Negro History, Part X: Miscegenation in America

Negro History, Part X: Miscegenation in America

Ebony Magazine
October 1962
pages 94-104
(Digitized by Google)

Lerone Bennett, Jr., Executive Editor

The material in this chapter on miscegenation during the slavery period is based largely on James Hugo Johnston’s doctorial dissertation at the University of Chicago, Race Relations in Virginia and Miscegenation in the South, 1776-1860; Carter Woodson’s article. “The Beginnings of The Miscegenation of the Whites and Blacks” in The Journal of Negro History; and A. W. Calhoun’s study, A Social History of the American Family.

Sin. Sex. Race.

The three words took deep roots, intertwined and became one in the Puritan psyche. In the famous sermon preached at Whitechapel in 1609 for Virginia-bound planters and adventurers, the minister fused the words in a stern admonition against miscegenation. From Genesis he summoned the figure of Abram who left his country and his father’s house and migrated to a land God had prepared for his seed.

“Abram’s posteritie,” the preacher said, “(must) keepe to themselves. They may not marry nor give in marriage to the heathen, that are uncircumcised…  …The breaking of this rule, may breake the necke of all good successe of this voyage, whereas by keeping the feare of God, the planters in shorte time, by the blessing of God, may grow into a nation formidable to all the enemies of Christ.”

It was easier said than done.

From the beginning, English colonists, following Abram’s example, married and mated with Hagars—red and black. Even more distressing to the Puritan mind was the broad tolerance of the English women who married and mated with Hagars brothers. Proscription began early. In 1630, a bare 21 years after the Whitechapel sermon, one Hugh Davis was “soundly whipped before an assemblage of Negroes and others for abusing himself to the dishonor of God and the shame of Christians by defiling his body in lying with a Negro…” Forty years later, white women were being whipped and sold into slavery and extended servitude for showing open preferences for Negro men. Alarmed by widespread miscegenation, colonists from South Carolina to Massachusetts began a systematic campaign which ultimately made the Whitechapel sermon the racial policy of the land. Every instrument of persuasion was used to teach white people that they should “not marry nor give in marriage” to Negroes. No amount of persuasion, however, could “keepe” whites to themselves.

Miscegenation in America started not in the thirteen original colonies but in Africa. English, French, Dutch and American slavetraders took black concubines on the Guinea coast and mated with females on the slave ships. It should be noted that many Africans and Europeans were themselves the products of thousands of years of mixing between various African, Asian and Caucasian peoples.

In and around Jamestown and the Massachusetts of Cotton Mather, there was an extensive trade in genes. Socio-economic conditions in the early colonies encouraged racial mingling. White men and women from England, Ireland and Scotland were bought and sold in the same markets with Negroes and bequeathed in the same wills. As indentured servants bound out for five or seven years, these whites worked in the fields with Negro servants and lived in the same rude tenant huts. A deep bond of sympathy developed between the Negro and white indentured servants who formed the bulk of the early population. They fraternized during off-duty hours and consoled themselves with the same strong rum. And in and out of wedlock, they sired a numerous mulatto brood.

When Negro servants were reduced to slavery, the colonial governing classes redoubled their efforts to stamp out racial mixing. Miscegenation in this era was not only a breach of Puritan morality, but it was also a threat to slavery and the stability of the servile labor force. As early as 1664, Maryland enacted the first anti-amalgamation statute. It was an astonishing document. The statute was aimed at white women who had resisted every effort to inoculate them with the virus of racial pride; and the preamble stated very clearly the reasons which drove white men to the extremity of enslaving white women.

And forasmuch as divers freeborn English women, forgetful of their free condition, and to the disgrace of our nation, do intermarry with negro slaves, by which also divers suits may arise, touching the issue of such women, and a great damage doth befall the master of such negroes, for preservation whereof for deterring such freehom women from such shameful matches, be it enacted: That whatsoever free-born woman shall intermarry with any slave, from and after the last day of the present assembly, shall serve the master of such slave during the life of her husband; and that all the issues of such free-born women, so married, shall be slaves as their fathers were.

This law failed to stay intermarriage. Some women chose love and slavery; others were reduced to slavery by scheming planters who forced them to marry Negro men in order to reap the additional economic benefits accruing from the extended service of the mothers and the perpetual slavery of their children. A celebrated case revolved around Irish Nell, an indentured servant who came over with Lord Baltimore. When Baltimore returned to England, he sold Irish Nell to a planter who forced or encouraged her to marry a Negro. Shocked by the practice of prostituting white women for economic purposes. Lord Baltimore used his influence to get the law changed. The new law was about as effective as the old one—which is to say, it was not effective at all. E. I. McConnac, the authority on white servitude in Maryland, said: “Mingling of the races in Maryland continued during the eighteenth century, in spite of all laws against it.”

Negro-white marriages, especially Negro male-white female marriages, were a problem in Virginia and other colonies. In 1691, Virginia restricted intermarriage. Similar laws were put on the books in Massachusetts in 1705, North Carolina in 1715. South Carolina in 1717. Shortly after the enactment of Virginia’s ban on intermarriage, Ann Wall was convicted of “keeping company with a Negro under pretense of marriage.” The Elizabeth County court sold Ann Wall for five years and bound out her two mulatto children for 31 years, and “it is further ordered,” the court said, “that ye said Ann Wall after she is free from her said master doe at any time presume to come into this county she shall be banished to ye Island of Barbadoes.”

In an unsuccessful attempt to halt intermingling, Pennsylvania banned intermarriage in 1725. Forty-five years later, during the glow of the Revolution, Pennsylvania repealed the ban on intermarriage. Thereafter, mixed marriages became common in Pennsylvania. Thomas Branagan visited Philadelphia in 1805 and averred that he had never seen so much intermingling. “There are,” he wrote, “many, very many blacks who… begin to feel themselves consequential… …will not be satisfied unless they get white women for wives, and are likewise exceedingly impertinent to white people in low circumstances… I solemnly swear, I have seen more white women married to, and deluded through the arts of seduction by negroes in one year in Philadelphia, than for eight years I was visiting (West Indies and the southern states)… …There are perhaps hundreds of white women thus fascinated by black men in this city and there are thousands of black children by them at present.”

Aristocrats did not always obey the rules they made. Benjamin Franklin, it is said, was quite open in his relationships with black women. Carter Woodson, the careful historian, says Franklin “seems to have made no secret of his associations with Negro women,” Well-to-do people usually stopped short of legal marriage, but there is evidence that some threw caution to the wind. The following item appears in the will of John Fenwick, the Lord Proprietor of New Jersey. “Item, I do except against Elizabeth Adams of having any ye leaste part of my estate, unless the Lord open her eyes to see her abominable transgression against him, me her good father, by giving her true repentance, and forsaking ye Black ye hath been ye ruin of her; and becoming penitent of her sins; upon ye condition only I do will and require my executors to settle five hundred acres of land upon her.”…

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