Copyright © Janice Tracy, Mississippi Memories

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Ghosts of Our Ancestors

A few years ago, after I became aware that I had a Gibson great-great-great grandfather, I began my search for Gibson ancestors with virtually no facts at all. Little did I know, however, how much information I would discover about this family. My research found that much of what has been written about the Gibson family in America concerns this family's biracial roots, ones that began in Virginia and continued as the family migrated into North and South Carolina and on to Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisina and places beyond. Today, descendants of the early Gibson family of Virginia can be counted in the hundreds of thousands.

My Gibson story began with one man, John P. Gibson. All I knew in the beginning was that he had been born around 1799 in South Carolina, and he first appeared on a U. S. Census record in Mississippi in 1860. I later found that he had married Margaret J. Williams, born around 1820, in Monroe County, Mississippi on January 3, 1843. Through U. S. Census records recorded in Mississippi in 1860 and 1870, I found that John and Margaret Gibson became parents of seven children. One of their daughters, Malverda Gibson, later became my paternal great-great-grandmother. But along the research road, I found not only information about my South Carolina Gibson family and its descendants, but a treasure trove of interesting books and published articles about the biracial and multiracial heritage of this country.

One such book was "The Free State of Jones," written by Victoria E. Bynum and published by the University of North Carolina Press. This publication, a portion of which is available on
Google Books, begins with an interesting quote by Sam Dabney, taken 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, 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 so-called Regulator Movement, is mentioned in Bynum's 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 some of the descendants of South Carolinians, Gideon Gibson, Jacob Gibson, and Jordan Gibson, eventually settled in the state of Mississippi prior to the Civil War. Their lives and the lives of some of their descendants have been well-documented in historical publications about several southern states, including Mississippi and Louisiana. Often, these publications mention the ethnicity of Gibson family ancestors.

One thing that is known for sure is 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 it has not occurred only in the South Carolina backcountry and other states commonly known as "The South." Class consciousness was widespread and very real in the 1800s; it became common for those who had migrated from the colonies, including North and South Carolina, to portray their ancestors as aristocratic patriots and slaveholders. The facts, when known, often revealed that many of these "aristocratic" ancestors were actually Regulators, itinerant preachers, and even Tories.

In my quest to find my own Gibson ancestors, I found that members of this
South Carolina family were not only involved in the infamous Regulator movement in that state, but their descendants later became civic and governmental leaders in Mississippi, Louisiana and Kentucky. The involvement of Gibson family members in business and politics has been well-documented. One well-known Gibson descendant, Randall Gibson, was instrumental in the founding of Tulane University, while another descendant, Tobias Gibson, is credited with the spread of Methodism in the South.

An interesting bit of history that I stumbled upon during this research that began with the Gibson family 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's views about racial mixing became the impetus for the passage of the Racial Integrity Law of 1924, commonly referred to as "Plecker's Law." Details about this law can be read on the University of Virginia's website, in an article entitled "Battles in Red, White, and Black."

This law became Virginia's infamous "one drop" statute, and its language created two racial categories, "pure" white and everybody else. The law's passage allowed Dr. Plecker to pursue his alliance with John Powell of the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America in waging an all-out war against the mixing of the races. One of his efforts entailed a push for "ancestral registration." Virginians were reluctant to comply with the idea of "ancestral registration," even though the state had already passed the first anti-miscegenation law in 1662. At that time, "passing" as white may have been rather commonplace, but proof of racial purity was difficult to obtain.

Plecker's method involved identifying racial impurity by compiling a list of family surnames that were "known" to be "mixed." The list was arranged by Virginia counties and included the names of "racially mixed" families who lived in these counties.

Counties and surnames included in "Plecker's List," as this list became known, appear below:

Amherst County:

Pumphrey (Migrants to Allegheny and Campbell) Adcock (Adcox), Beverly (according to Dr. Plecker, this family was trying to evade the situation by adopting the name of Burch or Birch, which was believed to be the name of the white mother of the adult generation at the time), Branham, Clark, Duff, Floyd, Hamilton, Hartless, Hicks, Johns, Lawless, Nukles (Knuckles), Painter, Ramsey, Redcross, Roberts, Southwards (Suthards, Southerds, Southers), Sorrells, Terry, Tyree, Willis, and Wood

Bedford County:

Branham, Burley (See Amherst), Cash, Clark, Coleman, Duff, Floyd, Hartless, Hicks, Johns, McVey, Mason, Maxey, Mayse (Mays), Painters, Pults, Ramsey, and Wood

Charles City County:

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

Caroline County:

Byrd and Fortune

Henrico and Richmond City:

See Charles City, New Kent, and King William

King William County:

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

Nelson County:

See Essex

New Kent County:

Adkins, Bradby, Collins, Langston, Stewart, and Wynn

Elizabeth City and Newport News:

Stewart (descendants of Charles City families)

Essex and King and Queen Counties:

Brooks, Broughton, Byrd, Cooper, Fortune, Hammond, Mitchell, Prince, Nelson, Robinson, and Tate.

Elizabeth City and Newport News:

Stewart (descendants of Charles City families)

Fauquier County:

Colvin, Hoffman (Huffman), Phillips (See Prince William) and Riley

Greene County:

Shifflett, Shiflet

Halifax County:

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

Lancaster County:

Dawson (aka Dorsey)

Lee County County:

Bolden (Bolin), Bunch, Collins, Delph, Freeman, Gibson (Gipson), Goins, Hawkins, Mise (Mize), Moore, Mullins, Ramsey (chiefly "Tennessee "Melungeons")

Norfolk County and Portsmouth:

Bass, Bright, King, Locklear (Locklair), Porter, Sawyer, and Weaver

Prince William County:

Tyson, Segar (see Fauquier)

Lancaster County:

Dorsey (Dawson)

Roanoke County:

Beverly (see Washington)

Rockbridge County:

Southerds (see Amherst), Sorrell, Terry, Tyree, and Wood (including migrants to Amherst Co.)


Dingus (see Lee County)

Smythe County:

See Lee County

Russell County:

Castell, Keith, Meade, Proffitt, and Stillwell, also see Lee and Tazewell Counties

Washington County:

Barlow, Beverly, Hughes, Lethcoe, Thomas, and Worley

Westmoreland County:

Atwells, Butridge, Okiff (Okeefe), Sorrells, Worlds (Worrell)

Wise County:

See Lee, Scott, Smyth, and Russell Counties

As Virginia's 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, this process was referred to as "pleckerizing."

This article was written to commemorate Black History Month in the United States and to remind us all of the contributions made by so many African Americans, as well as those with biracial and mutiracial heritage, to the history of our country.


  1. Janice, this is a very interesting and informative post. Was Plecker's Law practiced in all of the states or just in Virginia? There is so much most of us don't know about that period of time. I think most of us just assume things happened in a certain way and if we'd do a little more research, we'd all be surprised.

    I appreciate all of your hard work at research and the way you make it so easy to understand.
    I've given you a Kreativ Blogger Award and you can pick it up at Tennessee Memories.

  2. Very fascinating, Janice. And to think it came out of your desire to learn more about your Gibson family. Isn't it amazing what all you can learn from just delving into one little area. My husband's folks are from Hancock/Hawkins County, Tennessee which borders on Lee County, Virginia. Although his heritage is not Melungeon, we've been interested in learning more about those of this heritage. Good stuff in your post, thanks!