Multiracial Families/Communities

The “One Drop Rule” revisited: Mary Ann McQueen of Montgomery County, North Carolina

NOTE FROM MODERATOR: On March 17, 2009, Renegade South published the essay, “Race and the ‘One Drop Rule’ in the Post-Reconstruction South,” which presented the story of Mary Ann McQueen of Montgomery County, North Carolina. Recently, that essay elicited a response from Wallace E. “Wally” Jarrell, who is a descendant of Mary Ann’s mother, Diza Ann, and Diza’s second husband, Wilson Williams. Wally generously shared his own research on the Williams family with me, and so I have decided to repost the original essay, followed by his expanded history of the family. Here, first, is the original post–now illustrated with photos!– that drew Wally’s attention:


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.

I have written more extensively about Mary Ann McQueen, Newt Knight, Rachel Knight, and Davis Knight, as well as other mixed race relationships, in Long Shadow of the Civil War and The Free State of Jones.

UPDATE: In fact, as I’ve learned from Wally, Mary Ann McQueen did marry. She married John Milton Rich, a white man, and she married as a white woman. Below are photos of the couple:


Mary Ann McQueen Rich, photo courtesy of Wallace E. Jarrell

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.

John Milton Rich, Photo courtesy of Wallace E. Jarrell

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

9 replies »

  1. Frank W. Sweet, in his examination of racial classification trials, has found that far more weight was often given to friendly or egalitarian social behavior with blacks or mulattoes than the actual amount of “black blood.” One’s “whiteness” was far more likely to be called into question if one did not display proper “white”behavior. I suppose that’s “logical,” in a way, because even many of the advocates of white racial purity must have known that true racial “purity” is impossible.

    In Before Jim Crow: The Politics of Race in Postemancipation Virginia by Jane Dailey, we learn that white Republican “Readjusters” were threatened by Democratic “Redeemers” with loss of white status. They were told that supporting the Reconstruction government and the biracial Republican Party would change them from “white men” into “niggers.” There were no accusations of racial impurity in these cases. One could lose white status solely because of one’s political or social views, regardless of a so-called “pure white” lineage.


  2. Thanks, A.D. You (and Frank Sweet) make an essential point about the history of racial classification–that personal behavior and political context were every bit as important as physical appearance in determining whether one was deemed by the surrounding society to be “white,” “black,” or something in between.

    While researching Montgomery County’s records many years ago, I was struck by the existence of several related families (surname Hussey, or Hursey), who, for a time, identified successfully as “white” despite having an ancestor, Milly Turner, who was a free woman of 1/8 African heritage. Turner had married a white man and was herself declared legally white in South Carolina. Her descendants continued to successfully identify as white after moving to North Carolina–until, that is, the outbreak of the Civil War. With that change in political environment, the Husseys were accused of being “black,” and their civil rights accordingly challenged throughout the 1860s. Their “white” marriages were declared acts of fornication, and the men were forbidden to carry guns, except as soldiers drafted into the Confederacy.

    Wilson Williams, the subject of the above essay and the research of Wallace Jarrell in the one following, lived near the Hussey family. Although Wilson seems never to have been granted full white status in legal terms (he was identified as “mulatto” in the federal manuscript censuses), he came close to living as a white man. Wally has found evidence indicating that Wilson was the son of a local white man, and there is good evidence that he participated in his white community of relatives and neighbors in ways not common to the vast majority of people identified as mulatto in the slaveholding South. Wilson not only married a white woman (Diza Ann Maness McQueen) but court records show he successfully sued various white men for wages owed him, and won at least one of those suits.

    It appears that Wilson lived in a nether world of being considered neither white nor black. There is no indication that he explicitly challenged his imposed racial status, although several of his children did. As a result, at least until the Civil War disrupted communities, and race relations within them, Wilson could depend on the support of certain whites within a small circle of this rural area of mostly small farmers. His marriage to Diza Ann, which produced nine children, lasted until around the late 1870s, when the couple apparently divorced.

    Jane Dailey’s fine book about the Readjustor movement in post-Civil War Virginia provides an informative example of an all-too-brief political moment in which whites and blacks built a powerful coalition based on mutual interests–only to have it destroyed by the ever-present weapon of race-baiting.



  3. I have a member in my family tree named Jane Ward who had 4 children out of wedlock in the 1880’s. Her children’s death certificates lists Jerry McQueen as their father. All children were born in Montgomery county and listed as white on the 1900 census and Mulatto on the 1910 census. Any idea who Jerry may be? I found one in the the same township who is listed as Mulatto…Im thinking this Mary Ann could be a sister of his…..


    • Carrie,

      This is very interesting–it certainly seems as though Jerry McQueen may have a connection to Mary Ann McQueen. I am currently visiting Texas, and will be away from home, and hence away from my research files, until mid-March. When I do return home to Missouri, I will dig into my North Carolina files and come back to your question.



  4. I’m researching my family tree and I can’t help but notice similarities in John Milton Rich and Mary Ann McQueen’s story and my own family line. My great grandmother, Martha Ellen Rich Lofton is the daughter of a John Rich who was born on May 7, 1877 per his military record. I’ve seen census records note his year of birth anywhere from 1874 (find a grave shows May 10, 1874) to May of 1878. John’s death certificate shows that he was born in Montgomery County, North Carolina and lists his mother as Martha.

    Despite my efforts I can’t find any records that show a woman named Martha Rich with a son named John or even a husband with the last name Rich. The closest I can find is a Martha A Rich listed living with her stepfather Riley Lea (Lee) and her mother (assuming her mother, could be her mother in law) Susan Lea in an 1880 census for Troy, Montgomery County, North Carolina.

    I can’t help but notice that John Milton Rich’s mother is named Susan Rich. Another fascinating find is the name John M. Rich living a few houses down on the same census. He is listed as a widower.

    I did see that John Milton Rich and Mary Ann McQueen did have a son named John who was born very near the time that my own John was born in the same area but, unfortunately, they are not the same person. I’ve verified this through death records and each’s marriage records.

    I did find out that my John Rich moved to Marlboro County, South Carolina and married Fannie Polston Rich. I read a post made some 17 years ago on that he had three sisters named Dely, Jube and Tabe and a brother who died young.

    If anyone has any info that could help me in my search, I would greatly appreciate a message from you. Please email me at


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