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Researching race requires more than census records

Special correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 02:14 PM

For much of America's early history, sexual relations and marriage between members of the white and other races were forbidden. But as with other issues, passing a law simply gave individuals something to violate — often it didn't change reality.

Thus, through miscegenation, over generations the skin color of some families lightened to the extent that many individuals were able to migrate from their birthplace and blend into white society.

While our ancestors profited by losing their unwanted racial identities, we descendants must grapple with identifying the race of those early families. What does it matter? A good family genealogy puts each generation into the social context in which each group of ancestors acted and was impacted. While society today is enlightened on racial issues, this certainly was not the case for earlier generations.

Hints of alternative racial identities usually are not readily available and often require digging deeply into manuscripts and documents off the beaten path. But one commonly used record set — the U. S. censuses — do offer what initially appears as ready identity of race.

These census records often are the first hints to researchers that they have long-buried roots of mixed blood. Beginning with the first census in 1790, the government differentiated racial complexions. But as we work through each decade of the census, we soon find the racial lines aren't clearly defined in those records. How did the census takers determine someone's race?

Between 1790 and 1820, individuals were enumerated into one of three categories: free white, all other free, and slave. Into that "all other free" could be a free person of African heritage, or a person of some degree of mixture of white, African and/or Indian.

In the 1830 and 1840 censuses, the category for non-whites was "slaves and free colored." Again we have to ask "but what color?"

Written instructions for the 1850 and 1860 censuses provided an answer of sorts to that question. Free persons were to be enumerated by name on a "population schedule," and slaves were to be listed (not by name but by age and sex) under the white masters' names on a "slave schedule."

On the population schedule, one column required an entry for "Color." Instructions were that "in all cases where the person is white, leave the space blank." A "B" was to be entered for black and an "M" for mulatto.

How much of the "color" decision was made by the census taker's familiarity with the family as being white or mixed? How much of the decision was made by asking the individuals about their race?

And what if they "looked" white? Perhaps no question was asked at all.

Such considerations probably are why a family could be listed in one census as "M" and as "W" in the census 10 years later.

In 1870 and 1880, census takers were told they had to write a color designator — leaving it blank did not assume the individual was white. The 1870 census is awash with areas where this directive was ignored.

The instructions cautioned workers to be "particularly careful in reporting the class Mulatto." They were told the term was "generic" and included quadroons, octoroons and all persons having any perceptible trace of African blood. Again, who determined this? During this time frame many of our ancestors began to claim they were Spanish or Portuguese to explain brown skin. This may have muddied the genealogy waters for us descendants, but it sometimes relieved our families of the label "mulatto."

The 1890 census was destroyed, so we must move past that decade. From 1900 to 1920, the racial identifiers simply were white, black ("Negro or Negro descent"); Chinese, Japanese or Indian. In 1920, instructions dictated that "black" was to include all persons who "are evidently full-blooded Negroes," and "mulatto" included "all other persons having some proportion or perceptible trace of Negro blood."

In 1930, a person of mixed white and "Negro blood" was to be returned as "Negro" — "no matter how small the percentage of Negro blood." Someone of part Indian and part Negro descent was to be listed as Negro "unless the Indian blood predominated and the person was generally accepted as an Indian in the community."

A person of mixed white and Indian blood was to be returned as Indian, except where the percentage of Indian blood was very small or where he was regarded as white in the community.

Any mixture of white and any other race would be reported according to the race of the parent who was not white. Mixtures of colored races were to be reported according to the father's race (except Negro-Indian).

In 2012, the 1940 census will be released to the public. We'll see at that time that any mixture of white and nonwhite blood was recorded according to the race of the nonwhite parent. Observation stayed the same for Negro and Indian mixed bloods.

Mexicans were first designated as such in the 1930 census. The interesting change in the 1940 census is that Mexicans were returned as "white" unless they were "definitely of Indian or other nonwhite race."

This racial issue is just another reason information found in censuses cannot be used as proof of anything. We can only take the racial information as pieces of evidence that we will pursue and attempt to confirm or disprove by good thorough research in other records.


Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogy questions and event announcements to her in care of Baylife, The Tampa Tribune, 200 S. Parker St., Tampa, FL 33606 or stmoody0720@mac.com. She regrets that she is unable to assist with personal research and cannot respond to requests for locating or researching specific individuals.
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