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The following guest essay by Wayne K. Driver expands upon my own research on the Morris Family of Gloucester County, Virginia.

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

By Wayne K. Driver

Throughout my years of researching my family from Gloucester County and the Tidewater Area of Virginia, I have noted that several families, including my own, were listed as “free Negroes” or “mulattoes” prior to 1800. This discovery ignited my interest; I wanted to know more about these families and how they fit into a society in which most people of African descent were slaves and where those of European descent dominated. I wondered if these free people of color had any rights, if they owned property or had the freedom to move about without being harassed.  Since my focus was on the years prior to 1800, I also wondered how they felt about the Revolutionary War.  Which side did they support? Which side promised a better future for them?

Families with the names ALLMOND/ALLMAN, BLUFORD, DRIVER, FREEMAN, GOWEN/ GOING, HEARN, KING, LEMON, MEGGS, MONOGGIN, and MORRIS are identified in various documents as living free from slavery.  “Free” did not necessarily mean, however, that they were as free as those of full European ancestry.  These “free” people did not have slave masters, but they did have limitations place upon them and hardships that would not be understood by my generation.

The above families of color, as well as others not cited in this essay, contributed to America by serving in wars, participating in religious movements, and working in many trades. At the same time, they strove for greater freedom of access to education, property ownership, and social equality.  Too often, these pioneers are forgotten in the history books; rarely are they recognized for their work in shaping the counties in which they lived.  When I drive through Gloucester, to my knowledge there is no physical memorial that bears witness to their service in the Revolutionary War, or their contributions to their communities.  I can find all types of negative propaganda concerning “free Negroes,” such as recommendations for their forced removal from the county, or punishment for not paying taxes. My hope is that someday the leaders of these communities will recognize free families of color and teach generations to come about their positive contributions.

Society and Labels

Societies are often divided into historical eras.  I am particularly interested in the colonial, revolutionary, and antebellum periods of the United States, and how “free people of color” fared during each of them.  My research has taken me to different states and localities, where I have noticed varying attitudes displayed by white officials toward people of color. For example, Virginia law prohibited interracial marriages, yet I found such marriages listed in some court records.  I also noticed how inconsistently people in power recorded a person’s skin color or race.  In some cases, the description was diligent and descriptive; in others, it was not.  For example, members of the DRIVER family were described in some records as “white” and in others as “mulatto” or “colored”.  I found these records interesting and disturbing at the same time, and therefore decided to explore these subjects and share my observations about them.

Samuel "Squire" Driver, 1815-1872, and Sarah "Sally" Driver (maiden name unknown), 1815-1872

Samuel “Squire” Driver, 1815-1872, and Sarah “Sally” Driver (maiden name unknown), 1815-1872

As I browsed through various historical documents, I noticed that court clerks paid close attention to describing the person(s) being listed.  By law, in 1705, a mulatto was a person deemed to have one-eighth or more African blood. By 1866, one-quarter African blood meant one was “colored,” whereas one-quarter Indian blood meant one was Indian.

In some records, persons defined as “mulatto” were further defined by their shade of complexion. A mulatto might be described as “Yellow/Yellowish,” “Tawney,” “Light”, or “Brown/Dark Mulatto,”—the list goes on.  When I first saw the term “Tawney,” I had to research its meaning. After consulting FreeDictionary.Com, I concluded that this complexion color included several shades of brown ranging from light to brownish orange.

The mulatto MEGGS Family of Middlesex and Gloucester County was described as “Yellow” and “Tawney” in various records. For example, “free negro” James Meggs, born around 1752, was listed as a “yellow” tithable in Middlesex County in 1787, and as a “mulatto” tithable in 1788.

For genealogical information on the Meggs household, see Heinegg, Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, and Delaware at http://freeafricanamericans.com/Mason_Month.htm

It was also customary for a clerk to state a person’s status of birth when it occurred outside of marriage.  Terms like “illegitimate” and “bastard” where often used.  At first I could not understand why such births occurred so frequently in the Bible Belt, but I soon learned that slaves were prohibited by law from marrying, and that interracial marriages became illegal in Virginia in 1691. Thus, free people of color could legally marry only one another.

Although the law stated that an interracial couple would be banished from the Dominion forever, I did not find evidence of this happening.  In 1792 another law was enacted stating that

he or she shall be committed to prison for six months and pay $30.00 for use of the parish.  The penalty for a minister marrying Negroes and whites is set at $250 for every such marriage.

Many such laws seem to have been ignored, however, in Gloucester County. During the late 1700’s, Susanna DRIVER (Caucasian) gave birth to a mulatto bastard child. Susanna is cited several times in the vestry books in regard to her mulatto children. It appears that she was white and her spouse was of African ancestry. Prior to her husband’s death she gave birth to another child, but no reference to race was indicated in the vestry books.

The oldest free family of color that I have been able to identify in Gloucester County is the GOWEN/GOWINGS/GOINGS family.  They were the children of Michael GOWEN, born about 1635, who was the “negro” servant of Christopher STAFFORD.  STAFFORD gave him his freedom on January 18, 1654, in York County, Virginia, after four years of service. This is a fascinating family that is well documented by Paul Heinegg in his book, Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina, at http://www.freeafricanamericans.com/Virginia_NC.htm.  Throughout this article, I draw heavily on Heinegg’s research, and I encourage you to visit this site to learn more about the genealogical history of the above families.

The ALLMOND/ALLMAN/ALMAN family is another unique family that I have encountered during my research.  Orally, I was once told that they were Native American.  The oldest members of the family that I was able to identify were Sally, Jenny, Edward, James (born about 1769), and Zachariah (born about 1775). Most records identify this family as mulatto, but they have also been described as descended from the Pamunkey Tribe of King William County, VA.

I also noticed during my research that some people of color, both slave and free, challenged their legal status in the courts. The BLUFORT/BLUEFOOT family matriarch, free woman Sarah BLUFORT, did so when she complained to the Lancaster County, VA, court that she had been sold by Matthew Green to Rawleigh Hazard.  Court records described Sarah as having been “bound” (apprenticed) to Matthew Green until the age of thirty-one. Green had sold her apprenticeship to Mr. Hazard, much as one might sell a slave. The court seems to have allowed the sale, but forbade Hazard from removing Sarah from the county, which was forbidden by law in regard to apprentices.  (Heinegg, http://www.freeafricanamericans.com/Beverly_Brogdon.htm)

The American Revolution

Years ago, I took a cruise to Nova Scotia, Canada.  We had several tour options as we docked and departed the ship.  I chose the option of visiting the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia (BCCNS). During this visit, I learned about “Black Loyalists,” (people of color who remained loyal to the British Crown during the American Revolution) who were issued “certificates of freedom” after the Americans won the war and the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783. People identified as black were given the option to relocate to Nova Scotia, the West Indies, Quebec, England, Germany and Belgium.  According to the BCCNS web site, an estimated 5,000 people of African descent chose to relocate.

Over 3,000 loyalists were recorded in Canada’s Book of Negroes, including Joseph Elliott, 30, former property of John Elliott of Gloucester County, and George Glocester, a 15-year-old boy who also escaped slavery. Three women from Gloucester County, all described by the derogatory term “stout wench,” commonly applied to slave women, were also relocated and freed: Polly Carey, 26, formerly the property of Humphrey Gwin, Elizabeth White, 25, formerly the property of John Perrin; and Sukey Smith, 25, formerly the property of Major Smith.

As I learned this history for the first time in my life, I had to ask the question, “Why did these blacks choose the British side of the war?”  Although slavery was on the wane in Canada, it was still legal there until the 1830s.  According to our tour guide, social conditions were no better for blacks than in the United States.  So why would they choose the British side?  The short answer is FREEDOM.  In November of 1775, five months after the battle of Bunker Hill, the British offered American slaves their freedom if they would support the British.  They did not make this offer because they wanted to end slavery; the British Empire itself did not abolish slavery until 1833. The British offer of freedom to American slaves was a tactical move designed to disrupt the economy of its slaveholding colonies.

If the British enticed slaves to join their cause by offering the prospect of freedom, why did other people of African descent fight for the American colonies?  At first, the Continental army did not want to enlist people of color. Eventually, however, blacks comprised an estimated 5% of Americans who fought at Bunker Hill.  In January, 1776, President George Washington allowed the enlistment of free blacks who had prior military experience.  In 1777, in desperation, the Continental army allowed both free blacks and slaves to enlist. In need of manpower, the colonists promised slaves their freedom in exchange for service. Those who fought on the Patriot side, then, also fought for African American FREEDOM.

For more on the subject of African Americans and the Revolution, see http://www.nps.gov/revwar/about_the_revolution/african_americans.html

Free people of color from Gloucester County, Virginia, served the Revolutionary cause on land and sea.  Gloucester County is a peninsula that touches the Chesapeake Bay, and many free men already made their living from the water. Some became navy seaman, while others served on land.

The DRIVER, HEARN, and MONOGGIN families appear in various Revolutionary records. These men are American heroes.  They fought in battles, and then had to fight for their pensions and other benefits long after the war was over. An example was Ephraim HEARN, a weaver who served in the Revolutionary War. Born about 1745, in 1829 Ephraim lived with his wife, Molly, and his three children, Peter, Jane, and Betsy, in Gloucester County. That year, he successfully petitioned to collect his pension from the government. As the court clerk noted on 12 August 1829:

I, Arthur S. Davies, clerk of the court of Gloucester county do hereby certify that it appears to the satisfaction of the court that the said Ephraim Hearn did serve in the Revolutionary War as stated in the preceding declaration against the common enemy for the term therein stated under one engagement on the continental establishment.

To read the entire text of Ephraim Hearn’s pension application, see http://lestweforget.hamptonu.edu/page.cfm?uuid=9FEC4EAB-B4BC-9223-A25A0AFFCD5B9824

Religious Faith

Religion, particularly Christianity, was the glue that sustained the African American community throughout its early struggles in America.  I remember traveling with my grandfather from Philadelphia to Gloucester County to attend the family church’s “Homecoming” celebrations or week-long revivals.  My grandfather, a Baptist preacher, would sometimes be invited to preach at a local church.  During those summer visits, I observed the strong convictions my relatives held about worship and fellowship.  The only time my grandmother threatened me with the switch was when I announced that I wasn’t going to church one night.  My older brother obtained the switch for her and I am still mad at him for that.  Seriously, I discovered over the years that faith has played a major role in the life of African Americans in this country.  Today, faith is what guides me daily in my life.

The noted black historian, Carter G. Woodson, Ph.D, recognized this in Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830, where he wrote that,

Negroes were not easily stirred by the doctrines of the Quakers and Presbyterians, but they flocked into the folds of the Methodists and Baptists, who won them by successfully socializing the Gospel, by popularizing the appeal with emotional preaching designed to move the illiterate to repentance.

Dr. Woodson also noted that “William Lemmon was called by a white congregation to serve at the Pettsworth or Gloucester church in Virginia.” Lemon was described by white and black contemporaries as a “lively and affecting” preacher.

Members of the LEMON family (variously spelled Lemmon, Lemmond or LeMond) have been documented as “free” since the birth of Ambrose Lemon around 1725.  William Lemon, born about 1845 in Gloucester County, was the brother or son of Ambrose.  Today, this family still maintains a strong presence in Gloucester County.  According to oral tradition, there was an area in Gloucester known as LEMON Town.  The LEMON family has a rich tradition in religion, education and business.

For more on the Lemon family’s genealogy, see Paul Heinegg’s Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina: http://www.freeafricanamericans.com/Lemon_Lytle.htm

Land Ownership

Land was difficult to obtain during this time by poor people of any color.  I can only imagine the obstacles that stood in the way of free people of color.  Those who managed to do so were extraordinary to say the least.

Being considered “free” during a time when slavery was the norm did not always mean independence.  Owning land gave these free people of color some independence.  In his book, The Honey-pod Tree, the famous black Gloucester County lawyer Thomas Calhoun Walker, born into slavery, dedicated a chapter to his quest to educate blacks about owning land.  T. C. Walker founded a company, “The Gloucester Land and Brick Company” solely to create opportunities for blacks to own land.  He traveled from church to church and school to school to discuss the benefits of owning land and a home.  As Walker wrote:

The most effective inducement to buying a piece of land, I found, was to continue to stress the Emancipation argument: to tell the Negroes that they could never be really free until they owned their own homes.  Finally, after that conviction got well established, and the people were really awake to a sense of their duties to themselves and their families, we just let the company die.  Its purpose had been accomplished.

In 1944, historian Charles Purdue noted Thomas Calhoun Walker’s efforts in his book, The Negro in Virginia:

A consistent campaign for home and land ownership has been waged among the State’s rural Negroes for the past half century by Thomas C. Walker of Gloucester County, lawyer and former advisor to the Work Projects Administration of Virginia.  The success of his efforts is testified by the fact that, in Gloucester County, 881 of its 995 Negro families own their homes.  Of the 574 farms operated by Negroes in the county, 494 are owned by Negroes themselves.  In no county in the state, or in the Nation, is there a higher ratio of Negro farm ownership. (Virginia Writers Project, 1944, p. 365)  

When I first noticed that numerous people of color owned land in the late 18th and early 19th century, I wondered how it was possible.  I still don’t have the answer to this question, but I do admire those who were able to acquire land during this time.  The FREEMAN family clearly saw a future for their family by owning land in 1787.  The “List of the Land Tax within the District of Richard Gregory Commissioner of Gloucester County  the year 1787” noted that James FREEMAN owned 34 acres.  This land seems to have remained in the FREEMAN family throughout the next generation.  As I researched this family, it was hard to discern their race.  Some records identify this family as white, while others identity them as mulattoes.

To learn more about the genealogy of the Freeman family, see http://www.freeafricanamericans.com/Fagan_George.htm

The DRIVER, LEMON and MORRIS families are also recorded as land owners as far back as the 1782 Tax Records for Gloucester County, VA.  The MORRIS family is well documented here on Renegade South by Victoria Bynum’s “Free People of Color” in Old Virginia: The Morris Family of Gloucester County.”  My paternal great grandmother, Margaret MORRIS Driver was the daughter of Elijah MORRIS, who owned a great deal of land.  As of today, this land is still in my family.  Thank you Great Grand (2X) for this gift; I know you worked very hard to maintain our land.

Margaret Morris Driver, daughter of Elijah Morris,  wife of John Driver.

Margaret Morris Driver, daughter of Elijah Morris, wife of John Driver.

Children of Margaret Ann Morris and John Driver

Children of Margaret Ann Morris and John Driver

Professional Trades

During my years of my research, I found many free people of color who worked as skilled artisans, including as carpenters, bricklayers, blacksmiths, and shoemakers. Some excelled in their professions: the DRIVER Brothers made quality furniture.  My ancestors, Sam DRIVER and Robert DRIVER, were blacksmiths.  Matthew T. DRIVER (see photo below), one of the earliest instructors at Tuskegee University, taught wheelwrighting.  The majority of black male heads of households in Gloucester County were listed as farmers, oysterman and farm laborers, but they all knew how use their hands in one way or another.  The occupations listed for women of color included spinners, weavers, cake sellers, and one seamstress.

Matthew T. Driver

Matthew T. Driver

As a child I spent many summers with my uncle Bill DRIVER in Connecticut.  By day he was a tool maker and in his free time he dabbled in art and wood.  One summer I helped him build a coffee table.  As a person largely confined to a desk managing technology projects, I admire those who are gifted in working with their hands; they must feel a great sense of accomplishment.  The founder of Tuskegee Institute, Booker T Washington, believed that blacks should not only pursue and education, but should also know a trade—words of wisdom for all times.

For more on the lives of free families of color, see “Free People of Colour in Gloucester County, Virginia,” by Edwin B. Washington, Jr., and L. Roane Hunt.  The article can be obtained from the Gloucester Genealogical Society of Virginia at http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~vaggsv/index.htm.

CONCLUSION

My research has been very educational for me and I hope the same for you.  As you can see, I am not a professional writer and I only publish articles to share information with family and others.  As I conduct my research, I get a tiny glimpse into the past and I am encouraged by ancestors who have done remarkable things when the odds were against them.  This gives me perspective for any situation that I may come across in life.  I can only read about and imagine the hardships my ancestors incurred during their lives.  When I think about complaining, I go and do some research to get over what ails me.

There are many good sources for research, but take some time to read all the references that I have provided.  These dedicated researchers and writers have so much to share with you.

God Bless,

Wayne K Driver

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Would you like to know the true  story of the Free State of Jones, but don’t have time to read the long version? Good news! The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War (published 2001) has just been released by the University of North Carolina Press as part of its new “e-Book Shorts” series.  This excerpted digital version contains the original book’s introduction, epilogue, and two Civil War chapters.  Entitled Rebels Against Confederate Mississippi, it’s available from Amazon’s Kindle store for $4.99 (currently on sale for $3.99). For those who prefer the long version, it too is available from Kindle.

For details, or to order, click here.

Between late 1863 and mid-1864, an armed band of Confederate deserters battled Confederate cavalry in the Piney Woods region of Jones County, Mississippi. Calling themselves the Knight Company after their captain, Newton Knight, and aided by women, slaves, and children who spied on the Confederacy and provided food and shelter, they set up headquarters in the swamps of the Leaf River. There, legend has it, they declared the Free State of Jones.

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Littlefield Lecture poster

The Littlefield Lectures, UT Austin

I’m delighted to announce that I’ll be delivering this year’s Littlefield Lectures for the History Department of the University of Texas, Austin.  The lectures are based on research from my last two books, The Free State of Jones, and The Long Shadow of the Civil War:
“The Free State of Jones: Community, Race, and Kinship in Civil War Mississippi,” March 6, 4-6 p.m., Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302

“Communities at War”: Men, Women, and the Legacies of Anti-Confederate Dissent,” March 7, 4-6 p.m., Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302

If you’re in the area, I hope to see you there!

Vikki Bynum

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The Long Shadow of the Civil War, by Victoria Bynum

The “one drop rule” of race refers to the belief that a mere drop of African ancestry makes one “black”—no matter how “white” one’s appearance. This pseudoscientific concept, still commonly believed throughout the United States and among people of various ethnic and racial backgrounds, reinforces the idea that a white person who has even one African ancestor somehow is “passing” for white.  However, legal cases that involved race during an era in which being classified as a “Negro” severely circumscribed one’s civil rights reveal that questions about racial identity were anything but black and white. 

Historically, one of the many paradoxes of Southern race-based society was the co-existence of  the “one drop rule” alongside contradictory legal definitions of whiteness. In Mississippi and North Carolina, for example, a person with less than one-eighth African ancestry was legally defined as white. The legal criteria for determining one’s race sometimes—but certainly not always—prevailed over the one drop rule in cases involving the marital rights of mixed-race people.

For example, in 1949, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed and remanded Davis Knight’s 1948 conviction* for miscegenation (marrying across the color line) on grounds that the prosecution had failed to prove that Knight had at least one-eighth African ancestry. Challenged by Knight’s aggressive defense lawyer, Quitman Ross, the High Court agreed that the “one drop rule” could not be the determinant of a citizen’s legal status. Davis Knight was deemed legally white and therefore legally married.

Davis Knight’s courtroom victory proved that the disjuncture between social custom and state law might favorably impact a person’s fate. Conversely, in an 1888-1892 North Carolina case, Hopkins, et al, vs Boothe, et al,* Ann Bowers Boothe was deprived of her late husband’s property based on hearsay evidence that she was the daughter of a white woman and a former slave.  Even though her alleged father’s nickname, “Red,” indicated his own mixed-race background, and even though the one-eighth law was discussed, Ann’s degree of African ancestry (if indeed, she had any) did not determine the outcome of the case. Rather, the one drop rule prevailed.

An 1877 North Carolina divorce case, Long vs. Long,* reveals the grip of racialist thinking on judges who presided over the South’s transition from race-based slavery to race-based segregation. In a case seemingly not about interracial mixing at all, a white man, James C. Long, sued his white wife Teresa for divorce on grounds she had been pregnant by another man at the time of their marriage. Denied a divorce by the lower court, Long appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court and was again denied.

Justice William Blount Rodman, however, issued a lengthy dissent from the bench. Although Teresa Long had given birth to a white child, Justice Rodman raised the possibility that an adulterous woman such as she might have been carrying a black man’s child. Citing “scientific” evidence that makes our head swim today, Justice Rodman claimed that “physiologists tell us” that once a white woman has given birth to a mixed-race child, her blood “has been tainted by mingling with that of her first child, and she is incapable of bearing children that will not show mixture of African blood in appearance or character” (italics mine). The courts, argued Rodman, must therefore allow divorce in cases where the bride was already pregnant, or “man has lost the common right lawfully to continue his pure race.”

Such was the imputed power of one drop of African blood! Did this highly-educated Supreme Court judge truly believe that an interracial pregnancy had the power to “taint” the blood stream of a white woman? Given the racial theories of his time, he most likely did.  But Justice Rodman took the “one drop rule” a step further than most by arguing in essence that a white woman who crossed the color line risked turning herself “black,” since the “mingling” of her blood with that of her mixed-race child during pregnancy destroyed her “racial purity.” One wonders if Rodman would have required such a woman, then, to identify herself as “black,” or else face accusations that she was “passing” for white. 

Vikki Bynum

*I discuss the above court cases in The Long Shadow of the Civil War.

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I’m pleased to announce that Renegade South was recently listed as one of the top Civil War blogs by Onlinecourses.net! To visit the Online Courses site, simply click the certificate below.

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On September 29, 2010, the Jackson Free Press published Byron Wilkes’s review of The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies.  Historian/genealogist Ed Payne kindly sent me the link, which I have posted below.

After summarizing the scope and arguments of the book, Mr. Wilkes ended his review with the following remarks:

“Although Bynum discusses the “multiracial community that endures to this day” in Jones County, she makes sure to frame the narrative realistically, particularly in noting that the Knights were not outspoken abolitionists. Rather, this was simply the way they lived, astonishingly so for their era and geography.

Bynum depicts the other communities in equally intimate lights, grasping each one’s complexity while providing an analysis that brings this history to modern relevance.”

to read the entire review, click below.

http://www.jacksonfreepress.com/index.php/site/comments/things_we_dont_know_092910/

My thanks to Byron Wilkes for his review and to the Free Press for including my book in the pages of their fine newspaper.

Vikki Bynum

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Note from Moderator: Jonathan Odell has given me permission to reprint the following essay.  For more of Jon’s creative writings, visit him at http://jon-odell.com/




Rachel Knight: Slave, White Man’s Mistress and Mother to a Movement”

by Jonathan Odell


Rachel’s Children

I can’t help but think of the Old Testament Abraham when I hear stories about Newt Knight. Both men sired children by a wife and a slave. In Newt’s case it was Serena and Rachel. With Abraham, Sara and Hagar. According to religious texts, one of these women went on to become the matriarch of God’s chosen people. Exactly which one depends on what you happen to be reading, your Bible or your Koran. Jews and Christians claim the wife Sarah and Muslims claim the handmaiden Hagar. Several Crusades were launched trying to settle thatmatter.

In Jones County, there’s always been a fierce crusade of competing stories about Rachel, the white account versus the black account. Like most stories, the white interpretation gets written down and called history, while the black story gets handed down by word-of-mouth and called folklore.

Growing up as a white boy, I swore by Ethel Knight’s written-down version. According to her, Rachel was a light-skinned temptress with blue-green eyes and flowing chestnut hair. But evil as the day is long. Ethel alternately calls her a vixen, a witch, a conjure woman, a murderer and a strumpet.

Serena, Newt’s white wife, is but an innocent captive, forced a gunpoint to live in this den of iniquity, and like Newt, powerless as Rachel’s sorcery wrecked and degraded their family.

As a child of Jim Crow, this narrative satisfied my budding sensibilities about race. In my white-bubble world, there could never be any possibility of true love or affection between a white man and a black woman. Nor would any white man sire children by a black woman and then choose to live amongst his mixed-race offspring. Unless of course, the black woman had either seduced him unmercifully or mysteriously conjured him, or both. It just wasn’t possible that he actually loved her, or her children.

Imagine my surprise when I heard, as they say, “the rest of the story.” It was as shocking as sitting down in church and listening to the preacher get up and declare from the pulpit that Abraham’s birthright went to Hagar’s kid Ishmael, instead of Sarah’s son, Isaac, and it was we Christians who were the infidels!  Boy would that turn some peoples world upside down!

I felt something akin to this when I listened to a gathering of Rachel’s descendents tell me their side of things.  First of all Rachel wasn’t some immoral viper. To Pat and Flo and Peggy, Rachel was a role model—a strong black woman with no legitimate authority in a racist society, doing what needed to be done for her children, regardless of the cost to herself. Somebody you would like your daughter to grow up like.

“Was she the green-eyed slave with long flowing hair like Ethel said?” I asked.

“She was what we called a Guinea Negro,” answered Yvonne, another of Rachael’s great-grandchildren. “That means she was dark, not light-skinned like Ethel writes. She had course hair and she was short. Similar to Australian aborigines. She was mixed, but not white-looking.”

It was beginning to sound like a white conspiracy against Rachel, but then Yvonne let me in on a little secret. Whites weren’t the only ones who liked the story of Rachel appearing white. “That’s the way some of my cousins who pass for white want her to be depicted. They deny that they had any black in them so they don’t want Rachel to be black, either.”

“That was partially Newt’s fault,” Yvonne continued. “My mother said that Newt was trying to cleanse the black out of Rachel’s children. Because of the one-drop rule, he wanted to get rid of that drop of black blood. That’s why he married his white children to each other black children.” Yvonne grins at her relatives around the table. “As for me, I proudly claim my one drop!”

There is a burst of laughter. All these women agree on that point.

“And how about the part about being Rachel being a vixen and a witch?” I asked.

“It was always assumed that the slave was to blame for the husband’s indiscretions,” Yvonne explained. “She had to have some special power over him. It couldn’t be that he cared for her.”

Yvonne was right. That’s what I was always told. Slave owners were mostly noble men and succumbed only when mightily tempted. Why else would Newt isolate himself from his community and willingly be labeled as a deviate if he weren’t bewitched?

“In my family we believe that Newt really loved Rachel,” Pat said.

“It was not a casual relationship,” Yvonne added. “And he loved all of his children. My understanding is that they were all raised up on the same land. They all lived together, played together, ate together. My grandmother was Newt’s granddaughter, said she didn’t know she had a drop of black blood until she was all raised up.”

“I guess you can’t believe everything you read,” I said. “How do the black Knights feel about Ethel’s book?”

“My grandfather was Warren Smith,” Yvonne said, “He was Rachel’s grandson and he said that Ethel’s book was a pack of lies.  Said she was smart enough to create an entertaining account of Newt and Rachel’s relationship. But unfortunately,” Yvonne concluded, “white people tend to believe every word.”

Yvonne was right. I sure did. But now I’m not sure what to think. Rachel’s people have got me thoroughly confused. That’s what happens when folks start messing with the stories you were raised on.

So it comes down to that old, nagging question once more—which story is true? The truth is…I don’t know. I think they all might be. The way a story shapes a person is the truest thing there is.

The Italians say it better: All stories are true. Some even happened.

Gregory “Butch” Knight

There is probably no sadder task in the world than trying to get to know your father after he has died. Yet Butch Knight told me that was something he was determined to do.

I first met Butch at a gathering of the Knights who proudly trace their roots back to the ex-slave Rachel and the infamous Newt. Some of their descendants are called “black Knights”. Some are called “white black Knights”, because of their Caucasian features. Their history is complex. They are caught right in the crosshairs of our absurd national obsession with color.

For instance, Butch’s father, Hayston Knight, was the great-grandson of Newt and Rachel Knight. Butch showed me a photo of his father. There was nothing in the picture that would cause me to think this man black. His features were of a light-skinned, fine-boned white man. Butch said many of the Knights with his father’s appearance were encouraged to leave the area so they could pass for white, and raise their children as white. Of course they could never return home, lest their children discover their ancestry. The break had to be complete. Those who stayed were pressured into choosing marriage partners with their shade of pigmentation or lighter. Never darker.

“Not my father,” Butch recalled. “He said that foolishness was going to stop with him. He said he wanted to marry the blackest woman he could find. He was going to break the cycle.”

Butch said his father never denied who he was. On his first day in the army, Hayston’s sergeant ordered all the whites in one line and all the blacks in another. When Hayston placed himself with the other black soldiers, the sergeant shouted, “Didn’t you hear me? I said, only the n______’s over there!”

Hayston said defiantly, “Well, I guess I’m in the right place because I’m a n______!”

In the 1950’s Hayston got a job with a local grocery wholesaler and because of his intelligence and his white appearance was given significant responsibility in managing the operation. He was also put in charge of breaking in the new white trainees, who were inevitably promoted over Hayston. The family believed that the stress and the humiliation sent him to an early grave.

“My daddy wasn’t proud. He could have passed,” Butch says. “I wanted to write about my father. How he had to live in the black world and work in the white world.”

Butch admits being ashamed of his father while he was alive, seeing one white man after the other promoted over him. And his father never talked back.

“I admire him now,” Butch admits, with tears in his eyes. “He did it for us, his children. So he could support his family.”

“I’m starting to understand the struggle he had to go through,” Butch continued, “Not white enough to be accepted by whites. And too white to be accepted by blacks.”

I encouraged Butch to write about his father, as I’m doing with my dad after losing him last year to cancer. Sometimes it’s a lonely undertaking, with many ghosts, especially those missed moments when feelings went forever unspoken. But writing it down seems to help soothe the grief.

I didn’t need to encourage him. Butch had already begun the research. He even went so far as to sit down with Ethel Knight, the author of Echo of the Black Horn, to see what he could learn from her about his father.

“What did you think about her book?” I asked.

“Lies,” he said, referring to the way she denied the black descendants of Newt Knight in her book. “But when I went to see her, she treated me like long lost kin. It was very strange.”

I offered to work with Butch on his father’s biography. I could tell he was feeling some sense of urgency. Then he explained. Butch’s father died when he was 58. “An aneurism. Runs in family,” Butch said. “Comes from both sides.” Butch went on to say that this year, he had turned 58.  “I’m shaking in my boots.” His sisters who were present that day assured Butch that wouldn’t be the case for him. Butch didn’t appear comforted. I got the sense that he thought he might have waited until it was too late to discover the truth about his father.

Butch and I agreed to meet the next time I was in Mississippi and continue our discussion about his dad.  I put together a list of questions for Butch and was excited about dedicating a chapter in my upcoming book about his search for his father. When I called from Minnesota to arrange a meeting, his sister answered the phone.

“Butch died last month,” she said. “He collapsed while he was out mowing his yard.”

I wasn’t sure why that hit me so hard. In a way, it was like losing my father all over again. Perhaps I had hoped that by helping Butch discover his dad, in the process, I could also become closer to mine.
But that’s not to be. Perhaps, in the end, that is something a person can do only for himself. And maybe, looking for our fathers is like looking for our reflection in a mirror that has gone dim. We can never get close enough to make it out.

I’ll miss my friend, and I hope that where he is now, the reflection he gazes upon is bright and true, and he has found the answers was searching for.

For more columns on the Knights, white and black, see:

Newt Knight: Emperor Of The Free State Of Jones

White Negro Communities: Too White To Be Black And Too Black To Be White

By Jon Odell

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By Vikki Bynum, moderator

A few days ago, the Clarion Ledger (Jackson, MS) published a joint review of two books: Steve Yates’s novel, “Morkan’s Quarry,” and my study, The Long Shadow of the Civil War. As reviewer  Joe L. White notes, “both books dispel the myth of the ‘Solid South.” Yates, he writes, provides a rich story of how “war can expose avarice, cruelty, viciousness, . . . and the opposites of compassion, kindness and humanity.” As a historical work, The Long Shadow shows “how Mississippi families played a major part in maintaining resistance to what many considered an unfair ‘rich man’s war’,” suggesting that the Civil War’s effects are not only “long-lasting, but perhaps never-ending.”

White ends his review by counseling readers to “take a gamble. Either book is a sure bet.” As the author of one of those books, I hope you’ll take his advice!

To read Joe White’s entire review click here:  http://www.clarionledger.com/article/20100530/FEAT05/5300307/1023/FEAT03/Review-New-Civil-War-books-compelling

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By Vikki Bynum, Moderator

In recent weeks, The Family Origins of Vernon Dahmer, Civil Rights Activist, by Yvonne Bivins and Wilmer Watts Backstrom, published December 6, 2009 on Renegade South, has received increased attention and interesting comments from readers. I’m pleased that Tiffany Jones even republished it on her blog, Mulatto Diaries.

A few readers of Renegade South posed interesting questions after reading the Dahmer history.  “Ms T. A.”, for example, wondered what caused Vernon Dahmer, a man of limited African ancestry, to identify as “black,” and ultimately sacrifice his life working for black civil rights. Also, in regard to racial identification, A.D. Powell (author of Passing for Who You Really Are: Studies in Support of Multiracial Whiteness), drew attention to two instances in which the mixed-race infants of unmarried white women were reportedly given to mulatto families to be raised.

To better understand the ways in which economic class as well as race have historically shaped multiracial communities, I returned to my research files on mixed-race people, and also to a few books on my shelf.  In her 1986 history of the Horne family, for example, Gail Lumet Buckley illuminated the “old black bourgeoisie” from which her mother, Lena Horne, descended. That elite group, writes Buckley, was comprised of “three segments of black society in existence before the Civil War: free northern blacks, free southern blacks, and ‘favored’ slaves.” (The Hornes: An American Family, p. 4)*

Of course, most mixed-race people were not part of this black bourgeoisie. Two classic autobiographies proved especially helpful in understanding less elite families : Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (1861), and Pauli Murray’s Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family (1956, 1978). Both the authors were defined legally as “black” despite having greater degrees of European than African ancestry.  White appearance notwithstanding, Harriet was born and raised a slave. Pauli, born after slavery was abolished, was the great-granddaughter of an enslaved woman who was impregnated by the sons of her master. On Pauli’s great-grandfather’s side, she was descended from a northern interracial marriage between a white woman and a mixed race man.

Both Harriet and Pauli had advantages denied to most people defined as black by white society.  Harriet’s father was not only mixed-race, but a skilled carpenter; her grandmother on her mother’s side was the daughter of a white planter who managed through her connections to white society to gain her freedom (but not her children’s).

Pauli’s southern ancestors were likewise slaves. Her grandmother and her grandmother’s sisters, however, were removed from their mother’s slave cabin by Mary Ruffin Smith, the sister of their wealthy white fathers, and raised in the “Big House.” Although Mary never publicly admitted that the four sisters were the daughters of her brothers (and therefore her nieces), she could not bring herself to treat them as chattel slaves.

My point in discussing Harriet Jacobs and Pauli Murray is not to retell their fascinating life stories, but to explore how white connections might mitigate the disadvantages of race, particularly among light-skinned people of African ancestry. Despite their white ancestry and advantageous connections, Harriet and Pauli, like Vernon Dahmer, identified first and foremost with their African American kinfolk. And why wouldn’t they? Despite light skin and interracial connections, Harriet was nonetheless a slave; Pauli was subjected to segregation. And, of course, both women witnessed abuse and discrimination against people of African ancestry all their lives. It was the cultural rather than biological experience of race that shaped their consciousness.

The lives of mixed-race children who had no favored place or acknowledged kinship with wealthy or influential whites were, of course, much different. Here, my research into North Carolina court records is most revealing. Not only were most mixed-race slaves raised in the quarters rather than in the Big House, but records indicate that being the mixed-race offspring of a single white woman or a free black woman often brought unwelcome attention from the courts, as such children were born free in a slaveholding society.

In chapter four of my book, Unruly Women (1992), “Punishing Deviant Women: The State as Patriarch,” pp. 88-110, I covered in some detail the multiracial communities of Orange and Granville Counties in North Carolina. Susan Williford of Granville County provided a particularly vivid example of the ways in which southern lawmakers punished poor white women for crossing the color line.  Although Susan, a white woman, remained in a stable relationship with Peter Curtis, a free man of color, for most of her adult life (the two were forbidden by law to marry), all of their mixed-race children were removed by the courts from their home and apprenticed to white farmers or planters of the community. The children were forced to live and work for these “masters” until they reached adulthood.

Free women of color were likewise forbidden to marry across the color line, or to marry slave men. By law, any child born to a free woman was also free, regardless of the woman’s race or the father’s status.  Therefore, if free women of color bore children to either white or enslaved men, those children were also subject to being apprenticed by the courts to white families.

In North Carolina, the pre-Civil War system of apprenticeship thus supplemented slavery in controlling the mobility and labor of free people of mixed ancestry. It also served to create the fiction of a society divided between “white” and “black” people, when in fact many free “blacks” (and a good many slaves) had more European and Indian than African ancestry.

Reviewing historical records and autobiographies makes it clear that economic class and gender, as well as heritage and physical appearance, played an integral part in shaping one’s racial identity. This was true in the North as well as the South, where even among Northern abolitionists racial discrimination was commonly practiced. For example, after escaping to the North, Harriet Jacobs wrote that she “found the same cruel manifestations of that cruel prejudice which so discourages the feelings and represses the energies of the colored people,” as in the South (p. 176).

Harriet E. Wilson’s 1859 autobiographical novel, Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, highlighted the racial hypocrisy of white northerners who viewed slavery as only a southern problem. This Harriet, who was the abandoned mixed-race daughter of a poor white woman of New England, expressed contempt for white abolitionists “who didn’t want slaves at the South,” but also did not want people of color in their homes: “Faugh!” she wrote,  “to lodge one; to eat with one; to admit one through the front door; to sit next to one–awful!” (129)

A final word about “passing”. This term might best be eliminated from our vocabulary, as it legitimizes the basis for the “one drop rule” of race. To “pass” implies that even though people might look at you and believe that you are “white,” you are nonetheless “black”–and should identify yourself as such–if you have an African ancestor lurking in your past. The assumption is not only that race is an objective biological category of distinction, but furthermore that African “blood” somehow overwhelms all other “blood” in determining who a person really is.  The late Mae Street Kidd, a former “black” representive from Kentucky, exposed the absurdity of the one drop rule and the concept of “passing” when she said, “I’ve been passing for black all my life because I’m almost 90 percent white. . . . It’s so very obvious that I’m so much whiter than I am black that I have to pretend to be black.”  (Wade Hall, Passing for Black: The Life and Careers of Mae Street Kidd (1997), p. 177)

The Dahmer family history certainly raises provocative questions and provides tantalizing insights into mixed-race or multiracial communities.  For those interested in exploring the topic further, I recommend visiting Mixed Race Studies and  Study of Racialism, both great bibliographic resources for both online and printed sources.

And here’s a hopeful sign, brought to my attention by A.D. Powell, that we are moving beyond simplistic and dualistic notions of race:

Emerging Paradigms in Critical Mixed Race Studies,” the first annual Critical Mixed Race Studies Conference, will be held at DePaul University in Chicago on November 5-6, 2010.

http://las.depaul.edu/aas/About/CMRSConference/index.asp

* Note: To view a tribute to Lena Horne’s life and work, see the webpage posted by the Institute of Jazz Studies, a special collections unit of the John Cotton Dana Library on the Rutgers University Newark Campus:
http://newarkwww.rutgers.edu/IJS/

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I am delighted to post historian Paul Escott’s review of my new book, recently published on H-Net’s Civil War forum!

Vikki Bynum, moderator

http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=29769

Victoria E. Bynum. The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. 272 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-3381-0; ISBN 978-0-8078-9821-5.

Reviewed by Paul Escott (Wake Forest University)
Published on H-CivWar (May, 2010)
Commissioned by Matthew E. Mason

Escott on Bynum

“Few histories,” writes Victoria Bynum, “are buried faster or deeper than those of political and social dissenters” (p. 148). The Long Shadow of the Civil War disinters a number of remarkable dissenters in North Carolina, Mississippi, and Texas. It introduces the reader to stubbornly independent and courageous Southerners in the North Carolina Piedmont, the Mississippi Piney Woods, and the Big Thicket region around Hardin County, Texas. These individuals and family groups were willing to challenge their society’s coercive social conventions on race, class, and gender. They resisted the established powers when dissent was not only unpopular but dangerous–during the Civil War and the following decades of white supremacy and repressive dominance by the Democratic Party. Their histories remind us of two important truths: that the South was never as monolithic as its rulers and many followers tried to make it; and that human beings, though generally dependent on social approval and acceptance by their peers, are capable of courageous, independent, dissenting lives.

Bynum begins by focusing on the fierce, armed resistance to Confederate authority that developed in the North Carolina Piedmont, in Mississippi’s “Free State of Jones,” and in Texas’ Big Thicket counties. All three areas “had solid nonslaveholding majorities with slaves making up only 10 to 14 percent of their populations” (p. 16). Guerrilla leaders in all three supported the Union over the Confederacy, sheltered and encouraged deserters, and fought the soldiers and authorities of the new Southern nation. They often gained considerable power locally and forced Confederate leaders to dispatch troops in vain internal efforts to eradicate them.

Bynum gives detailed attention in this part of the book to the North Carolina Piedmont. Religious conviction was an important part of resistance in North Carolina’s “Quaker Belt,” where particularly strong resistance developed in Randolph County, an area that had also been influenced by the antislavery beliefs of Wesleyan Methodists. Women played an especially prominent role in dissent in the Piedmont. They aided their husbands, stole to feed their families, helped other deserters, and both protested to and threatened Confederate officials. “Deeply felt class, cultural, and religious values animated” these women’s actions (p. 51).

In nearby Orange County, North Carolina, there was “a lively interracial subculture” whose members “exchanged goods and engaged in gambling, drinking, and sexual and social intercourse” (p. 9). During the war these poor folks, who had come together despite “societal taboos and economic barriers,” supported themselves and aided resistance to the Confederacy by stealing goods and trading with deserters. During Reconstruction elite white men, who felt that their political and economic dominance was threatened along with their power over their wives and households, turned to violence to reestablish control. Yet interracial family groups among the poor challenged their mistreatment and contributed to “a fragile biracial political coalition” (pp. 55-56) that made the Republican Party dominant before relentless attacks from the Ku Klux Klan nullified the people’s will.

Bynum next focuses on Newt Knight’s military company that fought the Confederacy in Jones County, Mississippi. These armed resisters were so powerful that by late 1863 the Confederate government had to send troops to the area in order to carry out two major (and largely unsuccessful) raids against them. Knight also defied racial taboos by choosing to live with and father children by a black woman named Rachel, who was a slave of Newt’s grandfather. Together they started “a multiracial community that endures to this day” (p. 8). Bynum’s careful research adds to our understanding of the nature and roots of resistance in the “Free State of Jones.” Through three decades following the Civil War, Knight petitioned for financial compensation from the United States for the pro-Union efforts of himself and his military company. The documents of his long and ultimately unsuccessful quest reveal details about Jones County Unionism and his own determination. Pro-Union ideals played a far larger role than religion among Knight’s company. Newt’s obstinate resistance to the South’s ruling class led him to embrace and work for Populism in the later years of his life.

Family and community ties were at least as important among dissenting Southerners as among the slaveholding elite. Close relatives of Newt Knight and of his two key lieutenants in the “Free State of Jones” had moved to east Texas in the 1850s. There several brothers–Warren, Newton, and Stacy Collins–became principal figures in the anti-Confederate resistance that flourished in the Big Thicket region. Only one of eight Collins brothers chose to be loyal to the Confederate government. After fighting Confederate authorities during the Civil War, the Collinses and their relations later became active in the Populist Party and then in the Socialist Party. They stood up against the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of greedy or corrupt capitalists just as they had rejected the dominance of slaveholders. Back in Mississippi, members of the Collins clan chose to resist not only the power of the Democratic Party but the religious and cultural dominance of the Baptist Church, which had become part of the “white southern orthodoxy” (p. 108). Jasper Collins and other members of his family began a Universalist church; Newt Knight’s brother Frank “converted to Mormonism and moved to Colorado.” Such “dissident religious groups” faced “fierce and frequently violent” reactions, for they “threatened the reconstituted order over which the Democratic Party reigned supreme” (p. 105).

Professor Bynum closes her book with a chapter on the interracial offspring of Newt and Rachel Knight. Called “white Negroes” or “Knight’s Negroes” by their neighbors, these individuals continued to exhibit an independent spirit as they dealt with their society and with each other. They chose to identify themselves in a variety of ways; different members of the family adopted different approaches to life. Some passed as white, others affirmed their African American identity, and still others saw themselves as people of color but kept a distance from those whom society defined as Negroes. Within the family group there were many independent spirits. One woman, the ascetic Anna Knight, forged a long and energetic career as an educator and Seventh-Day Adventist missionary.

Victoria Bynum has plunged deeply into the primary sources on these interesting individuals, family groups, and local communities. Her footnotes will be very useful to future scholars. Yet, micro-history of this type often proves to be more tangled, complex, and difficult to comprehend than study of a large region, because the connections are both more abundant and, inevitably, less fully documented. It also is difficult to tell a multiplicity of short but complicated stories clearly. Professor Bynum’s history of these dissenters lifts the veil on a complicated web of friends, enemies, allies, and family relations who interacted over time. To describe the variety and extent of local conflicts, she must characterize the local community and introduce a host of minor characters. The multiplication of names, places, and details can be as confusing as it is illustrative of the depth of her research. Unfortunately, the welter of briefly mentioned details makes the reader’s experience choppy and sometimes confusing. Had the sources been rich enough, three separate books might have been easier to read than one peopled by so many characters whose personalities remain dim.

The Long Shadow of the Civil War is valuable, however, because it proves that dissent was not rare and insignificant. It modifies the image created by those in power of a solid, unchanging South united behind class dominance, white supremacy, and subordination of women. As writers like Eudora Welty have shown us, the Southern man or woman can be an independent, stubborn, dissenting, even eccentric individual. The fact that we tend to remember so few of these Southerners testifies to the coercive power that repressive elites have exercised through most of the region’s history.

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