and so nothing appears in the record. But we do know that George Looney, the dead man’s younger brother, sought revenge.
George Looney traveled to Kentucky, to the town from whence Jordan Spencer and Alafair had immigrated so many years before. There he found three old men in their eighties who were willing to sign an affidavit saying that they remembered Jordan Spencer. And they remembered that Spencer’s father, a redheaded Irishman, had been rumored to have a touch of Black blood in him.
Looney took the affidavit back to Rock Lick, showed it to his third cousin the schoolmaster, and little Melvin Spencer was promptly expelled from third grade for being secretly Black.
I cannot say why the trial of the Spencers’ Blackness ran off the tracks. I have my suspicions but I can offer no evidence. I suspect that Buchanan county seat, Grundy, was too small a town back then to have a resident judge, and so they had to bring in a circuit judge from the big city. And the judge brought a prosecutor from the big city and the prosecutor brought his expert witness, a forensic anthropologist, also from the big city. I suspect that the local citizens simply got tired of being told what to do by a bunch of outsiders.
In any event, what happened was this. The prosecutor called the first old man from Kentucky to the stand and asked, “Did you ever hear it said that Jordan Spencer had Black blood?”
The old man sat there for a moment. He looked at the spectators, at the jury, and at the judge. Finally, he replied, “Well sir, I may have hear it. And then again, I might not.” The other two old men from Kentucky answered in the same way. The prosecutor could see his case coming unglued before his very eyes. So he played his trump card. He called the forensic anthropologist to the witness stand.
Now folks, a forensic anthropologist is a fellow who has the training to be able to tell what “race” you really are, even if you don’t know it yourself. Nowadays they do this by measuring your skull bones, but back then they also examined the half-moons at the base of your thumbnails. They looked at your earlobes and the shape of your heels. It was sort of like finding your DNA under the victim’s fingernails; juries were awed by forensic anthropologists. Such people could sniff out Black blood.
Unfortunately, this forensic anthropologist had not been properly rehearsed. When he was asked to identify the people in the courtroom who were secretly Black, he pointed to several innocent bystanders who had simply come to watch the show and neglected to single out any of the Spencers.
To cut to the chase, the court ruled that the Spencers were Black. It was inevitable. The Spencers could no more prove that they had no Black ancestor, no matter how far back, than you or I could do.
And yet, here is the strange part. I have followed up on the Spencers’ lives after the trial. Little Melvin went back to school. He appears as a literate White man in later censuses. Years later, he married a White girl and had White kids. Jack Spencer and his wife Nancy also had children. George Spencer and his wife also had more kids. In fact, every one of the Spencers continued to live in Rock Lick for decades after the trial. And all of them continued to be listed as White in every subsequent record.
My conclusion is that, when you get down to it, the courts were powerless to enforce exile. Where the community changed sides, as in this case, court rulings were simply ignored. As I said, it all comes down to community.
Let me finish up by offering you all one last thought. If you are a genealogist, and are rummaging around in your family’s roots, and you come across ancestors who were ruled to be secretly Black by a court of law, just bear in mind this: What they was really convicted of was for being compassionate. Worse yet, for being stubborn about it.
For the detailed text of this topic, complete with footnoted references, citations, and all the peer-reviewed material, visit Jim Crow Triumph of the One-Drop Rule.
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Frank W. Sweet is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), an analysis of the nearly 300 appealed cases that determined Americans’ “racial” identity over the centuries. It is the most thorough study of the legal history of this topic yet published. He was accepted to Ph.D. candidacy in history with a minor in molecular anthropology at the University of Florida in 2003 and has completed all but his dissertation defense. He earned an M.A. in History from American Military University in 2001. He is also the author of several state park historical booklets and published historical essays. He was a member of the editorial board of the magazine Interracial Voice, and is a regular lecturer and panelist at historical and genealogical conferences. To send email, click here.
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