(We've moved to: http://christinesleeter.org/using-new-interracial-family-evidence/)
In this installment, I will use a pseudonym to protect the anonymity of the subject of my critical family history. I am related to the “Kayfred” family of North Carolina by marriage. “Grandpa Kayfred” was a widower and the patriarch of the very large family in a rural region of North Carolina. He was born in 1917 and he lived to be 93 years old with his mental capacity well intact, so he was a wealth of humor, knowledge, and family history. When I spoke with him in the summer of 1993, he was approximately 76 years old and I remember his kindness, his very light brown skin, curly hair, mechanic’s hands and green eyes. I assumed there was some admixture in his African ancestry, but it was not unusual due to the One Drop Rule for many Black folks in my family to have facial features, skin and eye colors, and/or hair types typically associated with Europeans. For years, I heard stories from “Grandpa Kayfred” and others about his violent arguments and exploits with White folks during Jim Crow. While I didn’t wonder about the admixture, I did wonder how “Grandpa Kayfred” survived such experiences within the southern rural territory of the Ku Klux Klan without being jailed, beaten, or worse. It was the county courthouse archives in search of his next of kin, when Grandpa Kayfred was about 90 years old in 2007, that would add a context and credibility to the stories.
I will attempt to demonstrate how learning from key episodes of what Zeus Leonardo calls race-class relations within the informal oral histories of elders like “Grandpa Kayfred", and seeking archival evidence to support that evidence, may give important revelations. Important secrets were indeed revealed about Grandpa “Kayfred” in relation to his family and Black-White race relations. I will conclude by considering how such information from family evidence can keep troubling Jim Crow and me (and you).
Learning Race-Class Relations from Elders: Key Episodes from an Informal Oral History
“Grandpa Kayfred” was a mechanic by trade. In fact, he taught any family member willing to learn how to do everything from routine car maintenance to fixing and changing major car parts. He tended to charge on a fraction of the cost. When I was in college, my old Pontiac 6000 (passed down from my mother during my Junior year) was on the fritz again with a major repair. While I can’t recall that repair, I do recall that the car had over 200,000 miles on it when I received it from my parents and that “Grandpa Kayfred” only charged me about $20 for a repair estimated over hundreds of dollars in the mid-1990s. It was about this time that I learned of what I felt at the time, was the most implausible episode of “Grandpa Kayfred’s” negative interactions with White folks. “Grandpa Kayfred,” who prided himself on his word, his work and his integrity apparently got into an argument with a White man in the 1950s about the price of a repair and what he was owed for it. The White man called him several expletives; however, when called a liar, “Grandpa Kayfred” smacked the man in the face.
Now, such a gesture was a death sentence for Black men in the Jim Crow south at that time, but not only was “Grandpa Kayfred” spared his life, he was neither jailed nor arrested. I knew that lighter-skinned, more European–looking Black folks sometimes earned dubious privileges from Whites, but a slap in the face was well beyond any credible story that I had known for that time period. I also knew that “Grandpa Kayfred” was quite faithful and spiritual and giving and forgiving. Yet, something else must have protected him from Jim Crow justice.
Family Revelations in the County Archives
County archives, including county census data and birth records, can provide useful and free resources for critical family history researchers, formal and informal. For example, I just learned that the 1860 census for Camden County, NC, the county of my maternal and paternal relatives bears a mistake. The census enumerator responsible for collecting the data erroneously noted the names of the slaves and the names of their respective owners. It is quite rare to find this in archival data and it has launched a firestorm of questions and blogs about the motives of the enumerator. While this “error” produced rare data, county census data can offer rich resources and surprises for professional and lay family historians. In search of next of kin and inheritance information, two family members went to the county archives when “Grandpa Kayfred” was about 90 years old. Much to their surprise, the records identify his father as “Negro” and his mother as “White.” They immediately went home and rather than await a family liaison and an appropriate context, they excitedly approached “Grandpa Kayfred” and asked, “Did you know yo’ mama was White?” While I was not present for this conversation, each time it is retold, there is a consistent replay of “Grandpa Kayfred,” “Hell yeah, I knew my mama was White, I just never told y’all.”
Rethinking Black-White Race Relations in the Family?
The Kayfred family including Grandpa, are not known for their interracial friendships to put it lightly. Moreover, it is not unusual to hear a Kayfred say, “I don’t like White people,” not moving to the harsher word “hate,” out of respect for their Christian beliefs that counter “hating” any of “God’s children.” The “don’t like” seems to operate as a “hatred” in practice, from my purview. “Grandpa Kayfred’s” stories about White people, including the one he smacked and the circumstances leading up to the smack, certainly support the heavy dislike for White folks. Like most people of color in rural, North Carolina, the Kayfred family have a history of frequent and intense negative events, encounters, and episodes initiated by privileged White folks who consistently infantilize, devalue and deskill them. With this context considered, it became understandable why “Grandpa Kayfred” never shared the fact that his mother was White with his children and grandchildren. He also likely wanted to protect them by not have a family example for them to follow into interracial dating and marital relationships of their own. Once unveiled, “Grandpa Kayfred” offered more clarity to this story to his grandchildren and they shared the following narrative with me:
Born in the late 1800s, his White mother and Black father fell in love. She was from a very wealthy and powerful family, which is why she and her husband and children were not targets of the Ku Klux Klan or any other local racists. One condition of her marriage is that she had to give up all of her fortune except for the plot of land for her home. So while her family didn’t like her marrying a Black man, they didn’t completely disown her. The white Kayfred’s are Grandpa’s first cousins and they all knew it. This explains why he got into arguments and fights with White folks and was never arrested or anything.
This additional context explained not only Grandpa’s European phenotype, but also his ability to escape the fate of most Black men in the rural south who slapped a White man in the face who publically questioned his integrity. Now, the family has to grapple with having more immediate heritage to local White Kayfred family members. Distant admixture and the One Drop Rule are one thing, but realizing that your light brown skin and hazel eyes are from the mother of the man who raised you is quite another thing. Clearly, his mother passed away before any of the children or grandchildren would know her and there were likely few pictures of her, especially if she sacrificed her family fortune for love and equity. Still, the family who consistently repeat the family mantra of “I don’t like White people,” continues to come to terms with that statement because they are related to one of those people. Apparently they are related to one of those people with a level of courage, humility, commitment and a sense of equity and sacrifice for love that few people of any color possess then or now, in my opinion.
Where will race relations in the family go from here? How will the White grandmother be incorporated into family pedagogy and oral traditions, particularly with the death of Grandpa Kayfred in 2010? Right now, they seem to be living the contradiction and responding to the news with ambivalence. Irrespective of the White grandmother, they are still largely poor, Black and in the rural South in social times that Dr. Alexander calls The New Jim Crow.
This archival finding did seem to help my Kayfred family members and me to make more meaning out of what we already knew about the family's history, particularly “Grandpa Kayfred’s” history with local White folks. How can I lean forward with what I am learning from the Kayfred family to keep troubling Jim Crow? We might begin discussing this White woman as a unique part of the family and without the White savior narrative attached, we may begin understanding what White race-class privileges she gave up, which White race-class privileges she was able to share, and what White race-class privileges she continued to hold. What can we learn from our local White relatives with the same last name as ours, including the children and grandchildren of the White man that Grandpa slapped? What can we learn from her and them about the pitfalls and potential of authentic, critical White family allies? What can the Whites we know learn from her life about naming race-class privileges and finding ways to share them with the ultimate goal of undermining their own privileges toward a more perfect union? I continue to learn from the Kayfred family’s informal oral history and archival evidence. I find their critical family history troubling Jim Crow and me with respect to our previous assumptions about interracialization, classism and family ties in rural, North Carolina form the late 1800s to the present. It is my sincere hope that information will inspire readers to initiate, sustain, and augment the race-class evidence from their own critical family histories in ways that keep troubling Jim Crow.
Dr. Sherick Hughes, MA, MPA, Ph.D. is Associate Professor with Tenure, and Founder and Director, Interpretive Research Suite & Carter Qualitative Thought Lab Graduate Program Coordinator/Chair, Cultural Studies & Literacies Program Founder and Director, Black Alumni of the School of Education (BASE), School of Education, University of North Carolina, CB #3500, Peabody Hall, Chapel Hill, NC 27599