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That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans, and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia

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That the Blood Stay Pure traces the history and legacy of the commonwealth of Virginia’s effort to maintain racial purity and its impact on the relations between African Americans and Native Americans. Arica L. Coleman tells the story of Virginia’s racial purity campaign from the perspective of those who were disavowed or expelled from tribal communities due to their affiliation with people of African descent or because their physical attributes linked them to those of African ancestry. Coleman also explores the social consequences of the racial purity ethos for tribal communities that have refused to define Indian identity based on a denial of blackness. This rich interdisciplinary history, which includes contemporary case studies, addresses a neglected aspect of America’s long struggle with race and identity.

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Prologue. Lingering at the Crossroads: African– Native American History and Kinship Lineage in Armstrong Archer’s A Compendium on Slavery

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[Alexander] Chamberlain’s call to explicate African–Native American folklore and mythology leaves the respondent at a crossroads. One might choose to proceed ignoring the well-worn paths of African and Native American traditions to either side. One might decide to turn back, returning to a road of familiarity. One might choose to follow only one path, either African or Native American, turning one’s back on the tradition that lay across the way. Yet, one might instead choose to linger at the crossroads sitting down for a drink brimming with the salt water of the Middle Passage and the Trail of Tears, pouring a libation and offering tobacco, and listening carefully to the interwoven strands of storytelling from African and Native American literary traditions.

—Jonathan Brennan, When Brer Rabbit Meets Coyote

As the above epigraph suggests, an attempt to explicate Armstrong Archer’s A Compendium of Slavery as It Exists in the Present Day in the United States of America has indeed left respondents at a crossroads. Its title places the text squarely within the anti-slavery literary tradition, but its subtitle, “To which is prefixed a brief view of the author’s descent from an African King on the one side and from the celebrated Indian Chief Powhatan on the other,” at once problematizes such a simplistic categorization.1 A brief look into earlier attempts to explicate the work provides a case in point on what it means to be at the crossroads.

 

1 Notes on the State of Virginia: Jeffersonian Thought and the Rise of Racial Purity Ideology in the Eighteenth Century

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This belief is founded on what I have seen of man white, red, and black . . . they [American Indians] are formed in mind as well as in body on the same module with the “Homo sapiens Europaeus” . . . I advance it therefore, as a suspicion only, that the blacks . . . are inferior to the whites in endowments both of body and mind.

THOMAS JEFFERSON, NOTES ON THE STATE OF VIRGINIA

In 1780, while the United States remained at war for its independence from Britain, Joseph Jones, a member of the Virginia congressional delegation, received a questionnaire from then secretary of the French legation to the United States, François Marbois. Marbois had compiled and distributed the questionnaire to delegates in order to obtain information concerning each of the thirteen states. Comprised of twenty-two questions, Marbois’s questionnaire inquired of such things as the state’s history (pre- and post-colonization), climate, waterways, natural resources, boundaries, inhabitants (particularly aborigines and Africans), militia, education, religious worship, commercial production, and currency. Jones presented Marbois’s inquiry to the one person he felt capable of handling such a myriad of questions concerning the Virginia colony: Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson enthusiastically worked on answering the questionnaire. He reorganized the questions and set out to answer them, in most cases, as “accurately” as possible.1

 

2 Redefining Race and Identity: The Indian–Negro Confusion and the Changing State of Black–Indian Relations in the Nineteenth Century

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And there was the Indian–Negro confusion. There were Negroes who were part Indian and who lived on reservations, and Indians who had children who lived in towns as Negroes, and Negroes who were Indians and traveled back and forth between the groups with no trouble.

RALPH ELLISON

The reconfiguration of the identities of African and American Indian peoples and the confluence that ensued from their social intermingling had, by the nineteenth century, resulted in what Ellison aptly dubbed “the Indian–Negro confusion.”1 Despite White Virginians’ obsession with racial purity and strict anti-miscegenation statutes, such restrictions did not apply to the non-White population, which comprised Negroes, Indians, and mulattoes among other groups. While the definitions of these categories would prove flexible over time and were not applied with any measurable consistency, the reality is that during the course of American and Virginian history, peoples of African, American Indian or Afro-Indian descent, were included in these categories throughout the colonial period. Africans and American Indians freely intermarried and cohabitated since many shared a common lot as chattel slaves or free disenfranchised citizens. They also shared racial labels during the antebellum period as Virginia identified its nonwhite population with terms largely associated in contemporary American society with people of African descent such as Negro, mulatto, colored, free Negro, free person of color, or Black. It was not until 1870 that the category “Indian” was recognized and included on the federal census; despite this, American Indians of whatever “degree” (i.e., full blood, half blood, or quarter blood) continued to be defined with the same racial labels as their African American counterparts. Incidentally, with racial mingling occurring between Africans and American Indians during a large portion of the colonial and antebellum periods, in addition to the cross sharing of racial labels, the line between who was American Indian and who was African American became blurred. Notwithstanding, the tendency to manipulate the racial identity of American Indians was a self-serving objective on the part of the White settler class turned American citizen to justify the involuntary appropriation of American Indian lands and to increase the slave population.

 

3 Race Purity and the Law: The Racial Integrity Act and Policing Black–Indian Identity in the Twentieth Century

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It’s powerful . . . That one drop of Negro Blood—because just one drop of black blood makes a colored man. One drop—you are a Negro! Now why is that? Why is Negro blood so much more powerful than any other kind of blood in the world . . . Explain it to me. You’re colleged.

LANGSTON HUGHES, SIMPLE TAKES A WIFE

. . . for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.

W. E. B. DU BOIS, SOULS OF BLACK FOLK

A cursory view of Virginian newspapers at the turn of the century makes evident, as Du Bois’s prophetic articulation demonstrates, that there was an intense preoccupation regarding the color line among the citizenry of the Commonwealth. As the mantra “emancipation equals amalgamation” was rearticulated within a post-slavery context, White southerners began to equate the push for social equality with Blacks as an endorsement of miscegenation. White Virginians, like most White southerners, viewed miscegenation as an affront to White womanhood and as an endangerment to the purity of the White race; they, therefore, swore their allegiance to the tenets of White supremacy by vowing strict adherence to remain pure from the taint of Negro “blood.” Consequently, anti-miscegenation sentiment intensified within the Commonwealth. No other subject, it seemed, could arouse the imagination and cause a public sensation (or panic) as an accusation in support of or engagement in an interracial affair. “A Miscegenation Case in Hanover,” an article printed in the Sunday edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch on August 4, 1902, provides a glaring example of the sensationalism garnered by such a charge. According to the article, a mob of White citizens had gathered around the Hanover County Courthouse to get a glimpse of the couple being charged for the crime of miscegenation. The couple’s names were withheld; however, they were nevertheless described as a “fair and young” White woman from Connecticut and an “ugly negro man” from Virginia. The crowd hooted and jeered as the offending couple was led away from the courthouse to the jailhouse. The article concluded by informing its readers that the citizens of Hanover County were more amused by the incident than anything. They found laughable what many viewed as the White woman’s “unconscious attempt” to subvert Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law.

 

4 Denying Blackness: Anthropological Advocacy and the Remaking of the Virginia Indians

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Of course working among Powhatan-Renape people and with other eastern Indians brought home to me the full impact of colonialism and also the difficulty of being Indian if one is also part African . . . Being a mixed-blood myself and also a mixture of many tribes, I had long been aware of the significance of being a “half-breed.” Back on the east coast, however, I became increasingly aware that those of us who looked European and Indian had a hell of an advantage over people who looked Indian and African. I thought that the deferential treatment was so much white racist bullshit and still do. I really resent white people trying to dissect us and tell us what it is that makes a person a Native American.

JACK D. FORBES, “SHOUTING BACK TO THE GEESE”

I write then in a field devastated by passion and belief . . . But armed and warned by all of this, and fortified by long study of the facts, I stand at the end of this writing, literally aghast at what [ethno] historians have done to this field.

 

5 Beyond Black and White: Afro-Indian Identity in the Case of Loving v. Virginia

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. . . writers are always finding blacks, and they are always losing Indians.

JACK D. FORBES, THE MANIPULATION OF RACE

The 1967 case of Loving v. Virginia, in which the Supreme Court declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional, has garnered far less scholarly attention than its 1954 predecessor, Brown v. the Board of Education, which overturned legalized segregation. What little has appeared in the way of scholarship has focused on the history of anti-miscegenation legislation, the events that led up to the presentation of the case to the Supreme Court, the case’s legal precedents, and the unanimous decision delivered by Chief Justice Earl Warren. Until recently, with the exception of an article that appeared in Ebony magazine several months after the Supreme Court decision, writers have also given little attention to the personal lives of the actual plaintiffs now enshrined in American history as “the couple that rocked courts.”1 In particular, the racial designation of the Lovings has been taken for granted. An assertion in a Life magazine article reflected this assumption when it stated, “She is Negro, he is white, and they are married.”2 And although historian Peter Wallenstein asserted that the nine justices overcame their reluctance to rule on the question of miscegenation because interest in the question went beyond Black–White marriage, Lawyers Bernard Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop’s representation of the case as overturning the last of the odious laws of slavery and segregation once again reified the racial dichotomy of White and Black within American racial discourse. Consequently, the arguments presented before the court and later the majority opinion obscured racial issues beyond the Black–White boundary, namely the Afro-Indian identity of Mildred Loving. As Wallenstein asserted, “There was no doubt in anybody’s mind as to the racial identities, white and black, of the people who claimed to be Mr. and Mrs. Loving.”3

 

6  The Racial Integrity Fight: Confrontations of Race and Identity in Charles City County, Virginia

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If I thought I had one drop of nigger blood in me, I’d slit my throat open and would let myself bleed to death.

THE LATE JOSEPH BOWMAN, FORMER CHARLES CITY COUNTY RESIDENT

Joseph Bowman turned himself abruptly about and walked toward his farmhouse with a cool wind gently touching his back. Once inside, he made sure the front door of the house was securely shut. Bowman then threw back his head and howled with laughter as he peaked through his window at the visibly astonished census taker still standing in the middle of the field not knowing what to make of his response. The White census taker had asked him whether he was an Indian or a Negro. Bowman, whose features marked an African and Indian duality, thought he’d have a bit of fun at the stranger’s expense, asserting that he’d rather be dead than a Negro.1 Bowman, in fact, considered himself a Negro. Yet, other members of the Bowman family in Charles City County with the same ancestry considered themselves Indian. That was indeed no laughing matter.

 

7  Nottoway Indians, Afro-Indian Identity, and the Contemporary Dilemma of State Recognition

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In 2006, it is tragically ironic that some Virginia Indians and Anglo-Virginians still have little reticence in accepting light-skinned descendants of Indian tribes, who readily admit and celebrate their European duality as recognized Indians, yet anguish over the dark-skinned duality of Indian–African ancestry as somehow being of less legitimate descendancy.

CHIEF LYNETTE ALLSTON, NOTTOWAY INDIAN TRIBE OF VIRGINIA, STATE RECOGNITION PETITION COVER LETTER, 2006

The Recognition Committee appointed by the Virginia Council on Indians has completed the review of the petition submitted by the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia for State Recognition. After careful review and debate on the information submitted by the petitioners, it is the recommendation by majority vote that the Nottoway Tribe of Virginia be Disapproved for State Recognition in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

VIRGINIA COUNCIL ON INDIANS RECOGNITION COMMITTEE REPORT TO THE NOTTOWAY TRIBE OF VIRGINIA PETITION FOR STATE RECOGNITION, 2009

 

Epilogue: Afro-Indian Peoples of Virginia: The Indelible Thread of Black and Red

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First they [Blacks and Indians] made prayers, then they sang, then they danced and then they made relatives.

FRANCIS YELLOW

Jasper Battle never asked to join the Rappahannock Indian Baptist Church. He was content with attending Sunday services with his wife, Lori, and their young niece and nephew, who they were raising due to the untimely death of Lori’s brother, Hayward Hedgeman on April 23, 2003. The children, Sarah, then fourteen, and Preston, then ten, loved attending the church. The church and its community of people were a reminder of the father whom they had lost. It was a part of him that the children could hold on to. Yet as Rev. Custalow stood before the congregation earnestly extending an invitation for whosoever will to come just as you are, there was another scene playing out in the back room of the church. Immediately after the sermon, Lori and the children were summoned by two deacons. They believed they had been brought into the room to be given additional instructions before they would be presented before the congregation and received as members. But the two deacons, John and Daniel Fortune had something else in mind. Daniel, the more aggressive of the two, announced that the family would not be allowed to join the church because Lori was married to a Black man. The children were shocked and overcome with disappointment. They could not understand what Jasper’s race had to do with the decision not to accept the family as members. Lori, seeing the children’s reaction turned to the two men and asked, “Do you mean to hurt my children?” “You did this!” Daniel snapped while vehemently wagging his finger in Lori’s face. “You should not have married outside of your race.”1

 

Appendix: The Racial Integrity Act

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Acts of the Assembly

Chap.371.—A. D. An ACT to preserve racial integrity [S B 219]

Approved March 20, 1924

1.  Be it enacted by the General Assembly of Virginia, That the State Registrar of Vital Statistics may as soon as practicable after the taking effect of this act, prepare a form whereon the racial composition of any individual, as Caucasian, negro, Mongolian, American Indian, Asiatic Indian, Malay, or any mixture thereof, or any other non-Caucasic strains, and if there be any mixture, then the racial composition of the parents and other ancestors, in so far as ascertainable, so as to show in what generation such mixture occurred, may be certified by such individual, which form shall be known as a registration certificate. The State Registrar may supply to each local registrar a sufficient number of such forms for the purpose of this act; each local registrar may personally or by deputy, as soon as possible after receiving said forms, have made thereon in duplicate a certificate of the racial composition as aforesaid, of each person resident in his district, who so desires, born before June fourteenth, nineteen hundred and twelve, which certificate shall be made over the signature of said person, or in the case of children under fourteen years of age, over the signature of a parent, guardian, or other person standing in loco parentis. One of said certificates for each person thus registering in every district shall be forwarded to the State Registrar for his files; the other shall be kept on file by the local registrar. Every local registrar may, as soon as practicable, have such registration certificate made by or for each person in his district who so desires, born before June fourteen, nineteen hundred and twelve, for whom he has not on file a registration certificate, or a birth certificate.

 

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