The Mulatto Factor in Black Family Genealogy

October 2, 2011 by  
Filed under Research Notes

Recently I was on hot on the trail of my great grandfather, Francis Walton Batchelor. This is my father’s father’s line and goes back through Harris County, Georgia. I have to admit, I’ve procrastinated on researching the Batchelors, in part because of the challenges of researching Black family genealogy back through slavery.

I was blessed to have known my great grandfather. To my childhood eyes, he was a frail but handsome old man who loved to sit in the front room of my aunt’s house and regale us with stories from the old days. Great Grandpa died in 1961 at the age of  91 years old. Here’s a picture of him back in the day with four of his daughters:

Great Grandpa Batchelor

In my research, I found Great Grandpa as an infant in the 1870 census. His race was listed as “Mu” which was the abbreviation for “mulatto”. The term mulatto was officially used as a racial designation on the United States census from 1850 to 1930. By definition, at least in this country, a mulatto is a person who has a White and a Black parent. There are good discussions of mulatto at Blended People of America and Afrigeneas – helpful if you want to better understand the historic nuances of race that have an impact on African American genealogy.

As I reviewed the census records, though, they showed both Great Grandpa and his father, Luke Bachelor (sic) listed as mulatto. But Great Grandpa’s mother was listed in the same 1870 census as Black. Later in the 1900 census and beyond, Great Grandpa’s race was listed as Black. Hmmm…

Could Luke actually have been mulatto? Yes – if he had a White father, although I have no documentation of that yet in my research. But could Great Grandpa be officially designated as mulatto if he had a mulatto father and Black mother. No – and that’s where the disconnect comes into play.

What I’ve come to realize from this and research on other family lines is that sometimes my ancestors were listed as mulatto because of the census-taker’s subjective view based on their appearance. This is why when I see the term mulatto, it raises a red flag for me to be extra-vigilant to make sure I don’t get side-tracked in my research because a census taker made a mistake more than 100 years ago.

To date in my family research, I have identified only two ancestors who are technically mulatto because they have one Black parent and one White parent. They are:

1. My other paternal great-grandfather, Thomas Jefferson Parker, was born in Harris County, Georgia in 1878. His father was Isaiah Parker, a White man and my great great grandfather. Isaiah was son of Isaiah Parker, the senior, a slave-owner and also my ancestor. Thomas’s mother was Ann or known in our Black family history as “Charity Ann”.  She was a slave on the Parker cotton farm.

Charity Ann and Isaiah had 17 children together during and after slavery. My great-grandfather was the youngest. The story of Charity Ann and Isaiah is a fascinating one but that’s a post for another day. My great grandfather Thomas died in 1963 but I don’t recall ever meeting him. Here’s a picture of him that I have at home in one of those old-fashioned frames with the “bubble” glass:

Great Grandpa Parker

2. My maternal grandmother, Hazel Edna Dickinson (Weaver) who was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1891. Her father, Prince Albert Weaver was African American, born in Pittsburgh and raised in Washington D.C. Her mother was Jennie Daisy Hood was a White woman from Waterford, PA. Prince Albert and Jennie married in 1889 in Cleveland. It is my great grandmother’s line that I’ve traced back to the American Revolution and the early days of colonial America. Here’s a picture of my Grandmother Hazel, who died in 1946 – five years before I was born:

Grandmother Hazel

One of the big lessons I’ve learned in 36 years of researching my family history is not to let subjective information like, what I call, “the mulatto factor” stand in the way of getting the real facts about who my African American ancestors really were. And that’s the challenge if you’re doing Black family genealogy – take the records you find as clues and do further research to determine if you’re headed down the right path looking for the next generation.

History will thank you.