By Sherree Tannen
When the moderator of Renegade South, Vikki Bynum, asked me to write an essay for her blog concerning my history, I was honored. I was doubly honored that she asked me to include the essay in the category she has designated “multiracial.” I informed our moderator that this category was not correct for my history in the strictest sense, then I gave her more details of the history. She encouraged me to write the essay anyway, since my history indicates that the racial lines in the South were not as rigidly adhered to as is broadly thought. I thank our moderator for this opportunity.
First, why would our moderator think that I am of mixed race? Because I am of mixed race. But of mixed race so lost to history, that that history is almost impossible to recover. One set of my ancestors emigrated from the county Donegal Ireland to Virginia in 1739. These ancestors, who were Scots Irish, then migrated to the mountains of Virginia in 1781 and stayed in the same geographical area for over two hundred years. Along the way, they intermarried with the Germans and the English, and also with the Cherokee. So, technically, I am of mixed race, and of mixed ethnicity as well, as are most Americans. Why do I not then say that I am of mixed race? Because that is unfair to my Indigenous brothers and sisters who are struggling today to reclaim their culture and their identity. It is also unfair to my white ancestors. I was not brought up Cherokee. I was brought up white. The ways of white culture and of Cherokee culture were intermingled, however, and I attribute the worldview of my ancestors to this rich intermingling of cultures. In addition, my family was deeply connected to the black community of our area for over five generations, beginning with the generation that included a Confederate veteran, who one day shocked everyone by having the black man who was his friend and who had been working in a field with him, sit at the table with him and eat.
The example that my great-great-grandfather set became the benchmark for the relationship of my family with the black community. Why my great-great-grandfather did what he did, I do not know. I am glad he did it, though. My grandmother, granddaughter of the unorthodox Confederate veteran, sold her tobacco farm and bought a restaurant in a nearby town and ran it. The restaurant was called “The Townhouse Café.” This is where the color line broke down. The black women who worked at the restaurant did not work for, but with, my grandmother. This was told to me by members of the black community, not by my grandmother. One black woman in particular with whom my family was very close, told me that one day my grandmother insisted that she sit at the table and eat a steak while she, my grandmother, finished mopping the floor, mirroring the action of my great-great-grandfather.
The black and white women in the Townhouse Café formed a community of their own, and in this community, after the doors were closed at night, there was no Jim Crow. I was known as the “Townhouse baby.” I was born in a small clinic, and the women who worked with my grandmother came to see baby me. Since the women could not come into the clinic because of the color of their skin, my mother held me up to the window. No, I am not making this up. These black women were not “mammy” figures. They were outside of all categories that we understand today. There is no “category” for them. They were the backbone of the nation–of the world–and I was their child, just like their own children were. They are in me–in my mind, my heart, and my soul. Their brave black faces are me. It was a privilege to even be in their presence, much less an integral part of their lives. I salute them. I salute them all.