Essays on the Color Line and the One-Drop Rule
by Frank W Sweet
November 1, 2007
he Redbones are a triracial ethnic community centered between the Sabine and Calcasiue rivers in western Louisiana. Like the terms “Melungeon,” “Brass Ankle,” and “Jackson White,” the name “Redbone” originated as an ethnic slur spoken by mainstream society, and the label is still considered an insult by many residents of the region.
A few years ago, several members of the Redbone community formed a mutual-interest organization titled the “Redbone Heritage Foundation” (RHF) to learn more about their roots. They were encouraged by the success of the similar Melungeon Heritage Association (MHA) in reviving interest in their own ethnicity (or, rather, in their extended family), which is centered in Hancock County, Tennessee. As with the MHA, the RHF’s core membership comprises genealogists seeking information about their own ancestors. Other participants include historians, anthropologists, and others who are curious about the cultural, ethnic, and genetic traits of this unique community.
As a historian of the U.S. color line, my interest in the group is due to their being among the few down-to-earth ordinary White Americans who express pride at having significant ancestry from Black slaves (as well as having Native American and European colonial ancestry too). The attitude is unusual. Although many White Americans boast of having Native American ancestry, most White Americans consider shameful or disgraceful any suggestion that they also have Black ancestry.
This report covers the third annual RHF conference, held in Lake Charles, Louisiana, from October 18 through October 20, 2007. It is divided into three sections: continuity and change, interesting presentations, and memorable moments.
Continuity and Change
Although the goals of the organization and its members have persisted, their emphasis has shifted. Over the past three years they seem to have skipped the step common to many such groups of seeking exotic cultural ancestry, and have focused on Native American heritage, on DNA studies, and most recently on the connections among all of the triracial communities.
Several Redbones attended the 2004 Melungeon conference in Kingsport, Tennessee. At that time, they seemed interested in seeking Portuguese or similar exotic background, perhaps influenced by N. Brent Kennedy’s The Melungeons, The Resurrection of a Proud People: An Untold Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America (Macon: Mercer University, 1997), which suggests a Turkish cultural connection for the Melungeons.
One year later, at the 2005 meeting of the RHF in Alexandria, Louisiana, the emphasis had shifted to Native American connections. Some then discussed the possibility of forming a tribe with the help of participants who were already card-carrying members of tribes recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It would not have been unusual for the Redbones to pursue such a course. Many triracial groups have chosen this path to recognition, including the Seminoles, the Lumbees, the Ramapo mountain people, and the Moors and Nanticokes.
The following year, at the RHF’s 2006 meeting in Natchitoches, Louisiana, DNA testing seemed to be the theme of interest. Alvie Walts presented tabulations of admixture ratios found in the community, and genealogists expressed interest in using Y and mtDNA to track family lineages.
The theme of the most recent 2007 conference seemed to focus on the connections among all of the triracial communities. The papers presented suggested that the different labels (Melungeon, Redbone, Brass Ankle, etc.) are mere regional designations, and that mixed families have historically moved freely from one triracial group to another. Specifically, the commonality of surnames among groups is not coincidence, but reflects recent kinship and migration.
2.1 Don Marler, “The Neutral Zone” – The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 left a 45-mile-wide strip of land between the Calcasiue and Sabine rivers, that was contested between Texas (under Spain) and Louisiana (under the United States). After minor skirmishing, an 1806 agreement between the two nations’ army commanders resulted in the region remaining without military patrols nor police protection until 1821, when the zone was ceded to Louisiana. During that 15-year “neutral” period, the zone became infested with outlaws who preyed upon travelers and cattle drovers. It also became a haven for families who were persecuted because they did not fit into America’s “check only one box” racial paradigm. As Marler put it, the Neutral Zone became inhabited by two kinds of people: those who were wanted somewhere else, and those who were not wanted anywhere else.
2.2 Stacey Webb, “Early Migration Routes” – From the founding of the Republic, roads (migration paths, actually) were cut westward over the Appalachians into the continent’s interior. The earliest ones include the track through Cumberland Gap that enabled the colonization of Kentucky and Tennessee. The most famous paths include: the Natchez Trace, the Old Federal Road, the National Road, and the Three-Chopped Way through Indian country from Georgia to the Mississippi. In tracing the movement of specific families along these tracks westward, Webb showed that, far from being adventurous European explorers, many of the first pioneers westwards were ordinary families of mixed ancestry fleeing the persecution of America’s hardening color line.
2.3 Sonya Davis, “Yesterday and Today” – In tracing her genealogy, Davis discovered that her Redbone ancestors not only changed their names repeatedly, but falsified birth records in order to evade criminal prosecution. (Some were apparently members of the infamous James gang.) Although told as a personal narrative, the lesson for genealogists is clear: do not always believe civil documents. Had Davis ended her search at the first birth certificate, she would have concluded that her father’s surname was “Ginsberg” and that he was born in Palestine. In fact, his surname was “James” and he was born in Louisiana.
2.4 Kaersten Colvin-Woodruff, “The Moors: A Contemporary Look at Forgotten Folk Revisited” – This presentation of the Moors and Nanticokes of Delaware was repeated from the 2006 MHA conference. Although it was a first-person account by a college fine-arts professor of her research into her own genealogy, the paper was memorable because it illustrated the stresses that beset small organizations. Triracial heritage groups, like all organizations, often become the sites of power struggles between leaders. Every group must learn on its own how to deal with the discovery that some people would rather destroy the mission than lose power. In some cases, the organizations collapse. In others, they split in two, as happened with the Moors and Nanticokes.
Most Illuminating Moment – The most memorable moment of revelation came when Stacey Webb showed the map of America’s triracial communities (above). By that point in the conference, it had become clear to everyone that there is really only one large triracial community in the southern United States. The families of this community migrated freely among regions, seeking only to be left in peace. The many different labels (Redbone, Dominicker, Brass Ankle, etc.) are merely different derogatory local terms for the same widespread people. The map’s revelation was that the different local names align along the borders of states. Everywhere that they migrated, triracial families clustered along political boundaries so that they could easily slip back and forth across the border to avoid persecution.
Scariest Moment – The Redbones are not immune to public criticism. For the second year in a row, local KKK Imperial Wizard River Scott threatened to organize a march on the library where the RHA met. Consequently, the entire conference was attended by two armed police officers. The policemen listened attentively to presentations describing murder and bloodshed among Redbones factions in the past.
Funniest Moment – My own presentation (also a repeat from MHA 2006) described the how, when, where and why of the rise and triumph of the one-drop rule during the Jim Crow era. (The complete text is available on line.) At one point in my paper, I discussed techniques used by early 20th-century forensic anthropologists in court cases to determine whether someone was secretly Black. When I explained that one technique was to examine the half-moons at the base of the subject’s thumbnails for a bluish tinge, every member of the audience immediately scrutinized his or her own thumbnails.
Most Thought-Provoking Moment – During one of the breakout sessions, a genealogist remarked that what most frustrated her was not learning that she had multiracial ancestry. By then, she had concluded that all Redbones are mixed to some extent. What most frustrated her was that her own relatives actively discouraged her search. Apparently, her own kin felt that there were some things in the past that are best left hidden, an attitude that simply made the genealogist more determined than ever to uncover her roots. The ensuing break-out discussion was thought-provoking because it revealed that triracial heritage organizations suffer from two extra obstacles (in addition to power struggles between leaders that all organizations face). The first challenge unique to such groups is that their own relatives often try to prevent their research. The second is that academia, especially sociology and humanities departments, is so deeply committed to the U.S. racialist Black/White dichotomy that, instead of helping triracial researchers, it often ridicules their efforts, insisting that American triracials are not a “real ethnicity” at all.
For more on this fascinating and courageous community, visit the Redbone Heritage Foundation Website.
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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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