When “Race” Wasn’t About Skin Color

Don’t Go Back Too Far

If you’re from the South, you’ve heard this phrase…it’s usually followed by a nervous chuckle. Any time someone in my family has decided to research how long we’ve been in Florida we get told “don’t go back too far”.

We’ve bragged to everyone about how long we’ve been in this state; but have never been willing to offer more than anecdotal evidence to prove it. I had originally thought the whole “don’t go back too far” thing was because we had fractured the occasional law in the past. (Like our rum-running adventures during Prohibition) Maybe we didn’t want people to know we had owned slaves. (In Florida, we usually had at least 3, but never more than 5) At worst, maybe we had an ancestor who fought on the Union side of the Civil War. (Boy were my discoveries on that score surprising!)

It honestly never occurred to me that the problem would be that we used to be a different color. I don’t think it ever dawned on me because I don’t think it ever actually mattered to me. After all, I already knew my family had a “colorful” background because my dad never made any secret of that kind of thing on his side of the family. And both sides have always claimed some Native American, usually Seminole or Creek, heritage. So I didn’t know what the big deal about going “back too far” was.

On most of my family’s Ancestry.com family trees, things would go to a certain point and then just stop. Specifically, the information would get to a woman named Susan Clarke and just stop. If there was anything more, it was a name and date, but that was it. There was nothing else attached to the entry. I looked over the records attached to the trees built by some of my other family members and noticed that on one record, the only one ever attached as a source, Susan Clarke’s race is listed as W for white. For a while I just took the entry at face value. Then one day I decided to read the digital copy of the page. That was when I finally noticed it. That wasn’t a W for white…it was an M…for mulatto.

I asked my mother about it and she had no clue. She had never heard anything like that before. Besides that, we’re white. So white that some of us glow in the dark. How could we have gone from “black” to “white” in a single generation? It was confusing. But then I remembered my favorite Civil Rights case, Plessy v Ferguson.

Basically, in 1892, a black man named Homer Plessy purchased a train ticket for the “white’s only” car then refused to give up his seat and move the the “colored” car instead. Thinking on that information, one wonders how a black man was even able to buy a ticket for the “white’s only” car in the first place…much less actually manage to sit down in it.

If Plessy was black then it should have been really obvious that he shouldn’t have even bought the ticket? Right?

One problem, here’s a picture of Homer Plessy:

Pictured: A black man?

Pictured: A black man?

Plessy was what was then referred to as an “Octoroon”, meaning 1/8 African ancestry…which meant he was black. I had heard terms like quadroon and octoroon and mulatto before. But, honestly, I had never thought much about them.

I had seen the entries noting an alternating black, white, or mulatto woman named Susan Clarke. But I was told that this wasn’t our Susan Clarke. It was someone else. I also noticed that the names of all of her children matched the names of all of my ancestors, all of my Susan Clarke’s children. But I took my family’s information at face value. I’ve been estranged from my family for a long time now so I simply assumed the rest of my family had access to better information than mine.

I’ve asked a few family members about the discrepancies. Most simply told me that those records weren’t the right ones…which didn’t explain why the names all matched names I already knew. But, when you think about it, it’s understandable really. I mean, we’re white. Why would the person listed as black or mulatto be the right one? Case closed. Right?

But a couple of my cousins were like me and didn’t just accept the first answer given. They admitted that they were curious about the discrepancy as well, but weren’t able to look into it.

I, however, had nothing holding me back. The good thing about being a family black sheep is that I am already seen as a total screw up so it’s not like I’m going to be disappointing anyone.

I decided to forego the census records and instead started looking at other Ancestry members’ public trees. That was where I first heard the story of George and Flora. That was the first time I ever heard about this amazing person from my family’s past named George John Fredrick Clarke.

I’ve talked about my fairly cool grandfather before here and here. And I introduced you to his parents and his granddaughter already. When I first introduced this information to my family I was so excited! I thought that I had done something remarkable. That I had solved some mystery that no one else had solved. I found the correct information. I found our Florida origins and they were amazing! I wanted to shout it from the rooftops! Everyone is going to be so excited when I tell them!

But I quickly discovered that I was wrong.

I had gone back too far.

And now people were mad at me even though they didn’t understand the entire story.

Skin color did not equal race?

(For the sake of this post, I’m going to assume that we all already agree that skin color means absolutely DICK in determining anything about another person. As far as determining the overall perception of a person, using skin color (as ANY part of it) is about as accurate as using the color of someone’s pants to determine if they are a Vegan or not.)

Here, I explained that my grandfather George had a son, James, who will become my grandfather. I also mentioned that James was born a slave, as was his older sister, Felicia.

Now that I’ve said that, you probably have a certain expectation of what they would have looked like. You have a mental idea that they would be darker skinned, probably have dark hair, and they likely also had dark eyes. You are expecting them to look like anyone else you know who has both dark and light skinned parents.

Like maybe this guy

Like maybe this guy

But, more often than not, that wasn’t the case.

Everything you think you know about race is wrong

We have these preconceived notions that antebellum racism was as simple as: dark skin = bad; light skin = good. But it wasn’t that simple. I grew up hearing phrases like “looks white, but everyone knows they’re black”. Unless you grew up with phrases like this around you, then you don’t quite understand how blood, not skin color, dictated race. If you look closely, there are hundreds of examples of this throughout Florida, and American, history. And Mark Twain used these same conventions as a point in his Pudd’nhead Wilson story.

Need another example?

How about former head of the NAACP, Walter Francis White.

White, a black man, was head of the NAACP from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. Here’s a picture of him:


And here’s another:


White was described as being blond haired and blue eyed. Did I mention that the reason he stopped being the head of the NAACP was because he married a white woman from South Africa and caused a scandal?

Confused yet? Hang on, I’m just getting started.

It would eventually come to be called the “one drop” rule. Generally speaking, you were considered black if you had at least one great grandparent who had also been considered black. Being born a slave almost automatically meant you were black, but it didn’t automatically mean that you had dark skin. Let’s keep in mind that black, colored, negro, or whatever, was not talking about the color of your skin. It was talking about the color of your blood.

Knowing that my grandmother, Flora, was born a slave makes you think of dark colored skin. But, by all accounts, that’s not quite right. The few instances where her description is documented list her as being lighter skinned, or biracial. You see, Flora was a “house slave”. There was a (bullshit) theory about slaves that said lighter skinned slaves were more tractable and made better domestics. There was, of course, absolutely nothing that supported this idea except a vague notion that stemmed from the idea of light skinned superiority. But since people believed it, that was the practice.

Flora was a second (maybe even third) generation domestic slave. I’m not saying that Flora working as a domestic automatically means she has an ethnically diverse background. What it does suggest is that the possibility exists. Flora’s skin color could have been anywhere from the color of obsidian to the color of fresh snow…but being a slave meant that she was “black” no matter what her actual skin pigmentation levels were.

No matter what Flora’s actual skin color was, she was legally considered 100% black. So her children, who were technically ethnically blended, were considered “free Negros”.

Now let me make it even more confusing. The law defined that 1/8th black is all it took to make you 100% black. (Oh, and sometimes, being as little as 1/16th or 1/32nd black could make you legally black too.) Meaning that one great grandparent made you 100% black. But if you were 100% black, then your children would only be 50% black…unless you married and had kids with another 100% black Caucasian…then the offspring were also considered 100% black as well.

In a small community, like Palatka, even if your mother’s skin was the color of cream, if she was considered black, so were you.

Because black, negro, colored, whatever, wasn’t a race…it was a legal definition.

We are missing half of our full history when we separate Black History. How can we be teaching a full, rich, and diverse history when we cut it down the middle?

Especially when cutting it down the middle erases a huge swath of people and their accomplishments. People like my ancestors.

My ancestors were called “black” but here is a picture of Felicia’s youngest son, my “uncle”, William Garvin:

Screenshot of Dr. Frank Marotti's book, Heaven's Soldiers

Screenshot of Dr. Frank Marotti’s book, Heaven’s Soldiers

Here’s one of my uncle Fredrick A. Clarke, James’ younger son:

Also from Frank Marotti's book

Also from Frank Marotti’s book

And here is my grandmother, Susan Clarke, Fredrick’s older sister and James Clarke’s daughter.

Family picture, courtesy of my cousin Margaret.

Family picture, courtesy of my cousin Margaret.

All of the people pictured above were considered, by law, to be black.

William (pictured above) is the younger son of my aunt Felicia. Felicia is the oldest child of George and Flora. Remember, Felicia was born a slave, making her automatically black. Under the law, this man was considered a free black/free Negro. Technically, he was a quadroon, one-quarter black since his grandmother was black. But, as I said above, we have no way of knowing if Flora was, herself, black = dark skin or black = “blood content”. All we know for sure is that she was considered, by law (de jure), black. Which automatically made her factually (de facto), black.

To me, all of this means that a huge number of white people have forgotten their own history. They’ve forgotten a time when being light skinned wasn’t enough to stop you from being discriminated against.

We’ve forgotten a time when it was perfectly legal, and even encouraged, for a white man to shoot one of us down in the street for not bowing and scraping.

In a future post I’m planning to go more in depth as to how this would eventually inform actions in the American South and Florida specifically. It took a lot of hard work…not to mention a whole lot of bloodshed…for “one drop” blacks to finally get to be considered white. In one single generation my family went from proudly being Catholic Spanish Mulattoes, to telling “funny” stories about their wanton cruelty and barbarism towards people of color. Something moved them to this mentality…and it was the US government.

Under the new United States government, all of the people pictured above fall under the “Black Codes” that show up in Florida in the 1820’s. Under US rule, manumission all but disappears after several fines and other complications are added to the process. This was why so many white fathers had to suddenly scramble to ensure that any and all of their manumitted children had the papers to prove it. Several men, including George J. F. Clarke, had to re-file manumission paperwork for sons and daughters who had been born in bondage and freed by their fathers at birth.

By the 1840’s it was illegal for black men to carry weapons, serve in the military or militia forces, or sell arms or alcohol. There were also several racist taxes enacted. As well, it was decreed that debt could find you sold back into slavery. Arrest could send you back into bondage. Being a free black and trying to move into Florida after a certain date could lead your entire family to be arrested and sold into slavery. For the most part, these new laws and restrictions caused a mass exodus of free blacks…the kinds of free blacks pictured above.

With my family’s continued financial success at stake, they filed suit. In 1845, Felicia’s oldest son, James Garvin, the older brother of William Garvin (pictured above), led a challenge against a discriminatory tax. Whites were required to pay only 50 cents, while blacks had to pay $3. The same day this was to come before the local judge, several other inheritance and other claims (also from my family members) were to be heard as well.

Theirs, and several other, claims were outright denied. They were told by judge George L. Phillips that the rights of a “Bastard born of a black woman” was not about to be upheld by the United States.

By segregating our history, we’ve been blinded. We’ve allowed ourselves to forget that there was a time when your “race” wasn’t just judged by your skin color. And, because of that, we’ve allowed ourselves to forget that “white” people were just as discriminated against as “black” people.

We’ve blinded ourselves to a time when yes, in fact, it really was because we were black.

(Coming soon: A letter from the past sheds light on why a number of antebellum Florida slave owners didn’t dare risk setting their slaves free…even though NOT letting them be free went against everything morally dear to them)

Update and admitting a mistake: The picture I have that was supposed to be Homer Plessy is wrong. That is actually P.B.S. Pinchback…who would have been Lousiana’s first black governor had it not been for racist policies saying that he wasn’t white enough to be governor. He would have been the first African American governor in the US had racism not impeded his progress.



About pynomrah

I like stuff, and things.
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5 Responses to When “Race” Wasn’t About Skin Color

  1. Pingback: A Letter Concerning a Slave, a Sister, and a New Republic | Somewhere in the Middle of Everything

  2. Pingback: Suggestion Saturday: August 30, 2014 | On The Other Hand

  3. Pingback: My family had a slave called Prince | Somewhere in the Middle of Everything

  4. Lisa Robertson says:

    The image you have on you page isn’t Homer Plessy. It’s Governor of Louisiana, Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback. You can see the image at the Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2005677832/ I’ve been looking for one of Homer Plessy and this one is often mistaken for him. I don’t think an image of Homer Plessy exists.


    • pynomrah says:

      You’re right. I was looking for one of Homer Plessy and happened across Pinchback’s picture attached to an article about Plessy. I didn’t find out until afterwards; and instead of changing it I made a note at the end of the post. I haven’t found a picture of Plessy yet. Mugshots were in regular use by the 1890’s so we know there was at least one picture taken of him during his lifetime. But it doesn’t look like it survived the intervening century.


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