Some time ago, in response to my 10 November 2011 post, “Free People of Color in Old Virginia: The Morris Family of Gloucester County,” (which I encourage you to read or reread) I received a long email message from Nathan Crowell, who traces his own mixed-heritage ancestry back to Gloucester County. Nathan shared not only his family research with me, but also certain insights that he gained over the years from listening to his ancestors—particularly his grandmother: insights into what it meant to be a “free person of color” in a slaveholding society, what it meant to be defined as “black” when one’s skin was fair. His remarks remind us that life in the Old South was far more complex than most of us realize, and that “race” was an imposed category of human existence that had no rational biological basis, but had very real legal, social, and psychological consequences that shaped the experiences and consciousness of all members of society.
With Nathan’s permission, I have created the following post from his remarks.
Vikki Bynum Moderator
Nathan Crowell on Racial Identity: Gloucester County, Virginia, revisited
My grandmother was raised in Gloucester County, Virginia, by the family of her mother. Her mother died when my grandmother was six months old. I always have been interested in her family history, and as well that of my other grandparents. So I have slowly and steadfastly attempted to learn what I can. I have traced the families of most of my grandparents back to the early 1600’s, where I found a combination of black ancestors, white ancestors, and so forth. In the process, I have learned an immense amount. I’ve seen that before the Civil War, people were incredibly mobile; they moved across counties, e.g., from Gloucester up to Campbell, and they moved across states, e.g., from Virginia to Ohio. I am from New York, and my visions of the South result from my grandparents’ narratives and my summer vacations “down home.” The South has always seemed to be static, and perpetually unchanged. The mobility of my ancestors however, clearly demonstrates that that perception is indeed erroneous.
Still, I had been taught long ago that Virginia was a major exporter of slaves to other states. While many of these slaves undoubtedly were bred just to be sold South, I understand now that there were actually thousands of slaves in Virginia at any one time; and many of the exported slaves were simply surplus from farms that had become increasingly unproductive. It was nothing more pernicious than that.
As well, I’ve come to realize that slavery was a lot more complex than I had believed. In the North, the experience is portrayed in black and white—defenseless slaves at the mercy of brutal masters. And even if that worldview is tempered, by literature from the period for example, it is still hard to internalize anything but the degradation and brutality of slavery. However, at the same time there was an intense interconnectedness among slaves, their masters, and everyone else living in the South. As a case in point, I have white relatives whose sole emotional relationship was with a slave; the uncle of one of my great, great-grandmothers, Ned Hockaday, never married a white woman, but had a good number of children with one of his slaves. I have white relatives who had black children right alongside white ones. One of my great, great, great-grandfathers, William Hockaday, had a black son who he named Thomas, and as well, he had a white son, whom he also named Thomas. And then there are my free black ancestors, who were neighbors and possibly tenant farmers who rented land from their white ancestors. Effectively, they were living near, even with, their white cousins.
Perhaps most importantly, I’ve gained a much better understanding of who my grandmother was, and that has been very gratifying. My grandmother was very colorstruck, and growing up, I always found it to be unpleasantly odd. Again, I grew up in New York City, and in the seventies, with the emphasis on black pride and galvanizing the black community, there was no space for perceptions of superiority based on relative skin tone. As well, my grandmother was very dark, and it seemed that she took after her father, John Hamilton Boulden, who was pretty dark himself. My other grandmother, and my grandfather too, were, on the other hand, very fair–red hair, freckles, the works. And they never made any mention about skin color differences and certainly, they never seemed to attach any relative importance to lighter skin. So it was really strange to hear my grandmother go on about fair skin, good grades of hair, and so forth. I just wrote her views off as a legacy of slavery, illustrative of the sense of shame and inferiority that blacks took away from the slave experience. And given her age, it did seem logical to do so. I see now that my grandmother’s views were a legacy of her family’s distinctive struggles as well as a byproduct of race-based slavery. I see that free blacks were just a sliver of the black community, with hundreds of them juxtaposed against thousands and thousands of slaves. And I can only imagine the intense pressure they faced in trying to distinguish themselves from those slaves, and thereby preserve their freedom, and any of the rights and privileges that it entailed. It would only make sense for them to fixate on skin color, hair texture, pedigree, and just about anything else that would help them stand apart. Thus, I think that the color prejudice that she learned was less about pride in white ancestors and disdain for African ancestors, and more an integral part of a hard-fought attempt at self-preservation.
Note from Moderator: In the following indictment from a North Carolina court, in which a free woman of color is charged with illegally attempting to marry an enslaved man, we see one example of how the lives of free people of color were circumscribed by law: