The Destruction of the Black Family -Part 3: Colorism

Black Family3Hat tip R-Evolution

The children of white fathers and slave mothers were mixed-race slaves, whose appearance was generally classified as mulatto (this term originally meant a person with white and black… parents, but then encompassed any mixed-race person). By the turn of the 19th century many mixed-race families in Virginia dated to colonial times; white women (generally indentured servants) had unions with slave and free African-descended men. Because of the mother’s status, those children were born free and often married other free people of color.

Given the generations of interaction, an increasing number of slaves in the United States during the 19th century were of mixed race. In the United States, children of mulatto and black slaves were also generally classified as mulatto. With each generation, the number of mixed-race slaves increased. The 1850 census identified 245,000 slaves as mulatto; by 1860, there were 411,000 slaves classified as mulatto out of a total slave population of 3,900,000. As noted above, some mixed-race people won freedom from slavery or were born as free blacks.

If free (depending on state law), some mulattoes were legally classified as white because they had more than one-half to seven-eighths white ancestry. Questions of social status were often settled in court, but a person’s acceptance by neighbors, satisfaction of citizen obligations and other aspects of social status were more important than lineage in determining “whiteness”.

Notable examples of mostly-white children born into slavery were the “natural” children of Thomas Jefferson by his mixed-race slave Sally Hemings, who was three-quarters white by ancestry. Since 2000 historians have widely accepted Jefferson’s paternity; the change in scholarship has been reflected in exhibits at Monticello and in recent books about Jefferson and his era. Some historians, however, continue to disagree with this conclusion.

Speculation exists on the reasons George Washington freed his slaves in his will. One theory posits that the slaves included two half-sisters of his wife, Martha Custis. Those mixed-race slaves were born to slave women owned by Martha’s father, and were regarded within the family as having been sired by him. Washington became the owner of Martha Custis’ slaves (under Virginia law) when he married her, and faced the ethical conundrum of owning his wife’s sisters.

As in Thomas Jefferson’s household, the use of lighter-skinned slaves as household servants was not simply a choice related to skin color. Sometimes planters used mixed-race slaves as house servants (or favored artisans) because they were their children, or otherwise relatives. Six of Jefferson’s later household slaves were the grown children of his father-in-law John Wayles and his slave mistress Betty Hemings. Half-siblings of Jefferson’s wife Martha, they were inherited by her (with Betty Hemings and other slaves) a year after her marriage to Jefferson following the death of her father. At that time, some of the Hemings-Wayles children were very young; Sally Hemings was an infant. They were trained as domestic and skilled servants, and headed the slave hierarchy at Monticello.

Since 2000, historians have widely accepted that the widowed Jefferson had a nearly four-decade relationship with Sally Hemings, the youngest daughter of Wayles and Betty. It was believed to have begun when he was US minister in Paris, and she was part of his household. Sally was nearly 25 years younger than his late wife; Jefferson had six children of record with her, four of whom survived. Jefferson had his three mixed-race sons by Hemings trained as carpenters (a skilled occupation) so they could earn a living after he freed them when they came of age. Three of his four children by Hemings (including his daughter Harriet, the only slave woman he freed) “passed” into white society as adults because of their appearance. Some historians disagree with these conclusions about Jefferson’s paternity; see Jefferson-Hemings controversy.

Planters with mixed-race children sometimes arranged for their education (occasionally in northern schools) or apprenticeship in skilled trades and crafts. Others settled property on them, or otherwise passed on social capital by freeing the children and their mothers. While fewer in number than in the Upper South, free blacks in the Deep South were often mixed-race children of wealthy planters and sometimes benefited from transfers of property and social capital. Wilberforce University, founded by Methodist and African Methodist Episcopal (AME) representatives in Ohio in 1856 for the education of African-American youth, was during its early history largely supported by wealthy southern planters who paid for the education of their mixed-race children. When the American Civil War broke out, the majority of the school’s 200 students were of mixed race and from such wealthy Southern families.[70] The college closed for several years before the AME Church bought and operated it.

In many households, the treatment of slaves depended on the slave’s skin color. Darker-skinned slaves worked in the fields, while lighter-skinned house servants (sometimes the children of the master or his son) had better clothing, food and housing.

Racial divide: Light and dark struggle

Where did the separation between skin tones come from?

Willie Lynch delivered a speech at the Virginia colony on the Bank of James River in 1712. Lynch was a British slave owner in the West Indies invited to teach others his ways of controlling slave

Willie Lynch letter: The Making of a Slave

Color differentiation was one of his methods.

In his exact words, “You must use the dark skin slaves vs. the light skin slaves, and the light skin slaves vs. the dark skin slaves.”

He emphasized pitting dark against light

During the years of slavery in America this dark vs. light method was implemented.

•Dark-skinned slaves were made to do field work outside.
•Light-skinned slaves were allowed to take care of the daily house duties inside.

This approach turned the slaves against each other splitting them into two groups, light and dark-skinned.

Distrust is stronger than trust and envy stronger than adulation, respect, or admiration
– Willie Lynch.

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A Native Texan who adores baby kittens, loves horses, rodeos, pomegranates, & collect Eagles. Enjoys politics, games shows, & dancing to all types of music. Loves discussing and learning about different cultures. A Phi Theta Kappa lifetime member with a passion for Social & Civil Justice.
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4 Responses to The Destruction of the Black Family -Part 3: Colorism

  1. Ametia says:

    We must ALWAYS remember that colorism is a tool of the slave master to conquer and divide. When we buy into light vs dark, the slave masters have won.

    This shit still goes on in our society. I will never forget the first time my boyfriend/first husband took me to meet my future mother-in-law. I was 17 years old. She stared at me for the longest time, stroking my hair, and then left the room.

    As soon as she turned the corner and stepped into the adjacent room she said “Indeed Jr’s girlfriend is soooo DARK, but she got ‘PRETTY HAIR, GOOD HAIR” ..meaning wavy-straight and long. And then she said “Lordy, I want those pretty as a peach grandbabies.” -meaning LIGHT-SKINNED! She din’t even bother to shut the door. We both heard it and he looked at me shook his head, and told me not to pay any attention to his mother. “She’s crazy,” he said. He left the room and went to her and told her to shut the hell up, “I’ll decide who I want in my life, just shut the hell up.”

    Mind you, this women was lightskinned and so was her son. My skin tone was not an issue for him.

    • Ametia,

      My ex-brother in law told me some folks in the neighborhood they grew up in would call his sister Diane into the house and give her cookies and the other kids had to stay outside and eat their cookies. Diane is very light with green eyes and so are my kids dad. This ish hurt Diane deeply that she was treated differently from her friends.

      BTW..Diane is the sweetest sister in law this side of heaven. I love her and the family still refer to me as their sister in law and says it will always be so.

      • Ametia says:

        Yes; this kind of behavior is so hurtful for one’s self esteem, if not prepared for it and confident in one’s own blackness. Fortunately for me, at 17, my parents and relatives schooled us on this foolishness beforehand. so when this woman spewed the slave master’s bidding, I knew what the deal was and ignored her. It also helped that her son didn’t buy into it.

    • rikyrah says:

      This kind of craziness must stop. Colorism just pisses me off. Nothing but self hatred.

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