I can recall driving blindly fixated on the road ahead then at some point, not able to remember the road I had traveled. How did I get here? What did I pass? Did I miss something or someone? Researching my ancestry is much like that. Here I am but what road did the essence of my being travel and from where.
I have studied and researched my ancestry for almost 40 years now when time allowed. If not for the oral history a cousin, Barbara Russell Wilson, had diagramed, the work would have been an even more daunting task. It was a road map that pointed back to the earliest known members of the family, back to a slave named George Phillips/Reeves. Conversations and recollections were the only sources of its origin, no dates, no documents, and now no witnesses. But it was far more than many Black Americans could claim. I’ve spent these years validating the Russell history and documenting as much of it as possible. I've driven miles to search archives, hours scanning microfilm, going mad in search engines. I've even gotten a Reader's Card for the Library of Congress that I look forward to using once it reopens post pandemic in hopes of finding the gold nugget that will lead me to the mother lode of slaveowner records to add to the piles of files I already have.
What I have learned of my origins once my ancestors were off loaded in this new land points back to Virginia primarily, specifically central Virginia, from Baltimore to Kitty Hawk to Durham to Roanoke to Harrisonburg centered on Richmond. Virginia was the birthplace of chattel slavery, a uniquely American brand of condemnation from birth to grave with little to no hope of escape. At one point in its history, humans were the largest export from the Commonwealth once the importation of Africans was banned. That gave a boost to the Domestic Slave Trade, which was already gaining strength. It spawned numerous businesses of all sorts to support the ships, the merchants and their “merchandise.” Everybody was making a killing.
The location of my ancestors circa 1700. Their point of entry likely Richmond, VA.
Though the family map was a start, it was still like following a single buried thread through an enormous Persian rug only to find it frayed into several more, twisting deeper into the weave in multiple directions. Virginia, South Carolina, Kentucky. Russell, Burrus, Downer, Reeves, Chesnut, and Phillips on my paternal side. Slaveowners every one, whose names my ancestors bore like a brand and some present day, distant cousins, still bear keeping the thread intact. For the enslaved, keeping the owner's name was more a means of leaving a trail for loved ones to follow if freedom ever came than respect for their masters. The complexity is mind numbing.
But it’s a very different story looking back at my mother’s lineage. There is no collection of slaveowner surnames to give any hint of their journey. Only one name, Glenn. It appears the Glenns maintained ownership of my ancestors for generations. The Race designations noted in the 1870 Census shows a mix of both Black and Mulatto children by Betsy, Hulda and Aleine Glenn, daughters of Isam, my 3rd great grandfather born about 1820, and Dellie Glenn. Their owners were very wealthy landowners in Fairview, Todd County, Kentucky, birthplace of Jefferson Davis. And the records indicate they probably bred their slaves to increase the value of their estates or for profit. Fair skinned females were favored and brought a higher price as domestics or concubines. After emancipation, they remained close to the plantation as "farm laborers" or sharecroppers to be more correct seeing that they had no assets.
1870 Federal Census listing Isam Glenn and his family. Betsy is listed as a separate family but in the same household. Race was indicated by B for Black or M for Mulatto. Robert, my great grandfather, is on line 24.
Betsy was my 2nd great grandmother who gave birth to Robert, my great grandfather, in 1863. She was 13 years old. According to my late Aunt Betty, Robert was fathered by a white man. The Census record confirms that. Robert very likely could have passed for white. And his wife, Magnolia, or “Nolie” could as well. The first of their 10 children was Plush Elder Glenn, my cantankerous grandfather born in 1888. He was tall, dapper and a real lady’s man in his day. There’s an “Oh My Goodness” story my aunt told that involved a young woman and a baby at a Sunday afternoon church social with my grandmother, Anna, standing with the women folk nearby! He fathered six children by three of six women, one being my mother and her two sisters, to my knowledge.
A screen grab of my grandfather at 73 during the only trip to Indianapolis I can recall. My sister Terri, about 8 months old, discovering the world as Plush looks on. Indianapolis 1961
I hardly knew Plush. He moved to Los Angeles after he and my grandmother divorced and before I was born. His trips back to Indianapolis due to his age and modes of travel at the time were rare. One of those visits was the summer of 1961. My sister, Terri, was just learning to walk and dad filmed her early attempts steadying herself with granddad ‘s pant leg as he sat in the front yard. It’s the only film ever shot of him. But I have a clear recollection of his womanizing ways during that summer.
I had been talking to him in the living room of our 600 square foot National home as he stood looking out the front door. I left the room for a moment and when I returned, he was gone. I was puzzled and called for him in the house with no answer. I went to the door and looked left then right. There sauntering down the sidewalk was granddad in his black gabardine suit, bow tie, white shirt, flat-brimmed straw hat and a cane on his arm. As I looked further down the sidewalk, I saw a young woman in a snugly fitting skirt ahead of him. I don’t think he had any aspirations, but he certainly was enjoying the view.
Pipe in hand, my grandfather sits on a porch near the end of his life possibly keeping an eye out for a pretty woman to pass by. (Date unknown)
Plush probably “passed” as a young man. And though my mother and aunts were not as fair as he, they still fell into the category of “High Yella.” It was a term used to describe a light-skinned person of white and black ancestry and is reflected in such popular songs of the late 19th and early 20th century as "The Yellow Rose of Texas".[i] It was a pejorative slang term that illustrated the disdain sometimes held between darker women of the fields and the lighter house slaves the masters kept close. In later times, it was a sign of bitterness of some black women against black men who preferred fairer-skinned women. The use of the term carried into the mid 1900’s. I can still recall hearing it as a child.
Charles and Margaret Glenn Russell, circa 1947
As you would expect, my DNA profile reflects this history, 16% of which is of English and Northwestern European origin and likely mostly derived from the Glenn family. Research has shown that approximately 4% of European Americans have traces of African DNA in their genome.[ii] Had I known this years ago, I could have responded to yells for me to “Go back to Africa.” with a sharp “You first!” Nor did I know when hearing “Nigger” from a passing car that a reply of “Yo mamma!” might not have been far from the truth.
But what am I?
The One-Drop Rule,[iii] a social and legal principle of racial classification of the 20th century, would not offer any doubt of my race. The rule was adopted across the country and in some states was codified. Some states debated the self-interested “risks” of making it law. In opposition, Rep. George D. Tillman argued this point during the South Carolina constitutional convention of 1895:
“If the law is made as it now stands respectable families in Aiken, Barnwell, Colleton, and Orangeburg will be denied the right to intermarry among people with whom they are now associated and identified. At least one hundred families would be affected to my knowledge. They have sent good soldiers to the Confederate Army and are now landowners and taxpayers. Those men served creditably, and it would be unjust and disgraceful to embarrass them in this way. It is a scientific fact that there is not one full-blooded Caucasian on the floor of this convention. Every member has in him a certain mixture of ... colored blood. The pure-blooded white has needed and received a certain infusion of darker blood to give him readiness and purpose. It would be a cruel injustice and the source of endless litigation, of scandal, horror, feud, and bloodshed to undertake to annul or forbid marriage for a remote, perhaps obsolete trace of Negro blood. The doors would be open to scandal, malice, and greed; to statements on the witness stand that the father or grandfather or grandmother had said that A or B had Negro blood in their veins. Any man who is half a man would be ready to blow up half the world with dynamite to prevent or avenge attacks upon the honor of his mother in the legitimacy or purity of the blood of his father.”
It is sickening a modicum of this level of concern could not have been given to the enslaved women of my lineage who were raped by “fine gentlemen” like these. Or to their fathers and husbands who watched, who seethed with rage, ready to"blow up half the world" to “avenge attacks” on their wives’ and daughters’ honor. In their supremacist thinking, "purity of the blood" only flowed in one direction.
The percentage required to be identified as black varied. In some states, a 3rd great grandparent or 1/32nd was enough to earn the label. “In the antebellum years, free people of mixed race were considered legally white if individuals had less than one-eighth or one-quarter African ancestry (depending on the state).” Sally Hemmings, Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved mistress and half-sister to his wife Martha, was 75% white. Two of their children were freed without papers to vanish into white society. The remainder probably became free people of color upon Jefferson's death. The high percentage of white blood and the lack of any records in this line of my people is a cause for wonder whether any of them were able to live as free people of color or blend into the dominate social fabric as white. I may never know.
So. What am I? Black? White?
How about all the above and more if it really matters.