The Mulatto Factor in Black Family Genealogy

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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:

Francis Walton Batchelor 204x300 The Mulatto Factor in Black Family Genealogy

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:

Thomas Jefferson Parker 203x300 The Mulatto Factor in Black Family Genealogy

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:

Hazel Edna Weaver 202x300 The Mulatto Factor in Black Family Genealogy

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.

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Karen Batchelor About Karen Batchelor

Karen Batchelor is a genealogist and founder of ExtremeAncestry.com where she blogs about more than three decades of climbing her family tree. Learn more about her here and connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Comments

20 Responses to “The Mulatto Factor in Black Family Genealogy”
  1. mahthellin says:

    This is a great post – I’ll look forward to your story about Isaiah and Charity.

    This also reminds me to ask what your opinion is on “Black Irish.” I can’t find a lot of agreement out there.

    Marty Davis

    • @mahthellin Thanks for the feedback, Marty and I’ll put the post about Charity Ann and Isaiah on the front burner. It is an interesting story. To your question about the Black Irish – I don’t know much about them except that here in the U.S., they’re supposed to be Irish people with either Native American or African American heritage.

      Karen

  2. Thanks for the feedback, Marty. The story of Charity Ann and Isaiah is a good one so I’ll put that on the front burner to write soon. As for the Black Irish, I don’t know much about them although I know the term is supposed to describe Americans with Irish and Native American or African American heritage.

    Karen

  3. melvinjcollier says:

    Great post! “Mulatto” can indeed be misleading. I’ve encountered numerous family members who were reported as “mulatto,” when they were likely of light complexion. In 1880, my great-grandmother was reported as “Mu”, as well as her infant, first-born child, while her husband, my great-grandfather, was reported as Black. In this instance, this reporting was true because of my grandmother’s stories, who would often spoke about how her mother (who was actually a “quadroon”) could easily pass. However, the census-taker also listed the child as Mu. Whenever I give genealogy presentations, I always tell folk if they encounter “Mu” in the census, don’t automatically assume that the person had one Black parent and one White parent. Many times, this designation was based on appearances. A person could have had two “true Mulatto” parents and can appear to be “Mu” him/herself.

    • @melvinjcollier Melvin – sounds like we’ve had similar experiences in getting an accurate picture of whether an ancestor is mulatto or not. Thanks for the feedback and some good discussion:-)

      Karen

  4. LisaDCooper says:

    In my family, the same discussion of Mu occurs with regard to supposed mixed Black or white and Native or Indian heritage. Your story and the subsequent discussions are sparking ideas for learning at our next family reunion. Thanks!

  5. slueth4truth says:

    I’ve run into this multiple times on my maternal side. Example: my gg-uncle (Inus)’s children were listed as “Mulatto,” as well as he and his wife. I just surmised that the whole family was of lighter complexion, which prompted the census taker to record “Mu.” However, Inus’s mother was listed “Black” and “Mu” alternatively and his paternal heritage is unknown. It’s possible he could have been mulatto. His wife’s father was listed as “Mu,” but I don’t know her mother’s heritage. For her, I believe she was likely just light-skinned and her father may have been truly “Mu.”

  6. StephanieACurry says:

    I have slao noticed this same notation on records of my family. There is one gg-aunt and grandmother on my maternal side where she and all of her children are listed as “MU”. At my g-grandfathers’ funeral my mother told me of the cousins who attended from Mo. who looked white. They are descendants from that line. My aunt was the “Mu” but her mother was not. My grandfather gave us this information.

  7. msualumni says:

    Hi Karen–enjoyed your post. You are fortunate to be able to have the names of the white man who fathered the children with Charity. So many branches just “fall off” for the vast majority of African-Americans who don’t know the name of the white fathers. Especially those formerly enslaved woman who show up on the 1870 census with lots of “mulatto” children, as if they fell out of the sky;)

    • Karen says:

      I also have copies of the papers documenting when Isaiah bought Charity Ann from his father’s estate. Amazing that so much information survived those dark days of slavery.

  8. syjames2 says:

    Well, Karen.  We are cousins.  Isaiah and Charity Parker are my great great grandparents (grandparents of Wilie Parker, brother to Louisana Parker Upshaw and Henry Parker).
     
    I would be greatly interested to hear Isaiah and Charity Ann’s story.  Thanks for creating this blog.
     
    Sharon

    • Karen says:

      Wow Sharon!! How great to meet a Parker cousin! I’ll be writing about Charity Ann and Isaiah in a blog challenge I’m doing in 2014 called “52 Ancestors 52 Weeks”. It’s a chance for me to do a deep-dive into some of the family stories that haven’t yet been written down. Maybe you and I can compare notes – I’d love to hear about my Great Great Uncle Willie Parker.

      If you subscribe to new posts here, you’ll get the one on our ancestors in your inbox. You have to stop by again and visit me here on Extreme Ancestry. After all – we’re family:)

  9. Kristen says:

    Hi,
    I think I have a similar issue but not quite. I’m a white woman with all white ancestors except 3 paternal grandmother’s. I found the first mention on a census record for my great grandmother and then found her mother and grandmother to also be identified as mulatto. I can’t find anything to support or deny the census takers identification. I also cant find any marriage or divorce records. They were, however, in white households and identified as servants or housekeeper. My great grandmother died in her twenties and all oral history is gone. My grandfather ran away from his dad and step-Mother’s home when he was young. There are indicators that indeed he was not welcome due to having African blood. Do you have any research ideas for me? Have you ever seem this before? We are looking into DNA testing.

  10. Mollie Crane says:

    I’m wondering also…

  11. Julie says:

    The Mulatto factor as you call it is not as one is supposed to think-one parent with all white ancestry, and the other with all African ancestry–it is or I should say, was-noted in census, just like it was in walking everyday life; an “eyeball test”.

    Think of it this way, if no one knew Barack Obama had a “white” mother, people would just say, hmmm, medium brown man-so he must be what we call since the ’60′s “black”-or more appropriately African American. (Although in his case, he really is the offspring of a real life African, who was *not* American-which is a growing group in America these days.

    On the other hand, his mother’s maternal lineage goes back to John Punch the first life long slave by law in the US, so she wasn’t even all white. What would a census taker designate her as if she were still living? White of course, but not because she told them that, but because of the “eyeball test”. As for self reporting, it is likely Obama’s mother and her immediate great grands knew nothing about their original progenitor from Africa, so they couldn’t even have reported that to a census taker, if they had wanted to, which is unlikely.

    When doing research it is not about “mistakes” by census takers, but the trouble with trying to pigeon hole human beings.

    Especially when you had a largely rural population with little general education let alone wider exposure to race relations information, and certainly had no meaningful genetic understanding of racial physical characteristics transmission. I highly doubt any of them, as is apparent from comments on lots of the blogs or websites on the net meant to address, black geneaology or any kind of racial ideas that have to do with ethnic mixing, knows much about how genes are passed down.

    It would seem most of them have no exposure to Mendelian theory at its most basic. Simply put here; if you get one trait from each parent, and each parent is a mulatto then you have a 25% of getting one of each of four possible outcomes; half white, (lets call them fair skinned, with african features, and kinky hair). Or a half black, (we’ll call dark skinned with caucasian features and curly hair), or all black or all white, a copy of each race from the four grandparent).

    *Real* genetics is much much more complex, but the Mendelian theory gives you a rough idea of the range one can expect—so, in families with mulattoes, or quadroons or whatever other designation the spanish tended to use, you could be looking at any number of physical looks, all of them with the same exact ‘mulatto’ parents.

    That is why…….these designations really have no meaning regarding outward appearances. The very same full blooded siblings might be designated as white, black or mulatto, because the census taker was using the “eyeball” test.

    And besides that, you also have to remember–the census taker did not know who anyones parents were, unless they were right there. They were taking the word of someone, anyone who thought they knew who the daddy was, or wanted the daddy to be.

    The same even goes for the mother, because some blacks, newly freed, either mother or new husband, did not want a light skinned mulatto around to remind them of the bad old days of rape. Some of these people gave away those mulatto children to a light skinned family member or friend who would raise that child as their own, or even just as a boarder. This often led to shame for the child who grew up as the family ‘stain’, without real parents, tormented by other children due to that parentage, and the abandonement.

    In other cases, that child lived a life of privilege, even snobbery-feeling more entitled to their place in American society as a mixed race person, or even one who might be able to pass for white. Other privileges might have followed, such as college or certain professions, but not necessarily.

    This if very complex territory full of twists and turns-but first and foremost I think it helps to remember the eyeball test tells very little at times, sometimes it tells absolutely nothing.

    • Karen says:

      Julie – I completely agree that the eyeball test used by the census takers was a problem. That’s why, as a researcher, I take what they – and those who provided the information with a grain of salt.

      Genetics is a different way to look at this issue but I’m a real neophyte in that area. I just had my DNA done last year and am still trying to understand the results.

      But whether it’s politics or genetics, the fundamental problem is that, as a society, we still judge people, as Dr. Martin Luther King said – “By the color of their skin and not the content of their character”. I hope there’s a shift in this in my lifetime.

      Thanks for your thought-provoking feedback. Hope you’ll stop by again soon:)

      Karen

  12. Jon Batchelor says:

    Hello! I enjoyed reading your post. I’m a Batchelor from tennessee…and I happen to be white. How did you begin your search? I know who my great grandfathers/ mothers were but that’s about as far as I’ve been able to get so far. Thank you again!

    • Karen says:

      Jon – thanks for reading my post and for your feedback. It’s always great to meet another Batchelor – spelled with a “t”! I started genealogy as my New Year’s resolution in 1976 and have been at it ever since.

      My first steps were 1) talk with my oldest relatives and capture the family oral history from them; 2) send for the birth and/or death certificates for my grandparents and 2nd and 3rd great grandparents – if those records were available. 3) then I started researching the US census records for the area my ancestors lived in.

      When I started researching, the 1900 census wasn’t even available so you have a distinct advantage because census records are available now up to 1940. If there’s a library near you, check and see if they have a membership with Ancestry.com. If they do, you can research census records online without buying a membership.

      Also, I’m working on an online genealogy course for beginners that will be available in the next month and may be something you’d be interested in. If you subscribe to updates here on Extreme Ancestry, you’ll hear about it.

      Hope this help a little.

      Karen

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