Moving West: On the Border Between the Races

As the doors closed around them in the early 18th century, many of Virginia’s free people of color moved west and south.  In the border areas of Virginia, the colony’s restrictive racial laws were only casually enforced, and south of the North Carolina border they did not exist at all.  The extensive research of Paul Heinegg, available online at www.freeafricanamericans.com, allows us to see that migration happening in Southampton County, Virginia, still sparsely settled in the second quarter of that century.

Among the neighbors of my Drew ancestors were mixed families who had moved south from the longer-settled areas of the Tidewater to avoid the discriminatory taxes imposed on all wives of “negroes or mulattos,” and others who may have been related to white families just north of the county border.  By the second half of the century, at least one and probably two families closely associated with the Drews had mixed-race relatives just south of the North Carolina border, the offspring of marriages between white men and black women.  Other families moved south across that border as the century went on.  It was not merely that land was cheaper on the frontier; social attitudes were more tolerant as well.

Some families moved a good deal farther.  The Invisible Line, by Daniel J. Sharfstein,  tells the stories of three very different families, who moved far enough, in different places and at different times, to shed their mixed-race ancestry.

The extended Gibson family, including a number of free black men and their white wives, arrived in South Carolina from Virginia in 1730.  The authorities were alarmed.  The Governor summoned their leader, Gideon Gibson, for an interview.  At the end of the interview, he concluded that the immigrants were “not Negroes nor Slaves but Free people,” respectable, productive taxpayers who even owned a few slaves themselves.  Their white wives were a bonus, being hardworking and “Serviceable in the Country.”  They received a land grant of several hundred acres in the backcountry.

Gibson’s family members intermarried with their backcountry neighbors.  His son, also named Gideon, became one of the wealthiest and most respected citizens of their frontier community.  In 1767, a series of battles with the Cherokees led to the collapse of public order on the frontier, leaving the settlers at the mercy of particularly vicious gangs of bandits.  When the Assembly in Charleston refused to provide any protection, the backcountry settlers organized themselves as Regulators under Gibson’s command.  They defied the militia that was sent out to capture him, and the militia backed off.  Ultimately, the Assembly granted their demands.Randall Gibson

By the beginning of the 19th century some of Gideon’s increasingly white descendants had moved to Mississippi, where they continued to flourish.  One of them, Tobias, moved on to Louisiana.  He borrowed money, purchased dozens of slaves, and made a fortune in sugarcane.  His children married into the Kentucky aristocracy.  His son, Randall Gibson (right), became a Confederate general and later a United States Senator.  To explain their dark skin, they created a myth of the “four Gibson brothers,” sons of a younger son of an English lord, who had married a “gypsy maid.”  Their African ancestry was almost completely buried – but not quite.  When a political enemy made the accusation that Randall’s grandfather was remembered as black in his Mississippi town, the rumor was dismissed in the newspapers as “madness,” and then forgotten.

For a more extensive history of Randall Gibson, see the article by Sharfstein at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/14/black-or-white/?_r=0

 

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