Multiracial Families/Communities

Exploring the Many Facets of Mixed-Race Identity

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.

* 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:

14 replies »

  1. Hi Vikki,


    For a look at a particularly brutal implementation of laws that combined race, gender, and class discrimination, your readers might be interested in the following entry concerning the Racial Integrity Act of Virginia, 1924. Not only were men and women of African descent discriminated against in no uncertain terms; so were men and women of Indigenous descent and white women from impoverished economic classes. The most infamous case of class discrimination involved Carrie Buck, a young white woman who was raped by the nephew of her foster parents, and then institutionalized and sterilized.

    In all, roughly four thousand white women were sterilized in Virginia for being from an economic class different from that of the ruling class, and untold numbers of women of color. It is “mind boggling“, to say the least.

    Here is the entry: –

    PS. Enjoying your blog, as always!


    • Hi Sherree,

      Nice to hear from you. Thanks for calling attention to the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which represents an extreme example by some states to ferret out every person with African Ancestry and identify them as “black.” As you point out, ethnic and racial discrimination has historically cast a very wide net, with shocking results.



    • Susan Williford and Peter Curtis are apparently my 4x great grandparents. I descend from their son Augustus. My inquiry comes to you posing the question of dp you know the relationship between the Williford family and the Curtis family? Evidently Peter’s sister Nancy Curtis, had a child named Jane Curtis, whom had a child by Augustus Williford. This means they were 1st cousins…and oddly enough none of these ladors were married and therefore their children inherited their mother’s “maiden” name. Seemingly very deviant behavior.


      • Kellie,

        Thank you so much for contributing information on your Williford-Curtis family history! While researching my doctoral dissertation back in the 1980s, which in 1992 became my book, Unruly Women, I spent a good deal of time researching Susan Williford, Peter Curtis, and their children.

        As you note, the behavior of this couple and their relatives was deemed deviant during the Civil War era in which they lived and built a family. It was their crossing of the color line—Susan was defined as white, Peter as black—that caused slaveholding whites to label them deviant. Susan and Peter would have had a legal common law marriage if they had been of the same race. I’m certain, in fact, that they would have gotten married in a court of law had they been able to do so. But mixed marriages were against the law during their time.

        I wrote extensively about Susan in Unruly Women, and even included a brief genealogy table of her and Peter’s family together (p. 91). She was a poor white woman, born to Elizabeth Williford, the daughter of William and Elizabeth Williford. Peter Curtis and Nancy Curtis were brother and sister from a family of free African-Americans. They appear to have been mixed-race, as were most of the free families of color in Granville County, NC, where they lived.

        Free people of color were not allowed to marry either whites or slaves in pre-Civil War North Carolina. This made cousin marriages even more common—these free people had only a small group of people within which they could legally marry. The marriage between Susan and Peter’s son Augustine and Nancy’s daughter Jane reflected this reality.

        Before the Civil War, cousin marriages were quite common among all free people, regardless of race. In the industrializing North, first cousin marriages became increasingly uncommon after the war, but in the rural South they continued to be common right into the twentieth century.

        The struggle of your ancestors to build lives in the slaveholding South, which granted neither poor women nor people of African ancestry many legal rights, must be a source of great pride for you.

        Their struggle continued after the war ended. During Reconstruction, several male members of the Curtis family petitioned Governor Holden to help them and others put down the Ku Klux Klan, which was terrorizing their county. Included among the petitioners was Susan’s son, Lunsford Williford, a half brother to your ancestor, Augustine (see p. 153 of Unruly Women).

        Lunsford, by the way, married Harriet Curtis, a daughter of Nancy Curtis and Squire Allen.

        I am very pleased to meet you, and hope to hear from you again!

        Vikki Bynum


      • Dear Vikki,

        Thank you kindly for your prompt response to my comment! I am immensely grateful for your knowledge and insight into my family. I just ordered your book on Amazon and cannot wait to delve into this information, although it could be regarded as a bit shameful. I am just floored that there has been so much attention paid to these women, and so much dedicated research done. For that I sincerely thank you from the bottom of my heart.

        This research on my behalf, all started from me wanting to know who my maternal great grandmother’s mother was. She was known as Bettie Williford Boone. Upon my research I found Bettie Williford in an1880 cwnsus record, at aged 14, living with a (Gemima) Mimie Curtis Evans. Mimie was Bettie’s aunt, sister to Bettie’s mother Laura Jane Curtis. Jane died and Mimie raised Bettie (nee Frances “fannie” Elizabeth Curtis). It’s all so confusing because few of these women were married, and most of the kids have their mothers surnames.

        At any rate, perhaps you could shed light on some dark holes in my geneaology research. Is there any knowledge about who Augustus/Augustine’s Williford’s father was (if it was not Peter Curtis)? I have researched the Bastardy bonds of Granville County, and found a Hobgood, Philpott, and Curtis as the father of at least three of Susan’s children (although I cannot tell who fathered whom).

        Nancy Curtis is my 4x great grandmother in my direct matrilineal line. Her daughter Harriett was daughter of Squire Allen. We cannot find any info on him. Was he by chance a white man? Was “Squire” held as a title at that time (for a lawyer perhaps)? I cannot confirm who my 3x great grandmother (Nancy’s younger daughter Jane’s (aka Laura Jane) father was…the assumption is that is was Squire as well.

        Any wisdom you can share is greatly appreciated. Maybe the answers I am searching for are within the pages of your book. Again, I look forward to reading you work. Thanks a bazillion!




      • Kellie,

        You’re more than welcome. I am always delighted to share what I have found with descendants of the people I have researched.

        I have now gathered together my research materials from Granville County, NC, and attempted to ferret out everything thing that I have on your ancestors. As stated in an earlier post, Susan Williford was the illegitimate daughter of Elizabeth Williford. Susan may also have had a brother named James. There is also a girl named Nancy Anderson associated with the family who seems to have been a daughter of an older Elizabeth Williford who was perhaps Susan’s grandmother.

        From the county bastardy bonds and other records, and by matching the ages of children with the date of the bond, I concluded the following about Susan’s children:

        1. Susan’s first child, Thomas Williford, b. 1836, was the son of John R. Hobgood, a white man. Hobgood was from a prosperous but violent family, and I discuss his other family connections quite a bit in Unruly Women.

        2. In 1842, Susan was again charged with bastardy, but, according to the record I found, this time refused to name the father. Her bond was paid by Samuel Philpott and William T. Tippet. Evidence indicates that Susan’s son, named William, was white, so one of those man may well have been his father (perhaps she named William after William Tippet!). Fathers of bastard children were known to frequently pay a woman’s bond in return for her silence. But, again, it’s not certain because she refused to name the father.

        3. Around 1845, Susan gave birth to Augustine/Augustus Williford. I believe that Augustine was the son of Peter Curtis because a bastardy bond dated Nov. 1845 identified Peter as the father of Susan’s unnamed child.

        4. Around 1848, Susan gave birth to Lunsford Williford. When I wrote Unruly Women, I concluded that Lunsford was the son of James Smith because of a bastardy bond, dated Dec. 1849, that named Smith as the father of Susan’s unnamed child. Now, I’m not so sure that I interpreted the bond correctly. Also, Lunsford’s marriage bond to Harriet Curtis identifies Peter Curtis as his father. Given Lunsford’s birth order, and the evidence that Susan and Peter Curtis had a long-term relationship that included several children, it makes sense that Peter would be his father.

        6. Susan’s daughters Mary, b. 1849, Nancy, b. 1853, and Louisa, b. 1856, were all fathered by Peter Curtis.

        To summarize: Susan’s oldest sons, Thomas and William, were fathered by white men. I think it’s likely that the rest were fathered by Peter Curtis. Certainly, Augustine/Augustus appears to be given that Susan’s 1845 bastardy bond identified Peter Curtis by name.

        In regard to Squire Allen, I haven’t yet located any notes on him in my files, though I haven’t given up. I think “Squire” was his actual first name, and not a title, however. It wasn’t that uncommon a first name for males during the nineteenth century.

        By the way, I have reread the petitions against the KKK send to NC Governor William Holden that were signed by several Curtis men and by Lunsford Williford from the neighborhood of Tally Ho, Granville County. I’ve decided to write a new blog post sometime in the the future that tells the story of the Willifords and the Curtises, and which reproduces the letters in full. I hope that you will like it! Also hope that you enjoy Unruly Women!

        Vikki Bynum


      • Kelli,

        If you are still reading this a couple of years later, Susan Williford is my 3× great Grandmother. I was very pleased to have stumbled upon all this information. I had the names but the information in Unruly Women, provided some meat. Ms. Bynum, thank you. I am located in Dallas, Texas and continue to look for resources re: families in Virginia and North Carolina.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for posting, Donna! Susan Williford was one of the most fascinating women that I encountered while researching my first book, Unruly Women. I hope that Kellie will also return to this conversation!


  2. I only have the so-called “drop” of Black blood, yet I look like a mixed-race woman. As a child I suffered a lot of harassment from my peers:today I am considered attractive and exotic. This article is sad. Prejudice is so ugly.


    • Welcome to Renegade South and thanks for commenting, Bibiana. Yes, prejudice is one of society’s ugliest and most pernicious characteristics.



    • Bibiana: I had no idea there were very many others out there who suffered like me — I was born in 1956 and I wasn’t accepted too well until high school. The worst part is that my mother was so disappointed and embarrassed because I didn’t “pass.” Since I was a replacement child of the same name as the one who died, she wasn’t too happy with me because she wanted a lighter child. My father accepted me as I was and he told me to just be myself and stop trying to straighten my hair and stop trying so hard to “fit in.” He said “You’re attractive; you just have kind of have an exotic look. Just be who you are.” My siblings definitely passed, except for my half-brother who is 14 years older than me and he’d gone to live with his dad before I came along, though he and I are close now and we’ve both experienced similar humiliating experiences in our youth due to our inability to “pass” in the good old days! It was hard on us, but it seems to be improving with time, though the old experiences from my childhood still haunt me every day. — Candace


  3. To Bibiana: One more thing…I grew up in Seattle, WA, so it was everywhere in the late 1950s and early 1960s! — Candace


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