Several years ago a family member decided to research my paternal family ancestry, which revealed that my family was descended from enslaved Africans who resided in Orange, VA on James Madison’s plantation, Montpelier. Until this time I identified as white.
In 1850, 80% of American exports were products of slave labor. At Montpelier, tobacco was cultivated. Slavery itself grew into a lucrative billion-dollar industry.
The sexual interaction of white masters with female slaves was a component of the economy of slavery and the brutality that existed within the system. Generations of children of this miscegenation produced enslaved children, thereby increasing the master’s property. But this also resulted in enslaved persons that were mulatto or white, which led to the phenomenon of “passing”, as white.
Passing is a continuous and enduring historical trend that reveals larger issues about the impact of race on our culture; and it is a feature of the complex route by which African American identity developed. Racial ambiguity could be leveraged to secure one’s liberty. White was the color of freedom. Even today, a black or mixed race woman who is pregnant with a white man’s baby might be described as “cleaning the plantation”.
In doing the research for these works I examined documents recorded in my family tree. Interestingly, members of my family were listed as white in one census and black or mulatto in subsequent ones. This was common.
For research I read “A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life” by Allyson Hobbs. I consulted with Hannah Scruggs, who heads up the Montpelier African American Descendant Project and works in the Research Department at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
There are many Braxtons still in Orange, but the genealogical challenge is to find the correct lineage. Enslaved people were exchanged and traveled between plantations, making the search uncertain as my ancestors could have worked at a planation other than Montpelier. Much of what is known of enslaved people at that time is anecdotal. Locating documents with names and identities is arduous and records may have been destroyed or do not exist.
The phenomenon of passing has had far reaching impact on African and American culture. African and American blood has been mixed since the earliest days of our nation. But sadly, for most families like mine, our African American culture has been lost.
-Jocelyn Braxton Armstrong
"Review: In Plain Sight/Site" by Jacquelyn Gleisner. Connecticut Art Review, December 7, 2018.
"Artspace Exhibit Takes Unblinking Look at History" by Brian Slattery. The New Haven Independent, December 5, 2018.
"In Plain Sight, Artspace Lays History Bare" by Leah Andelsmith. The Arts Council of New Haven Newsletter, December 4, 2018.