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Archive for the ‘Multiracial Families/Communities’ Category

Yvonne Bivins has written extensively about her multiracial roots, and I am delighted to share her stories, insights, and family photos here on Renegade South. Because of the towering historical presence of Newt Knight, we’ve heard much about the children he fathered with former slaves Rachel and George Ann Knight, but very little about the multiracial families with which the descendants of these two women blended their family lines.

I’ve learned so much from reading Yvonne’s essays and notes. For example, I learned that Davis Knight, famous because of his 1948 miscegenation trial, was descended not only from Newt and Rachel Knight, but also from Martha Ann Ainsworth through his mother, Addie. Martha Ann was the slave of Sampson “Jeff” Ainsworth and also the mother of several of his children.

Martha Ann and Jeff Ainsworth’s daughter, Lucy Jane, forged the most extensive link between the Ainsworths, Smiths, and Knights.  According to Yvonne, after the war “Lucy married a nearly white man named Warren Edward Smith, who was born in Smith County to a mulatto slave named Jennie McGill.” Warren deserted Lucy around 1882, leaving her to raise their children alone.

Historically, impoverished women have been forced to look to men as protectors and providers. It was no different for Lucy, who also suffered the disability of race in segregated Mississippi (despite her white appearance). Writes Yvonne: “left with five children to support, Lucy began a relationship with Calhoun Anderson, a white man. . . . Anderson was the father of two of Lucy’s children, Quillie Calvin and Necia Abigail. “

As they reached adulthood, Lucy’s children intermarried extensively with the children of Newt and Rachel. According to Yvonne, “Lucy’s son Louis married Ollie Jane, daughter of Jeffrey Early Knight [son of Rachel] and Martha [Mollie] Knight, Newton Knight’s white daughter.” Her daughter, Mary Florence Magdaline (Maggie), married John Madison (Hinchie), Newt and Rachel’s son. Yvonne further notes that Newt and George Ann Knight also had a son together, John Howard, who married Lucy’s daughter, Candace Martha Jane. To top it all off, at the age of 38, Lucy Ainsworth Smith herself married a Knight: Floyd, another of Newt and Rachel’s sons, further entwining the Ainsworth, Smith, and Knight family networks.

Lucy's sons: standing, l to r: Wilder Knight & Warren Smith. Sitting l to r: Louis Smith & Quillie Anderson

Lucy’s sons: standing, l to r: Wilder Knight & Warren Smith. Sitting l to r: Louis Smith & Quillie Anderson

What makes Yvonne’s stories so valuable is that she LISTENED when her elders went on about the past—she particularly listened to her grandmother, Jerolee Smith. But she also asked questions of them, to the point that she was sometimes told to quit “digging.” Yvonne has also conducted her own research in federal manuscript censuses, court records, and old family manuscripts and photographs. Most important of all, she wrote down what she learned.

Present-day descendants of Lucy Jane Ainsworth: l to r, Yvonne Bivins, Flo Wyatt, Vicki Knight, Anita Williams

Present-day descendants of Lucy Jane Ainsworth: l to r, Yvonne Bivins, Flo Wyatt,  Anita Williams, Vicki Knight

There is much more to be learned about this network of families, and I’ve incorporated some of Yvonne’s research into chapter six of The Long Shadow of the Civil War. What I hope is that Yvonne will one day soon publish her own full-fledged history of the Ainsworth-Smith-Knight connections.

Vikki Bynum

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Is THIS Rachel Knight?

Is THIS Rachel Knight?

At long last we return to the question of whether a photograph of Rachel Knight exists. (see my earlier post,  “Rachel Knight: Does a Picture of Her Exist?”).  I am pleased to now be in touch with Yvonne Bivins, who has been researching the Ainsworth/Smith/Knight family lines for many years.

Yvonne believes that the woman identified as Rachel on the cover of my book, The Free State of Jones, is probably Anna Knight, daughter of Georgeanne Knight and granddaughter of Rachel. Based on her grandfather’s description of Rachel, she believes the woman in the above photo is much more likely to be Rachel. Grandfather Warren Smith, she writes, “described Rachel as a ‘Guinea Negro,’ meaning she was racially mixed but did not look white nor was she light-skinned, but with “nice hair” not kinky and shoulder length.”

Further descriptions by Warren Smith of Rachel’s appearance led Yvonne to conclude that Rachel’s daughter, Martha Ann Knight, most resembled her.  Photographs do exist of Martha Ann, who, Yvonne notes, looked very much like an “Australian Aborigine.”  Because the woman in the above photo sharply resembles Martha Ann, Yvonne hypothesizes that this just may be a photo of Rachel.

Yvonne makes another important point: “My grandfather,” she states, “said that Rachel’s children did not appear as white as most would believe. They had complexions that ranged from dark olive to light brown, most with coarse black hair with a few red-heads in the mixture. The infusion of fair-skin came from the Ainsworths and not the Knights.”

This is all very fascinating, and I’m sure we haven’t yet heard the final word on Rachel Knight and her progeny.  Thank you, Yvonne, for sharing your research and perspective with us.

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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.

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A few days ago, the post “Life and Death of Davis Knight,” received a visit and comment from Deborah Jiang Stein. Noting that she has her own blog, I decided to check it out. I so liked what I read that I added her to the Renegade South blogroll.

I want especially to encourage those interested in multiracial issues to visit Deborah’s site (she also posts regularly on the Huffington Post). You’ll find her essays variously funny and sad, lighthearted and thought-provoking–a wonderful combination of irreverent thoughts and nurturing insights from a woman fully engaged with life.

Visit Musings for Mutts at  http://www.muttslikeme.wordpress.com

See also: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/deborah-jiang-stein

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By Vikki Bynum

In 1998, I published an article on Davis Knight’s miscegenation trial in The Journal of Southern History (Vol. LXIV, No. 2, May 1998). Subsequently, I included his story in my book The Free State of Jones (2001). Davis, the great-grandson of Newt and Serena Knight, was also the great-grandson of Rachel Knight, a former slave of Newt’s grandfather. Because of his slave ancestor, Davis was convicted in 1948 for having crossed the color line when he married Junie Lee Spradley, a white woman.

The case is significant because the Mississippi State Supreme Court remanded Davis’s case in 1949 on grounds that the lower court did not prove that Davis had 1/8th or more African ancestry. Legally, regardless of custom, the “one drop rule” did not determine one’s racial identity. Davis thus avoided going to prison for having married across the color line (a crime in several states until 1967). For the rest of his life, he lived as a white man.

It turned out, however, that the rest of Davis’s life would be quite short, as was the marriage that he suffered to defend in court. Some years ago, Ken Welch of Soso, MS, provided me copies of Davis’s divorce and death records. They show that in 1954, five years after his Supreme Court victory, Davis sued Junie Lee for divorce on grounds she had abandoned their home in 1951. The couple had no children, and Davis claimed that Junie Lee had given birth to another man’s child during their separation. The marriage was officially dissolved on July 20, 1954.

Soon after, Davis moved to Channelview, Texas (near Houston), where in 1959 he would lose his life in a fishing accident. Before that tragic day, Davis married for a second time, to Evelyn (Evie) Wilburn, and worked as a painter’s helper for Olin Mathieson Chemical Corporation. When I interviewed Ethel Knight (author of Echo of the Black Horn) in 1992, she told me that Davis had abandoned Junie Lee for a rich, white, older woman who lived in Texas. If Davis’s divorce testimony is to be believed, however, it was Junie Lee who left him. And while his new wife, Evie, was fourteen years older than him, and white, I have found no evidence that she was rich. Evie had been twice divorced, and had two sons, Joel G. Hill, age 31, and James W. McDonald, 24, who were closer in age than she to her new husband.

On the morning Davis Knight died, he had just embarked on a fishing trip at the Sheldon Reservoir with his stepson, Joel. According to Joel, he first waded and floated out to a small island where the two men intended to fish. Davis followed, carrying his fishing rod and wearing a life preserver. As he entered into deeper water, the preserver slipped upward and he was momentarily submerged, causing him to panic and thrash about. Several fisherman came to his aid, but by then Davis had been under the water for 3 to 5 minutes and could not be revived. An autopsy ruled his death an accidental drowning.

Davis’s Texas death certificate described him as a 34-year-old white man. Although the Mississippi Supreme Court had granted him the same status, the “one drop rule” of race meant that most people who knew his roots would never accept him as white. So, like many kinfolk before him, Davis escaped the dangers and degradation of being labeled a “black” man by leaving the state. For him, that escape proved all too brief.

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For those of you interested in North Carolina Civil War history, please visit my latest post at Robert Moore’s Southern Unionists Chronicles. Nancy Brewer’s application for compensation from the federal government for property confiscated by Yankees during the Civil War is a wonderful example of how many people in the South suffered at the hands of both Union and Confederate soldiers. But it offers even more–a tantalizing glimpse into a marriage between a free woman of color and an enslaved man.

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Many people, perhaps most, think of “race” as an objective reality. Historically, however, racial categorization has been unstable, contradictory, and arbitrary. Consider the term “passing.” Most of us immediately picture a light-skinned person who is “hiding” their African ancestry. Many would go further and accuse that person of denying their “real” racial identity. Yet few people would accuse a dark-skinned person who has an Anglo ancestor of trying to pass for “black,” and thereby denying their “true” Anglo roots!

So why is a white person with an African ancestor presumed to be “really” black? In fact, in this day of DNA testing, it’s become increasingly clear that many more white-identified people have a “drop” or two of African ancestry than most ever imagined. Are lots of white folks (or are they black?) “passing,” then, without even knowing it?

Having said all that, I’d like to provide some historical examples of the shifting and arbitrary nature of racial categorization. Those familiar with Newt Knight already know about the 1948 miscegenation trial of his great-grandson, Davis Knight. According to the “one drop rule” of race, Davis was a black man by virtue of having a multiracial great-grandmother (Rachel Knight). Yet, social custom and the law differed. One was legally “white” in Mississippi if one had one-eighth or less African ancestry, and Davis eventually went free on that legal ground.

Despite Davis Knight’s legal victory, custom (and often the law) at times went even further than applying the “one drop rule.” After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation of the races was legal (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896), census enumerators in the segregated South of 1900 were instructed to list people’s race as either “black” or “white”; there were to be no “in-between” designations. Some enumerators went even further than that. To reinforce the image of a racially-segregated society, they categorized many formerly white-identified people as “black” simply because they lived in multiracial neighborhoods. Hence, Newt and Serena Knight, and their children who lived (and married) among Rachel and her children, were listed as “black” in the 1900 federal manuscript census.

Similar contradictions of racial identification may be found throughout Southern court records as segregation ordinances were written into law. An example of one absurd, yet utterly serious, effort to determine whether an individual was “white” or “black” (which I pieced together from North Carolina state and federal records) follows:

In 1884, Mary Ann McQueen, a young white woman about 33 years old, was suspected of having “black” blood. So strong were these suspicions that her mother, who had always been accepted as white, swore out a deed in the Montgomery County Court that “solemnly” proclaimed her daughter to be “purely white and clear of an African blood whatsoever.” But why did suspicions about the “purity” of Mary Ann McQueen’s “blood” arise in the first place?

It all began before the Civil War, when Mary Ann’s mother, Diza Ann, ended her marriage to Mary Ann’s father, Calvin McQueen. Almost immediately afterward, she married Wilson Williams (aka Wilson Wright). By 1861, when the Civil War began, Diza had given birth to four more children. Meanwhile, Mary Ann’s father, Calvin, enlisted in the Confederate Army in February 1862 and marched off to war. Barely five months later, in July 1862, he was dead from wounds suffered in the battle of Mechanicsville, Virginia. Calvin had lived and died as a white man.

The same was not true, however, of Diza’s second husband, Wilson Williams, who was listed as a “mulatto” by census enumerators. This meant that Mary Ann McQueen grew up in a multiracial household with a stepfather and several siblings all classified as mulattos. By 1884, as segregation expanded and lines of race correspondingly hardened, many folks wondered how this white woman could have mixed-race kinfolk without being mixed herself.

With racially discriminatory laws a fundamental part of segregation, Mary Ann had a lot to lose in civil rights, as well as social standing, if she could not rid herself of the “one drop” taint. Perhaps because she lived in a small community with a long memory, her mother’s sworn statement, which reminded the court that Calvin McQueen and not Wilson Williams was Mary Ann’s biological father, seems to have won Mary Ann her whiteness, at least legally. By 1900, the federal manuscript census for Montgomery County, N.C., listed a Mary McQueen, born 1851, as “white.”

That does not mean however, that Mary Ann’s social status was restored. If this is our Mary Ann, she apparently never married, despite having given birth to a son, also listed as white. Were Mary Ann’s chances at marriage to a white man compromised by her mother’s interracial marriage? In the era of segregation, most certainly they were.

Today, most scientists agree that there is no genetic basis for the idea of humans as separate “races,” or subspecies. But, as we see in the case of Mary Ann McQueen and the more recent trial of Davis Knight, societal beliefs about race were written into law and political policy, and reflected historical struggles of power over slavery, segregation, and civil rights.

NOTE:  The stories of Davis Knight and Mary Ann McQueen are discussed in my new book, The Long Shadow of the Civil War.

Vikki Bynum

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Newt Knight’s political career was short-circuited by his open embrace of his mixed-race descendants. The essay, “Negotiating Boundaries of Race and Gender in Jim Crow Mississippi,” which will appear as chapter six in The Long Shadow of the Civil War, explores the legacy of that decision.

This essay extends the Knight saga well into the twentieth century by focusing on several Knight women, but especially the sisters, Anna, Gracie, and Lessie, who personified the struggles and triumphs of being female as well as multiracial in the segregated South. The centerpiece of the essay is Anna Knight, who carved out a remarkable international career as a teacher and a Seventh-Day Adventist missionary who spent many years in India.

 Anna’s steely determination shaped the course of many of her kinfolks’ lives as well as her own. In 1898, she established an Adventist-sponsored school and two Sunday schools in the Knight community. Under her tutelage, many of her relatives gained educations and converted to Seventh-Day Adventism.

While education and religious faith were important tools for combating racial prejudice and segregation, other Knights, including Anna’s sister, Lessie, opted instead to identify with their European or Native-American heritage, and to ignore or deny African ancestry. Under segregationist terms, they were “passing,” but under their own terms, they were choosing the ancestry that fit their self-image and afforded them the same opportunities for self-fulfillment that “white” Americans enjoyed.

 

 

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I think of historians as investigative journalists of the past. I especially feel that way when I write an essay or book based on court records. My first book, Unruly Women, was such a work, and so is the essay “Disordered Communities: Freed People, Poor Whites, and ‘Mixed Blood’ Families in Post-Civil War North Carolina,” a chapter in my upcoming collection of essays, The Long Shadow of the Civil War.

Studying court records from a different century is the ultimate revival of “cold cases.”  “Disordered Communities” investigates the years following the Civil War known as Reconstruction and recovers the experiences of ordinary black and white citizens, men, women, and children, who struggled to survive this dark period of history.

The era of Reconstruction, 1865-1875, was both exhilarating and horrific for Southern Unionists, particularly those of African American descent. This essay traces the rise of the first Ku Klux Klan in 1868 by studying some of the South’s best preserved court records, those of Orange County, North Carolina. In Orange and surrounding counties,  the Klan effectively restored the power of slaveholders and wreaked havoc on the lives of former slaves and Unionists.

Women, some of whom resisted the Klan alongside their husbands, appear prominently in this chapter. Many simply struggled to make a life for themselves in a war-ravaged, violent society. There is Pattie Ruffin, newly freed from slavery, who was coerced by a prominent white politician into withholding the name of the white father of her unborn child from court officials. There is Ann Bowers Boothe, a widow who lost her farm to a white family after they claimed she had African American “blood,” and therefore could not inherit property from her white husband.  Many, many more cold cases are brought to life in this chapter, and they speak to communities throughout the South that witnessed similar post-Civil War struggles over power. And, always, the stories are about real people fighting, sometimes literally, for their lives.

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Is this really Rachel Knight?

Is this really Rachel Knight?

Is this really Joseph Sullivan Knight and wife?
Is this really Rachel and Newt Knight?

With help from descendants of Rachel Knight such as Dianne Walkup and Florence Blaylock, I have revisited the two photographs (see above) that I identified as being Rachel in my book, The Free State of Jones. Through Florence, I first learned that several descendants no longer believed, or had never believed, that the photograph on the book’s cover was Rachel. Well, no author likes hearing that! But, as a historian committed to publishing the truth, I knew I had to consider these opinions.

At first, I reasoned that the other photo published in my book which identifies Rachel and Newt Knight sitting side-by-side (see above) shows a woman who strongly resembles the woman in the cover photo. So, doesn’t that suggest that these are photos of Rachel, I asked? Well, after that things got even more interesting.  Several descendants, among them Dianne Walkup, reported that the couple in that photo is not Newt and Rachel at all; in fact some family members are certain that it is Newt’s son, Joseph Sullivan (Sill) Knight, sitting with one of his two wives, either Sarah Welborn or Mollie Hodges.

You know, I have never really thought that the man in that photo looked much like Newt Knight. But several Knight family members do believe that it is him, and another Knight researcher says that it doesn’t look like Newt only because he had shaved his beard off while serving in postwar politics.  So what is the truth? Perhaps readers can help.

At this point, I confess that I am pretty well persuaded that we, or at least I, simply don’t have a picture of Rachel Knight. But I would still like to know who the people in those photos are. Dianne Walkup believes that the cover portrait is actually of Lessie Knight, Georgeanne’s daughter and Rachel’s granddaughter. That is certainly plausible. There is a photo of a very young Lessie in The Free State of Jones in which her face appears almost identical to that of the woman in the cover photo. What do others think?

And about the photo of the couple: are there any descendants of Joseph Sullivan Knight out there who might be able to identify that photo one way or the other?

Vikki Bynum

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