Published: September 8, 2012
My paternal grandfather, Marshall Staples (1898-1969), was one of the millions of black Southerners who moved north in the Great Migration. Those of us in the family who were born Yankees in the years just after World War II were given an earful about our place in 19th-century Virginia — and specifically about Marshall’s white grandfather, a member of a slaveholding family who fathered at least one child with my great-great-grandmother, Somerville Staples.
Stories like this are typical among African-Americans who have roots in the slave-era South and who have always spoken candidly about themselves and their relationships with slaveholding forebears. In some cases, the Negro second families carried the names of their masters/fathers into Emancipation and settled in the same areas.
This was inconvenient for the white progenitors and their families, who feared the taint of blackness so much that they often declined to acknowledge or speak to their darker relatives on the street. In nullifying these family connections, they embraced the fiction of racial purity that has dominated how white Americans see themselves for hundreds of years.
The lighter-skinned offspring of slave masters had the option of remaining colored or of becoming white. Many of them chose the latter, escaping the penalties of blackness by dropping their Negro identities. This often meant moving to a place where their backgrounds were unknown, cutting ties with relatives and marrying into white families. As a result, white families that considered themselves racially pure were in fact racially mixed.
DNA testing and access to electronic databases make it easier now to uncover the truth of family origins. But the news has tended to focus on the white ancestors of black families, and far less so on the hidden black forebears and their “white” descendants. Even now, discoveries of black ancestors in white family histories generate surprise.
That was the case in the announcement earlier this summer by Ancestry.com, an online genealogy company, that President Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, a white woman born in Kansas, was very likely related to John Punch, a black man who lived in Virginia in the mid-17th century. Punch, a well-known figure in the history of slavery, was one of three runaway servants — the other two were a Dutchman and a Scot — who were captured in Maryland, returned to their master and hauled into a Virginia court.
The Dutchman and the Scot had their terms of service extended, but the court ruled that the “Negro named John Punch” would serve said master for life. The difference in their treatment led historians to view Punch as a figure whose story crystallized early attitudes toward the Negro and anticipated the formal legal and social constructs that would be used to justify chattel slavery.
This story is arresting because it links the president of the United States, who was previously thought to have no connection to slavery, to a Negro who is one of the central figures in discussions about human bondage in early Colonial times. But the most instructive part of this episode has to do with the increasing restrictions that were placed on free people of color, starting in the late 1600s, when Virginia sought to marginalize them and penalize blackness.
In 1705, for example, a minister declined to marry one of Punch’s light-skinned descendants to a white woman because the minister believed that he was mulatto, which would have made the marriage illegal. The minister’s caution may be understandable in light of a law that included a hefty fine — about two-thirds of a minister’s salary for the year, according to the historian James Hugo Johnston — for a clergyman who married a Negro and a white person.
To avoid an increasingly hostile legal climate, one branch of the Punch family decamped to North Carolina, where its members were recorded as “mulatto” in early records. Another branch that remained in Virginia — and became known as white — eventually migrated to the frontier, forming part of the Dunham family line.
All of this makes for interesting reading. But the anguish that families often endured when close relations cut them off in the process of shedding their colored identities cannot be overstated.
Imagine being rejected by a parent, sibling or child for racial reasons and you get some sense of the suffering that befell black families whose members set sail into whiteness, never to be heard from again.
Some families, in fact, were damaged in this way for generations as men in particular sought to escape the punishments of blackness by moving elsewhere and becoming someone else.
As for the defectors, they sometimes lived anguished, isolated lives cut off from those whom they had once loved. In other words, discoveries of secret Negro forebears in the white family tree are more than just curiosities. They often signify lives of tragedy and inconsolable loss.