America has long been called a "melting pot," a positive reference to all those of European heritage who poured into the United States, where they blended to become "Americans."
Another melting pot term, sometimes uttered with less positive connotation, is race mixing. It's used to describe Europeans who had children with those of African or American Indian ancestry.
Many of our ancestors had strong feelings about race mixing. Those old prejudices are reflected in the documents we seek to create a factual history of our families.
I first became interested in racial terminology when I found one of my own ancestors listed in the Halifax County, N.C., censuses of 1850 and 1860 as a "mulatto" and in the 1830 and 1840 censuses as a "free person of color." Until these findings, I had no idea I had a racially mixed heritage.
So I began my quest to understand the racial distinctions and what they meant - not to me but to my ancestor. Modern dictionaries say that a mulatto is a person of half white and half black heritage. I quickly learned this definition wasn't applied.
I sought the instructions under which the census enumerators made their racial classifications. They gave me insight but didn't totally clarify the matter.
For example, in 1860, census takers were told to be "particularly careful in reporting the class mulatto. The word is generic and includes ... all persons having any perceptible trace of African blood."
That gave me a clue that my ancestor had a "perceptible trace" of African blood.
By 1910, census takers were told that "black" included everyone who was evidently full-blooded, while the term "mulatto" included anyone with some evidence of black ancestry.
But they were also told to rely on their own observations and inquiries.
From other research I learned that the term "free persons of color" was used to label free Africans and American Indians during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Both were treated with equal disdain, legally and socially.
People were eager to distance themselves from racial classifications that would mean higher taxes, less education and ostracism from white society. Many struggled to avoid being classified as mulatto.
With each generation, complexions became lighter or darker. If individuals remained in their communities, everyone knew they were mulatto, and they likely grew darker as they mixed with other mulattos or those of pure African or Indian blood. If ancestors were light-skinned enough and moved somewhere where no one knew them, they could pass as white.
My own ancestor in 1847 moved from her birth home in Halifax County, N.C., and settled in Cherokee County. She is shown on the 1850 and 1860 censuses as white, while her parents - still in Halifax - were listed as mulatto.
Often, people with a swarthy complexion might say they were Portuguese or Black Dutch (dark-skinned Germans). When you see such claims in records, it's a clue they were trying to hide their heritage, so don't run off to Portugal looking for records.
Non-whites had to pay extra taxes and were denied a decent education and access to eating establishments, health care facilities and other amenities. How can we blame them for trying to improve their lot in life by denying their heritage?
As genealogists seeking to know and understand our ancestors, we must not glaze over records with closed minds.