Copyright © Janice Tracy, Mississippi Memories

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Ghosts of Our Ancestors

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 multiracial heritage, to the history of our country. 

A few years ago, after I became aware that I had a Gibson great-great-great grandfather, I began searching for my Gibson ancestors with virtually no facts at all. Little did I know, however, how much information I would discover along the way. 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, Louisiana 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 John P. Gibson had been born around 1799 in South Carolina, and that 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 also found that John and Margaret Gibson were the parents of seven children. One of their daughters, Malverda Gibson, later became my paternal great-great-grandmother. 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 the South Carolina Gibson family, Gideon Gibson, Jacob Gibson, and Jordan Gibson, eventually settled in the state of Mississippi prior to the Civil War. The town of Port Gibson, Mississippi, first known as "Gibson's Landing," is named for Gibson family members who settled in that area. And 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 discuss 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 back country 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 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 on " 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: L awson (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.) 

Scott: 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, and he often exercised this authority and changed or added to the documents as he saw fit.  His practices, in part, provided many residents whose surnames were on the list to move elsewhere.  

1 comment:

  1. For quite awhile in the early 90's the Casteel researchers kept throwing out that they were Portuguese then melungeon...but nothing was ever proven and I haven't heard any of it for awhile now.
    Theresa (Tangled Trees)