As Black History Month comes to a close, I thought I'd try to call attention to Daniel Sharfstein's recent Slate article about a black hero, O.S.B. Wall, whose descendants would later identify as white. Unlike other black figures who's descendants identified as white (like Anatole Bayard), Wall never made an effort to pass for white. Not only is the article an interesting read, it's a welcome reminder that, one-drop rule notwithstanding, our nation's racial history is anything but black and white. (Come on, you saw that platitude coming from a mile away).
It's generally accepted that many African Americans have some white ancestry; in fact, anthropologist Mark Shriver found that most have at least 12.5% European ancestry (a great-grandparent). However, less attention is paid to the black ancestry of "white" Americans. This is understandable of course, the percentage of whites with black ancestry is presumably much lower than the percentage of blacks with white ancestry, for obvious reasons. Still, as Sharfstein's article demonstrates, there are many interesting stories to be told and and questions to be asked.
Some of these questions can be found in my own family tree. A few years ago, I was browsing some online genealogy websites and I came across a direct ancestor of mine, Elizabeth Cullom, whose son William Watters (my fifth-great uncle or something) had been convicted of fornication. Apparently, a court in Ashe County, North Carolina determined his marriage invalid on account of his non-white ancestry. He challenged this ruling before the North Carolina Supreme Court. In that case (State v. William P. Watters, 1843), a witness for the state, Isaac Tinsley testified that he knew Watter's grandparents (my ancestors) and that they were, in his words "coal black negroes." Defense witnesses claimed that Elizabeth Cullom's mother, Mary Wooten, was not as black as some negroes and had thin lips." A defense witness described Cullom as a "mulatto." Ultimately, the ruling was upheld, with the court declaring that even if "the grand-father [sic] was white and the grand-mother only half African-of which there is no evidence, still the defendant would have been within the degree prohibited from contracting marriage with a white woman."
Also interestingly, the same site references a failed petition for membership in the Cherokee nation that listed Cullom as having Native American ancestry.
I haven't checked the primary source documents cited by this website and I don't seem to be the most likely candidate for non-white ancestors. My appearance could aptly be termed a "Whiter Shade of Pale." Also, most of my family tree has already been mapped and so far, all branches eventually lead to Western Europe, although they weave throughout the lower Midwest, the South and the Northeast. Still, there seems a some possibility that I have a tiny bit of non-white ancestry and this mere possibility, to me, speaks to the fascinating dynamism of America's racial history.