the child was exhibited yesterday

in my search for vintage images of mulatto folks i recently stumbled upon a gem!!   Joan P. Gage is a journalist and a collector of photographs.  on her blog A Rolling Crone she shares one of her collectibles and the fascinating (and still unfolding) story behind it.  i feel all kinds of ways about this piece of our history (and by “our” i do mean mulatto, i do mean american, i do mean human seeing as everything is everything and all.)  anyway, i feel sad for the little girl.  i feel pride for the little girl.  i feel a sense of satisfaction that i can point to this child and to the efforts charles sumner as evidence that, even way back when, a white man and a white-looking black child attempted to change people’s minds (way back)when it would have been much easier (not to mention safer!) to relish in the societal refuge that their phenotype offered.  i am not implying that the attempt was perfect, nor that there is nothing offensive or off-color about the sentiment behind the message.  but, if you consider the general consensus of the times on this matter, i think it safe to view sumner’s cause as a benevolent one.  i wonder how little mary felt.  i wonder if she understood.  i wonder what her parents looked like.  and her siblings.  i assume there’s a reason that they were not photographed or ‘exhibited’ together.  and i wonder how they felt about that, about all of it.  and what became of all of them…

From a New York Times article dated March 9, 1855, which read:
A WHITE SLAVE FROM VIRGINIA. We received a visit yesterday from an interesting little girl, — who, less than a month since, was a slave belonging to Judge NEAL, of Alexandria, Va. Our readers will remember that we lately published a letter, addressed by Hon. CHARLES SUMNER, to some friends in Boston, accompanying a daguerreotype which that gentleman had forwarded to his friends in this city, and which he described as the portrait of a real “Ida May,” — a young female slave, so white as to defy the acutest judge to detect in her features, complexion, hair, or general appearance, the slightest trace of Negro blood. It was this child that visited our office, accompanied by CHARLES H. BRAINARD, in whose care she was placed by Mr. SUMNER, for transmission to Boston. Her history is briefly as follows: Her name is MARY MILDRED BOTTS; her father escaped from the estate of Judge NEAL, Alexandria, six years ago and took refuge in Boston. Two years since he purchased his freedom for $600, his wife and three children being still in bondage. The good feeling of his Boston friends induced them to subscribe for the purchase of his family, and three weeks since, through the agency of Hon. CHARLES SUMNER, the purchase was effected, $800 being paid for the family. They created quite a sensation in Washington, and were provided with a passage in the first class cars in their journey to this city, whence they took their way last evening by the Fall River route to Boston. The child was exhibited yesterday to many prominent individuals in the City, and the general sentiment, in which we fully concur, was one of astonishment that she should ever have been held a slave. She was one of the fairest and most indisputable white children that we have ever seen.

From “Raising Freedom’s Child—Black Children and Visions of the Future after Slavery,” written by a University of New Orleans professor, Mary Niall Mitchell:

By the eve of the Civil War, abolitionists recognized the potential of white-looking children for stirring up antislavery sentiment…Although it was the image of a raggedy, motherless Topsy that viewers might have expected to see in a photograph of a slave girl, it was the “innocent”, “pure,” and “well-loved” white child who appeared, a child who needed the protection of the northern white public.
George Thomson’s Woodcut Illustrations

The sponsors of seven-year-old Mary Mildred Botts, a freed child from Virginia, may have been the first to capitalize on these ideas, as early as 1855. Her story also marks the beginning of efforts to use photography (in Mary Botts’s case, the daguerreotype, as the carte-de-visite format was not yet available) in the service of raising sentiment and support for the abolitionist cause.”
“…In his own characterization of Mary Botts,” Mitchell continues, “Sumner set a pattern that other abolitionists would follow.  In a letter printed in both the Boston Telegraph and the New York Daily Times, he compared Mary Botts to a fictional white girl who had been kidnapped and enslaved, the protagonist in Mary Hayden Pike’s antislavery novel Ida May:  ‘She is bright and intelligent—another Ida May,’ [Sumner wrote] ‘I think her presence among us (in Boston) will be more effective than any speech I can make.’”

From joanpgage, the blogger (and current owner of the daguerrotype) from which I am re-blogging this piece:

Only a year after parading Mary Botts through New York, Boston and Worcester and dubbing her “The real Ida May”,  Charles Sumner’s devout abolitionist views  led him to a crippling disaster, when, in 1856, he was so badly beaten on the floor of the Senate by South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks,  who broke a cane over his head, that it would take years of therapy before Sumner could return to the Senate.

…Prof. Mitchell is currently working on a book about Mary Botts that will tell more about this former slave’s life, including the drama of how Sumner purchased her and spirited her out of Virginia, how he introduced her to the media and society as a  living advocate for the abolitionist cause, and how her family settled in the free black community in Boston.

I’m eager to learn the rest of the story, but, for now, it’s enough of a thrill just to know that the daguerreotype, taken in 1855, that is part of my collection may represent one of the first efforts EVER to use the modern discovery of photography to touch people’s emotions and change their minds.  This small image of a seven-year-old girl may be an example of the first time photography was used for propaganda, but it was certainly not the last.




re: beauty-full

these depictions are what inspired me to blog about the beauty standard thing in the first place.  i don’t know how that post became so personal, but i suppose it’s fitting after my long absence that i should lead off with a bit more of myself.  anyhow, i wonder what the subjects of these renderings and/or the artists who created the images would have made of this ‘epitome of beauty’ stuff.

Head of a Mulatto Woman by Joanna Mary Boyce

Portrait of a Mulatto Girl – 1935 by Aaron Douglas

Mulatto with Bowler Hat by Jules Pascin

Study of the Head of a Young Mulatto Woman, Full Face – by Anthony Frederick Sandys

The Quadroon-1880 by George Fuller

The Octoroon

mary ellen pleasant

As I was searching the internets last week for photos of black women with white children, I stumbled upon a historical figure who, once again, I am shocked and dismayed to never before have heard mention of:  Mary Ellen (“Mammy”) Pleasant.  I want to know so much more!  Or at least the truth.  I highly doubt that Mary Ellen needed to conjure the dark forces to leverage social change, however I’m sure that that tale eased the minds of the opposition and provided ammunition for attacking Pleasant’s ideals.  I found quite a few intriguing articles on her life and chose the following two to share.  Honestly, when someone next asks me who (dead or alive) I would most like to have dinner with, Mary Ellen Pleasant will be on the short list.


“American civil rights began in the 1850’s with Mary Ellen Pleasant.”  Racism surprised African Americans like Pleasant who came to the Bay Area because they believed in a better life in San Francisco… The Bay Area, where Pleasant lived, became a “hotbed of civil rights activity” in the 19th century and the activists’ rallying cry was “eradicating slavery.”- Dr. Albert Broussard

Mary Ellen Pleasant (1814? – 1904)



Mary Ellen Pleasant is perhaps better known as “Mammy Pleasant”, but it was a name she detested. She was born a slave in Georgia some time between 1814 and 1817, the illegitimate daughter of an enslaved Vodou priestess from Haiti and a Virginia governor’s son, John Pleasants. She was bought out of slavery by a planter and indentured for nine years as a store clerk with abolitionist Quakers in Massachusetts.

Around 1841 she married a wealthy mulatto merchant/contractor from Ohio and Philadelphia named James Smith, who was also a slave rescuer on the Underground Railroad. The two worked to help slaves flee to safety in Canada and safe states. Smith died in 1844, leaving her a $45,000 fortune and a plantation run by freedmen near Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.

Because of slaver reaction to her own ongoing Underground Railroad activities, she was forced to flee to New Orleans in 1850 where she met the Vodou queen Marie Laveau who trained her in how to “pressure the powerful to help the powerless” —blacks and poor women—gain rights and jobs. She then went to San Francisco, arriving in April 1852. Because she had no “freedom papers” she passed herself off as white, while she worked as a steward and cook in a white boardinghouse and invested in real estate and various business activities.

Pleasant’s training with Marie Laveau proved beneficial. Pleasant became so successful at leveraging social change that many called her San Francisco’s “Black City Hall”. Her activities and her money helped ex-slaves avoid extradition, start businesses and find employment in hotels, homes and on the steamships and railroads of California.

In 1858 she returned to the East, bought land to house escaped slaves, and aided abolitionist John Brown both with money and by riding in advance of his famous raid at Harper’s Ferry encouraging slaves to join him.

She went back to San Francisco where her investments with an influential business partner helped her amass a joint fortune estimated at $30 million. She later led the Franchise League movement in San Francisco that earned blacks the right to testify in court, and to ride the trolleys. Her lawsuit in 1868 in San Francisco against the North Beach and Mission RailRoad was used as a precedent in 1982 to achieve contemporary civil rights. Mary Ellen Pleasant died in San Francisco in 1904. Her body was taken by friends to Napa and buried in Tulocay Cemetery. On her tombstone is inscribed “the mother of civil rights in California.”

For more information, incuding a book on Mary Ellen Pleasant by Susheel Bibbs, see


“Mammy Pleasant: Angel or Arch Fiend in the House of Mystery?”

By p. joseph potocki

Mary Ellen “Mammy” Pleasant’s legacy is an enigma rolled up inside layers of legend, gossip, greed, fantasy, racism and conjecture.

This week’s column title first headlined Sunday’s edition of the San Francisco Call—back on May 7, 1899. That 19th century investigative hit piece featured three unflattering John Clawson illustrations portraying “Mammy Pleasant” as a bonneted evil-eyed crone. The story gobbled up the entire front page of that day’s paper. Its “Angel or Arch Fiend” dualism embodies endless confusion and contradictory assertions surrounding the life of this incredible woman—confusion and contradictions lingering on to this very day.

The “Mammy” tag, clearly meant to be a slam, fits neatly within a cluster of Black stereotypes. While Pleasant’s tall, thin frame, her finely honed features and regal bearing contrast sharply with the rotund happy-to-be-a-slave mammy of plantation lore, the name itself attempts to place her on par with a Samba, an Uncle Tom, Step and Fetchit, or to a licentious Jezebel. The mythology of these “halcyon days” of slavery is what social historian Eric Lott calls “the dialectic flickering of racial insult and racial envy.”

Mary Ellen “Mammy” Pleasant’s legacy is an enigma rolled up inside layers of legend, gossip, greed, fantasy, racism and conjecture. She’s been called “San Francisco’s Powerful And Sinister Ruler”, “The Black City Hall”, but also a “one woman social agency” and “the Mother of Civil Rights in California.” That covers one heck of a lot of reputational territory.

Some claim that Mary Ellen Pleasant was a mixed blood Voodoo Queen who aimed “the black arts” against her enemies, that she sold babies, murdered as many as 49 people, ran brothels, committed fraud, spied through walls on victims she would later blackmail, and that she held unholy powers over a vast network of underlings and protégés. One rival charged that Pleasant murdered the rival’s husband, and having accomplished the dastardly deed Pleasant then “put her fingers in the hole in the top of his head and pulled out the protruding brains.”

Others tout Mary Ellen Pleasant’s work as a philanthropist, her many devoted friends, both black and white, her financial wizardry, undying devotion to women’s and civil rights, and, before that—her commitment to the abolition of slavery. In fact, Mary Ellen Pleasant’s Napa gravestone reads—“SHE WAS A FRIEND OF JOHN BROWN.”

Indeed, upon Brown’s capture following his ill-fated attack on Harper’s Ferry he carried with him a promissory note signed MEP. Had not the authorities misread the letter M for a W its certain Mary Ellen Pleasant’s neck would have been stretched as did John Brown’s.

Everything about Pleasant’s formative years is subject to debate. She was born a slave in Virginia, or Georgia, or perhaps it was Louisiana. She claims to have been born free in Philadelphia on August 19, 1814. Others say she was born in 1817, give or take a year—or two. She was convent educated, or else was entirely self-taught. Her mother may have been a West Indies Voodoo Queen, or not. Her father was a wealthy white slave owner. Then again, perhaps he was a slave. Nobody knows for sure.

What we do know is that sometime between 1848 and 1852 Mary Ellen Pleasant arrived in San Francisco. She may have been accompanied by her second husband, a former slave named James Pleasant, or Pleasants, or perhaps it was Pleasance. Whatever his surname it’s clear that the shrewd, focused and ambitious Mary Ellen was a power unto herself.

James, who died in 1877, seems hardly to have factored into Mary Ellen’s life. His one notable contribution was in the co-creation of Mary Ellen’s one and only child, Elizabeth, whom she called Lizzy. However, Mary Ellen gave their daughter her first husband’s family name, which was Smith. It was only fair, since James Henry Smith had left seed money to Mary Ellen upon his death some years before. Mary Ellen built her financial empire with the help of these funds.

Once in San Francisco, Pleasant set about purchasing boardinghouses, real estate, laundries, restaurants and stock shares in mines, railroads and other business ventures. This was no small accomplishment in an era of near unfettered legal bias against both racial minorities and women. Monies from these investments built her the 30-room mansion dubbed “the House of Mystery,” atop Cathedral Hill in San Francisco.

In her later years Pleasant purchased a large tract of land set against the Mayacamas Mountains. She named it Beltane, either after Thomas Bell, or, as some critics claim, in honor of the ancient pagan celebration of the same name. Beltane lies outside Glen Ellen, in the heart of the Sonoma Valley. The stately New Orleans-style Victorian house she built there (now a B&B) is set amidst an immense flowering garden and hundreds of shady oaks. One fanciful claim is that Pleasant cast Voodoo spells from a cave somewhere on the property.

But with all her accrued wealth, Mary Ellen Pleasant seems always to have performed, or dressed as if she performed, domestic labor. It’s said that she would ride to the markets in her own custom built carriage, accompanied by a driver and a footman, each garbed in impeccable livery. Though always attired in a servant’s black dress and large white apron, she “walked like a duchess.”

Sometime in the mid 1860s Mary Ellen Pleasant hooked up with a stockbroker named Thomas Bell. The “canny Scot” was money savvy, but lacked imagination. Pleasant took him under her wing. Together they created one of the largest financial partnerships in that era of San Francisco. Pleasant and Bell may (or may not) have been lovers.

It’s said that Mary Ellen arranged Thomas’s marriage to the future Teresa Bell, having first instructed Teresa in the “genteel arts” necessary to flourish in elite society. Others say Thomas Bell discovered the beautiful Teresa on a visit to a house of ill repute. No matter which story is true it seems the marriage provided adequate cover from charges of miscegenation, which might otherwise have been leveled at the cohabitation of the white Thomas Bell with the octoroon (or perhaps quadroon) “Mammy” Pleasant.

What’s undeniably true is that Mary Ellen Pleasant was actively involved in the Underground Railroad, and that she placed both former slaves and geographically displaced freemen as domestics in many of San Francisco’s “better” households. She also clearly advocated for and personally rescued unprotected and often attractive young white women, who Mary Ellen then trained to become the wives and mistresses of wealthy men in The City.

These actions led to many of the questionable charges against her, since persons beholden to Pleasant for their livelihoods provided her their eyes and ears within San Francisco’s most prominent households.

Mary Ellen was well into her 80’s when her finances began to unravel. She’d both overextended her business dealings, and had incurred the wrath of her former protege, Teresa Bell. Mary Ellen had exposed Teresa’s young lover to embezzlement charges, landing him a stint in San Quentin prison. As payback, the mentally unhinged Teresa became Pleasant’s eternal foe. She set to pummeling Pleasant’s good name—even long after seeing Mary Ellen to her grave. The sensitive nature of Thomas Bell’s and Mary Ellen Pleasant’s financial partnership allowed Teresa to gain control of their mutual resources following Thomas’ death. As a result Mary Ellen Pleasant was stripped of her wealth and forced into bankruptcy.

Pleasant’s diaries were stolen and lost to posterity, while many of Teresa’s hallucinatory rants made their way into newsprint following Pleasant’s death. Consequently, Teresa Bell’s accounts fundamentally shifted the Mary Ellen Pleasant mythos into the realm of evil phantasma. Fortunately, contemporary scholars have begun setting Mary Ellen Pleasant’s record as straight as a story with such twists, squiggles and gaping holes can be set. As confusing and contradictory as her life story may be, Mary Ellen Pleasant optimistically forecast her own legacy when she wrote:

“… You can’t explain away the truth.”

Mary Ellen Pleasant


blacks were ashamed, whites felt guilty

I would love to take this tour.  So many fascinating (albeit horrifying) pieces of our nation’s history are highlighted.  Underground railroad, black slave owners, paved over cemeteries, middle passage “reception,” color hierarchy.  I’m elated by the notion of forsaking shame and guilt in favor of honest discussion to ensure that this never happens again.  I’d like to think that “it” happening again is an impossibility, and that now our ultimate goal is to get rid of the vestiges of slavery.  Clearly we’re making progress.

Taking a Gullah tour of Charleston


The biggest hint that Charleston is a very different breed of Southern Belle — and that I’m on no ordinary city tour — comes as our air-conditioned mini-bus reaches the mainly African-American east side, a warren of economically deprived streets framing what was once an important stop on the Underground Railroad.

I look up to see a most unusual Star Spangled Banner flying bold African colors of red, black and green from a worn-looking flagpole. It’s an expression of indomitable Gullah pride, explains tour guide Alphonso Brown.

Like many living in the east side, Brown himself is Gullah: a descendant of slaves who endured the brutal “middle passage” from West Africa and the Caribbean during the 18th century, landing at Charleston’s bustling port before being sent to toil on plantations across the South.

Brown’s popular Gullah Tour, which marks its 25th anniversary this year, brims with atypical landmarks like this flag, as it excavates vestiges of an uglier time hidden amid the exquisite cobblestone streets and pastel-painted Georgian home fronts.

A multi-million-dollar waterfront estate, for example, looks impressive — until it is revealed to have been built by a rich slave ship proprietor who added slave quarters and a threatening-looking spiked gate to pen in human chattel. Later, we stop and stretch our legs in a parking lot owned by a Catholic church. It turns out to conceal the paved-over graves of freed slaves, for it was once their cemetery.

And the bus rolls on.

It’s potentially uncomfortable subject matter for his mixed-race audience, but Brown manages to keep the atmosphere light, sprinkling his commentary with anecdotes and jokes, and slipping in and out of the sing-songy Creole of his forefathers. “I-eh hab disshuh dreem,” he recites in Gullah. “We hol’ dees trut’ fuh be sef-ebbuhdent, dat all man duh mek equal.”

Plumped with West-African and Elizabethan English influences, Gullah was initially spoken in secret and spread wherever slaves were taken, along the coast and barrier islands as far as Georgia, and down to around Jacksonville, Fla.


Sullivan’s Island, opposite Charleston, became the macabre version of Ellis: a processing station where newly arrived slaves were kept in preventive isolation before their auction at The Old Slave Mart downtown, which today is a museum.

When the Civil War ended, emancipated blacks stayed on the barrier islands, renting rooms from former masters or squatting on abandoned plantations. In their isolation — bridges were few — they incubated the distinctive Gullah body of traditions for cooking, planting, fishing, praying and burying that are subtly evident throughout Charleston and the Lowcountry today.

Front porches in the city, we learn, often face southeast for shade, as per the African custom. Charlestonians were early, enthusiastic practitioners of root medicine and witchcraft. In literature, the tales of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox derive from West African oral storytelling. And characteristic dishes, from spicy stone ground grits and shrimp to slippery-smooth okra gumbo, are Gullah to the core.

The inside of Brown’s mini-bus is ringed with pictures of inspiring Gullah throughout history and modern times. Among them is Clarence Thomas, second black appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Philip Simmons, lauded by the Smithsonian Institution as a National Folk Treasure for his ornamental iron gates, which dress many of the city’s architectural landmarks.


Politically, we learn, the Gullah have been determined organizers of abolitionist and Civil Rights movements. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. often retreated to St. Helena Island’s Penn Center — where one of America’s first schools for freed slaves was established — and may have begun drafting his 1963 I have a dream speech there.

More recently, in the run-up to the last presidential election, the Gullahs’ organized support for Barack Obama helped him clinch the crucial South Carolina primary.

Brown, who grew up in nearby Rantowles — not far from the site of the failed Stono River Rebellion of 1739, in which runaway slaves killed 20 whites before they were themselves slain — is justifiably proud of his ancestors’ achievements and defiant will.

He doesn’t deliver history in monochrome. Brown’s choice of material portrays a complex view of race relations in Charleston, which even during slavery was never officially segregated. We’re told, for example, that one of the richest freed black families was the DeReefs, whose patriarch, Richard Edward DeReef, owned multiple businesses — and at least 16 slaves.

Color was such a delineator of social status that freed “octoroons,” who had one-eighth black blood, judged themselves superior to “quadroons” with one-quarter slave ancestry. They, in turn, held themselves above mulattos, the children of white fathers who were often referred to, in delicate conversation, as “friends.” The divisions were physically embodied in the city’s many integrated churches, where slaves worshipped from the balconies while freed blacks sat behind whites in the lower pews.


Two hours speed by on this tour. Brown makes it clear that Gullah traditions thriving in secrecy and isolation for centuries have more recently become a source of civic pride. Efforts to preserve and celebrate the culture are being stepped up, he says. And events, such as the Gullah Festival in Beaufort each May, or the Penn Center Heritage Days Celebration every second weekend in November, draw ever-growing crowds.

“Slavery was always a taboo subject: blacks were ashamed and whites felt guilty,” says Chuma Nwokike, owner of Gallery Chuma, which hosts works depicting traditional activities like crabbing and sweetgrass basket-sewing. The gallery doubles as rendezvous point for Brown’s tour.

“Now, the younger generation wants to acknowledge what went on, so we’re better able to come together and say, ‘how can we make sure it never happens again?’ ”


grateful for the choice

I mailed my Census form yesterday.  I must say that after all the hype, I was totally underwhelmed by the experience.  I checked the two boxes.  I can’t say it brought me any great feelings of validation.  I guess I thought they’d be asking some questions that went beyond race.  I also thought that “Negro” would be the only African American classification term offered since there was so much buzz about the word being used in 2010.  At any rate, I enjoyed this article.

More than black or white

By Annette John-Hall

Inquirer Columnist


For Kathrin P. Ivanovic, racial identity means a whole lot more than just black or white.

Her makeup runs the gamut.

“My mother is German and my birth father is African American with Cuban ancestry,” says Ivanovic, 29, director of development at the Nationalities Service Center, a Philadelphia nonprofit that services immigrants and refugees.

“Plus, my adopted dad is white, and I’m queer. Unfortunately, they don’t have a box for that.

“. . . I call myself a mixed chick.”

But when her 2010 U.S. Census form arrives in the mail this week (the 10-question form is being touted as the shortest in census history), Ivanovic will be satisfied to check black and white – which is really how she sees herself anyway.

Since the 2000 census, for millions of Americans like Ivanovic, “check one or more” will apply.

There is plenty to choose from, with the number of racial and ethnic categories at 63. In the 1990 census, there were only five designations offered.

It can be dizzying. If you’re, say, Asian, you can check any combination of Asian American, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese, Hawaiian, Guamanian, or Chamorro, Samoan, as well as write-in categories for Other Asian or Other Pacific Islander.

In addition, you can also note if you’re of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin. That’s because since 1970, Hispanic was no longer recognized as an overarching classification.

Still with me? (And here I thought having Negro on the same line as the black or African American box was confusing.)

But I’m all for it, especially if it paints a more genuine picture of who we are – all 300 million of us. Doesn’t matter if only 2 percent of Americans were identified as more than one race in 2000. Nowadays, we’ve got more multiracial and multiethnic couples and children than ever before, which means the percentage is sure to increase this year.

Which in turn enables the government to allocate funds more equitably. Census data are used in everything from determining the number of congressmen your region gets to the assessing the amount of funding for your town’s bridge project to supporting health centers.

Race data also have driven the nation’s civil rights laws (how many people were denied the right to vote, how many were discriminated against in housing, for example) and are still used to monitor inequalities in health and education.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Truth is, the U.S. Census was historically more of an oppressor than an advocate, especially when it came to African Americans.

Racial count

From the time census data were first collected in 1790, when enumerators listed categories of free men and slaves, whites used the census to diminish African Americans.

“You can see why they had a slave category,” says MIT professor Melissa Nobles, author of Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics. “Southern slave owners wanted the least amount of information, thinking it would help abolitionists. And abolitionists wanted the most amount of information [to make their case].”

Throughout the 19th century and until 1930, census counters used categories such as quadroon (one-quarter black), octoroon (one-eighth black), and mulatto (half black) to describe any person who had a discernible amount of African American blood.

Like they could tell just from looking.

Even after 1930, Southern laws imposed the “one-drop rule” to its census enumerating, meaning they were to count as mulattos anyone who even looked remotely black – a mandate loosely applied by census counters nationwide.

“They used it for racial social science,” Nobles says. For example, they used census data to prove skewed theories (arguing, for instance, that biracial people – “the tragic mulatto” – were somehow weaker and suffered from higher death rates), which in turn helped legislators make the case against interracial marriage.

But even as the categories have expanded, some today are pushing for a separate, generic multiracial designation.

Ralina L. Joseph, a professor of communications at the University of Washington, worries that even though the data will show us as more diverse and multihued, they could be misinterpreted once again.

“I don’t want people to read the numbers and think that racism is over, that this is a post-racial moment,” says Joseph, who is biracial. “We should hope that people who are disenfranchised through race, class, and poverty levels should be identified as such.”

Some sociologists even insist that racial designations have no place on a census form, if it is indeed as simple as an objective count.

But in a multiracial, multiethnic society where even the president is a self-described “mutt,” Kathrin Ivanovic is grateful for the choice.

“I am mixed. It’s how I view the world, and in some ways it’s how the world views me,” she says. “To not be able to identify that way is dishonest to me personally.”

“The Census Taker” (1870) Harper’s Weekly

nancy weston

with friends like these….

Nancy Weston



She lived in Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1850s as a free woman. However, in order to satisfy the laws of the state, she was a ‘nominal slave’ legally owned by a white friend. She was also the grandmother of writer Angelina Weld Grimke.

‘The Face of Our Past: Images of Black Women from Colonial America to the Present’ edited by Kathleen Thompson and Hilary Mac Austin

I would love to write a book or a screenplay based on this one sentence: she was a ‘nominal slave’ legally owned by a white friend.   That has really got my imagination going.  I’ve actually never heard of nominal slaves before.  I read a bit about them today.  Interesting stuff.  Most of what I read was connected to writings pertaining to black slave owners, and the Weston name in S. Carolina came up frequently.  But Nancy was ‘owned’ by a white friend.  I am fascinated.


Between 1800 and 1830 slave states began restricting manumission, seeing free blacks as potential fomenters of slave rebellion. Now you could buy your friends, but you couldn’t free them unless they left the state — which for the freed slave could mean leaving behind family still in bondage. So more free blacks took to owning slaves benevolently. Being a nominal slave was risky — among other things, you could be seized as payment for your nominal owner’s debts. But at least one state, South Carolina, granted nominal slaves certain rights, including the right to buy slaves of their own….

We do, however, need to acknowledge a less common form of black slaveholding. Whites in Louisiana and South Carolina fostered a class of rich people of mixed race — typically they were known as “mulattoes,” although gradations such as “quadroon” and “octoroon” were sometimes used — as a buffer between themselves and slaves. Often the descendants and heirs of well-off whites, these citizens were encouraged to own slaves, tended to side with whites in racial disputes, and generally identified more with their white forebears than black. Nationwide maybe 10 percent of the mixed-race population (about 1 percent of all those identified as African-American) fell into this category.