Sunday, November 7, 2010

What's White About It?

The polarization of this country along racial lines, or how it's usually stated--along the color-line--not only points our the insanity of racism, but how this nation over its long history chose to compete with the rest of the world by virtue of tying one hand behind its back, the result of not fully utilizing the black talent within its midst.

Blacks and whites alike decry the supposed lack of black youth involvement in this society. Is what we're seeing a rebelling against a social norm--a norm that has a white vs. black element to it?

A recent study supports that conclusion. It states that violence among young people, blacks in particular, is a direct result of their feeling alienated from the larger society--seen as outcasts.

In our past, blacks have had to resort to extreme measures to become contributing members of this society, and to maximize their potential (some passing as white, if they could). Black Voices featured one such black, and detailed his travails. In fact, he was this nation's first black doctor.

His story is interesting on several levels: One, it points to the necessity of recording family history (Granny's passion), and not allowing family members to fall out of the family tree (regardless of color) lest they remain lost; and, two, it points to the need for any country to appreciate its talent (regardless of race or ethnicity), if it wishes to remain a strong, vibrant, and competitive force among the world communities.

Recently, the country's first black doctor was properly memorialized.

Relatives of the doctor were unaware that they were related to a man who had been the subjects of several books. Consequently, the doctor lay in an unmarked Brooklyn grave for 145 years.

White descendants of James McCune Smith gathered Sunday to unveil the new tombstone on his grave site. The scourge of racism is largely responsible for Smith going unnoticed for so long.

If you're white, and you find out that you're related to someone black, it's a damn sight better to discover that he's a doctor than a horse thief. But the story doesn't end there.

The AP writes:

The story of why Smith was nearly overlooked by history and buried in an unmarked grave is in part due to the centuries-old practice of light-skinned blacks passing as white to escape racial prejudice. Smith's mother had been a slave; his father was white. Three of his children lived to adulthood, and they all apparently passed as white, scholars say.

Greta Blau, Smith's great-great-great-granddaughter, made the connection after she took a course at Hunter College on the history of blacks in New York. She did some research and realized that James McCune Smith, the trailblazing black doctor, was the same James McCune Smith whose name was inscribed in a family Bible belonging to ... her grandmother.

Her first response was, "But he was black. I'm white."

This story can probably be retold thousands of times in this country. How many white families have a member of the black race somewhere among the branches in their family tree, either long forgotten, or long ignored?

Smith was denied entry to medical schools in the United States and earned his medical degree in Glasgow, Scotland.

He returned to New York to practice and also became an anti-slavery advocate through his writings:

"As early as 1859, Dr. McCune Smith said that race was not biological but was a social category," Dr. Vanessa Northington Gamble, a medical doctor and historian at George Washington University told the AP. "I feel that I am standing on the shoulders of Dr. James McCune Smith."

Blau theorizes that all of Smith's descendants began passing for white after his death -- and for good reason.
More here.

My mother resides in an unmarked grave. It's on private property, but the marker, if there ever was one, has long disappeared, covered over by the ravages of time, and neglect. She was buried in a place--on a few acres of land--that whites owned and set aside for slaves. She wasn't a slave, herself, but this place was, during her time, the only place where blacks were allowed to bury their own. It wasn't a cemetery, as we often think of the word, but more of a final resting place, because blacks didn't have their own cemeteries at the time of her death in the place where she died.

At least Dr. James McCune Smith is, at long last, recognized, claimed, and properly honored by his long-lost family members. There are other blacks waiting, too, who haven't been lost all these many long years, to be welcomed into the family of this nation, and to be recognized, claimed, and properly honored.

Actually, the time is long overdue.


GrannyStandingforTruth said...


I loved reading this post. Yes, you know that researching family history is definitely my passions and I would recommend it to anyone regardless of color and even more so to Blacks. After you get pass the basics such as census and vital records so much history begins to unfold right before your eyes that will leave you in awe and with a pride in heritage and ancestors. People don't come as strong and resourceful as our ancestors were back then, endure what they did, survive, and accomplish all they did in spite of being illiterate.

We're all connected! I guarantee anyone who researches their history that they will find something it in that will amaze and sometimes leave them stunned at times.

BTW, I didn't shut down and it was not my last.

Black Diaspora said...

Welcome back, Granny! You didn't leave, but my saying it sounds good anyway.

My niece has been bitten by the genealogy bug. Currently she's researching family members on her mother's side, and recently asked me to fill in the blanks on her Dad's side (my brother), which I was glad to do.

If my niece's interest doesn't lag, I think we're going to discover a great deal about those that went before us.

You're right about us all being connected. We're all part of one huge family dating back thousands of years. There's a NatGeo special (It may be available on-line.) called the "Search for Adam." I think that's the title.

According to the special all humans living today can trace their Y-chromosome back to one man living in Africa. There's a tribe in Africa that is more directly related to this father of modern man than any others living.

It's a fascinating story, but, of course, there're many who're out to debunk it: Can't have the ancestor of all living today being black and all, and residing in Africa.

His team did their research using DNA. It's pretty impressive stuff.

Google "scientific Adam," or "genetic Adam," if you'd like to learn more.

gretablau said...

Thanks so much for including my family in your article. I couldn't agree more that none of us is entirely Black or White or Native American or anything else. It just goes to show you how what James McCune Smith said nearly 200 years ago, race is a social construct.

I'm still very interested in finding James McCune Smith's descendants as well. His mother was enslaved in South Carolina and was brought to NYC with her sisters and slave owner's family. She was the only one who stayed of the sisters, and her sisters were returned to South Carolina.

James McCune Smith knew he had kin in slavery down South and that they were not as lucky to be in a state where manumission was common and where slavery was finally ended in the late 1820s. So for another 35 years, he and his mother knew that his aunts and her sisters were in the south still under their slave master's hand.

I need to find these people, for James McCune Smith, for his mother Lavinia Smith. Not sure how to even find them given the last name and the plethora of Smiths who owned slaves in South Carolina.

Thanks again, and if you have any ideas of how I can get back to JMS's ancestors in the South, I'd love to know where you think I should start.

Greta Blau
(James McCune Smith's great-great-great-granddaughter



This is Greg L.

Very interesting article. I have a french surname that's uncommon which makes it easily recognizable. A few years ago, someone told me that he knew a black family with my name down in Florida which was shocking as we didn't know of anyone with our name that existed anywhere else. That started my interest in genealogy which has been made much easier by the internet now. It's hard to appreciate what you're looking at unless you have a feel of the history of the local area and generally and that is what I find personally intriguing given that I generally like history anyway.

Try as I might however, I've not been able to determine how my family got our name as I've not been able to find any slaveholders with my family's name in the area where they resided and my ancestors were definitely slaves in this particular area. It was common practice for some slaves to throw off the slave master's name and pick a name after gaining freedom, but I can't imagine them picking my name. Unfortunately, I've not been able to get past this point.

Your post just confirms again the twists and turns of history, frequently overlooked or forgotten, but still related to events and/or people today. What went on before explains much now which is why knowledge of the past is so important--regardless of the topic or issue.

GrannyStandingforTruth said...


We have some Smiths in our family tree too and they were from South Carolina but ended up in Arkansas.


What you need to do to get pass that point is go to the 1870 and 1880 census. Only you won't be looking for any whites with your last surname.

Look on the 1870 census for whites before your family and after your family and take down their names. Take down at least five or ten white families names that live close to them. Look for the ones that have the most assets such as real estate value and cash.

After you've taken down five or ten names before and after your families name use the slave census to look for those names on the slave census. I'll tell you how to process of elimination after you've done that. It would be good to make copies of those censuses both the regular and slave one.

It is not as hard as people think it is to get past the point you are at, but it is very time consuming and tedious.


I hope she sticks with it. She is gonna learn some history they don't teach in books and at the same time learn that it was more to our ancestors than the limited role they are portray as in school history books.

I had been thinking about doing a little something on genealogy with a little twist to it. I just hadn't made up my mind yet to do it because of so much that is going on right now.



Thanks. I'm going to take up that suggestion. My family was sharecropping for another family down there and they were a huge slave holding family per the census and my first guess was that my family might have belonged to them, but the name thing threw me off as their name is totally different. The strange thing is that no one in my family knows about us being any place other than this particular place in Mississppi and my aunt took me to a place where her grandad, who was a slave, said slaves were traded, hence my family has apparently long resided in the area. My family is from a place known as Hermanville MS which is in Clairborne County MS about 200 miles due north of New Orleans. I always suspected some migration accounted for the French name, but no one had any knowledge of anyone coming from there. But then again, there's history of the french actually vying for MS as a colony, so it could very well be someone with my name who was indigenous to the area that I missed. But it could very well be that my assumption that the slave holder actually had the same last name is what's tripping me up.

I'm definitely gonna try what you've suggested. The area isn't that big, so I should be able to uncover something. Thanks for the tip!

GrannyStandingforTruth said...

Slaves did not always take their last slaveowner's surname and that is what throws a lot of people off when researching their family history. Some did not take any of the slaveholder's surname and made one up. For example some slaves took the surname "Freeman", which was only their way of expressing that they were free.

There were a variety of reasons for the chosen surnames that slaves adopted after slavery. You will even find in intermediate families the mother surname is different from the fathers, and their children's surname might be different too. I discovered that while doing my own family history and reading different genealogy books. Although, our history has been passed down by older members generation after generation too, so some of it was common knowledge in our family too.

Studying family history is sort of mind-boggling in a sense and will leave you so stunned at times it will leave you speechless. You'll discover that being a genealogist is similiar to being a detective.

Greg L said...

>>Studying family history is sort of mind-boggling in a sense and will leave you so stunned at times it will leave you speechless. You'll discover that being a genealogist is similiar to being a detective.<<<

That's what I like about it. I also like that much of this can occur over the web now. When I started doing this back in the day, I had to go through the actual census books and the soundex stuff to find anything, but none that now which is why I can take suggestions like yours and do them fairly quickly. Yes, you're right---It's definitely some detective work involved, but it's all good. I'll let you know what I find out. It's been a bit since I've been on the trail, but with the ancestry acct, it's easy enough to pick up where you left off at!

Black Diaspora said...

Hi, Greta. I wish I knew enough about African-American genealogical research to guide you.

However, there is a book I came across years ago that was chockful of information for those researchers just beginning their search for black family history, or who might have reached dead ends in their search.

It's called Discovering Your African American Ancestors. It's available at, and possibly in your local public library. I've linked it for you.

A search at Amazon will turn up other titles.

Have you given any thought to finding a producer to develop a documentary, or writing a book (or both), around your search? There may be several production companies that might be interested in your story, as well as publishers

Yours is a fascinating story--one that will attract the interest of many. It's an American story. It's a story with many elements, and with several stories already built in.

We all have a great deal to learn about ourselves--and Dr. James McCune Smith's story can aid in that learning, and in that discovery.

If you haven't already, I hope you will give the book and the production idea some thought.

Black Diaspora said...

@Greg L: "A few years ago, someone told me that he knew a black family with my name down in Florida which was shocking as we didn't know of anyone with our name that existed anywhere else."

Greg, did you have any luck locating the Florida family? The French colonized Louisiana, Haiti, and Canada. I don't know the extent of your search, but does your surname exists outside the United States to your knowledge?

My surname is so common that that in itself poses a tremendous genealogical challenge.

I like Granny's approach as well.

GrannyStandingforTruth said...


Yes, that is a good genealogy book. I have it. Crump has a couple of books that are good and give you some tips on what to do when you come to deadend.

Some of our surnames are common too. Those on my dad's side are not. His side originated from San Domingo, which is called Haiti now. My dad's side was harder because like Greta's ancestor a lot of them passed for white and still are doing that.

Greg and Greta, have you been collecting pictures of any of your ancestors? I didn't at first in the beginning, but when I did I was amazed at all of the old pictures I was able to collect. Your best research will be done in courthouse basements and various libraries and even books after you get past the basics.

Yup, Greg, ancestry is a good source for information.

GrannyStandingforTruth said...

oh, one more thing, Greg try looking for your families surname in other counties close to where your ancestors lived and even other states. It's good to study the local and county history for that time period too, because you would be surprise at some of the clues that helped me in my search I found in books. You can even use google books to do that, because they have full versions of out of print books that you can download on your computer.

Greg L said...


>> Greg, did you have any luck locating the Florida family? The French colonized Louisiana, Haiti, and Canada. I don't know the extent of your search, but does your surname exists outside the United States to your knowledge?<<
Yes, I did locate that family BD. There’s an interesting story behind how I got interested in genealogy. As I indicated, my surname is not common at all and anyone I run into with my name was generally a relative. When I was about 20 years old, I injured my cartilage playing basketball and I wound up going to a black physician to get treated. While there, he told me about guy he went to Medical school with that had my name. As I mentioned, my family resided in rural Mississippi and were sharecroppers prior to moving north after WWII. They were mostly uneducated and all of them generally didn’t continue school beyond the 8th grade, so at the time I dismissed it as coincidence and being young, I really wasn’t focused on this sort of thing. Years later after I got out of school and moved to the east coast, I started an accounting practice which carries my name. Like most businesses of this sort, it’s a public business where you tend to meet a lot of people. I had a client walk in one day and tell me that he grew up with a guy who had my name in Florida who father was a dentist. I called them up and told them about my family trying to figure out how they wound up where they were, but I got the impression that they thought I was scamming them, so I dropped it after doing some preliminary research.

Greg L said...


A few years later, I was calling a client of mine but wound up having to leave a message with the secretary who was going to take a message. As I was leaving my name, she asked me to spell it and upon doing so, the secretary tells me that I have her name! Needless to say, we were both astounded and it turns out she was related to the guys in Florida. I exchanged some pictures of my family with them and they said there was a resemblance with members of their family, but we never ever found the link between MS and Florida. As far as they knew, they had always been in Florida and as far as we knew, we had always been in MS. Interestingly enough however, the French were vying for colonial empires in both Florida and MS.

At one point, I did run into a white family with my name and connected with them. They were similarly astounded, but the guy told me that his family emigrated here directly from France to California in the late 1800’s, so it appears that there was no apparent linkage there.

Granny, as one who more experienced at this than I, I ‘m sure that you know that the state of MS is known for not keeping very good records. On my mom’s side, I’ve been able to go back to the 1820’s and my great great grandfather. My mom’s family grew up in Tennessee and they keep very good records there unlike MS. Ironically, my mom’s side has a very common name, but it was far easier to go through that side much easier. At my first opportunity, I’m going to take your suggested approaches.

GrannyStandingforTruth said...

Greg go to google and click on that "more" expanded arrow, and then click on books. Type in your family surname, type in your family surname + Florida, and type in your family surname + Miss. Try all three ways and you might come up with something. You never know until you try. It surprised me that I was able to find a good deal of info doing that for a couple of my ancestors with rare surnames as well as those with common surnames. I found court documents, church history, all sorts of stuff using that, and even connected different families relationships and maiden names, etc., doing that.

Black Diaspora said...

Greg, thanks for sharing that. You piqued my curiosity, but you left me without an ending.

The Man with the Mysterious Last Name. Sounds like a movie title to me.

Black Diaspora said...

@Granny: "I found court documents, church history, all sorts of stuff using that, and even connected different families relationships and maiden names, etc., doing that."

Good idea, Granny. I found my name listed several times.

Black Diaspora said...


Using Granny's suggestion (a search of Google books) I found several writings of, and references to, James McCune Smith.

I think I'll download several to learn more about him.

GrannyStandingforTruth said...


Would you stop by my place and read my new topic and tell me what you think. I did put a little humor in it.

Ernesto said...

BD...the cocnept of segregated cemeteries is one of the deepest, most ridiculously sublime things to come out of the Old South. I still can't wrap my head around that one and I probably will never be able to.

Ernesto said...

oops: concept

Black Diaspora said...

@Ernesto: "I still can't wrap my head around that one and I probably will never be able to."

It was hard, too, for black children to wrap their head around it. Other than some folk being white, there wasn't that much separating us.

We all drank water, but the water was divided according to color, as was public restrooms, restaurants, railroad cars, schools--you name it.

Blacks weren't just perceived as unequal to whites, they had to be reminded of that inequality at the physical, tangible level.

It was necessary for that inequality to permeate every aspect of their lives--providing a constant reminder of their inferiority.