Pearl's Secret: A Black Man's Search for His White Familyby Neil Henry
Pearl's Secret is a remarkable autobiography and family story that combines elements of history, investigative reporting, and personal narrative in a riveting, true-to-life mystery.
In it, Neil Henrya black professor of journalism and former award-winning correspondent for the Washington Postsets out to piece together the murky details/i>/i>
Pearl's Secret is a remarkable autobiography and family story that combines elements of history, investigative reporting, and personal narrative in a riveting, true-to-life mystery.
In it, Neil Henrya black professor of journalism and former award-winning correspondent for the Washington Postsets out to piece together the murky details of his family's past. His search for the white branch of his family becomes a deeply personal odyssey, one in which Henry deploys all of his journalistic skills to uncover the paper trail that leads to blood relations who have lived for more than a century on the opposite side of the color line. At the same time Henry gives a powerful and vivid account of his black family's rise to success over the twentieth century. Throughout the course of this gripping story the author reflects on the part that racism and racial ignorance have played in his daily lifefrom his boyhood in largely white Seattle to his current role as a parent and educator in California.
The contemporary debate over the significance of Thomas Jefferson's longtime romantic relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, and recent DNA evidence that points to his role as the father of black descendants, have revealed the importance and volatility of the issue of dual-race legacies in American society. As Henry uncovers the dramatic history of his great-great-grandfathera white English immigrant who fought as a Confederate officer in the Civil War, found success during Reconstruction as a Louisiana plantation owner, and enjoyed a long love affair with Henry's great-great-grandmother, a freed black slavehe grapples with an unsettling ambivalence about what he is trying to do. His straightforward, honest voice conveys both the pain and the exhilaration that his revelations bring him about himself, his family, and our society.
In the book's stunning climax, the author finally meets his white kin, hears their own remarkable story of survival in America, and discovers a great deal about both the sting of racial prejudice as it is woven into the fabric of the nation, and his own proud identity as a teacher, father, and black American.
Read an Excerpt
Excerpt from Pearl's Secret by Neil Henry
Clues in Microfilm
How do you find the descendants of a white man who was born in England in 1839 and died quietly in a small town in Louisiana nearly a century ago? How can you discover if this man even left white descendants?
When I started my project years ago, I didn't know if the Beaumont family still existed, largely because it was my understanding that the fragile link my black family had to the white family before the turn of the last century was severed when A.J. Beaumont died. For all I knew, the Beaumont branch of my extended family tree ended sometime after the century's turn with Arthur's death and later that of his white widow, whose name I didn't even know.
My great-grandmother Pearl, the quadroon daughter Beaumont fathered with the freed slave Laura Brumley during the Reconstruction era, apparently tried to contact her white family in Louisiana sometime after her father's death in 1901 but was rebuffed. Anyway, that's what my mother vaguely remembered from stories she heard in her childhood in St. Louis. But even my mother didn't know for sure.
The whole Beaumont story was shrouded in mystery, a chapter in our distant past that no one in the family talked about very much when I was growing up, or wanted to talk about. I think this was largely because the real gist of that storyour blood link to racist white people who essentially had cast our ancestors aside as inferior and illegitimate long ago, during the plantation erawas certainly nothing to be proud of. And we were a family that, by contrast, had been blessed with many extraordinary black forebears to inspire us and accomplishments to celebrate.
I didn't have a lot of leads for my search, apart from Beaumont's old photograph, the brittle newspaper clipping that announced his death and noted his familial ties to Great Britain, and the fragile, yellowing letter the old man had written by hand on his personal stationery to Pearl shortly before his death, in which he guiltily acknowledged that he was her father. What I had were our family's oral stories and loving memories of Laura and Pearl, chiefly those of my mother and her younger brother, Uncle Sonny. They remembered Pearl from their childhood in St. Louis in the 1920s and 1930s and could recall the confusion and lonely torment she felt until the day she died, at sixty-seven in 1944, over her mixed racial background and the rejection she had suffered from her white father.
For about a decade, when time permitted, I dug into every resource I could find in search of the white Beaumontscensus records, court files, old microfilms of southern newspapers. At one point I even got some research help from both the British Imperial War Museum and the British National Army Museum, which I first contacted in June 1989 while on a two-day layover in London. I was en route to Kenya that summer, about to spend three years covering Africa for the Washington Post as a foreign correspondent based in Nairobi. I recalled that A.J. Beaumont's obituary stated that his father and grandfather had both served heroically as British Army officers during the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. So I contacted the military museum, seeking clues to the whereabouts of Beaumont's family in England. Perhaps they would know how to contact their American cousinsif they had any American cousins.
I pursued my unusual hobby in a number of crazy ways. I sought out genealogical societies on the Internet when I became computer literate in the 1990s, and I corresponded with numerous historical societies and libraries, from Kent in England to Natchez in Mississippi. I researched Social Security, immigration, and U.S. military records on cd-rom and microfiche at various temples of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which is headquartered in Salt Lake City and home to one of the finest libraries for genealogical research in America. At one point I even mailed letters to every Beaumont I could find in every telephone directory in Louisiana and Mississippithirty-five households in all. I got fascinating responses from people in many of those white homes, though none were able to provide a verifiable link to the genealogical history I sought.
But that wasn't the hardest part of my work. I now realize that one of the biggest obstacles in my restless searching was not a lack of resources or tools at my disposal or even places to hunt. It was the strange fear and unsettling ambivalence I often felt about what I was struggling to do. Essentially, I was trying to fashion a bridge over a chasm between white and black people that our nation's racial history and separatist customs had created. The difficulty of this struggle often played itself out in an internal emotional war over my feelings about race, about white and black people, and about the story I was attempting to uncoverfeelings that went back to my growing up as a black kid in white middle-class Seattle in the 1960s.
I had little luck in my periodic search for a number of years. No luck in London. No luck in the historical archives in Louisiana. No luck with those letters I sent to all those households in the South.
But then one hot Thursday afternoon, on August 7, 1997, I finally happened upon an important clue.
During my summer break from teaching journalism classes at Berkeley in 1997, I decided to spend nearly all my time in a last concerted effort to find answers to the Beaumont puzzle. Nearly every day that summer I went to work at a microfilm reader in the public library near my home in Davis, California. The Yolo County Public Library in California's Sacramento Valley might seem an unlikely place to hunt for elusive clues to a family story buried long ago in the Deep South, but it turned out to be perfect for what I needed to do. Located just ten minutes from my house, the one-story building on the edge of the city's Community Park possessed two newspaper microfilm readers in good working order in its reference area, and it was these readers that were key to my search.
Day after day I flew back in time, my eyes peering closely at the reader as I scrolled from week to week in the years 1901 to 1916. I was hunting for clues to the whereabouts of A.J. Beaumont's white survivors in a newspaper called the Tensas Gazette, one of a number of old southern small-town newspapers copied on reels of microfilm that I had procured through my university library at Berkeley. The Gazette was Laura's and Beaumont's hometown weekly. It was started in the early 1800s and remains today one of the oldest continuously published newspapers in Louisiana. Printed in the old levee town of St. Joseph, the county seat of Tensas Parish, hard on the banks of the Mississippi River in northeastern Louisiana, it contained news from throughout the region.
In truth, as the summer was drawing to a close, I was starting to feel depressed by my lack of progress. For weeks I had been working on a set of six Gazette microfilms, on interlibrary loan from Louisiana State University, and I had a sinking sense that I might never find what I was looking for. When I began this latest tack in my research, I thought for certain I'd find a clue somewhere in time, some old footprint in the snow of history to tell me what happened to Beaumont's white survivors after he died in 1901.
Did they take over his business and cotton-growing interests in Louisiana? I wondered. Were they as prominent and successful after the turn of the century as he appears to have been in the 1880s and 1890s? Did they move on and settle somewhere else in America after his death?
St. Joseph numbered no more than 720 residents (and Tensas Parish, 19,070) at the turn of the last century, most of them engaged in cotton growing and related river work, and the local pages of the Gazette between 1890 and 1914 often read like notes from a church social. Almost everybody in St. Joseph's white society and that of the surrounding parish seemed to know everybody else, from Mayor Bondurant and Sheriff Hughes to society belles like Mrs. B.F. Bonney and Miss Inez Losey to Dreyfus, the druggist; Kershaw, the tool dealer; and Collins, the kindly old "colored" man who worked as a bailiff at the parish jail. Members of the Tullis family were frequently mentioned, including the Gazette's publisher and editor Hugh Tullis, a lawyer who would go on to a distinguished career as a state judge. This was the same Tullis family that had once enslaved my great-great-grandmother Laura Brumley and many others on their plantation in St. Joseph and who remained prominent social and political leaders in the parish for many years after the Emancipation Proclamation. It was the same Tullis family whose matriarch, Sarah Tullis, had educated Laura, in defiance of the law. The old newspaper was filled with events and scenes from the lives of white people in the Delta region before and after 1900. The people who toiled to support their way of life, my black ancestors, provided little more than an anonymous and faceless backdrop to the stories.
Entire columns in the Gazette were given over to breathless descriptions of the most arcane happenings, and I ineluctably found myself swallowed up in the rhythms of the small town's life as I journeyed through the years.
A Negro man living on Buckhorn plantation was kicked by a mule on Tuesday of last week and after extreme suffering died on Friday.There were weekly write-ups about family visitors from neighboring villages and towns, like Rodney, Natchez, Hard Times, and Waterproof, about Mississippi River fishing derbies and moonlight hayrides, about baseball games between rival city clubs, and about mint julep soirees on Tensas Parish's finest plantations. Even the smallest changes in weather in St. Joseph were noted in fascinating detail in the Gazette:
We desire to return thanks to the officers of the steamboat Goldman for highly appreciated courtesies on her trip down last Monday and up Thursday.
A large buck was run into town last Tuesday by some hunters, and after a hot chase was finally killed in the duck pond field.
The weather for the past week could not have been improved for the purposes of the cotton planter, and under the rays of a summer sun cotton is growing rapidly.
But it was the weddings, illnesses, and death remembrances in the small town's comfortable white society that received the most consistent and devoted attention, and I studied each of these news items for clues about the Beaumonts:
Mr. Guy N. Hunter paid a beautiful tribute to Mrs. Guice's memory when he said she was a sweet, unselfish Christian gentlewoman, who never thought of self, whose greatest happiness was in giving pleasure to others. She was ever ready to comfort the sick and distressed, and the world was made better by her influence and gentle ministrations to others.It seemed a reasonable hunch that I would find the name Beaumont in those pages somewhere, some year, some month or day, after the turn of the century. After all, A.J. Beaumont had lived in St. Joseph for more than forty years after his arrival in Louisiana in the late 1850s and had become a well-known figure there before he died nearly a half century later. From my research a year earlier, using the same microfilm readers in the Davis public library, I already knew that Beaumont was something of a town leader, frequently mentioned in the Gazette between 1870 and 1900. His obituary in 1901 took up eight column inches on the local page.
This English immigrant, I had learned, served on the city council for a short period in the 1880s; he was also a school board official, a private investor in civic improvement projects (including a lucrative wooden plank toll road on the city's levee), a saloon and billiard hall owner who specialized in fine cigars and German brews, a cotton grower, and a prosperous dealer in plantation supplies, whose store occupied a central place on the town's main thoroughfare, Plank Road, not far from the Tensas Parish Court House. Indeed, Beaumont frequently advertised for business in the Gazette, especially in the weeks when the Tensas Parish Circuit Court was in session and St. Joseph filled with lawyers, jurors, and others on business from throughout the state. His name appeared in listings of liquor license applications; it could also be found among the faithful attendees of Tensas Parish Democratic Party meetings during Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow.
Each detail I had mined about Beaumont's life in St. Joseph during my earlier research fascinated me. On the paper's society pages, for example, I had discovered:
Mr. AJ Beaumont will open his billiard and pool room early next week, the entire room has been refitted, the pool and billiard tables recovered, and everything put in first class condition. This room is the prettiest and most comfortable of any in the State, outside of New Orleans, and well supplied with everything that can contribute to the comfort and pleasure of his guests. (November 21, 1885)
AJ Beaumont invites lawyers, clients, witnesses and jurors to call at his palatial saloon and billiard rooms during court. . . . Everything imaginable for the comfort of the inner man can be found at Beaumont's. (April 30, 1886)
We return thanks to Mr. AJ Beaumont for a pitcher of mint juleps kindly sent to this office. (May 7, 1886)
At other times I had found Beaumont's name hidden amid the dark lines of type in local news stories about events large and small:
Fire was discovered in the house in the rear of the saloon of Mr. AJ Beaumont on Monday night about 11 o'clock. The alarm was given and the blaze was soon extinguished, doing little harm to the buildings. The fire was evidently the work of an incendiary, as the building caught from the outside. The house was occupied by the barber, Wm. Thomas. (July 6, 1894)
There is a herd of unbroken ponies that grazes around St. Joseph and every evening about sundown goes to the lake in front of town to water, and then dashes across the levee and down the road through town like onto a charge of cavalry. This is a great source of danger to people who are driving their wagons and to children whose nurses take them walking about that hour. Quite recently this cavalcade of horses going at full speed startled a team of mules hitched to a wagon in front of Mr. AJ Beaumont's store and caused a run-away. Had it been a carriage with ladies in it the danger to life and limb would have been great. We do not know of any way to correct this evil and would be glad for someone to suggest one, short of killing the ponies. (August 21, 1896)
Some items in the newspapers before the century's turn had offered intriguing glimpses into Beaumont's prosperity in business:
Mr. AJ Beaumont is having his store beautifully painted and decorated. Mr. Sam W. Hazlip is doing the work and this in itself is a guarantee that the job will be well done... . Mr. Beaumont also has fitted up a room in his store next to his office for the accommodation of customers. Comfortable chairs and tables are there, and the strictest privacy can be obtained by those desiring it. (September 18, 1896)
Other lines had provided a passing glance at the mundane details of his life:
FOR SALE A good large iron safe. Very cheap. Apply to: AJ Beaumont, St. Joseph. (June 4, 1897)
Indeed, I had spent the previous summer, in 1996, combing through the years before Beaumont's death, meticulously collecting each of these items, finding in their accumulation a slightly more detailed portrait of my great-great-grandfather and his white family, one that added color and context to my search. From all the information I had gathered, it seemed clear to me that Beaumont had been a beloved and respected member of the white landed gentry and merchant class in St. Joseph, a quintessential nineteenth-century immigrant who saw his dream of prosperity and freedom in America come true.
With each morsel of information I obtained, I grew convinced that Beaumont's name must have lived on in St. Joseph after his death, through his white survivors. But, so far, no matter how closely I searched the microfilms, I couldn't find the clues I needed. The surname Beaumont seemed to largely disappear from the life of St. Joseph after 1901.
By the time I got to the year 1914 in early August, I didn't know if I could carry on much longer. My research had already turned from a hobby into something of an obsession and had pervaded slices of my personal and professional life in one form or another for nearly a decade. Yet deep down I felt torn about this project, tantalized by my discoveries but frustrated by the obstacles. Often, during that sweltering summer, I returned home to my wife and daughter feeling distracted and moody. I agonized, knowing there had to be an answer somewherebut where? At the same time I loved the hunt and felt immense excitement over even the tiniest historical discovery. Like the electrifying moment more than a decade earlier when, sitting at a long wooden desk at the National Archives building in Washington, D.C., I discovered that A.J. Beaumont did indeed marry a white woman and have children with her after his long affair with my great-great-grandmother Laura.
I had been investigating 1880 and 1900 census records on black sheets of microfiche over a stretch of hours that summer afternoon. The Archives building on Pennsylvania Avenue, with the famous words "The Past Is Prologue" etched into a granite cornerstone near its ornate front door, was filled with hundreds of people that day, all searching for clues to their origins and ancestors among the library's many historical files and databases. Most of these people were not professional researchers, just ordinary Americans looking for personal meaning and identity in the details of our shared national history. Some were excitedly hunting through the manifests of the hundreds of passenger ships that arrived at New York's Ellis Island before and after the turn of the last century, hoping to uncover parents' or grandparents' names and the exact name of the ship they arrived on and its date of arrival. Others were scanning the state-by-state records of Union and Confederate muster ranks, hoping to find their ancestors' names and priceless evidence of their small marks on our national history. Still others, like me, were searching copies of the original handwritten notes in our nation's census records for bits of information about their people, their blood kin.
Throughout the 1980s, spurred in no small measure by Alex Haley's exploration of his family's black heritage in the 1976 bestseller Roots, the nation's libraries and archives of genealogical materials experienced heightened use by Americans searching for clues to their past. Before then, genealogical research in this country was not nearly so popular. It was usually the hobby of people seeking validation of Old World nobility or royalty in their bloodlines. But after the enormous success of Roots, both in print and as a television miniseries, many Americans, white and black, began searching enthusiastically for even mundane details of their ancestors' lives, as a way of connecting personally to history and their racial and ethnic identity.
I was just one among many curious people in the Archives that day in 1986, my hunt for the footprints of my white forebears just another among many searches through time. My search, though, represented perhaps a new twist in the usual process. Whereas once the interracial heritage many Americans share was largely off-limits to public discussion or even research, the explosion of interest in genealogy in the 1980s helped shatter the taboo. Haley himself, in an interview in the Washington Post shortly before his death in 1990, pointed to the mixed-race heritage of many black Americans as the next frontier he hoped to explore in his sociological research.
As I was looking through census records on microfilm and microfiche that afternoon in Washington, I suddenly came upon Beaumont's name and household. It was startling. There in fine cursive writing penned by the 1880 census taker were Beaumont's full name and that of his wife, Mary Ann, whom he had married in St. Joseph in 1878. The marriage came one year after Laura gave birth to Beaumont's mixed-raced daughter, Pearl. I also found in the Archives' census microfiches the names of the white children Beaumont subsequently produced with his wifeFlorence, born in 1879, and Arthur W., born in 1885, both in St. Joseph.
I scribbled this information down on a piece of scratch paper and later filed it away in my desk drawer at home, elated by the discovery but not knowing what, if anything, to do with it. Still, this tiny proof that Beaumont had indeed had children with his white wife intrigued me and formed the germ of my search. Perhaps Beaumont's children had had children of their own who were living somewhere in America today, distant cousins of mine.
When I found more time to pursue the chase in the 1990s, I discovered wonderful material in the newspaper microfilms, including details about the historical context of Beaumont's life in the late nineteenth century in St. Joseph. This information riveted me. For example, while relationships between white men and black women in the Old South were certainly not uncommon during and after slavery, one story I found in the Gazette pointed up unusual demographic imbalances in St. Joseph that may have contributed to an even greater number of such relationships. In February 1873, during the period Beaumont and Laura were meeting in St. Joseph, the newspaper published the following note about city life, which, while written in humor, nonetheless illustrated a reality about life for young white men laboring in a small, rural, out-of-the-way river town 150 miles north of New Orleans:
The most serious topic in St. Joseph seems to be the scarcity of young ladies.
Our little town has 15 promising young men, including lawyers, merchants, preachers, steamboatmen and planters, all anxious to get married and there is not a single young lady, not promised, in town. We understand that these young men have had several meetings recently, to consider what steps could be taken for their relief. The last proposition we have heard suggested is to start General Stephen Routh out with full power of attorney to act for the unfortunate young men who are unable to leave their businesseach one binding himself to accept the selection made by General Steve. Two have volunteered to accept widows not older than forty.
Uncovering such slices of a bygone life fascinated me intellectually, but I was troubled by my growing obsession. I often felt a vague uneasiness and inexplicable hurt deep inside the more I worked on this project and sometimes wondered if, in the end, my search was pointless or, worse, harmful in some wayif, indeed, I was doing something vaguely disloyal to my own people by devoting so much time and mental energy to trying to find a different sort of "roots" in the white family of a man whose good life seemed dependent on the very system of injustice and inequality under which black people had suffered for so long.
A.J. Beaumont and I were distantly linked by blood and DNA, but the differences between us could not have been starker. I was a forty-three-year-old black man, a husband and father living at the dawn of the twenty-first century in a postindustrial America that was contending with new challenges of ethnic and racial "diversity" and sharpening disparities between the rich and the poor, the informed and the ignorant.
The contradictions of my America were staggering. It was a time of seemingly boundless opportunity and sickening hopelessness and alienation, an age of unsurpassed economic riches when children gunned down children in schoolyards. The wealthiest society the world had ever known, we nevertheless seemed unable to guarantee that young people graduated from high school knowing how to read and write. Still, we were witnesses to stupendous wonders nearly every day. Scientists sent robots to Mars to test for life and made genetic copies of sheep and other living creatures, while ordinary people could find information about practically anything within the blink of an eye by the mere touch of a finger on a computer keyboard.
On the one hand, African American men like me had an 81 percent chance of being either dead, jobless, or in jail by the time they were twenty-one. On the other hand, it was an age in which black Americans had rocketed to outer space in proud, patriotic service to their country, pronounced landmark judgments on the U.S. Supreme Court, headed the nation's Joint Chiefs of Staff in wartime, and led public opinion polls for president of the United States.
A.J. Beaumont was a white man from a far different age, a poor immigrant who, like millions of others, came to this country in the nineteenth century in search of a dream. He benefited tremendously from his adopted nation's racist way of life in Louisiana, becoming a proud and successful member of the landed white southern gentry. And by all family accounts he, like so many other white men of his age, did not feel any meaningful moral responsibility for his mixed-race offspring, my great-grandmother Pearl.
I looked at Beaumont's old photograph countless times during my quest, the one he had sent to Pearl in 1901 as an expression of his regret over his failures as a father to her, the one that had been handed down from Pearl to Fredda to my mother. Cradling it in my hands, I often wondered what his life and times must have been like.
He lived between 1839 and 1901, a period that saw the full flowering of the Industrial Revolution in England and the rise and greatest glory of the Victorian Empire. He lived during the time of the potato famine in Ireland and the Opium Wars in China. The invention of the telegraph and Morse code and the heyday of the railroad age occurred during his lifetime, which ended at the dawn of the internal combustion engine and the age of flight. His contemporaries were giants like Darwin, Hugo, Marx, and Lincoln; Tchaikovsky, Monet, Whitman, and Edison. And he lived during the times that had always fascinated me most, not the least because of their lasting effects on my racial and family identitiesthe eras of slavery, Civil War, Reconstruction, and the rise of Jim Crow in the American South. It was an extraordinary period in human history, and I found it infinitely interesting to study.
But at times I found myself seething with an almost atavistic resentment at Beaumont's photograph as I worked at my computer and in the library, frustrated by my failure to locate his white heirs and growing embittered by the Gilded Age prosperity and smugness I saw reflected in his unchangingly pale and silent face. I couldn't help seeing in his portrait the face of every white man I had ever come to despise in my life and every white man whose racism, arrogance, and privilege had translated into oppression, injustice, and untold pain for so many. I saw in it all the obscenities of slavery and all the evils of the plantation era, when white men like him whipped and tortured my ancestors and took black women like Laura for their pleasure whenever they liked. I saw the degradation my mother had suffered in the 1940s whenever she had to travel on squalid Jim Crow railcars to attend her segregated library school. I saw all the cowardly white administrators who, terrified by the idea of a black physician ministering to white patients, said no and shut hospital doors in my father's face when he sought to establish his career as a talented young surgeon in the 1950s. And I saw in Beaumont's face the faces of white strangers in Seattle whose ignorant prejudice marked my coming of age during the era of racial integration in the 1960s.
Indeed, it was in that decade of my childhood that my family first got to know what white people were like, on their own turf. In many ways, I realize in hindsight, the genesis of my search for the Beaumonts lay in that era.
Up until the 1960s all generations of my family lived in a racially segregated Americain St. Louis, Winston-Salem, and Nashville. Even in Seattle, where my parents migrated in 1956, after my father finished his surgical training in the Deep South, the neighborhoods and schools were segregated by local custom if not by Jim Crow law. The city's black residents were largely confined to a several-mile-square patch of real estate in the inner city called the Central Area, where the public schools were predominantly black and abysmally staffed and supported, compared with schools in white areas.
Infused by the ideals of equal rights and opportunity that galvanized their generation of black professionals, and buttressed by legal advances of the civil rights movement elsewhere in America, my mother and father decided in 1960 to test Seattle's de facto system of racial segregation. Unable to buy a house outside the Central Area because of their raceand thereby unable to gain access to premium public schools for their childrenmy parents secretly commissioned a white middleman named Franz Brodine to purchase a piece of property for them in the city's south end, in a middle-class subdivision called the Uplands, where the public schools were good. For many years, under a 1920s-era racial covenant governing the subdivision, blacks and Asiansunless they were working as domesticshad been barred from residence in this pleasant neighborhood on the shore of Lake Washington.
Although such racial covenants governing neighborhoods and housing were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948, the restrictions were still observed in practice in many American cities. My parents' clandestine method of purchasing property in a white neighborhood was typical of the sleight-of-hand upwardly mobile black people in northern cities had to resort to in order to better themselves, to secure equal educational opportunities for their children, and to force the nation to honor its constitutional guarantees. It was one thing for the courts to decide that racial segregation was illegal, as they did throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but it was up to individual black people like my parents to test those decrees, to force the change, and to deal with the personal consequences.
It was on a beautiful street lined with lush, vase-shaped elm trees and tall, elegant pines, amid rows of stately homes overlooking the lake, that my mother and father decided to build a house. After Brodine signed the property deed over to my parents, they commissioned the city's only black architect, Benjamin McAdoo, to design and build the house. A relatively new arrival in Seattle, with a growing reputation for his work, McAdoo took special care with our house, in part because he wanted to make sure our historic move went smoothly. He had already designed and built several other houses for white families in the neighborhood and was well aware that he couldn't live in any of them because he was black. Our victory would be his as well.
For months, as our house was being constructed, the white neighbors were unaware of who owned it. Then, shortly before we moved in that December, they found out the new arrivals were a black family. Terrified of us and distressed over an assumed deflation of their property values, our prospective white neighbors convened emergency block meetings to cobble together strategies to thwart us. When the city's mayor, Gordon Clinton, got wind of the controversy, he urged civic mediators to quell it somehow. But the white neighbors persisted. They sent petitions from house to house throughout Seattle's south end to gain wider support for their efforts and pooled their money to offer my father a buyout at 200 percent of his purchase price. Anything to stop us.
But my parents were determined. We moved into our new house at 6261 Lake Shore Drive South a few weeks before Christmas 1960, the first black family in Seattle's uplands subdivision. From that day, my life changed forever. I was six years old, the product of a proud and loving black world, embarking on a new childhood in a world where my family and I were clearly alien and unwanted.
My closest friends, my teachers, my neighbors, the first kid I ever fought with my fists, the first girl I ever kissed on the lipspractically everyone who populated the universe of my school-age childhoodwas white. I was the quintessential poster child of the era of racial integration, a drop of color on a field of snow. I was the first and only black kid in my class from first to seventh grades. I was the only black kid on my Little League teams, in my Cub Scout troop, and at swimming school. I learned to read, write, and enunciate English with perfect diction and grammar, to use a protractor and slide rule expertly, and to sing first tenor in classical ensembles in the school choir.
Indeed, I outdid most of my white classmates in practically every school subject and was popular enough to be elected president of the student body in junior high school by a landslide. At the height of the Vietnam War in 1968, when I was fourteen, I was awarded a prestigious American Legion medal by local war veterans for civic leadership and academic achievement. I was, in their eyes, the ideal young citizen, a model American.
But I was also hopelessly mixed up.
For the incongruities that defined my childhood were profound and difficult to comprehend. From early on, I felt a weight attached to my childhood on Lake Shore Drive. I knew that, as a black kid, I was in some way carrying a flag for my race and must never let it touch the ground in disgrace. My mother especially taught me to be proud of being black, repeatedly explaining that living amid the white middle class in Seattle was a pioneering and noble venture. Not many black people got the chances my siblings and I had, and we should make the most of them, both for ourselves and for other black people who might come behind us. My parents made it clear that failurein school, in our behavior, in lifewas not acceptable, a lesson my father used his leather belt to reinforce.
So I definitely knew I was black. It was precisely because I was black that I had to make excellent marks in school, that I had to prove I was as good as any of the privileged white kids. No matter that my skin was a light brown color, I knew that, in the eyes of most white people, I was as black as any African American boy in this country. Throughout the civil rights struggle in the 1960s, as my family, from our distant vantage point in the Northwest, followed events in the South through the newspapers or on television, I certainly knew what was at stake and whose side I was on. I knew that when Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medgar Evers led boycotts, sit-ins, and marches, they were fighting for me, not just the striking sanitation workers in faraway Memphis or the brave voting rights workers in Mississippi. The fire hoses, police dogs, and bloody nightsticks I saw to my horror on the Huntley-Brinkley Evening News could just as easily have been trained on me or anyone else in my family, had we been living in Selma instead of Seattle.
At the same time I became aware of the subtle paradox that black people are not all alike, that as a race we have recognized and fostered divisions and pecking orders among ourselves based on the very sorts of physical differences in skin tone and hair texture that have fed white racism. My hair was what my mother, her family, and her friends in Seattle's small but close-knit black bourgeois society called "good hair" because it wasn't rough and nappy, like that of most dark-skinned black people, but curly, comparatively straight, and soft, like the hair of whites. My skin, in their eyes, was a pretty "tan" or "yellow" or "red" color, not dark "as the ace of spades." I was said to be fortunate because I didn't have "liver" lips or kinky, unkempt hair that looked like "dust on a jug." While my mother instilled in me a deep sense of pride in our race and our history of struggle as a people in America, she also made it plain that black families like ours were somehow different and more blessed within our own society precisely because we had fairer skin and were closer to being perceived as "white."
When my mother was growing up in her bourgeois family in St. Louis, her dark-skinned father often used to say half-jokingly that America's race problems never would have festered so long had Abraham Lincoln not freed the slaves. With all the interracial children produced under slavery, America would have become fully racially mixed in time and the system of slavery and human inequality would simply have "withered away." "You must try to improve the race," Grandpa from time to time instructed my mother during her adolescent years in the 1930s, encouraging his daughter to choose a light-skinned man as her mate. Light was simply better than dark, and the more white in us, the better.
Even as a child in Seattle, in my deep unconscious I was never able to reconcile such an appalling contradiction. How could we feel truly proud of being black inside if the less blackthe whiterwe appeared seemingly made us "better," more favored in society and among our own people? If being black was indeed something to be proud of, why did we have to leave black people behind in so many ways in our endeavor to live with and model ourselves after whites? How could such outward racial pride and traces of inner self-loathing coexist?
I remember feeling shame the first time I read Nigger, Dick Gregory's searing 1964 memoir about his impoverished childhood in the 1940s in St. Louis. He wrote bitterly about the racism that he, with his dark skin, encountered from the black bourgeoisie, who generally had lighter skin. Although this bigotry stemmed in part from the animosity of many established black St. Louisians toward poor, backward black sharecroppers who, like Gregory's family, had migrated north during and after the war, it was also based on skin color. Gregory was constantly made to feel as if he were little more than an ignorant, dirty, shiftless "nigger"not by whites, but by the snobbish blacks who occupied a higher social station based not just on livelihood and income but also on lighter skin color, straighter hair, and other physical features. Their bigotry was just as malicious and crippling as any he ever felt from white people, Gregory wrote. That he grew up in St. Louis in the same era as my mother, in the same neighborhood, yet came away deeply wounded by the very classist and racist pathology she had been conditioned to believe in, confused me as a teenager and left me despairing whenever I tried to figure racism out. How was the racism of my loving family any different from the white racism we all loathed?
"Good" hair. "Light" skin. "Thin" lips. "Proper" articulation. Such were the subtle messages and code words about race that filtered into my unconscious mind as the child of a black professional family. "You come from good stock," my mother used to say to me with pride, an expression that was somewhat meaningless to me as a little kid but became infinitely fascinating and richly ambiguous by the time I entered adolescence. Good stock. What did that mean? "You've got good blood," she would reply, usually after an impatient sigh over my obtuseness. "You come from good ingredients, like a good soup." Still, the phrase would flit around my brain like a firefly in the dark, intriguing and yet not quite reachable or knowable. I knew the expression must have something to do with race, with black and white, as did so many things in my life. In time I came to an understanding of my mother's pet phrase that somehow satisfied me both emotionally and intellectually. "Good stock" suggested I had the best qualities of both races in me. But more important to me, the expression seemed to connote such human qualities as strength, rootedness, intelligence, devotion, and identity, admirable qualities that many in our black family line epitomized. That had to be it. "Good stock" must encompass both character and color. Such was the truce I eventually made with my mother's expression.
For the longest time when I was a kid, I had no idea where my family's lighter features and relatively straight hair came from. I rarely thought about it, actually. My parents always made it clear that the overriding reality we needed to understand, for the sake of identity and survivaldespite all the contradictions and nuances of race as they manifested themselves in our familywas that we were black in a racist society dominated by white people.
Still, as a small child I used to gaze at our family's photographs in albums and on the living room walls in Seattle and admire not only how handsome and beautiful many of our black relatives and ancestors were but also how breathtakingly varied they were in skin color and physical appearance. Our family album was a living, breathing testament that "black" people in America come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, ranging in skin tone from my grandfather Clifford's rich chocolate brown to my sister Sharon's creamy ivory. Yet we were all one family, each of us definitively "colored," "Negro," "black."
It wasn't until I was about twelve that I began to put a few things together about our family's mixed racial past, almost by accident. My grandmother FreddaPearl's daughter and the granddaughter of A.J. Beaumontwas visiting us in Seattle from St. Louis with her husband, my grandfather Clifford. How I loved it whenever they visited, bringing with them their soft Missouri drawl, which filled our house in the distant Northwest with loving echoes of our southern heritage. One warm summer evening I was standing at Grandma's side while she played Scrabble with my mother and grandfather on our living room table. She asked me to help her craft a word with the tiles in her wooden holder, but as I snuggled next to her, my eyes kept falling on her gentle hands as they held the tile holder, hands mottled slightly by age spots but clearly white in color. They were as white as the hands of my white teacher, Miss St. Martin. My eyes traced a path from her hands to her bare white arms to her face, a kind, expressive face with warm hazel eyes and skin as white as that of any white woman in my neighborhood. It was as if I had never really seen my grandmother before that moment. I was stunned and slightly amused by the strange revelation that my beautiful black grandma was not "black" in appearance at all. I next noticed my dark-skinned grandpa at the table and then gazed at my mother, one of their three children, a perfect blend of the two, a woman with tan-colored skin and wavy dark hair. I realized there was something mixed up about us. We were probably not unlike the milk shakes my sister and I loved to make in the summertime, using chocolate and vanilla ice cream and mixing them with milk in a bowl to make a creamy brown. But where this mixture in us, as people, came from I hadn't a clue as a child. While the revelation stayed with me, inside my mind somewhere, I rarely thought about it consciously in my childhood and never asked any questions, so busy was I with the fun of growing up.
In many critical ways my childhood was happy, so "integrated" with the lives of white people in the Uplands that it lent validation to the ideals of the age. We provedin an isolated, microscopic fashion, at leastthat a black family could live in a sea of white people of the same advantaged class, with shared values, if everybody could get over the initial fear and ignorance of each other. My childhood was not unlike Leave It to Beaver, with my siblings each cast as Wally, my parents as Ward and June, and me as the Beaver. Were it not for the color of our skin, we could have passed as just another family in our pleasant town, which resembled the Mayfield of the Cleavers. Decades later my memories of those days in Seattle remained filled with happy family summer vacations to Washington's pristine Olympic Peninsula, salmon-fishing charter trips with my father in the Pacific Ocean off Neah Bay, rafting escapes on Lake Washington, and endless pick-up baseball, basketball, and football games on lazy summer afternoons with my white neighborhood pals.
But amid the happy times were a number of cockeyed, wretched experiences that colored my awareness of the white world as a black child. Sometimes happiness seemed to come in tandem with hurt, precisely because of race. Once, when I was seven, I skipped up the block to visit a white school pal at his home for the first time, only to see his front door slammed in my face with a loud bang by his mother, who hadn't known Tommy's friend was black. In another incident, at nine, I visited another house up the street where two little white girls had invited me to play, only to have their grandfather chase me from the yard with a long wooden stick in hand, snarling, "You black. . . !" And then there was the time, at ten, several schoolyard jerks encircled me as I headed to my classroom, taunting me with shouts of "Chocolate! Chocolate!" Too scrawny to fight back, I looked up at the bullies through my thick horn-rimmed eyeglasses and repeatedly muttered the only thing that came to mind: "Vanilla! Vanilla!" The crowd of white kids watching this scene fortunately began to laugh uproariously at myrejoinder, and I managed to slip into class without a bruise or a scrape. A sharp wit, I learned, could be as useful in a schoolyard pinch as the solid right cross my older brother Wayne preferred.
My mother and father explained that these racial episodes, these occasional scrapes with white fears and ignorance, were not my problem. I didn't cause these incidents and they were not my fault, my parents told me. They were simply part of the complicated and challenging experience of being black in America. All black people in all strata of society had similar encounters. My parents said racism was their problem, those ignorant and hateful white people's problem, and that the best thing we could do was show our resilience in the face of the storm and continue pursuing our life goals. Get over it and deal with what matters most, they insisted, things like school and family and friendships. Don't let the occasional bigots defeat you or force you to lower yourself to their level. Thus my method of coping with prejudice, like my mother's and father's and that of so many other black Americans, became to swallow the hurts, to stow them away in a little box inside my soul somewhere, and try to get on with my life without allowing them to cripple me.
But, of course, the hurts accumulated. They festered over time. And somehow, many years later, they seemed to be coming to a head inside me during my search for my white kin. The old photograph of A.J. Beaumont became a kind of key to a locked portal to my psyche, releasing all sorts of long-pent-up personal memories about race as I pursued the white branch of my family tree.
Taken and developed sometime in the 1880s in a studio called Washburn's on Canal Street in New Orleans (according to the label on its border), Beaumont's portrait, which for posterity had been mounted onto a sturdy slice of cardboard, seemed fairly typical of studio portraits of that era. Pictured against a grayish backdrop, he posed very formally for the camera, apparently seated, wearing what appeared to be a dark tweed jacket and a satiny floral tie. His head was facing slightly to the left, his hair neatly combed with a crisp part, his French imperial beard classically trimmed. It seemed the unmistakable image of a proud, middle-aged Confederate veteran, a man obviously very comfortable with his civilian life some twenty years after the conflict.
Now, more than a century later, the photograph had become a kind of symbol of so many racial incidents in my own life. It was Beaumont's image that came to mind whenever I recalled the white administrator who headed the Princeton-in-Asia office on campus, which sponsored students spending semesters abroad for academic credit. One day during my junior year in 1975, I visited the office to inquire about spending a year in Taiwan or Japan, since I was majoring in political science with Asia as a focus. I took a seat and, after an exchange of small talk, the administrator looked me up and down nervously for a moment and cleared his throat. Then he confessed that the program had never sent a black student to Asia before and that he felt many alumni and host families would object to my participation. "It's not that I object," the white man said as he squirmed in his chair. "It's just ... I'm sure you understand."
I also saw Beaumont's image clearly in my mind whenever I recalled a newsroom confrontation I had as a young journalist in 1982 with Larry Kramer, an editor at the Washington Post. I had just written a feature article about cockfighting in the Maryland countryside, a story so colorful and newsworthy it was scheduled by the paper's top editors to be published on the front page the following day. Now, though, Kramer was worried. One year after the scandal of Janet Cooke, a talented young black writer who had fabricated a sensational story about an eight-year-old heroin addict, the pudgy white editor was questioning whether I, too, a young black writer, had fabricated my story. After all, weren't we all alike?
I wanted to strangle the editor, just as surely as I wanted to murder the Princeton administrator. I wanted to pound the white bastards with two-by-fours and grind them into the floorboards under my feet. But instead I swallowed my emotions, told myself to work harder, and stowed away the hurt and resentment for the sake of moving on.
"Thanks for your time," I told the white Princeton official before shoving my books under my arms and trudging back to my dormitory room, seething with anger and sadness.
"No, Larry, it's true," I told my white editor, struggling to contain my emotions. "I didn't make it up. It's a great story."
Maddeningly, as I reflected on my past, I saw the face of A.J. Beaumont as an all-purpose emblem of white racism. Yet it was this very white man, this seemingly archetypal plantation-era figure whose life during Reconstruction seemed to represent all that my people despised and feared, whose blood was a part of mine. I began to hate the thought of him as much as I hated the warped, ugly pathology of racism at the heart of American culture, the system that ranked people according to their place in the wide spectrum of human skin tone and hair texture, lending grudging favor to black people like me whose looks were marginally closer to the white ideal while unfairly classifying darker people as ugly, undesirable, or unintelligent. I hated this insidious injustice, which ran directly counter to the ideal of human equality that gave direction and powerful meaning to my black ancestors' lives and, by extension, my own. And I hated the thought that it was only by a quirk of ancestral fate that I had been born "lucky" in this regard, that I was somehow more blessed in my culture because Beaumont's blood and the blood of other white people in our ancestral tree coursed with the black in my veins.
But most of all I hated this: the thought that I, too, had ineluctably internalized this racist pathology as the product of a privileged class. After all, didn't I prefer lighter-skinned women when I became a man, just as my society and family background conditioned me to? Didn't I often think they were prettier than darker women and that straight hair was finer than kinky? When I was feeling especially insecure about my abilities, in school and later in my careers in journalism and teaching, didn't I feel vaguely inferior to white peers because of my blackness? Indeed, didn't the sickness of my culture manage to seep its way through the gate to my soul, teaching me to distrust myself because of the black in me?
There was an old street saying about racism that my brothers and I sometimes cynically recited as we made our way to school in the rain and wind in Seattle"If you're white, you're all right; if you're yellow, you're mellow; if you're brown, you stick around; if you're black, you go back." It seemed as true when I was an adult as it did when I was a child. Was it, then, at least partially true that my family and I had endured comparatively well in America precisely because we had drops of white blood mixing with the black? Was that was our most telling advantage in the end?
Since leaving Seattle, I had been a journalist for twenty yearsexciting, deeply challenging years that had seen me pursue news stories around the world for the Washington Post, from the cotton fields of Mississippi and the tough streets of Washington, D.C., to the embattled countrysides of Nicaragua, Liberia, and Ethiopia. But in very few of those hundreds upon hundreds of reporting projects had I felt the level of unsettling rage and anxiety that my search for my white cousins brought out. I often felt in my research as if I were peeling back the pulpy layers of some forbidden fruitinexorably, almost involuntarilyand I was deeply troubled about the truths I might find at the core.
It had all seemed so simple that night in 1981 when my search essentially began. I had been a professional journalist living in Washington, D.C., for five years and was visiting Seattle on vacation. My mother and I, as we often did, were chatting about our family history over beer, and I was laughing with her as she recalled stories from her childhood about her grandmother Pearl, who she said was whiter in complexion than even my grandma Fredda. Mom regaled me with stories about Pearl's mother, Laura, the freed slave who was the offspring of a slave born in Africa and a white physician living on a neighboring plantation in Louisiana. There was also white blood on my father's side, Mom told me, in the form of a nineteenth-century German-Jewish plantation owner in North Carolina named Lowenstein. Mostly, though, she talked glowingly about Laura's loving affair with the Englishman, which produced Pearl.
I had heard all these stories before, and I never got bored hearing her tell them. My mother was a wonderfully gifted storyteller who loved to punctuate her words with gales of laughter.
"We've got America in us," she told me that night. "We've got the story of America."
"But how do we really know all this is true?" I asked.
It was then that my mother rose from her chair, padded to her desk, opened a drawer, and almost nonchalantly pulled out the artifacts at the heart of my search: the photograph of A.J. Beaumont, his obituary, and the letter he had written by hand to his mixed-raced daughter, Pearl, shortly before he died. I gently held the fragile paper up to an overhead light and was startled by the clarity and beauty of the old man's penciled handwriting.
I had vaguely known such keepsakes existed somewhere in our family archive since I was a child. But now, as a working journalist, I suddenly began to recognize their remarkable value. It was as if in these artifacts I had stumbled upon an original work by Picasso or a long-lost manuscript by Langston Hughes.
One of my story editors at the Washington Post used to teach young reporters that stories had little value in journalism unless you collected a paper trail of evidence to back them up. "Make sure. . . you get. . . the documents," Bob Woodward would say in his telltale monotone voice, which made for mimicking behind his back in the newsroom.
Well, here, before me, on my mother's desk were documents of a sort, small threads of evidence that this old story from our family's past was true. And it was a story that must, I was sure, be filled with important lessons about race in America if I could fill it out.
Where did the white family go?
© 2001 by Neil Henry
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