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AfriGeneas Slave Research Forum

Re: Whites discovering African ancestry

I'm glad you've taken this approach. I'm glad to see that you take great efforts to search for ALL of your ancestors.

A few years ago I corresponded with a woman who discovered that her husband was related to 19th century African American author Charles Waddell Chesnutt. If you look at his photo, you would never guess he was African American, he was so pale. Indeed at one point in his life he passed for white.

However, his grandparents came from a small enclave of mixed-race people in Fayetteville, NC, and there was no mistake in that area, that they were anything but mixed-race. Well some members of the family migrated elsewhere and eventually passed into the white race. The woman, who I'd corresponded with, married a descendant of this family and they had no clue. When she started the research, she ran into the family with the correct names and places of birth, but the "wrong" race. She speculated that the census taker might have made a mistake. I explained to her that such a thing was unlikely and also led her to research that clearly identified the mixed-race heritage of the family. Although I've not been in touch with her lately, I think she accepted that these were indeed her husband's ancestors. I don't know how his family reacted to such a finding.

On a sort of related subject, I'm rather frustrated that many of the elders chose to hide our ancestry and that some contemporary African American genealogists don't ever want to take the time to locate their white ancestors. I can't imagine how one could put the blinders on and ignore a segment of their ancestry.

Some people assume that any racial mixing that took place was based upon exploitation. I've seen so many posts and heard so many statements where a researcher assumed that a female ancestor was raped or coerced into a sexual relationship that produced mixed-race children. Yet they never took the time to discover exactly how the mixing occurred, nor could they honestly know the actual details of the relationship that produced their ancestors. Why side with exploitation and rape?

I'm not in denial that this was a factor, but it didn't account for ALL relationships. And we have to consider the possibilities that our ancestors had fulfilling relationships that the laws of the 20th and previous centuries did not legally recognize. We have to search for what the records reveal, not what our emotions or contemporary literature suggests.

I appreciate the research by genealogists like Paul Heinegg for his work in identifying the mixed-race offspring of white women. He's documented hundreds of examples of such families to show us that some of our assumptions are incorrect. He's discovered numerous examples of white women and African or African American men who have had relationships. And yet the exploitation theory maintains its stronghold in our lineage research.

I look forward to the day when we have fuller access to the records that document our ancestry -- I fantasize that ONE day, all of our records will be digitized, transcribed and fully searchable. Then perhaps we can gain a clearer picture of our actual ancestry rather than the one we speculate.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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