Copyright © Janice Tracy, Mississippi Memories

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Ghosts of our Ancestors

A few years ago, after I became aware that I had a Gibson great-great-great grandfather, I began searching for Gibson ancestors. Little did I know how much information I would find about this family.

Much of what has been written about the Gibson family in America concerns this family's biracial roots, beginning in Virginia and continuing in its migration through North and South Carolina and on into Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana. My Gibson ancestor was born in South Carolina about 1799. His name was John P. Gibson, and I still have not found the names of his parents. But along the research road, I found many interesting books and published articles about biracial and multiracial heritage in the early years of this country. One such article included "The Free State of Jones", written by Victoria E. Bynum and published by the University of North Carolina Press. Chapter 1 of the publication begins with an interesting quote of Sam Dabney, from James Street's "Tap Roots," published in 1943.

"We can't boast of our ancestors because when we get started talking about our families, out jumps the ghost of a pirate or a cousin of color."

A reference to America's rich racial heritage, contained in Victoria Bynum's book mentioned earlier in this post, states that racial sentiments in the South "evolved over a period of three centuries." She states that "by the 1840's, claims of Indian, Iberian (Spanish), or Mediterranean (Moorish) ancestry, defended one's whiteness against race-based laws and social harassment." Gideon Gibson, a "light-skinned slaveholder of partially African ancestry" and a member of South Carolina's Regulator Movement, is mentioned in this publication as a person who exemplified how racial identity was often "fluid" and "even negotiable in some cases." Bynum goes on to say that "many of Gideon Gibson's descendants, migrated west in search of whiteness as well as lands." We know this is true, since many of the descendants of Gideon Gibson, Jacob Gibson, and Jordan Gibson who ended up in the state of Mississippi prior to the Civil War have been well-documented in the state histories of Mississippi, Kentucky, Louisiana, and even the history of Methodism in Mississippi. We know, too, that regardless of whether a person was labeled as a Mulatto, Mestizo, Mustee, Melungeon, Creole, Cajun, Redbone, or similar names denoting something other than an "all white" ancestry, racial "mixing" has occurred throughout American history, and not only in the South Carolina backcountry and other states commonly known as "The South." Class-consciousness was very real in the society of the 1800's, and it became common for those who lived in the colonies, including North and South Carolina prior to migrating farther west and south, to portray their ancestors as aristocratic patriots and slaveholders. The fact was that many of their "aristocratic" ancestors were Regulators, itinerant preachers, and even Tories.

An interesting bit of history that I also discovered during my research was the story of Dr. Walter Ashby Plecker, a small-town doctor who became the registrar of Virginia's Bureau of Vital Statistics in 1912. Dr. Plecker became known as the impetus for the passage of the Racial Integrity Law in 1924, commonly referred to as "Plecker's Law." The law became Virginia's infamous "one drop" statute, and its language created two racial categories, "pure" white and everybody else. Dr. Plecker had allied with John Powell of the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America and had begun to wage an all-out war against the mixing of the races, one of which was a push for "ancestral registration."

According to J. David Smith in "The Eugenic Assault on America: Scenes in Red, White, and Black," Virginians were reluctant to comply with the idea of "ancestral registration," even though the state had passed the first anti-miscegenation law in 1662, when "passing" as white may have been rather commonplace and proof of racial purity was difficult to obtain.

Plecker's method of identifying racial impurity was to compile a list of family surnames that were "known" to be "mixed." The list was by Virginia county and the names of the "racially mixed" families who lived in these counties, and is shown below:

Amherst: Pumphrey (Migrants to Allegheney and Campbell) Adcock (Adcox), Beverly (this family is now trying to evade the situation by adopting the name of Burch or Birch, which was the name of the white mother of the present adult generation), Branham, Duff, Floyd, Hamilton, Hartless, Hicks, Johns, Lawless, Nukles (Knuckles), Painter, Ramsey, Redcross, Roberts, Southwards (Suthards, Southerds, Southers). Sorrells, Terry, Tyree, Willis, Clark, Wood

Bedford: McVey, Maxey, Branham, Burley (see Amherst)

Rockbridge: (migrants to Augusta), Cash, Clark, Coleman, Duff, Floyd, Hartless, Hicks, Mason, Mayse(Mays), Painters, Pults, Ramsey, Southerds (see Amherst), Sorrell, Terry, Tyree, Wood, Johns

Charles City: Collins, Dennis, Bradby, Howell, Langston, Stewart, Wynn, Custalow(Custaloo), Dungoe, Holmes, Miles, Page, Allmond, Adams, Hawkes, Spurlock, Doggett

King William: Collins, Dennis, Bradby, Howell, Lanston, Stewart, Wynn, Custalow(Custaloo), Dungoe, Bolnus, Miles, Page, Allmond, Adams, Hawkes, Spurlock, Doggett

New Kent: Collins, Bradby, Stewart, Wynn Adkins, Langston

Henrico and Richond City: (see Charles City, New Kent, and King William)

Caroline: Byrd, Fortune, Nelson (see Essex)

Essen and King and Queen: Nelson, Fortune, Byrd, Cooper, Tate, Hammond, Brooks, Boughton, Prince, Mitchell, Robinson

Elizabeth City and Newport News: Stewart (descendants of Charles City families)

Halifax: Epps (Eppes), Stewart (Stuart), Coleman, Johnson, Martin, Talley, Sheppard (Shepard), Young

Norfolk County and Portsmouth: Sawyer, Bass, Weaver, Locklear (Locklair), King, Bright, Porter

Westmoreland: Sorrells, Worlds (Worrell), Atwells, Butridge, Okiff

Greene: Shifflett, Shiflet

Prince William: Tyson, Segar (see Fauquier)

Fauquier: Hoffman (Huffman), Riley, Colvin, Phillips, (see Prince William)

Lancaster: Dorsey (Dawson)

Washington: Beverly, Barlow, Thomas, Hughes, Lethcoe, Worley

Roanoke County: Beverly (see Washington)

Lee and Smyth: Collins, Gibson (Gipson), Moore, Boins, Ramsey, Delph, Bunch, Freeman, Mise, Bolden (Bolin), Mullins, Hawkins - Chiefly Tennessee "Melungeons"

Scott: Dingus (see Lee)

Russell: Keith, Castell, Stillwell, Meade, Proffitt (see Lee and Tazewell)

Wise: (see Lee, Scott, Smyth, and Russell Counties)

As the Registrar, Dr. Plecker had the authority to change various forms of registration required in Virginia, including birth certificates and marriage records. Since he exercised this authority and changed or added to the documents as he saw fit regarding racial makeup, the process of alteration became known as "pleckerizing."

The impact of this finding on my research was that two of my family lines were included on the list, Gibson and Porter. What it really meant was that I had much more research to do.

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