14 December 2012

When Family Trees Are Gnarled by Race

Source: http://media.photobucket.com/image/recent/oditous3/Cabo%2520Verde/MulattoCVs.jpg
As someone who does a lot of southern research involving slave-owning families, I read with interest an article by Brent Staples in the New York Times where he states ...

My paternal grandfather, Marshall Staples (1898-1969), was one of the millions of black Southerners who moved north in the Great Migration. Those of us in the family who were born Yankees in the years just after World War II were given an earful about our place in 19th-century Virginia — and specifically about Marshall’s white grandfather, a member of a slaveholding family who fathered at least one child with my great-great-grandmother, Somerville Staples.

Stories like this are typical among African-Americans who have roots in the slave-era South and who have always spoken candidly about themselves and their relationships with slaveholding forebears.

Do read the full article “When Family Trees are Gnarled by Race” where he talks about the realities of how such relationships often fragmented families.  

I have researched families where the children of slave mothers and white plantation owners fathers are documented and almost with pride, though far more often, the “father” is not stated on the marriage or death record for that child.  At the time, every child was “fathered” by somebody though many have remained anonymous.  I have also researched situations where white mothers bore mulatto children whose fathers were enslaved.  Any permutation of “relations” you can think of, often happened in the pre-Civil War south.  

This both complicates our research into such families and it’s important that we recognize the conflicts of identity that occurred.  Often, after the war, if a freed slave (whether of African or Native American Ancestry) could pass for “white,” they often did.  And, that was not an option for many of mixed ancestry.  Imagine two siblings – one who could pass for white and one had very dark skin – they probably led very different lives once emancipated.

Have you discovered African-American ancestry in your “on-the-surface” white ancestors?  Or, in your traditionally considered African-American family have you found proof of white ancestors?  What has that meant to you?  What does it appear to have meant for your ancestors?

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