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Nancy Stevens wrote the following memoir some months after we began communicating about our mutual descent from the Bynum family of Jones County, Mississippi. Nancy was kind enough to send me excerpts from the Bible of her distant ancestor, Drury Bynum (b. circa 1806), the brother of my own ancestor, William Bynum II (b. circa 1795). A discussion of  our ancestral roots followed, and, soon, Nancy decided to read my book, The Free State of Jones. Like so many descendants of families that participated in Jones County’s inner civil war during the nation’s Civil War, including myself, Nancy had very little knowledge of this incredible time of upheaval, or of the cultural and political history that led our ancestors to take the stands they did.  Her reflections remind us that history not only shines a light on how we got to this place in time as a society, but also illuminates who we are as individuals by stimulating memories that place us in the stream of that very history.

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

 

The history of the Free State of Jones has given me so much insight into the ways that my values were formed and why.  My family never fully bought into the “Lost Cause” mentality as did so many of our neighbors and my peers.  I always thought that my mother’s being from Appalachia was the reason for our family being a bit more “liberal” than our neighbors; however, I now realize that my thoughts on this were much too simplistic. 

I was born in 1945 and grew up on a farm in Clarke County.  We had to build a new house “up on the road” (gravel) so that the school bus could pick me up and take me to school.  Daddy was a farmer and had 2 black tenant families living on our land.  Because our house was so far back in the woods and my playmates all black, I did not realize the significance of my being white and my best friend being black until it was time for us to start first grade.  When mother told me that because my best friend was black she therefore would not be attending my white school, I threw a fit.  I can still remember our school bus passing the black school and my wishing I could be in that school with my best friend. 
 
Florene left Mississippi for Chicago when she graduated from high school and has remained there living in a middle class neighborhood.  We continue to keep in touch and visit each other from time to time for we alone share a common history that we share with no one else.  Recently, Florene reminded me of how much she always enjoyed going into Quitman, the county seat, with my mother because mother would take her into all the white establishments with us – even have her eat at our table in restaurants!  I guess my mom was considered a “foreigner” by Clarke County standards!
 
After reading The Free State of Jones, I now realize that intermingling of whites and blacks in remote areas of MS was not such a radical thing.  Although by the 1950s, intermingling on an “equal” basis was quite controversial and not socially acceptable.
 
I also remember an old judge, last name Fatheree, speaking to our Methodist congregation in the ’50s about the supposed racial and intellectual inferiority of blacks, citing the difference in the white brain vs. the black brain.  Now, my mother forbade my brother and me from attending this lecture, but we walked up to the church anyway and stood under the windows listening.  I left quite puzzled and frightened; but because I had disobeyed them, I could not ask my parents about Judge Fatheree’s comments.
 
Reading about the Free State of Jones has brought all this back so clearly.  I have so many tales to tell; maybe I should jot them down.  I realize how fortunate I was to have been raised by parents with an accepting value system although I did conform to most cultural rules in order to survive.  However, to quote Van Buren Watts:  “As soon as I realized where I was, I got out” (Free State of Jones, page 177).
 
Nancy Stevens
 

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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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