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 was one "Who thought they were 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" (term used to describe mixed race in the past) 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.
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 European colonist’s blood has been mixed since the earliest days of our nation, rooted in the diabolical and brutal practice of slavery. Sadly, for many families, like mine, our African American heritage has been lost because of the social construct of white supremacy and white privilege that continues to exist in our society today.
--Jocelyn Braxton Armstrong | September 2018
* Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me
Update – In Plain Sight
After I had initially researched my family’s ancestry in 2018, I wanted to continue studying my family tree to see if I could discover when, how and why my family chose to pass. As I was working on this and creating my next sculpture in the series, “No Peace for Sophy”, George Floyd was murdered. Historical racial injustice and inequality was once again at the forefront of American minds. We had to reckon with our problem with white supremacy, and what I learned has informed my research.
My family’s story is quintessentially American. It demonstrates the complexity of race in America since it’s birth. It is said that all Braxtons came from Carter Braxton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. There is documentation of one enslaved woman, Estelle, whose son, Abraham was Carter Braxton’s child. There is abundant historical information about Carter Braxton’s white family and almost nothing about the Black side. No doubt, he sired more than one child of mixed race, so there are surely other lineages.
History notes that, Carter Braxton freed all of his slaves, so most Braxtons were free men and so were their children. But if you were a free Black man, you didn’t have the right to vote or own land. There were harsh laws to abide by. Slavery and freedom co-exsisted for Black people.
The concrete knowledge I have of my ancestry originates with my great, great grandmother, Sophy (Lipscomb) Braxton, who lived in Madison, Orange, VA, where James Madison’s Montpelier is located. She was born in 1830 and we believe she was enslaved by a descendant of the Madison family. There is a Madison family document naming a Sophy, given to a family member along with other enslaved people, land, livestock and a house.
In an 1870 Census (after emancipation), Sophy Braxton lists 5 children, her first child born when she was 15, all Braxtons. She lists herself as “mulatto”, working as a housekeeper. She could not read or write. A (Braxton) husband’s name is not listed. I can only suppose that perhaps they lived apart. They would not have been not allowed to marry.
Her oldest son, James Randolph, moved north during the Civil War. He had joined the colored Union troops. After the war, he met and married the daughter of a very wealthy free black, Jeremiah Bowers, who was a major caterer for the NYC wealthy. They brought him to Saratoga Springs during every racing season in August, where my grandfather, James Howard, was born.
My grandfather, James Howard, listed himself as a clerk, black , age 21 in a 1900 Census and lived with his family in New York City. He and his brothers and sisters could all read and write. Soon after, James Howard began working for Frank Jay Gould, the son of Jay Gould, a wealthy financier. He was his personal secretary. He met his soon to be wife, Belva when she came from Nova Scotia to be one of Gould's secretaries. They were both chosen by Gould to leave for France when the income tax was enacted in the US. Frank Gould was developing hotel and casino properties at the French Riviera. James and Belva got married when the ship landed in London, UK on May 17th, 1910, and lived in France until World War II, when they fled and returned to the USA. They had 5 children while in France, the youngest was my father, James Rupert.
I believe my grand parents married in London because they would not have been able to marry in the US because of the anti-miscengination laws. In 1900, Booker T. Washington summed up the practice when he remarked:
“It is a fact that if a person is known to have one percent of African blood in his veins, he ceases to be a white man. The ninety-nine percent Caucasian blood does not weigh by the side of the one percent African blood. The white blood counts for nothing. The person is Negro every time.”
Given the racial discord and the dangerous climate for Blacks during the Jim Crow era in the United States, I conclude that my grandfather was presented with an opportunity to live a life in France, where he could freely marry the love of his life and enjoy the perks of the bourgeoisie living in Paris, while shedding the racism he and his family would have faced in the USA. This was his chosen exile. On his chidren’s birth certificates, registered at the American consulate in Paris, he is listed as white, as are all his children.
It’s a fascinating story that dovetails with the racial injustice and inequality that we are still dealing with here in the United States. I share this story because I think it’s important to understand the complexity of race since the birth of our country. We are inextricably entwined. I also want my children to know and be proud of their true heritage and understand the forces that lead to my grandfather’s decision. Truth is freedom.
--Jocelyn Braxton Armstrong | April 2021
"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.