I’ve covered some of my research successes in other stories, like 2020’s “Juneteenth: We're still on the road to freedom and justice,” but I have not shared many of my thoughts about Texas.
Texas has a strange history when it comes to Black folks and enslavement, as documented here in the “Free Blacks” entry in the Handbook of Texas, from the Texas State Historical Association.
As of 1792 the Black and mulatto population constituted 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, forbade them to carry firearms, and restricted their freedom of movement. In practice Spanish officials ignored such restrictions, often encouraging the manumission of slaves. The small number of Spanish subjects in Texas and the vast distances between settlements also brought about the intermarriage of Whites, Blacks, and Indians. While most free Blacks in Texas before 1800 were born there, thereafter an increased emigration to Texas of free Blacks and some escaped slaves from the southern United States began to take place. After the Mexican War of Independence (1821), the Mexican government offered free Blacks full rights of citizenship, allowing land ownership and other privileges. Mexico accepted free Blacks as equals to White colonists. Favorable conditions for free Blacks in Texas in the 1830s led one noted abolitionist, Benjamin Lundy, to seek authorization for the establishment of 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 precluded its implementation. Free Blacks, as did other frontiersmen, continued to emigrate to Texas seeking an opportunity for 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 forbade the permanent residence of free Blacks without the approval of the Congress of the Republic of Texas. Interracial marriages were also legally prohibited. Ironically, local communities and legislators that favored the new provisions often did not want them enforced within their districts. Documents show that prominent Whites were known to intercede on behalf of free Blacks in danger of being prosecuted by the new regulations. A stricter law passed in 1840, which gave free Blacks two years to leave Texas or risk being sold into slavery, was effectively postponed by President Sam Houston. [...]
After 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 that encouraged free Blacks to reenter slavery voluntarily by allowing them to choose their own masters. The increased restrictions and the rise in White hostility resulted in a virtual halt to additional free Black immigration to Texas and may have caused 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, though there may have been an equal number of free Blacks not counted.
That timeline became particularly relevant when my search for my first cousin’s Texan family hit that brick wall. They do not appear in any listing of free Blacks, therefore, they must have been enslaved. I knew that Anna Gibson was listed in the Freedman’s Bank Records as born in Texas around 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 folks, as we have a picture of Idella when she was an adult.
What is clear from that photograph is that Idella has 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 into slavery and kept enslaved, in spite of having white fathers. We also know that enslaved Black women were raped and bred for profit. Further, we know that in parts of the South, mixed-race Black women were often kept as concubines.
Anna got out of Texas as soon as she could and moved to Maryland, where she opened a sewing school. She was listed in the 1870 census there.
Now comes the hard part: Imagining her life under the yoke of enslavement. None of it is pretty. None of it fits the fairy tales offered to white children about “happy darkies” on the plantation lazing their days away. Nowhere in those fabrications are those “massa’s offspring” mentioned.
As some of you may know, the Black community has problems 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 to which those fair complexions point; realities which often don’t get openly talked about in families, or are tales only shared in whispers among the elders. This unspoken “downside” of being light-skinned continues to this day. I have a friend who was much fairer than her parents. She was dubbed “trick baby” in the school yard, the other kids sneeringly insinuating that her mama had been a sex worker impregnated by a white “trick.”
There are thousands upon thousands of Black families with ancestors who were light-skinned with European-textured hair. Most have long opted to claim Native American heritage to explain away that great-grandma whose “hair was so long she could sit on it.” In most of those cases, DNA testing disproved those family legends. Think of the “why” for these narratives: Few people want to loudly proclaim that their great-grandma was repeatedly raped and brutalized by her owner (or the overseer), which is why Grandma looked like she did.
In 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 weren’t offering DNA tests to prove ancestry. Instead, they simply eyeballed a person and determined whether they were or were not a “full-blooded” Black person, based solely on their skin color, facial features, and hair texture.
In 2014, I wrote the following in “The 'other' U.S. slave trade”:
I once wrote about myself that "I am the product of a bicentennial of breeding farms." Some of my enslaved ancestors looked whiter than many "white" people, like my great-grandfather Dennis Williams.
They were not descendants of Irish indentured women who had children with Black indentured men. They were born out of 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 over two centuries, the topic of slave breeding has occupied a controversial place in the master narrative of American history. From nineteenth-century abolitionists to twentieth-century filmmakers and artists, Americans have debated whether slave owners deliberately and coercively 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 investigates how African Americans have narrated, remembered, and represented slave-breeding practices. He argues that while social and economic historians have downplayed the significance 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 within the larger context of America’s history of racial and gender discrimination, Smithers sheds much-needed light on African American collective memory, racialized 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 we cannot ignore. So today, though I’ll celebrate Juneteenth, I’ll continue to think about Anna from Galveston. Maybe one day I’ll luck out and find someone who also has her in their family tree, and find out not just more of her story, but more of my kin.
The nightmare of enslavement finally ended on this day in 1865, but those of us descended from those who were freed back then have not all had a happy ending. In fact, the persecution faced by Black Americans has not ended at all.
We are simply in another chapter of a book that is not yet finished. We will, however, get to see the impact of Juneteenth being made a federal holiday; it passed the Senate via unanimous consent on June 15, passed in the House on the 16th with a vote of 415 to 14, and President Biden signed it into law on the 17th.
It’s been a long haul to get to this point in the road, and we still have farther to go. This victory along the way should lift our spirits and move us forward.