By Vikki Bynum
Late last year, I was contacted by Raymont Hawkins-Jones, a descendant of a family I’d written about many years earlier: the Andersons of Granville County, North Carolina. The Andersons were one of the many fascinating free families of color that I’ve studied over the years, and I enjoyed learning more about their history from Raymont. Back in pre-internet 1992, pretty much everything I knew about my subjects was what I’d learned from records held at the North Carolina State Archives. Today, social media has enabled me to meet many of their descendants and to access additional records posted on the internet. The same digital revolution that stimulated me to create this blog also allows me to revisit my early topics of research and bring their stories up to date! (1)
The Andersons and the families with whom they intermarried belonged to a community of people defined by society as non-white, but who rarely appeared as slaves in North Carolina’s state and court records. As I’ve noted in earlier Renegade South essays about the mixed heritage communities of Gloucester County, Virginia, and the “Winton Triangle” of North Carolina, the lives of free people of color reveal far more complicated histories of racial identity, class, and race relations than the broad images of “white freedom” and “black slavery” would suggest.
In fact, families such as the Andersons are central to understanding historical events that preceded and followed the institution of slavery, including colonization, the American Revolution, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the postwar rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and the New South era of white supremacy.
The very existence of free people of color, especially those in the South, threatened the growing institution of slavery. Southern whites especially feared their influence on slaves as the United States moved toward a Civil War generated by national conflicts over slavery. Determined to prevent free people of color from exercising full rights of citizenship and mobility, lawmakers increasingly policed their behavior through oppressive laws and customs.In my first book, Unruly Women: the Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South (1992), I published my findings on the Andersons and touched on the lives of free families bearing the names of Boon, Chavis, Curtis, Day, Fane, Haithcock, Kearsey, Mayo, Richardson, and Tyler. During the course of my research, I also become familiar with the Bass, Guy, Pettiford, and Taborn families of Granville County. With no diaries or first-hand accounts available to me from the families themselves, I focused on their court-house experiences and what they revealed about the lives of multi-ethnic free people governed by race and class-based laws in a slaveholding state.
Back in 1992, I knew next to nothing about these families’ heritage, and mostly referred to them as “free blacks.” Today, thanks to conversations with Raymont and after reading Kianga Lucas’s Native American Roots blog, I realize that the courts’ label of “free people of color” masked their extensive and varied Indian ancestry. The Bass family, for example, with whom the Andersons intermarried, originally descended from the Nansemond tribe of Virginia’s Powhatan Confederacy. Likewise, many of Granville County’s free people of color claim descent from various Indian tribes such as the Tuscarora of eastern North Carolina and the Pamunkey, Chickahominy, and Saponi of Virginia. Descendants of these tribes were among the earliest people of color to migrate to Granville County, where they settled in the vicinity of the town of Oxford and the townships of Fishing Creek, Kittrell, and Tally Ho. (2)
Writing for the Atlantic Monthly in 1886 under the pseudonym David Dodge, Oscar W. Blacknall of Kittrell township gave an eye-witness description of his neighbors. Because of “exclusive intermarriage in their own class,” he wrote, they displayed a “considerable infusion of Indian blood” revealed by their
“long coarse, straight black hair and high cheekbones . . . joined with complexions whose duskiness disclaims white blood and with features clearly un-African.”
Because the Andersons were free during colonial times, I wondered whether they and their kinfolk had descended from indentured servants rather than slaves, or had perhaps been freed between 1740 and 1770, when European Enlightenment ideals generated criticism of slavery. That era not only provided the ideological underpinnings of the American Revolution, but fueled debates about the morality of slavery, setting in motion the gradual abolition of slavery in the Northern colonies. The plantation South did not follow suit, but numerous Southern slaveholders nonetheless sought to save their souls by privately manumitting slaves.
Greed overcame white misgivings about slavery enough for framers of the U.S. Constitution (ratified in 1788) to grant protections to the institution. The matter was anything but settled, however. Antislavery sentiments never completely died out, and reemerged in the 19th century among various religious groups, notably Wesleyan Methodist farmers in North Carolina, and politically in the Free Soil and Abolitionist movements.
Although the 17th century Bass family of Virginia appears never to have suffered enslavement, the Andersons, who lived nearby, were held in bondage by John Fulcher, an English planter of Norfolk, Virginia, who eventually freed them. In 1712, decades before the era of the American Revolution, Fulcher manumitted fifteen slaves, thirteen of whom bore the surname Anderson, two the surname Richardson. He bestowed 640 acres of land as well as freedom on these slaves, eight of whom were still children.
I suspect that John Fulcher was kin to the Andersons. Not only were kinships common between masters and manumitted slaves, there is also the matter of Fulcher’s divorce from his wife, Ruth, some twenty years earlier. In 1691, Ruth Woodhouse Fulcher was granted a legal separation from her husband by Virginia’s Lt. Governor Francis Nicholson. Such separations were rarely granted to women in 17th century Virginia, particularly not under the terms granted by the Lt. Governor. Nicholson not only assigned legal guardianship of the couple’s son to Mrs. Fulcher, he also ordered Mr. Fulcher to pay her two thousand pounds of tobacco annually. (3)
These were unusual decisions in an ardently patriarchal society. Clearly, Lt. Gov. Nicholson was disturbed by whatever undisclosed charges Ruth Fulcher brought against her husband. Might she have accused her husband of sexually crossing the color line, of fathering children among his slaves? Were the slaves he manumitted in 1712 his own children, and did they include the mother(s) of those children? (4)
Whatever his reasons, John Fulcher’s freeing of his slaves fed fears of slave revolts among Virginians. The colony’s General Assembly responded by recommending passage of a law forbidding manumission, citing it as an incentive for slave revolts.
Exactly when and where the Andersons were first enslaved seems as uncertain as how they gained their surname. In the Southern colonies, where Indian wars, servitude, and slavery overlapped, they may originally have been Indian war captives whose descendants mixed with other Indians, African slaves, English colonizers, or white servants, creating mixed-heritage peoples with no fixed racial identity—except in the minds of white leaders who marked them as non-white under the heading of “free people of color.” The Bass and Anderson families’ lives intersected in 1699 when Edward Bass, a son of William Bass, Sr., purchased land from John Fulcher. After Fulcher freed the Andersons, the two families intermarried. In the first half of the eighteenth century, they migrated from Norfolk, Virginia, to Granville County, North Carolina. Once settled, Basses and Andersons married among other free families bearing names such as Chavis, Day, Goins, Harris, Hawley, Kersey, Pettiford, Mitchell, and others. These families, too, identified their roots as Native American. (5)
By the late eighteenth century, the names of free people of color appeared frequently in Granville court records and documents. George Anderson, whose will was probated in May 1771, left an estate that included at least seventy acres of land to heirs bearing the surnames of Anderson, Bass, Pettiford, Harris, and Smith. To Nathan Bass, he left a “plantation’ on which Bass already lived. To various other kinfolk, he left cattle, a mare, pewter plates, and a bed. Clearly, the founding families of this community had established solid yeoman-class roots. (6)
A revealing petition about the families’ status was also presented in 1771 to the North Carolina Assembly. Here we see Granville’s growing community of free people of color asking to be exempted by the state from paying taxes that were described as “highly derogatory of the Rights of Freeborn Subjects.” (7)
Colonial taxation laws had long discriminated against people of color, taxing not only free males over the age of twelve, but also females, on the assumption that all non-whites “worked the ground,” whether enslaved or not. In this era of emergent republican ideals, race-based economic discrimination against free people was condemned by the petitioners as unjust. Grouped among their names were those of free people from the area of Oxford and Fishing Creek: Gibea Chavis, Benjamin Bass, Lewis Anderson, Edward Bass, David Mitchell, and William Chavis. (8)
Criticisms of slavery and demands that free people of color be respected as citizens were soon quashed after the American Revolution. As the 19th century’s Cotton Kingdom emerged, Southern demand for slave labor increased. The one drop rule of race came to prevail. Whether free people of color were dark or light-skinned, and regardless of whether they had white or Indian ancestors, they were labeled “Negroes” or “Mulattoes”—meaning that they were fit for slavery and their freedom thus a threat to its stability. For that reason, Southern states passed laws further limiting slave manumission. At the same time, they passed stricter laws that further limited the mobility and rights of free people of color.
In response to their diminishing status, Granville County’s free families of color emphasized their Native American roots and often denied African ancestry altogether in hopes of distancing themselves from slavery. Local court records from the three decades before the Civil War, 1830-1860, reveal a fractious caste of people, one in which intra-family feuds and scuffles with whites generated court charges of affrays, assault & batteries and filings of peace warrants. Not surprisingly, white authorities seemed all too eager to police the neighborhoods of families who lived in the interstices of freedom and slavery. (9)
Social contact between people of color and whites ranged from affectionate to violent. People from various backgrounds traded goods, drank, gambled, fornicated—and occasionally tried to marry—across the lines of color and status. Tavern keepers were frequently targeted for running “disorderly houses” that included all manner of such interracial activities. Public affrays no doubt reflected internal tensions created by such activities.
Poor white and free women of color occasionally ran taverns as an alternative to working in the homes and fields of other (mostly white) people. When taverns added interracial prostitution to the menu of services, authorities labeled them “bawdy” as well as “disorderly” houses. White women Elvira and Sally Short, for example, were specifically cited for “procuring” “whores” who engaged in “dreadfully filthy and lewd offences” that included “men, women, free persons, and slaves” who gathered there day and night. (10)
But it was not prostitution per se that seemed to concern white authorities. The courts punished sexual relations between whites, free people of color, and slaves far more frequently than they punished the sale of sex among whites. By their very nature, taverns were assumed to encourage sexual activity among patrons; it followed, then, that owners who ignored boundaries of race and status were suspected of fostering sexual intimacy across those boundaries.
Free people of color were not to fraternize with either slaves or lower-class whites. In 1856, tavern-keeper Nancy Anderson was accused of violating laws that forbade such camaraderie. Specifically, the courts charged her with running a “disorderly” house in which whites, free people of color and slaves engaged together in “whoring, drinking, and gambling.” That she was not charged with running a “bawdy” house indicates that interracial mingling (including sexual intimacy), not prostitution, was the offense.
It was not whites who initiated the charges against Nancy Anderson. The three men who testified against her (one of them her kinsman, Ephraim Anderson) were free men of color. Although we know that ethnic differences, economic status, and who one associated with all contributed to conflicts among people of color, we don’t know the exact reasons that these men appeared to police social contact between a woman of their community and neighboring slaves. (11)
Among whites, mingling between the races ended in death for Tom Peace, a white man, who carried on a relationship with Tabby Chavous (Chavis), a free woman of color, for some ten years. The fact that Tom regularly treated Tabby with the respect reserved for white women infuriated his brother, Dickerson Peace, who brought fornication charges against the couple in 1844. Undaunted, Tom and Tabby continued to attend public gatherings together well into the 1850s. When they appeared together at a neighborhood barbecue in 1854, an enraged Dickerson attacked and killed his brother. (12)
The courts regularly sought to counter interracial relationships and, that failing, to control the lives and labor of mixed-race children born to such relationships. The long-term relationship between Susan Williford and Peter Curtis, discussed here and in Unruly Women, (pp. 88-93) demonstrated the stages of that control: first, the guilty party was charged with fornication. If the woman subsequently became pregnant, bastardy charges would follow. At some point, usually after the age of five, the bastard child, defined as an “orphan,” (i.e. lacking a legal father) would be apprenticed to a member of the community until age 21. By contract, these apprenticed children worked for their “masters” until adulthood, depriving them of their freedom and the affections of their parent(s). Their mothers, of course, were deprived of both their children’s affection and their labor—a crucial element of survival in the rural Old South. Her punishment by the courts also demonstrated the larger threat that personal as well as political alliances of class and race presented to slaveholding society.
In part, the courts’ forcible apprenticeship of illegitimate children—many of whom were impoverished whites—to more prosperous members of the community prevented them from becoming economic and social burdens for county governments. By 1830, however, the system clearly provided a handy way to deny freedom to an increasing population of free children of color, at the same time claiming their labor for the white community. (13)
Relatively prosperous free families of color such as the Andersons managed to escape the apprenticeship system. Marriage among free people of color within their own community, land ownership, and gainful employment defended them against this practice. A number of free families of color from Granville, including William Evans, Anderson Pettiford, Joseph Curtis, and Lucy Richardson, managed even to rescue the children of friends and family from the apprenticeship system by becoming apprenticeship masters themselves. These families gained custody of community children through the very system that would otherwise have bound the children out to whites. (14)
The free community of Granville’s Oxford area struggled for autonomy right up to the Civil War and beyond. Archibald “Baldy” Kersey, a propertied free man of color with multiple ties of kinship to its core families, had long engaged in illicit trade among slaves and white citizens. (15) Court records show him charged more than once with illegally possessing guns and with various thefts connected to illegal trading. During the Civil War, such trade networks among slaves, free blacks, and whites flourished, causing Sheriff William Philpott to describe Kersey to Governor Zebulon Vance as
“the worst rogue and seducer of slaves I have ever known. He has a range from here to the extremity of the state east, as he has been trading that way for years.” Furthermore, Philpott reported, Kersey had recently broken out of jail with the aid of two white men. (16)
Baldy Kersey’s resistance to authority took a political turn during the Civil War and Reconstruction. One can only imagine the formidable force that he and Newt Knight of Mississippi’s Free State of Jones would have presented the Confederacy had Kersey been part of a coalition of free people of color, slaves, and deserters fighting from the swamps of the Leaf River.
In 1868, Kersey joined a coalition from the Tally Ho district of Granville County to fight against the Ku Klux Klan’s overthrow of Reconstruction. He and six men from the Curtis, Williford, Anderson, and Tyler families petitioned Governor William Holden in the name of “the Colored Race and laboring class of white people” for aid against “outrages” committed by the Ku Klux Klan in Granville County. (you may read those petitions and my analysis here.)
People of color were powerless without a full commitment from Northern leaders to hold back the tide of violence and white supremacy campaigns that derailed Reconstruction and ushered in segregation and second-class citizenship for people of color. The descendants of Granville’s free community of color, however, successfully resisted at least one method—the Grandfather Clause—devised by Southern white politicians to deny the vote to people of color.
During the late 19th century, poll taxes and literacy tests proved an effective means of disfranchisement, since many freed people were poor and illiterate. Even if one could read, literacy tests were designed to be failed. Some Southern politicians, however, objected to such laws because they also discriminated against poor white men (whose votes they needed). Enter the Grandfather Clause. In 1900, North Carolina’s state constitution echoed those of other Southern states by exempting voters from taking literacy tests and paying poll taxes if their grandfather had legally voted in or before the year 1867.
As intended, this blatant act of racial discrimination disfranchised men whose fathers had been slaves. In North Carolina, however, free men of color had legally voted until 1835, the year in which the state’s new constitution outlawed it. Thus, the grandfathers of many people of color had voted! Accordingly, in 1902, 1904, 1906, and 1908, some eighty descendants of the Anderson, Boon, Mayo, Tyler, Taborn, Pettiford, Kearsey, Howell, Day, and Chavis families successfully registered to vote during the South’s most violent era of racial disfranchisement and segregation. (17)
The mixing of peoples from three continents of the world in the North American colony of Virginia was an unintended result of an international Commercial Revolution that eventually reshaped the world. The Andersons and other ambiguously labeled “free people of color” carry the DNA of diverse peoples who variously lost lands, were wrenched from homelands, were reduced to chattel slavery, or who became rich from all of the above. Native peoples of early 17th century Virginia faced dispossession, enslavement, and slaughter by English entrepreneurs. Poor whites were uprooted from England as indentured servants to serve as menial laborers in America. By the second half of the century, these servants were replaced by African slaves, who represented a more stable economic investment for Virginia planters.
But colonization only begins to tell the history of America’s free people of color throughout the United States’ ongoing struggles over religious, racial, economic, and territorial hegemony. Their 19th century experiences are central also to understanding how conflicts over slavery led to the Civil War, how Reconstruction was thwarted by a violent and political corrupt counter-revolution that resulted in “redeemed” state governments committed to white supremacist doctrines.
By 1900, Southern literature and politics overflowed with the sentimental language of the South’s glorious Confederate “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War. The myth that states’ rights—not slavery—caused the war, leavened by “old timey” images of benevolent planters and contented slaves, provided a romantic origins tale for New South whites. As the 20th century opened, Southern leaders entertained the belief that racial segregation protected “pure” bloodlines while they placed the governance of society in “superior” white hands.
The battle against legalized segregation and disfranchisement on the basis of race brought a constitutional victory against racism in 1955, but America’s understanding of racial identity—what it is, what it means, and who decides it—remains a hot button issue of debate in the 21st century.
Post Script, 4/2/2018: In the words of historian Barbara Fields,
“Racism is not a product of race. Racist Actions produce the illusion of race.”
- My work on communities of free people of color appears in Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South (1992), and The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies (2010).
- The historical origins and racial identities of free people of color were far more complex than communicated by contemporary labels such as “black,” “Negro,” “Indian,” “Mustee” or “Mulatto” The Basses self-identified as Indian and English. In 1727, William Bass Sr. obtained court documentation swearing that he was of English and Indian heritage, with no admixture of African. In 1742, his son, William Bass Jr., did the same. According to family historian Kianga Lucas, the Andersons, likely of Indian, English, and African heritage, shared the Basses’ Nansemond Tribal connections. On the erasure of Native American ancestry by white authorities in the age of segregation, see Lucas, https://nativeamericanroots.wordpress.com/tag/evans/page/2/
- On Fulcher’s manumission of his slaves, see Lucas, “The Norfolk, VA, Origins of the Anderson Family of Granville County,” June 14, 2015, Native American Roots: https://nativeamericanroots.wordpress.com/?s=anderson. For Lt. Gov. Nicholson’s court order, click here: http://www.virginiamemory.com/reading_room/this_day_in_virginia_history/april/06.
- On Southern patriarchal law and its effects on divorce and charges of interracial sex as grounds for divorce, see Bynum Unruly Women, pp. 59-87.
- Colonial Granville County marriage records include the names of many free people of color. Before 1800, the Bass name was most common, followed by Chavis, Anderson, Mitchell, Evans, Day, Pettiford, and Kersey. These families would remain the most visible of Granville’s free people of color before and during the Civil War Era. Published in Brent Holcomb, Marriages of Granville County, NC, 1753-1868 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, Inc. 1981.)
- George Anderson will reprinted in Thomas McAdory Owen, Granville County: Notes in Preparation for the History and Genealogy of. Montgomery. AL.
- William L. Saunders, The North Carolina Colonial Records (Raleigh: Josephus Daniels, 1890)
- In September, 1668, Virginia passed the first colonial taxation statute that specifically targeted free people of color, including women, on the basis that all people of color were agricultural laborers: “WHEREAS some doubts, have arisen whether negro women set free were still to be accompted tithable according to a former act, It is declared by this grand assembly that negro women, though permitted to enjoy their ffreedome yet ought not in all respects to be admitted to a full fruition of the exemptions and impunities of the English, and are still lyable to payment of taxes.” Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large, vol. 2, p. 267. Petition signer Lewis Anderson is likely the same man who left a will in 1814 that named the following free people of color as heirs: Isaac Anderson, Abel Anderson, Augustine Anderson, Wright Anderson, Zachariah Anderson, Thomas Anderson, John Anderson, Darling Bass, Sarah Anderson (from Owen, Granville County Notes, vol. 2)
- Criminal Action Papers, Criminal Actions Concerning Slaves and Free People of Color, and Miscellaneous Records of Slaves and Free People of Color, Granville County, NC State Archives. Discussed in Bynum, Unruly Women, pp. 78-82
- On poor white women and interracial mixing in Granville County, see Bynum, Unruly Women, 88-99, and Lucas, https://nativeamericanroots.wordpress.com/2015/12/14/poor-white-women-in-granvilles-native-american-community/
- State v. Nancy Anderson, County Court, May 1856, Criminal Action Papers, Granville County, NC State Archives.
- State v. Dickerson Peace, March 1854, Criminal Action Papers, Granville County, NC State Archives.
- In 1826, the state legislature passed a law that empowered county courts to apprentice any child of a person of color who did not have “honest industrious occupation.” This meant that even married couples of color might lose custody of their children if the court deemed it advisable. Between 1830 and 1860, Granville County’s free children of color were bound out in far greater numbers than were white children.
- Apprenticeship records, Granville County, NC State Archives; Bynum, Unruly Women, pp. 99-103.
- According to Kianga Lucas, the Kersey family arrived in Granville County in the early 1800s. Their tribal origins, she notes, are with the Algonquian speaking Weyanoke tribe who later intermarried with the Iroquois speaking Nottoway and Tuscarora tribes.
- On Archibald Kersey, see Bynum, Unruly Women, pp. 78, 123, 153, and Lucas, https://nativeamericanroots.wordpress.com/2016/05/08/the-legend-of-baldy-kersey/.
- On the Grandfather Clause and for names of those who voted in Granville County despite it, see Lucas, https://nativeamericanroots.wordpress.com/2016/06/14/grandfather-clause-voting-registrations-for-granville-county/