Monday, February 1, 2021

Why Would White Ancestors Identify as Black?

1909 Virginia

Racial Confusion in Ancestors?
We have all heard of black people passing for white. This more-frequent-than-thought practice was usually to take advantage of otherwise closed doors. That closed door may have been a a railcar door, a front door, a job door, the door to the nearby loo…you get the picture. In passing as white a person who chose to do so often lost as much as they gained. They no longer could associate with the family they left behind. Their new family, presumably white, would never know about their childhood, their life experiences were not shared, and they lived with a secret that would eventually become generational. Of course, DNA is revealing some of those generational secrets.

But, why would a white person identify as black? Through the years, this discussion has risen. Most curious is when the someone "white" is enumerated on early census records as "white" but on a later military record as “black.” Through genealogy, the newly “black” person can be proven as the white son or brother of a white family from a different parish or a different state. The practice of reclassifying one's race in America can be seen as early as the 1740's.

One Drop Rule

One of the more common reasons of racial identity change was due to the one drop rule. Due to the one drop rule ancestors who were once white were newly classified by a codified state law as black. Yes, this was one of the many new laws imposed during the Jim Crow Era: 1910 in Tennessee, and Virginia before spreading to other states. But as we know, this was not new. Laws that forbade sex across color line laws existed in 1662 (Virginia). And, 12 of the 13 colonies forbade racial intermarriage by 1776.

So regardless of appearance, one drop of black blood, inherited from a faraway ancestor, would result in "Black"(Negro) classification. Read Who is Black? One Nation’s Definition by F. James Davis, PBS.

This leaves us today with  cases of descendants who appear to belong to the “white” race; yet, identify as black. And, their self-identification, despite their several generations of white ancestors, have maintained and asserted their identity as “black.”

The story of Clarice Shreck, one of Thomas Byrd’s ancestors, reveals Thomas was “the last known full blooded black person in her family.” Her parents, like themselves, identified her as “Negro” on the birth certificate.” Byrd’s descendants, like any other identity-fluid family, are divided into fractions;  one first cousin identifies as Native American, the other as Black. The eight children of one descendant do not agree on their racial identity: only three identify as Black. Four identify as Catawba Indian, and one as White. Read about this East Jackson, OH family and residents in the Guardian: They look white but say they’re black: a tiny town in Ohio wrestles with race.

Plaçage and miscegenation

1911 Miscegenation
Another reason a white ancestor may have begun identifying as black was due to outlawing the practice of Plaçage. Plaçage was tolerated in colonial America where European men, especially the French and Spanish, freely joined in civil unions with people of color. But later this practice became frowned upon. Researchers will very often see these civil unions in the Louisiana Territory and Missouri Territory; but also noted in  Illinois Country.  Although this practice was once tolerated, new state laws against miscegenation may have forced otherwise white Americans to identify as black. Identifying as black would allow one to stay with their mixed-race family in the community where miscegenation was illegal.  In addition to white men in civil unions with women of color, Paul Heinegg’s study identifies court documents where mixed-race children were born to free colored men and a white women. These early practices can be seen from the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland, to Delaware. Again, researchers may find proof of these unions in colonial and territorial records to include the Territory of Missouri.   

If you have traced creole families in Louisiana using parish records, or analyzing Father Hebert's Acadian - Cajun church records, researchers will identify racial generational changes supported by court records and legal document research. Outlawing interracial unions and cohabitation were mandated by state laws resulting in severe penalties if violated. It is presumably due to this law and its associated penalties that an otherwise white ancestor would identify as black. Later mixed-race children from these unions left children not only light enough to pass for white; but tanned enough to marry black. This may again resulted in some of the children identifying as black as siblings identified as white. 

Census Record Issues

And remember, if a white man was cohabitating with a woman of color (legally or not) genealogical researchers may find the entire family remarked as “black/Negro/colored” in the census. Consider a teenage child or wife of color who answered the census taker's knock. The question of "
is the whole family colored?" was not asked. Census takers were instructed to note color. In most cases it was assumed to be a "one race family." 

Where to Research to Solve Race Confusion?
If a conflict of family racial origin arises, be sure to become familiar with 1) the law 2) the community racial tolerance 3) the various repositories in your state of interest. Researchers may begin with the State Historical Society and the County Courthouse.

  1. Court Records will reveal community complaints, county court cases, legal bonds, and penalties.
  2. Census Analysis. Most of our ancestors made mistakes along the way. A census record may denote one race, whereas a military record may state another. 
  3. DNA.  Family secrets may be revealed by tying DNA with good genealogical research
  4. Church records.  Especially in early territory and colonial records, racial answers can be uncovered. 
  5. Bastardy Bonds. These can be revealing.  Of course, if there is an associated court record, not just the warrant, be sure to pull the originals. (Will blog about these later.)
    1802 Plaçage: County Court Records: Will - Esther with Jacques Clamorgan for abt. 14 years; 
    Bequeathed money and land to mixed-race son "blue eyed" Tom with "strait white hair "
    Siblings chose black or white

  6. Wills.  Amazing how many openly bequeath land, property and assets to their mixed race children.  But the key is to trace backward.  Was this land passed down by a white family to a child who years later identified as black? Read the Clamorgan story.
  7. Land deeds. Tracing property and land deeds may prove racial changes if supported by other documents and research (i.e. family correspondence, city directories, sale of land, etc). 
Be Historically Correct 

Kathleen Brandt

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