Multiracial Families/Communities

Race and the “One Drop Rule” in the Post-Reconstruction South

By Vikki Bynum

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.

UPDATE: This post has been reposted to include photographs donated by a family member. Click here to see “The One Drop Rule Revisited: Mary Ann McQueen of Montgomery County, North Carolina.”


29 replies »

  1. Interesting post Vikki.

    On a similar note, I have an ancestor (surname of “Richards”) who, I suppose by virtue of the fact that he (and his mother and siblings) were living (in 1850) in a household owned by a free black, was listed as “mulatto.” The whole thing about this amazed me when I discovered it. I still return to the story from time to time to try to piece things together, but it is darn difficult to unravel. It seems that when my fourth great grandmother’s husband died, she wasn’t doing so well financially, and through some way or another ended up in this home owned by a free black… which happened to be in a village of many other free blacks. My third great grandfather, Joseph Richards… and his brother Howard, enlisted in a Confederate artillery unit at the beginning of the war. Yet, once the unit was disbanded, they seemed to have evaded conscription.

    The whole thing is complicated, but I find it fascinating and even wonder if, perhaps, they were really among those categorized as “mixed race” or were just labeled so because of the living circumstances.

    On another note, I have done the DNA test (through National Geographic’s Genographic project) and I think they have traced all lines through DNA back to Africa.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your own story, which reminds me of the mixed-race households that I discovered when researching my first book, Unruly Women, and which I re-examine in the next book, Long Shadow of the Civil War. Although such households repesented a tiny minority of the overall population, in all three North Carolina counties that I studied, I found subcultures of people who did not abide by the “rules” of race in a slaveholding society. The economic needs of widowed, single, or divorced women made them particularly likely to cross the color line, socially or sexually, but, in general, whites and free blacks were not so segregated as stereotypical images of the Old South would have us believe. Like Southern Unionists, interracial households are too often dismissed as examples of aberrant behavior rather than signs of a more complex social/political culture.


  2. That’s interesting. I need to do some reading on the issue. I do know that by 1860, she had married again and was back in a “white community.” All of her children (most living on their own) were, according to census records, once again “white.”

  3. I just finished reading Martha Sandridge’s Passing Strange which tells the story of Clarence King. King was the president of the American Geological Society and operated in the highest social and political circles of Washington and New York City. It turns out that he married a black woman by the name of Ada Copeland and managed to convince her that he was black. He did this by convincing her that he was a porter on the sleeping cars. It really is a fascinating story and challenges some of our fundamental assumptions about race and the racial divide. I highly recommend this book.

    Kevin at Civil War Memory

  4. Thanks for the recommendation, Kevin. I was reading reviews of this book over on the Study of Racialism website, and it sounds fascinating!


  5. Have you ever looked into the early history of New Bern NC? Its becoming clear to me that the early slaveholders in this town in many cases had both a white and black family and they were very open about it. You have this large free black population of craftsman and artisans who were quite wealthy.
    The link below is to a family I have been researching. Its interesting how people are described in the census. One year Mulatto, another year White, or another year Black or Colored.

    In researching the New Bern area I have become convinced that race was important but class was just as important. Class provided you with opportunites regardless of your skin color. How else can you explain someone like John Carruthers Stanly of New Bern. The link below describes him.

    The term Mulatto is one that most people assume implies white/black ancestry but I know it also applies to white/indian ancestry. When the Tuscaroras were defeated in the early 1700s in NC many were sold into slavery.

    “The militia of North Carolina with the assistance of the Legislature of South Carolina, who provided “six hundred militia and three hundred and sixty Indians under Col. Barnwell” attacked the Southern Tuscarora and other tribes in Craven County at Fort Narhantes on the banks of the Neuse River. The Tuscarora were “defeated with great slaughter; more than three hundred native Americans were killed, and one hundred made prisoners.” These prisoners were largely women and children, who were ultimately sold into slavery.”

    If I remember correctly early NC law took into account not only what percentage of African you had in your blood but also who you associated with in determining race. This would eventually change. I have spent alot of time looking at the census and it is interesting how in 1870 you have someone called a mulatto but as the years go by they move into the white or black communities.

    • Richard,

      Thanks for your very interesting post, and for the great links. I have not specifically studied New Bern, but am interested in all the same aspects of racial identity that you describe: the inclusion of Indians as “Mulattoes” on public records, the greater contact between whites and blacks than is generally assumed, and the way in which “association” becomes part of the equation when court officials and census takers determine racial designation. Thanks for stopping by and giving us so much to ponder!


  6. Interesting post, and one that confirms what I already knew from experience–that white and black communities in the south were much more interrelated than much scholarship seems to note. I have wondered, at times, as I read some histories of the south, if I made my own history up–ie, a history that included the interaction of my white ancestors, with Cherokee intermarriage, with the well entrenched black community in our area (the mountains of Virginia) over at least six generations of which I know, beginning with the generation that included a Confederate veteran. This was not an interaction that was based upon the subservience of one race to another; but one of true equality in which Jim Crow law was just ignored and blatantly disregarded, since the white men and women who cared about Jim Crow never came “down on the Railroad”, where the black community lived, and where we joined them–my grandmother, my mother, and then–me–and rarely did they enter my grandmother’s various entrepreneurial businesses that she ran to keep the family–of which she was indisputably the boss–afloat, except on her terms. (You guessed it. The men were gone, and the women were firmly in charge, following the example of my grandmother’s grandmother who lived in the time of the Civil War, who was a midwife and an herbalist doctor, and who was every bit her husband’s equal. So much for the “submissive” southern woman folklore! What is that research based on? Not on any southern woman I ever knew.) Thanks, Vicki, I must be a renegade southerner–and a no good woman, too. Looks like I am in good company.

    • Hey, Sherree, I wish I had had your family’s story for my first book, Unruly Women! Yours is definitely the South of ordinary people who built lives for themselves that suited their needs, not that of the slaveholding minority. I have often enjoyed your comments on other Civil War sites, and I’m delighted to have you visit over here. This is exactly why I decided to start blogging rather than just write books. I love being able to share the histories of largely ignored or misrepresented people more widely, and I love the immediate responses and interaction that this blog has brought.


  7. Vikki,

    You have made my day! Thank you so much for your kind remarks, and thank you for your outstanding scholarship! I will be back, with your permission and invitation. Have a wonderful day.

    • Joseph,

      I don’t know of any books offhand that address interracial marriage in Tennessee during Reconstruction, but two broad studies that provide at least some historical info on it are Peter Bardaglio’s Reconstructing the Household, and Charles Frank Robinson’s Dangerous Liaisons. Joel Williamson’s work on race during this era should also have information on Tennessee.

      You might try entering the key words “Reconstruction, Tennessee interracial marriage history” into a search engine like google and see what comes up.

      Good luck,

    • Joseph, I just came across another title that might provide information on interracial marriage in Tennessee: Peggy Pascoe, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America, (Oxford Univ. Press, 2009).
      Dr. Pascoe has published excellent work on this subject and I’m sure this new book is no exception.


  8. The Coastal Carolina Indian Center website at has a great deal of information on it akin to the Tuscarora Living History threaded to NC and other threads associated with the 1st people of eastern and coastal O-neh-weh-yuh-ka (North Carolina.)

    We are very thankful that a number of students attending public and private schools across the great state of North Carolina via CCIC’s Great Salt Water Educational Outreach Program ‘walking its talk’ in building educational bridges on local, state and national levels (per teacher/school administration requests) continues having the opportunity to learn more about the Living History of the Native American Indians of North Carolina. This includes the Indians of eastern and coastal NC.

    Reflection Points:
    How many people living and working in eastern and coastal NC dare pause and consider the 1st languages spoken in New Bern prior to the Tuscarora War of 1711-13 was not English.
    How many people know the indigenous names of the Indian Towns…villages pre New Bern..pre Snow Hill…pre North Carolina prior to colonization…prior to the Tuscarora War of 1711-13?
    What was the noted trade language of the Indian families residing near the Trent and Neuse Rivers?

    It is an honor for the volunteers working with CCIC to share what we know about the Living History of the 1st people of eastern and coastal NC in addition to helping others delving into their family tree. For some folks it is a bittersweet journey to stop and consider one’s ancestral branches that might be threaded to the early Tuscarora and/or a number of other eastern and coastal NC tribes.

    Fact: The Cherokee did not occupy the land in eastern/coastal O-neh-weh-yuh-ka prior to colonization. The Tuscarora and a number of other coastal groups did.

    Not all Tuscaroras after the Tuscarora War of 1711-13 having been fought in eastern O-neh-weh-yuh-ka (NC) chose to leave eastern NC and slowly migrate towards the North later joining the Iroquois Confederacy.

    A number of Women with Children and Elders chose to stay in eastern NC. Yah kwen heh!

  9. .
    THE FACTS on the racist ‘One-Drop Rule’ :
    Here is a brief COMMENTARY on … the consistent
    misapplication of the racist ‘One-Drop Rule’ ** (to the
    people who are of any part-Black / Mixed-Race Lineage):
    The racist ‘one-drop’ “rule” was made ‘illegal’ in the U.S. in
    1967 by the U.S. Supreme Court via the ‘Loving vs. VA’ case
    (i.e. The ‘Loving’ case) – where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled …
    — 1) All ‘Anti-Miscegenation’ Laws found throughout the U.S.;
    — 2) The racist ‘VA Racial Integrity Act’ (upon which most
    of the anti-miscegenation ‘laws’ were founded); and
    — 3) The (‘black-lineage mocking’ and exceedingly) racist
    ‘One-Drop Rule’ (upon which the ‘Act’ was based.)
    … as being ‘UN-Constitutional’ (i.e. illegal, banned, etc.)
    due to the fact that it was both ‘racist’ and ‘unscientific’.]
    THE FACTS on Mixed-Race Linage:
    1) It is often a surprise for people to learn that,
    in reality, there is actually No Such Thing
    As a “Light Skinned Black” person.
    2) Very few people seem to be aware of the fact that the term
    “Light Skinned Black” is really nothing more than a racist
    oxymoron created by Racial Supremacists in an effort to
    forcibly deny those Mixed-Race individuals, who are of
    a Multi-Generational Multiracially-Mixed (MGM-Mixed)
    lineage, the right to fully embrace and to also received
    public support in choosing to acknowledge the truth
    regarding their full ancestral heritage and lineage.
    3) The people who have been slapped with
    the false label and oxymoronic misnomer
    of “Light Skinned Black” person are simply
    Mixed-Race individuals — who are from those
    families which have been “of a CONTINUALLY
    Mixed-Race Lineage THROUGHOUT all of their
    multiple generations” (starting with the very
    first generation of racial-admixing and
    leading to their present generation.).
    4) Seeing that every other Mixed-Race group is allowed
    the dignity of receiving support in having itself referred to
    by the term that it most prefers … the question becomes
    …“Why should the situation be any different for
    those Mixed-Race individuals who are of an
    Multi-Generational Multiracially-Mixed
    MGM-Mixed) / Mixed-Race Lineage?”.
    5) If an MGM-Mixed / Mixed-Race individual would like to
    be referred to by the term ‘Mixed-Race’ (which is what they
    actually are) rather than by that of “Light-Skinned Black“
    (a term, which, once again, has the racist-origin of being
    nothing more than an oxymoronic-phrase that was both
    created and coined by Racial Supremacists in an effort to
    try to deny these Mixed-Race people their right to and support in
    publicly acknowledging and also embracing their FULL-Lineage)
    there is no reason that they (like every other group on the planet
    – whether Mixed-Race or not) should not be allowed the right
    to choose the term that society uses in referring to them
    (and to have their full-lineage acknowledged within that term).
    Historical TRUTH VS. MYTH & Urban Legend
    Listed below are links to data on the Historical MYTH
    of a Color-Based / Slave-Role HIERARCHY — as well
    as the Urban LEGEND of Paper-Bag, Blue-Vein and
    Other Allegations of Features-Based Entry ‘TESTS’:
    If there are any questions regarding the information
    presented, I can be reached anytime at the email
    address and / or websites noted below.
    Thank you and have a good day.
    – AllPeople (AP) G.i.f.t.s.
    Founder and Moderator of the following
    online Lineage-Discussion Communities

    • The premises set forth here by “All people-gifts” certainly get to the heart of issues concerning racial identity, imposed and chosen. Readers may find some of the sites linked interesting as well, but I have not visited them and cannot vouch for their content or freedom from viruses.


  10. .

    Hi Vikki,

    Thanks for commenting on the information that I posted
    (and hopefully you’ll be able to visit the links soon). =)

    The links should all be free from viruses and I hope the information is helpful in
    getting people to get rid of concepts such as the now defunct ‘One-Drop Rule’.

    Thanks again Vikki — your site is EXCELLENT
    (and is also quoted on my Facebook page). =)

    Have a wonderful day.

    — APGifts


    • Thank you for your follow-up comment and for your praise for Renegade South. I generally don’t post comments from commercial enterprises, which is why I included my disclaimer. But your sites look both interesting and relevant to the topics on which I write, so I decided to approve your comment. I will check the sites out as soon as possible and let readers know more about them.


      • Hi Vikki,

        Thank you again — and, once you are able to check
        the sites, please feel free to let me know if you think
        any of the information presented needs corrected,
        changed, modified, updated or anything else.

        Your expertise in this area is greatly appreciated.

        Listed below is our latest post on the ‘One-Drop Rule’
        ‎ .

        (Sorry about ‘posting’ it — I cannot find your direct email address).

        If you have anything to add or correct, please feel
        free to let me know and / or post online at the site.

        Have a wonderful day.

        — APGifts (

  11. My mom found a book in her great aunts attic that traces our ancestors blood line. I love looking at the book outs amazing. I was amazed how far back it goes. Starts off in Scotland around the year 1500 with a clan called Kerr or Carr. Who was well known especially Sir Thomas Kerr for trying to save Mary, Queen of Scots. Later one of his sons Robert Carr purchased Conanicut in Narragansett Bay and another Carr brother named Caleb Carr became governor of Rhode Island. Unfortunately Robert Car seem to have done lot of bad deeds. He was given a large group of men and was to go down the river destroying Dutch and Indian villages. It seem he also sold people into slavery. In fact one of the Carr brothers was accused of fathering several kids with one of Thomas Jefferson’s house slave but DNA later proved none of the Carr’s fathered the children. Flipping through this book from the year 1500 to 2000 jaws so much interesting history. From Scots traveling here on the may flower to pirates. Its amazing history. It seems we mixed with all races or cultures. I adopted my 2 kids when their mom left them. I have a white son and a half black daughter. I find it so odd that they would declare u a race depending on the culture or race one was seen being around. Honestly when im asked on paper what race I am or my kids I put other. When asked why I respond that we are all mixed and leave it at that. Thanks for the stories it helps paint a picture of the past. Sorry I went off subject a bit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.