Race and Color Politics Revealed in Family History

If you’re White, you’re alright; If you’re Brown, stick around; If you’re Black, get back… — Big Bill Broonzy

Obituary for Dempsey Hare 1824–1901 published in the Richmond Planet (of Richmond, VA) February 23, 1901

On February 23, 1901, it was reported in the above obituary that Ira (not Laura) Ann Hare was disowned by her father Dempsey Hare, the wealthiest colored man in Nansemond County (now Suffolk), VA for marrying a colored man. It turns out that the man she married was my great-great-great-grand uncle, the free born Meredith White (1843–1916) of Nansemond. DNA testing has helped me to validate Meredith White as the brother of my great-great-great grandfather Exum White.

The colored population of Nansemond in the early to mid-1800s was quite stratified. People of color were first and foremost stratified by legal status — enslaved or free. According to the 1840 US Census, in the state of Virginia there were 448,998 people enslaved and 49,841 free people of color. Large concentrations of the free colored population in Virginia lived in metropolitan counties like Nansemond.

The free colored population was then further stratified based on how long your family had been free. My great-great-great grandparents Exum White (Uncle Meredith’s older brother) and Adaline Reid were examples of this. The Whites had lived as free in Nansemond since the late 1700s, likely freed by the Quakers between 75–100 years prior to the Civil War. Adeline descended from the Reids, who were one of a core group of families who’d been multi-racial and free for many generations dating back to the 1600s Colonial Virginia.

Being free colored was a legal status. You were categorized this way if you were non white and not enslaved. This left room for further stratification by ethnicity. Free colored communities were ethnically mixed with African, European and Native American ancestry. Free colored Nansemond families like the Basses established strong Nansemond Indian identities, while other families identified as African descended.

There was additional stratification by skin color — whether you were black skinned, brown skinned or fair skinned. Skin color differences were often noted in census records. Census takers might mark you as “B” for black if they perceived you to have a dark complexion or “M” mulatto (an antiquated term for a mixed race person) if they perceived you to have a lighter complexion. Those with lighter complexions often benefited from preferential treatment and advantage in society because they were more white looking. Further stratification existed based on your economic status — whether you had property and money.

Demspey Hare’s decision to disown his daughter for marrying Meredith was driven by his social ambitions for her. According to the article, Dempsey was the richest colored man in Nansemond County. So Dempsey likely saw all of the people of color in Nansemond County below him economically. Only whites held an equal or greater amount of wealth than he did. Interracial marriage was of course forbidden in Virginia. So perhaps he expected his daughter to become a mistress to a wealthy white man with whom she could have children, children who might have the opportunity to pass as white.

A second obituary for Dempsey Hare published in The Times (Richmond, VA). It references that he owned thousands of acres of farmland at the time of his death.

It’s also important to understand Dempsey Hare’s family history. Dempsey was a product of Plaçage, a system with origins in French and Spanish slave colonies of North America — places like Louisiana — by which ethnic European men entered into the equivalent of common-law marriages with non-Europeans, of African, Native American and mixed-race descent. The offspring of these unions would often take the white father’s first or last name.

Dempsey Hare’s father was a white man named Dempsey Howell (1802–1843) a slave owner in Nansemond County. His mother was a mixed-race free woman of color named Sophia Hare (1805–1870) born in Southampton County, VA and who lived her life in Nansemond, VA. So it appears that Dempsey Hare wanted for his daughter the life of his mother- for her to be a wealthy white man’s common law wife or mistress.

I’d also speculate that a colorism dynamic among other things might have fed Dempsey Hare’s opposition to Ira Hare and Meredith White’s nuptials. While the Hares and Whites were both free colored families, the Hares were very fair and the Whites were brown.

Despite the drama of being disowned, this story ends well. Meredith White was a good man, an educated man, a land owner, a farmer and a teacher at a colored school in Nansemond during the reconstruction era. Ira was a good woman. They were married for over 40 years and had 8 children together.

Unfortunately, some of the divisions within communities of color in the 1800s — divisions based on social status, economic status and color — are issues that the African American community continues to struggle with today.

What are the stories of race and color politics and disinheritance that you’ve uncovered in your family history?

Photo of the White brothers of Nansemond County VA. Standing (l to r): Josiah (or Meredith), Exum (my 3rd great grandfather, b.1830 d.aft 1900) and Edmund White. Seated (l to r): Meredith (or Josiah) and David White. Source: Jones Family photo
The Hares of Nansemond, VA. Photo of Josephine Hare (b.1852), niece of Dempsey Hare, daughter to Dempsey’s sister Sarah Matilda Hare (1825–1884). Source: Weaver Family photo
Photo of Selena White (1875–1965), daughter of Meredith White and Ira Ann Hare, and her husband David Holland. Source: Mt Sinai Baptist Church 150th Anniversary Memorial Program
Bass family of the Nansemond Indian Tribe, c. 1900 Source: Nansemond Indians on Wikipedia

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