Monday, September 19, 2011

Continuing the Discussion of Family: An Historical Perspective

At the risk of being immodest (but also because I don't seem to find much of substance about which to blog this morning), I thought I might mention an article of mine that has recently won an award (the link points to a pdf file, for readers who need to know that information in advance).  I've mentioned this article in the past, both because it won a previous award from the state historical association for the best article published about local and family history in the past year.  The award it has now won is best family history article of 2010, from the Arkansas Genealogical Society.

The story told in the article is one about which I blogged a number of times as I was writing the article.  It's the story of a brother of a three-times great-grandfather of mine who lived during most of his adult life in a marital arrangement with a free woman of color in Mississippi and Arkansas.  The couple, James Russell Winn and Margaret Shackelford, could not legally marry in the 19th century in either of those states, though as the article notes, there's abundant evidence that they considered themselves husband and wife, and James acknowledged and did well by the children he fathered through Margaret.

I've noted in previous postings that James and Margaret sent their three children north to Ohio as the Civil War neared, seeing to it that the children got educations at Oberlin and were settled on land of their own in Ohio.  Though their mother appears invariably on all federal censuses with the designation "mulatto," and the children appear variously as either mulatto or white on different censuses, all three of these Winn children married white spouses from prominent New England families that had moved to Ohio to work in the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad there.  And from the point of their marriage, these children of James and Margaret "passed": they crossed the color line and their families lived as white families.

One of the most poignant documents I found in researching this story (and I found it after I had published the article, so this information is not in the article) is a detail about what happened when James and Margaret's younger son Powhatan Winn inherited his father's land in Arkansas, and returned to Arkansas with his family to live on that land.  His wife died of fever within a few years after the family's move to Arkansas, and though the couple had legally married in Ohio in 1872, when Powhatan's wife died, he had to appeal to the county court for guardianship of his own children.

He had to take that step, it's clear to me, because their interracial marriage in Ohio was not recognized in Arkansas, and he was not regarded by Arkansas law as the legal father of his own children, when his white wife died.  And so, of course, the question of race still did matter intently for the descendants of this family, insofar as they continued to visit relatives in Arkansas or to return there to live.

This poignant record of the inability of a father to be permitted to raise his own children, or even to be considered their father, due to the difference between the marriage laws of one state and those of another, had a strong contemporary ring for me, when I discovered this document.  The challenge faced by Powhatan Winn when his wife died is similar to the challenges that same-sex couples face when they can now legally marry in one state in the U.S., but their marriages aren't recognized in other states.

One of the reasons I remain highly skeptical about Mr. Obama's proposal to leave the question of marriage laws to the states is that historical precedent shows very clearly that many states in the U.S.--particularly those in the South--would never have recognized or permitted interracial marriage, had federal rulings not struck down laws prohibiting miscegenation.

Just as many states today, particularly in the bible-belt South, will fight tooth and nail to avoid giving any legal recognition to same-sex marriages or unions, until federal law forces their hand--and in the process, they'll inflict pain on the children of these marriages/unions similar to the pain inflicted on the children of mixed-race marriages in the past . . . . 

For those who may be interested in reading the continuation of the article to which the first link points, the next two installments of the article are here and here.  I hope the read won't be a total bore to anyone who looks up the three pieces of this series.  The preceding two links also point to pdf files.  The issue with the final installment of the article has not yet been put online, it seems.

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