Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Did President Obama's "Free" African-American Ancestors Own Black Slaves?

History is a trickster (again).

In all of the excitement over the "revelation" that President Obama is apparently a descendant from John Punch, the first African-American slave in the colonies, many glossed over the following bit of important information.

From ABC News:
The enslaved, black Punch had children with a free white woman. Because their mother was free, Punch's mixed-race kids were born free and went on to become "prominent" land owners in Virginia, Harman said.
Who are these people? What connection did they have to the growing slaveocracy and slave regime?

There were quite a few free blacks and mulattoes who owned African-Americans as human property. Slaves (and their labor) was the number one capital good in the United States up until the Civil War. To be landed and wealthy--or to have aspirations for such social mobility--meant that a white person would likely own slaves. 

These arrangements varied. Sometimes free blacks "owned" their children, relatives, or spouse in order to protect them from slave catchers. Other times the relationships were the same as those between white slave owners and their human property--slaves were an investment, owned as property, and treated as such by their free black masters.

It would seem that some basic research suggests that John Punch's descendants were slave owning mulattoes whose descendants likely "passed" over from black to white. This data set listing the "Free Africans Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, and Delaware" offers support for this hypothesis. As also noted by Ancestry.com's release of the genealogy research on Obama's family, "John Punch" was the father of "John Bunch":
The Bunch family probably descended from John Bunch, born say 1630, who received a patent for 450 acres in New Kent County on 18 March 1662 [Patents 5:152]. He may have been the ancestor of several mixed-race members of the family: 
1        i. Paul1, born say 1675.
2        ii. John1. born say 1684.
3        iii. Henry1, born say 1690. 
1.    Paul1 Bunch, born perhaps 1675, received a patent for 265 acres in North Carolina on the south side of the Roanoke River joining Quankey Pocosin and Gideon Gibson on 1 January 1725, and he bought a further 300 acres joining this land [Halifax DB 8:283]. He may have been the same Paul Bunch who was listed in the King William County, Virginia Rent Roll in 1704. 
His Chowan County will was written on 16 November 1726 and probated on 10 March 1726/7 [SS 876, 3:138-9]. He left his land and eight slaves to his son John and to Fortune Holdbee and her daughters Keziah and Jemima. Elizabeth Bunch (no relationship stated) and his daughter Russell received only one shilling each.(1) He did not mention a wife nor did he mention his relationship to Fortune Holdbee. She may have been his common-law wife since he gave her one slave as long as she remained single. 
The May 1734 Bertie court minutes referred to Keziah as "an orphan Child Entitled to a considerable Estate ... (by the will of Paul Bunch) bound to Capt. Thos. Bryant till the age of Thirty one contrary to law," and the August 1735 Bertie County court Minutes referred to the estate of "a Mulatto woman, Keziah Holdebee, and three children [Haun, Bertie County Court Minutes, I:135, 154]... 
Henry1 Bunch Sr., probably born about 1690, was a resident of Chowan County on 18 December 1727 when he purchased 200 acres in Bertie County on Reedy Branch. On 30 May 1729 he purchased 640 acres in Bertie on Conaritsat Swamp from Thomas Pollock [DB C:21, 266]. He was taxed on himself and two slaves in the 1750 Bertie County summary tax list and was a "Free Mulatto" taxable with two slaves in John Hill's 1763 Bertie tax list. Henry made a will in Bertie on 21 April 1775, proved in August 1775. He had already deeded 840 acres of land on Conaritsat and Mulberry to his grandson Jeremiah, Jr., in 1765, and in his will left most of the remainder of his land to his grandson Cader Bass [WB B:34-7]. 
I wonder about the human experience that lies behind a ledger entry as property to be bequeathed with the horses, furniture, and land, passed from one person to the next upon the death of a family scion or patriarch.

What were their stories?

The race making business was and is messy, dirty, confusing, and complicated stuff. In the United States, the complexities and contradictions of the color line, and the struggles to unmake it, are perfectly present in the literal body of President Barack Obama. He is the descendant of the country's first black bondsman, the latter's ancestors would then go on to own other African-Americans as chattel, and their line would come full circle with Barack Obama as President of the United States.

I do not know if such a story is a tragedy or a triumph. Nevertheless, the human drama is simultaneously both bizarre and fascinating.


nomad said...

Yep. That's what I thought. Want to understand the history of race in this country? Got to understand the 3 tier system and the role of the mulatto.

nomad said...

Slave dri-va
The table is turned now.
Catch a fy-a,
Y'gonna get burned.

I have to point out too that the status of the first servants/slaves was unclear. System just beginning. Some blacks like indentured whites were released after a certain period of service. White-black sexual unions were common among the servants. Not stigmatized yet. Before full-fledged chattel slavery. It was largely due to the frequency of black-white unions that draconian anti-miscegenation laws were developed. They had to curtail the proliferation of mulatto offspring. Why? Racial purity. Aryanism. These years before the Revolution was a kind of grace period before the shit really got started. Before the rules were set, during which many mulattoes were born free. Hence, many of this class were never slaves themselves.

Anonymous said...

Before the rules were set, during which many mulattoes were born free. Hence, many of this class were never slaves themselves. – Nomad


Very true Nomad, I guess this explains why after 3½ years, President Obama has yet to visit the real “ghetto” in any state within the union. There are plenty of opportunities for him to do so. For example, I live within the San Francisco Bay Area and President Obama has been within the Bay Area at least four times with the past four months to attend 30k to 50k ticket fund raising events. Each time he’s spent time within the Stanford University/Palo Alto area at some tech baron’s private residence. Yet, just across the freeway, there exist a real “ghetto” (East Palo Alto) where people are suffering on a daily basis. However, he’s yet to direct his black limousine laden motorcade to a neighborhood that desperately needs some inspiring and an influx of financial resources. I could only surmise this is because he’s not of the same social or historical ilk of the people that live there.

I voted for the first time in my life when I voted for Obama four years ago because I thought he stood for and was the catalyst for real change in this country. I’m still leaning towards voting for him again this time around. However, for a starkly different reason, I’ll vote for him this time because he’s merely the lesser of two evils. – Black Sage

nomad said...

It's hard for people to understand that blacks have always been a single class of people. Another system of racial classification preceded the one we use now. In fact, our one drop system is unique in the world. Almost all other societies acknowledge an intermediate class of mixed race individuals; what I call a 3 tier system. The impetus in the fledgling democracy, however and for some strange reason, was to eliminate this intermediate class. To make all mulattoes of the same status as blacks. And that status, of course, would be slave. So you can see how important it became for mulattoes to not be black.

But anyway, to make a long story short; laws were passed to draw a sharp line between the black and white races, culminating in the one drop rule. Absurd as it may sound, the rule became that anybody with "one drop" of black blood, no matter how white their appearance, was black. Legally, no intermediate racial class was recognized.

So anyway, to make a long story even shorter. The two systems of racial classification competed with each other in early America until the Civil War. The informal system of color stratification (black/mulatto/white)that the authorities tried to suppress throughout the antebellum period continued on into the 20th century. The 2 classes of blacks, the former slaves and the elite mulattoes, completed their merger, voluntarily, during the Harlem Renaissance. You know. The New Negro. The birth of the New Negro was the birth of our modern, uniquely American, system of racial classification.

nomad said...

Oh darn. That's a big one. It should read:
It's hard for people to understand that blacks have NOT always been a single class of people.

chaunceydevega said...

@Nomad. Hyper descent vs. Hypo descent. There is much here that folks don't know about American history and how it still echoes--I called the multiracial movement a clear referent back to the colored class mulatto buffer race which was long with us--despite what some want to deny.

I was reading about how in many communities it was not uncommon for black men and white women to have open relationships and to cohabitate and to of course have consensual sexual congress with one another. Folks turned their nose up at the arrangement--even during slavery--but it was not uncommon.

We like simple stories.

nomad said...

Yep. Us browns are not entirely the result of the rape of white slave owners.

nomad said...

That don't quite sound right. Blacks raping white slave owners. Probably better said "rape by white slave owners.

I have yet to find out how to delete a comment on this site.

Razor said...

Tragedy...triumph...bizzare...fascinating? I believe that it is all of those things, though reluctantly fascinating...like the perverted desire to slow down to view the horror of the wreck, then carrying the scars of having been a witness.

CD, I must commend you on how you have taken WARN followers on an educational and most thought-provoking historical journey from the origins of the development of what still remains today a vibrant demonic and devouring beast.. white power, it's hypnotic nearly deitistical influence on it's worshippers..it's history-altering alchemic qualities and it's death-grip addiction on Old Europe's "tired and poor" "white trash".

chaunceydevega said...

@Razor. It is you who and all of the folks who comment on WARN who bring me on a journey. Much respect.

There are so many stories not told. We need to share them all.