Copyright © Janice Tracy, Mississippi Memories

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Crossing the Color Line

Last month, I received a release from As a subscriber, I often receive electronic copies of the company’s press releases. But this particular release was different.  It announced research that had been completed by some of the best genealogists and family researchers in the field about a man named John Punch and the descendants of the man’s son, John Bunch. (No, the first letter of these surnames is not a typo, but is rather an example of how the spelling of names often changed phonetically in a time when standardized spelling was non-existent.) The Bunch family story spans multiple centuries and is a most fascinating one. This press release was even more significant, because it announced the discovery that John Punch was likely the first slave in America.  Even more significant was the finding that President Obama may be descended from John Punch through his deceased mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. According to the well-researched and documented Bunch family history, John Punch, a black man, was an indentured servant in early Virginia.  As punishment  for running away, the landowner to whom he was indentured enslaved him for life. According to research findings, John Punch’s son, John Bunch, a mulatto male born to an unnamed free white female, became the progenitor of the Bunch family in America. Although his father was a slave, law in effect in Virginia at the time of John Bunch’s birth dictated that he could live his life as a free man because his mother was free. The rest of the story traces the lineage of John Bunch and his family from Virginia into North Carolina and continues as descendants move south and westward, where they would eventually settle throughout several states. A link is provided here to read an earlier blog post about the Bunch family in Mississippi.

If you have watched episodes of NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” and PBS’s Finding Your Roots” hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the discovery of a  family’s biracial roots is not a new one. But what is new is the fact that we seem to be more accepting of what has become a fairly common and sometimes public discovery. Although it was a shameful and often hidden part of a family’s history and our country’s past,  numbers of biracial children resulted from illegal interracial unions that occurred during slavery. But open relationships between the races and interracial marriages did exist and were not uncommon in early America until certain laws were enacted during the late 1700s and early 1800s.  In my own family research, I found  that one of my paternal lines descends from the Gibson family of North and South Carolina. Interestingly, Port Gibson, Mississippi, and Fort Gibson, originally in Indian Territory, are named for members of this family.  But the most interesting part of my research was finding that Gideon Gibson, the patriarch of the Gibson family in South Carolina, by most accounts, was descended from an interracial union that also occurred in Colonial Virginia.  

DNA testing and the popularity of genealogy research are changing the complexion of family history findings and are showing us as a nation that we were never neatly divided into black and white. Contributing to the availability of information about the construction of race in this country are a number of books written about American families that have biracial roots.  One of the best known of these books, entitled Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware, was written by Paul Heinegg, a respected lay genealogist and historian. With a poignant foreword by Ira Berlin, the book includes a lengthy list of surnames with known biracial beginnings and discusses the lineages of the families named. A more recent book is The Invisible Line, written by Daniel J. Sharfstein, a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School. Published in 2011, Sharfstein’s deeply researched historical narrative addresses the complexity of race in early America as it chronicles the lives of three American families named Wall, Spencer, and Gibson, who did, in fact, cross the color line.

At  a time when ethnicity and racial identity often cause wars and domestic discord, maybe we should take a closer look at  the congregation of individuals who helped form our country. We have always been a nation of immigrants, but history tells us the colors of our people have not always been well-defined.  If we know who we are and where we have been, knowing where we are going is made easier.