Isaiah Francis Grubb & Melinda Straw: a tale of love across 19th Century colour lines

I’ve been spending some time researching my distant Sheffey relations in Wythe County, Virginia. Specifically, I’ve been researching the free families of colour these relations married into. My research gave me a genuine ‘wait, what?’ moment the other day.

This moment came via an 1870 Census return for Isaiah Francis Grubb and Melinda Straw, which you can see below:

1870 census image showing Isaiah Francis Grubb, Melinda Straw and their family in 1870
Isaiah Francis Grubb, & Melinda Straw with some of their children and grandchildren in 1870.  Source Citation:
Year: 1870; Census Place: Black Lick, Wythe, Virginia; Roll: M593_1682; Page: 406B; Image: 192; Family History Library Film: 553181 |  Source Information: 1870 United States Federal Census [database on-line].
I did a double take when I saw Isaiah’s race listed as ‘white’. Everyone else in this household is listed as mulatto. While I can’t find a marriage certificate for Isaiah and Melinda, they were clearly openly living as man and wife. This was illegal in the State of Virginia of 1870.

If they weren’t legally married, Isaiah clearly acknowledged his children by Melinda. All bear the name of Grubb. To date, I’ve found very little about Melinda Straw in the official records prior to 1860. Most bearing the Straw surname in Wythe County between 1800 and 1870 were white. How she is related to the handful of other mulatto Straws in the same county remains unclear.

A union that broke long-standing state laws.

I won’t go into the history of anti-miscegenation laws in the US. There’s a great Wikipedia article that covers this: . Suffice to say that from the 1660s onwards, it didn’t matter whether two people from different races were officially married or not – unions between two people of different races was illegal. It was punishable by flogging, fines, imprisonment or a combination of all 3.

I recall Henry Louis Gates, Jr covering his own family tree in his TV series Finding Your Roots. He shared the story of a white male ancestor with a black wife and mulatto children in a census return. This wasn’t as uncommon as it sounds. Like others in similar circumstances, white men and women living with spouses of colour most likely adopted a false mulatto identity to live peaceably and without threat of prosecution from the authorities.

Isaiah Grubb, then, would be appear to be openly defiant in this regard. And that was no small feat for a man breaking the law in the Wythe County of the early to mid 1800s. It was a very rural community. Everyone knew everyone else. And no matter how fair his mulatto common law wife may have been, she was still not white. They were breaking the law. And everyone in this community would have been aware of this.

image of Isaiah Francis Grubb family treeGoing back in time, his tale grew even more interesting. The first known child of Isaiah and Melinda was Alfred Grubb, born in 1836. This gives an indication of just how long Isaiah and Melinda had been together. However, in 1860, Isaiah isn’t living with Melinda, although all 11 of their children had been born by this point. Instead, Isaiah is living in his father Lewis’s household. Interestingly, there is a James Jackson, a free mulatto, also living in this household. James Jackson would go on to father at least one child with one of Isaiah and Melinda’s daughters, Frances “Fanny” Grubb.

James Jackson is a mystery. How he came to be in Lewis Grubb’s household is a mystery. Was he related to the Grubbs or did he work for them? The census return provides no answers. Lewis Grubb and his family, it would seem, were pretty relaxed when it come to race relations. It’s pretty remarkable.

The 1850 census also shows Isaiah in his father’s household, cited by his middle name, Francis. He resides with his father all the way back to 1820.

I ask myself what changed between 1860 and 1870 for Isaiah to leave his father’s house to set up house with Melinda. Channeling my inner romantic, I figure he was a man getting on in his years who simply wanted to live with the woman he had loved all his adult life. He wanted to finally live with the mother of his children. His father Lewis died in 1861. Perhaps he waited until the passing of his father to live the life he wanted.  I’m guessing that not hiding his race in the 1870 Census was an act of quiet defiance.

If anyone didn’t like it, that was just their tough luck. That’s my guess. Right or wrong, I like him for it.

Trying to put American miscegenation laws into an overall context

an illustrative image showing an American interacial cople in the mid 1880s
This is an illustrative image. The picture shows James William Evans (1814-1883), his wife Mary Eliza Hoggard, and their children William, John and Mary Evans. Mary Eliza Hoggard was a descendant of the free African American Cobb and Bazemore families of Bertie County, North Carolina. James William Evans was from Dorchester County, Maryland. Source:

I’ve tried, in vain, to find a ball-park figure for the number of couples in America charged with marrying someone from a different race or living as common law man and wife from the mid- to late 1600s (the period when universal passage of miscegenation laws were passed in all 13 colonies) until the landmark Lovings vs Virginia Supreme Court case in 1967. I haven’t been able to unearth a number. I haven’t been able to even find a ballpark figure – or an educated guess. That’s not to say that I haven’t found plenty of cases and instances. I just haven’t been able to find a definitive figure that says between 1690 and 1967 ‘X’ number of people were charged and indicted under American miscegenation laws. Without a figure, I can’t gauge how widespread or commonplace miscegenation prosecutions were.

So I’m struggling to put Isaiah and Melinda into an overall context. They weren’t unique. The degree of their lack of uniqueness, however, remains elusive and unquantifiable.

So to round things off, I’ve compiled a couple of factoids about miscegenation laws in the US:

  • Maryland was the first colony to pass a miscegenation law in 1664. It was pretty draconian. Any white woman who married a man of colour faced being enslaved herself. The children of such a union were also to be enslaved. The law failed to state what would happen to white men who married black women.
  • Virginia banned interracial marriages in 1691. Those charged under its law face banishment, death and heavy fines.
  • Pennsylvania becomes the first state to repeal its miscegenation laws in 1780
  • Massachusetts becomes the second state to repeal its miscegenation laws in 1843.
  • 1871: Missouri Representative Andrew King proposes a Constitutional Amendment banning all interracial marriages. It’s the first of 3 attempts. Georgia Representative Seaborn Roddenbery would try in 1912 and South Carolina Representative Coleman Blease would try in 1928. All 3 Representatives were Democrats. This must be the ‘3 strikes and you’re out’ rule. Blease’s attempt was the last attempt at a miscegenation Constitutional Amendment.
  • 1998: South Carolina officially removes its state constitutional ban on interracial marriage.
  • Alabama is the last state to officially remove its miscegenation laws…in 2000.
  • An April 2011 poll of Mississippi Republican primary voters asked “Do you think interracial marriage should be legal or illegal?”. The responses were “Legal” 40%, “Illegal” 46%, and “Not Sure” 14%

One thought on “Isaiah Francis Grubb & Melinda Straw: a tale of love across 19th Century colour lines

  1. Just found your blog tonight while researching Raymond Byrd – my family lived across what is now Route 42 in Bland from Harry Byrd (the politician) but I had never read the story of Raymond Byrd. But with regards to this particular post on couples who crossed the color line -I have discovered a great great great uncle who lived in the mid 1800s with his black wife in Hampton Virginia -in family documents and legally she is referred to as his housekeeper, and legally he owned her. However, he lived with her, and they raised their 5 children together. It bears remembering here that if he had freed her, or any of the children, legally they would have had to leave Virginia with barely the clothes on their backs. Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, he took her and the children north to New Jersey, where he purchased a home for them. He returned to Hampton we assume to try to protect what assets they had during the War, but continued sending money north. We do know that all five children completed college and became an assortment of doctors and lawyers, but what we do not know is if he survived the war, and was ever reunited with his family. I think you are right – it was more common that we’ve been led to believe. People tend to try to live their lives in spite of laws and community opinions.

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