I’ve covered some of my research successes in other stories, such as 2020’s “Juneteenth: We’re still on the road to freedom and justice,” but I haven’t shared much of my thoughts on Texas.
Texas has a strange history when it comes to black people and slavery, as documented here in the “Free Blacks” entry in the Handbook of Texas, of the Texas State Historical Association.
As of 1792, the black and mulatto population made up 15 percent of the 2,992 people living in Spanish Texas. Within the Spanish Empire, the legal status of free blacks resembled that of the Indian population. The law required free blacks to pay tribute, forbidding them to carry firearms and restricting their freedom of movement. In practice, Spanish officials ignored such restrictions and often encouraged the release of slaves. The small number of Hispanic subjects in Texas and the great distances between settlements also brought about the intermarriage of whites, blacks, and Native Americans. While most free blacks in Texas were born there before 1800, an increasing emigration to Texas of free blacks and some escaped slaves from the southern United States began after that. After the Mexican War of Independence (1821), the Mexican government offered free blacks full civil rights, allowing land ownership and other privileges. Mexico accepted free blacks as equals to white settlers. Favorable conditions for free blacks in Texas in the 1830s prompted a noted abolitionist, Benjamin Lundy, to request permission to establish a black colony from the United States. While the Mexican government expressed interest in the idea, opposition from whites in Texas and the United States prevented its implementation. Free Blacks, like other frontiersmen, continued to immigrate to Texas in search of a chance at advancement and a better life. […]
The Constitution of the Republic of Texas designated people of one-eighth African blood as a separate and distinct group, took away citizenship, sought to restrict property rights, and banned the permanent residence of free blacks without the approval of the Congress of the Republic of Texas. Interracial marriages were also prohibited by law. Ironically, local communities and lawmakers in favor of the new provisions often did not want them enforced in their districts. Documents show prominent whites were known to mediate on behalf of free blacks at risk of persecution under the new regulations. A stricter law passed in 1840 that gave blacks two years to leave Texas or risk being sold into slavery was effectively postponed by President Sam Houston. […]
After the annexation, the legislature passed stricter laws governing the lives of free blacks. These new laws called for harsh punishments usually reserved only for slaves, including branding, whipping and forced labor on public works. In 1858, the legislature even passed a law encouraging free blacks to voluntarily re-enter slavery by allowing them to choose their own masters. The increased restrictions and the increase in white hostility resulted in a virtual cessation of additional free black immigration to Texas and may have led to a reduction in the Texas population of free blacks. The United States census reported 397 free blacks in Texas in 1850 and 355 in 1860, although there may have been an equal number of free blacks that were not counted.
That timeline became especially relevant when my search for my first cousin’s Texan family hit that brick wall. They don’t appear in any list of free blacks, so they must have been enslaved. I knew Anna Gibson was listed in Freedman’s Bank Records as being born in Texas circa 1823. Her daughter Idella was listed as born in 1861, also in Texas. My Uncle Louis – Idella’s grandson – said she was born in Galveston. That’s all I know. My family is luckier than most black people because we have a picture of Idella when she was an adult.
What is clear in that photo is that Idella is of white ancestry. What does that mean for Anna, the enslaved woman who was Idella’s mother?
We may never know. But we do know that many children were born and enslaved, despite having white fathers. We also know that enslaved black women were raped and bred for profit. We also know that in parts of the South, mixed-race black women were often kept as concubines.
Anna left Texas as fast as she could and moved to Maryland, where she opened a sewing school. She was listed there in the 1870 census.
Now comes the hardest part: imagining her life under the yoke of slavery. None of them are beautiful. None of that fits the fairy tales offered to white children about “happy darkies” on the plantation lazing about their days. Nowhere in those fabrications are those “masses of descendants” mentioned.
As some of you may know, the black community has issues with “colorism,” an artificially developed hierarchy based on light skin and European hair texture. On the other hand, and less discussed, is the ugly underbelly that that light skin tone refers to; realities often not talked about openly in families, or stories shared only in whispers among the elderly. This unspoken “disadvantage” of fair skin persists to this day. I have a friend who was much more honest than her parents. She was called “trick baby” in the schoolyard, while the other children derisively insinuated that her mother had been a sex worker impregnated with a white “trick”.
There are thousands upon thousands of black families with light-skinned ancestry and European textured hair. Most have long chosen to claim Native American ancestry to explain away that great-grandmother whose “hair was so long she could sit on it.” In most of those cases, DNA tests disproved those family legends. Think about the “why” for these stories: Few people want to loudly proclaim that their great-grandmother was repeatedly raped and abused by her owner (or the overseer), which is why Grandma looked like her.
On a quick check of the 1880 census (using my Ancestry.com database) I find 1,017,015 people listed as “mulatto” and 5,572,280 listed as black; the 1870 census listed 629,806 “mulatto” people and 4,140,145 people as black. Census takers weren’t “race” scientists, of course; they offered no DNA testing to prove their ancestry. Instead, they simply looked at a person and determined whether or not they were a “thoroughbred” black person based solely on their skin color, facial features, and hair texture.
In 2014, I wrote the following in “The ‘Other’ American Slave Trade”:
I once wrote of myself, “I am the product of a bicentennial of breeding farms.” Some of my enslaved ancestors looked whiter than many “white” people, such as my great-grandfather Dennis Williams.
They were not descendants of Irish indentured servants who had children with black indentured servants. They were born from the rape of their mothers by overseers and/or owners.
In Slave Breeding: Sex, Violence, and Memory in African American History, Gregory Smithers takes on the naysayers:
For more than two centuries, the subject of slavery has held a controversial place in the main story of American history. From nineteenth-century abolitionists to twentieth-century filmmakers and artists, Americans have debated whether slave owners deliberately and forcibly manipulated the sexual practices and marital status of enslaved African Americans to reproduce new generations of slaves for profit.
In this bold and provocative book, historian Gregory Smithers examines how African Americans have told, remembered and depicted the practices of slave breeding. He argues that while social and economic historians have downplayed the importance of slave breeding, African Americans have refused to forget the violence and sexual coercion associated with the Plantation South. By placing African American histories and memories of slave breeding in the larger context of America’s history of racial and gender discrimination, Smithers sheds much-needed light on African American collective memory, racial perceptions of fragile black families, and the long history of racially motivated violence against men, women and children of color.
This is an ugly history that we cannot ignore. So today, although I celebrate the tenth of June, I will continue to think of Anna from Galveston. Maybe one day I’ll be lucky and find someone who has her in their family tree too, and discover not only more of her story, but more of my family as well.
The nightmare of slavery finally ended on this day in 1865, but those of us who are descended from those who were then liberated have not all had a happy ending. In fact, the persecution facing black Americans has not ended at all.
We’re just in another chapter of an unfinished book. However, we will see the impact of Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday; it passed the Senate unanimously on June 15, passed in the House on the 16th by a vote of 415 to 14, and President Biden signed it on the 17th.
It’s been a long way to get in the way at this point, and we’ve still got a long way to go. This victory along the way should lift us up and move us forward.