My Ancestor’s Name and Race Changed in Census Records. Why?

Posted in Articles, Census/Demographics, History, Media Archive, United States, Virginia on 2016-01-05 00:21Z by Steven

My Ancestor’s Name and Race Changed in Census Records. Why?

The Root

Henry Louis Gates Jr., Alphonse Fletcher, Jr. University Professor; Director, Hutchins Center for African & African American Research
Harvard University

Anna L. Todd, Researcher
New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), Boston, Massachusetts

1860 U.S. census for Hardy County, Va.
U.S. census

Tracing Your Roots: Antebellum records raise questions about the racial identity and legal status of West Virginia forebears.

Dear Professor Gates:

I recently discovered that I have an ancestor listed as “mulatto” on the 1850 and 1860 census records. Her name is Amelia “Millie/Milly” A. Moreland, born in 1818 in Virginia. She is listed as living with William White Mullin and three children, Richard Winfield Scott Moreland, Anna R.C. Moreland and Mary J.V. Moreland—all children also listed as “mulatto.” By the 1900 census, son Richard changed his surname to Mullin (he was still listed as Moreland/Mooreland on the 1880 census) and was listed as “white.” He is my fourth-great-grandfather. They were located in Hardy County, Va. (now in West Virginia).

These census records are all I can find. I can’t find anything on Milly except her birth year and place, and I’m not sure if she was free or a slave. Can you help me find out more about her, please? —Amber Simmons

It just so happens that three sets of Professor Gates’ fourth-great-grandparents (all free Negroes) lived in Hardy County, Va. (now West Virginia), in the 18th and 19th centuries. In fact, many of their descendants continued to live there; in fact, Professor Gates was born in Keyser, W.Va., which is 36 miles from Moorefield, Hardy County’s county seat! So he knows this area very, very well, and finds your question especially intriguing because of this personal connection.

What does a “mulatto” designation mean in the census?

Let’s start with a surprising fact about racial designations and census takers: The status of a person listed in the federal census (black, white or mulatto) was ultimately the personal interpretation of the census taker, based on assumptions made regarding skin color and other aspects of an individual’s appearance, regardless of what the occupant of the home told her or him. Therefore, one can’t necessarily infer parentage, complexion, or much else based on that designation in a census record. However, in this case, it’s an indication that a local person was making a declaration of mixed-race ancestry (either recent or older) in your relative’s family tree…

Read the entire article here.

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