Beyond the pale: Interracial Relations in Colonial America

A tale of gender double standards

When genealogy decides to throw me a curve ball, it doesn’t hold back. The curve ball that recently came my way was through a bit of unspoken colonial American history. It’s a slice of American history which simply hadn’t occurred to me. It’s certainly not taught in schools.

A revelation came when I was doing some research on my Turner ancestors  in Charles County, Maryland (Passing for white: ancestors who jumped the colour line: ) In that post, I covered how this ancestral line was noted by its ‘white’ appearance by the 1850s. Further research has pushed that attribute back a further generation to the 1820s. My assumption was that this was due to earlier generations of interracial relations between white males and mulatto women.

Digitised colonial Maryland court records have revealed an unexpected and equally plausible alternative. It was an alternative I wasn’t prepared for.

Whilst nowhere near as common as interracial relations between white men and black or mulatto women – white women, typically immigrant indentured servants, had relations and sometimes married black and mulatto male slaves.  When these relationships were discovered, usually through the woman becoming pregnant, the penalties for the woman were harsh.

It wasn’t long before my research into these relationships revealed a double standard based on gender. It wasn’t a surprising revelation. White men who had mulatto children were not ostracised or penalized by their society. It was a colonial case of “boys will be boys”.  Perhaps this is because there was no societal inconvenience. The children from these unions took the status of their mothers. If their mother was a slave or indentured, the child was also a slave or indentured.  The status quo was maintained.

A white woman who produced mulatto children in colonial times experienced a different fate.   It was rare for a woman to own property in her own right. An indentured servant would also be poor – certainly not able to afford the fine which was levied against her for producing mixed-race children. So at best, she would have her period of indentured servitude extended. She might also be put in the public stocks and publicly humiliated for a few hours. More severe would be a period in the county jail. If she was truly unfortunate, she would be publicly flogged.  No matter what form her punishment took, her mulatto children would be sold into indentured service.  The period of their indentured servitude would typically last until their early 30s, whereby they would gain their freedom.

Women who continued to bear mulatto children could almost be guaranteed a severe public flogging. Each child she bore would be bound to indentured servitude, again, typically until they were in their 30s.

There seems to be a few underlying reasons for the disparity of treatment between white men and white women who produced mulatto offspring:

  • No matter how poor they were or how humble their origins, European women were seen as paragon of purity and virtue. Unmarried women were expected to remain in a state of ‘unblemished purity’ until they married.
  • Mulatto children with white mothers would eventually be free, with all the rights of free colonial subjects
  • The number of free mulattos steadily increased in colonial American.  There was a fear that a significant increase in the number of free mulattoes, as well as enslaved blacks and mulattos, would outnumber European colonists. Therefore measures and deterrents were required to limit the number of free mulattoes as well as free blacks.
  • As mulatto men and women became free and contributed their skills and labour to their colonial society, most became respected members within their communities. More than a few prospered. This raised awkward questions about the institution of slavery. The ability to depict black and mulatto slaves as property (and the usual propaganda levied against them) increasingly became tenuous as mulattoes born of white mothers and black fathers took their place as upstanding free men and women within colonial society. In short, they called into question the morality and ethics of slavery.

Interestingly, colonial law did not directly address the enslaved black fathers of these mulatto children.  Some were flogged. On the whole, the court records are silent to their fate. The onus for such transgressions, as they were seen, lay entirely with the white mothers.

History also seems to be equally silent about the genesis of these relations. How did the couples meet? How did what we think of as romantic love begin and flourish under such difficult circumstances? How did these relationships survive (in a few of the documented cases I’ve studied, some couples remained together)? The official documents provide no clues.  Then again, they wouldn’t  These were prosecution cases concerned solely with punishment. The likelihood is that one or both parties were illiterate, incapable of writing at all…much less writing moving love letters. If such letters do exist, my research hasn’t found them (although I continue to look for them!)

I’m still puzzling over why children born of white mothers and black fathers should be indentured for so long a period. 30, 31 and 32 seems to be the usual age when this class of indentured servants were freed. Perhaps it was to cover the cost of raising them before they were of an age to work (these children were taken from their mothers almost immediately). A more cynical view would be that the female children of these unions wouldn’t make attractive marriage partners when they reached and surpassed the age of 30.  Women married and produced children young in these times.  Making them old maids before they were free would diminish their marriage prospects – this is speculation and admittedly cynical speculation at that.

The Maryland state archive has a number of documents which cite the stories of white mothers who bore mulatto children:  There is an account of a Mary Turner, an Irish indentured servant, and a William Turner, who is thought to be one of her children. Mary’s punishment was particularly brutal: 62 lashes (31 lashes each for the two children she bore her black partner Joe).

Serendipity has put these two names on my radar for the past two years.  I’d always dismissed Mary as she wasn’t what I was expecting in my genealogical search.  Or, to be honest, she just wasn’t the ancestor I thought I was looking for. My expectation in researching this family line was a mulatto woman, not a white one; specifically a mulatto woman with a connection to an Irish male immigrant, or a colonial man of Irish descent.

When time and circumstances conspire to keep re-presenting the same names regardless of the databases, records and tools you use to your research…well, sometimes you have to put your seat in the upright position and take note.

Am I 100% certain that Mary Turner is the grand-mother of my great-great grandfather Patrick Turner? No. Can I continue to discount her as I have done for the past two years? No. All I can do is keep an open mind…and take note that research keeps pointing back to her.

If you’re interested in the experience of Maryland born mulatto children with white mothers and black fathers, this is an interesting document to read: Ball, Carlos, A. 2008. The Blurring of the Lines: Children and Bans on Interracial Unions and Same-Sex Marriages. Fordham Law Review, Volume 76 | Issue 6 Article 4  (The first half of this document covers interracial relationships).

Passing for white: ancestors who jumped the colour line

It’s that time in the university academic calendar where my schedule has been hijacked by a mountain of postgraduate and undergraduate marking and assessments. So my posts will be a bit sparse over the coming weeks.

However, in the meantime, I do have one intriguing find to share.

“Passing for white”. Now there’s a phrase that tends to hang suspended in space if ever there was one. The fact is, there are African-Americans who did so for a variety of reasons – and continue to do so today. There were more than a few instances of ‘passing’ on my maternal side of the family.

I grew up hearing the tale of how, in the depths of the 1930s depression, my maternal Turner grandfather ‘passed’ in order to get work and provide for his family. As any child, I took this as a simple family anecdote, one amongst a number of tales told during family gatherings during the holidays. It was only as an adult that I understood the significance of that act and what the potential repercussions could have been had my grandfather been rumbled.  I began to wonder if my grandfather had ever been tempted to make those forays into a white identity permanent…and asked myself what I would have done.

In researching the African-American Turners of Charles County, Maryland, some interesting facts have come to light. Death records between 1850 and 1870 cite a number of Charles County, MD Turners as having ‘very light’ or ‘white’ complexions. However, these records are for the Turners I traced who declared themselves as mulattoes during their lifetime. There were a number of their kin who moved from Charles County, MD and passed for white, their descendants entering into the white race. With respect to their descendants, who most likely have no idea they are descended from African-Americans, I won’t be posting specific family individuals I’ve found from the Turner clan who left their black roots behind.

There are other Turner lines I suspect followed in their footsteps and also ‘passed’. However, due to the popular nature of their names, it’s difficult to know if I’m looking at records for the same individual or different people born roughly in the same year bearing the same name as one another. What is interesting, for me, is the fact that my Turner antecedents had a complexion cited as ‘white’ who were born as early as 1825. That would suggest mixed race relationships had occurred for generations beforehand. This has presented an interesting genealogy hurdle to be overcome. Finding the names of fathers for many of the Charles County, MD Turners born before 1850 has been next to impossible. The reason for this is more than likely because the fathers of these mulattoes with such light complexions were white.

On my maternal grandmother’s side of the family, the Harlings, the same pattern emerges. A small number of Harlings caused all manner of confusion for doctors issuing death certificates. I’ve found three death certificates which first stated the deceased was ‘white’, which was crossed out and substituted with ‘black’. One individual went from ‘white’ to ‘black’ back to ‘white’ and then ‘black’ on the same death certificate. Like the Turners, many of my direct Harling antecedents had a complexion noted as ‘very light’ or ‘white’ as far back as the 1830s. Again, suggesting relations had existed between Harling slave women and white men for a number of generations. Unlike the my Turner ancestors, a number of the children born of these unions were openly acknowledged by their fathers (but more on this in a future post).

Like the Turners, a small number of Edgefield County-born Harlings jumped the colour line after the end of slavery and passed for white. However, unlike Charles County, MD Turners, documenting this amongst the Harlings has been fairly easy and straightforward. The Harlings seemed to prefer using distinctive names which has made tracing this family’s descendants far easier than tracing the Turners.

Again, staying with my maternal ancestors, my Josey great-grandmother’s extended family had a number of family members who permanently passed for white at the end of the Civil War. Like the Turners and Harlings, my Josey ancestors in Rich Square, North Carolina , could also pass for white from the 1820s onwards.

I’ve deliberated over publishing this post for quite a few months. “Passing” still remains a prickly subject. However, it did happen and shouldn’t be ignored. I decided to publish it, in the end, as it presents another set of genealogical challenges for Americans with roots in the ante-bellum Southern states. And I use the word ‘American’, without any ethnic qualifier, deliberately. An African-American tracing his or her family might come across individuals who seem to drop off the radar in terms of the official records. If that person comes from a long line of mulattoes, one reason you might have to consider is that person ‘passed’. So instead of seeking someone who is black in the official records, take a punt and look for someone with the same, or similar, name born around the same year. Of course it helps if they have a somewhat distinctive name. Or, if you’re white, and the trail runs cold for a specific ancestor, it just might be because the individual you’re researching was a mulatto who decided to ‘pass’. This won’t always be the case – but it is a possibility, no matter how remote.

Genealogy challenges: Part 2 – The Turners of Charles County, Maryland

My Turner lineage has been one of the most difficult and troublesome to trace. Of the eight families my research has primarily concentrated on, I’ve gained the least ground with this one.  Common names and scant citation in official documents have all played a part in making this a difficult family to research.

My great-grandfather, Daniel Patrick Turner (1879 – 1929), was a harbinger for what was to come. I naively believed that there couldn’t be very Maryland-born, African-American men with the name Daniel Patrick Turner during my great-grandfather’s lifetime. Had I been searching for an Irishman with that name it would have been a different story.  An African-American?  It had to be a cinch.   Wrong! A search on and returned an impressive list of African American men bearing the names Daniel Turner and Daniel Patrick Turner.

An inspired moment led me to search for his marriage record to Beatrice Josey.  Hers was a more distinctive name and that hunched paid off. I found Daniel and, more importantly, I found his year of birth, his parents’ names and his place of birth. I also found his death certificate which again listed his year of birth, Maryland as the place of his birth and his parents’ names.  At this point I believed I had enough information to sink my teeth into some deeper research.

Census data could only be found if I searched for both Daniel Turner and his wife Beatrice. The result of this meant I could only find him via his wife Beatrice.  To-date, I have been unable to find him in census records prior to his marriage – with one exception. There are simply too many Maryland-born, African-American Daniel Turner’s born in or reasonably around 1879 to be certain that I’m looking at the correct one in the records.

The exception is the 1910 Census where he’s living with his sister Matilda (Turner) Jackson. And this I found when doing a Census search for his sister.  Matilda Turner, being a relatively distinctive name, was easy to trace.

Born in 1879, it should be possible to find Daniel in the 1880 and 1900 Census records.  So far, he’s proven elusive.

I also haven’t been able to determine Daniel’s county of birth, which is another issue.  Knowing the county of his birth would provide a narrower parameter in which to search. His son, my maternal grandfather, is recorded as being born in La Plata, Maryland. Daniel, however, doesn’t appear to have any association with La Plata. So this, it appears, would be a dead end in terms of this line of enquiry.

Daniel’s father, Patrick Turner (b. 1842), would prove to be even more elusive. Patrick Turner appears in the 1870 Census with a wife, Caroline, and not my great-grandfather’s mother, Amelia Burch.  He was resident in Charles County, Maryland. A search of 1880 records unearthed nothing. He simply wasn’t in the records.  I’ve had all manner of enlightened moments in terms of searching for him in the official records. Thinking Daniel Patrick Turner might have been named for his father, I tried searching for a Daniel Patrick Turner born in Maryland in 1842 – with no results. I’ve tried every variation of ‘Patrick Turner’ I could think of: Patrick, Paddy, Pad, Pat, etc – and again, nothing.  He simply vanishes by the time of the 1880 Census.  He may have died before the 1880 Census.  However, his death ought to have been recorded.  African-American deaths were officially recorded at this time so I couldn’t imagine why his wouldn’t.

A search for marriage records to either Amelia Burch or second wife Caroline also drew blanks. I couldn’t find a marriage record for either wife.

The last role of the dice with regards to Patrick Turner was a possible relocation.  At some point between 1910 and 1920, Daniel Turner and his family moved from Maryland to Washington D.C.  My rationale was the son may have followed the father to Washington D.C. – or vice versa.  However, again, a search of Washington D.C. census returns turned up nothing for Patrick Turner.

Every avenue of research continues to draw a blank.

I’ve done some preliminary research on African-American Turners in Charles County, Maryland. Generally, the Turners of Charles County fall into a few camps.  These are family groups who lived in Nanjemoy, Port Tobacco, Bryantown and Newtown.

Map of Charles County, Maryland

Map of Charles County, Maryland

Interestingly, La Plata is located between Bryantown and Nanjemoy.  Newtown is just to the south of La Plata. So while it would appear that my grandfather and his family were amongst a handful of African-American Turners in La Plata, they weren’t too far from the extended Turner family.   This at least is something. It places my grandfather, his sisters and his mother into a (very, very) general Turner family context in Maryland. However, it doesn’t answer the questions around Daniel Turner or Patrick Turner and who, exactly, they were related to in Charles County.

I haven’t raised the white flag of surrender on the African-American Turners of Charles County, Maryland just yet. I’ve left this to simmer quietly on a back burner.  My hope is that a Turner researching the same family line will get in touch with at least one or two missing pieces to aide in the research.  If the information can’t be found in official records, I hope it will become available in someone else’s family tree.

This is one reason – and an important one in my book – why more African Americans should take the leap and begin tracing their ancestral history. Online family trees can, and do, provide invaluable information.  They are an important resource, especially when there are gaps in the official records.