Iconic stories of slavery and the South leave out many black family histories

By James T. Anderson
Saturday, February 27, 2010

A number of articles during Black History Month focused on the nation's first family and race. As an African American, I find this topic particularly interesting. But some references to the nation's first president of color reminded me of an article the New York Times published last fall about the genealogy of first lady Michelle Obama ["First Lady's Roots Reveal Slavery's Tangled Legacy," front page, Oct. 8, 2009]. This article concerned me because it perpetuated and strengthened a standard, if not iconic, view of African American history completely at variance with my own.

The familiar, slavery-laced tale rooted in the South needs to be put in its place. Here is my story:

One day late in the summer of 1956, when I was an undergraduate, I walked a few blocks to my grandmother's house and sat my father's mother down at her round wooden table. I was born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., and her house at 106 Walnut St. had been a family home for generations. I asked Grandma to tell me about our family.

As she spoke, I took notes and began a detailed chart on a large sheet of paper. Names, places, relationships, personalities -- I wrote it all down and marveled.

Grandma personally knew ancestors of ours whose lives reached back before 1850. She recalled that there was a white relative way back then -- a woman who had lived in this house and spoke a language my grandmother did not understand. As she imitated the sound of the language, German, my grandmother told me about my great-great-grandmother, Katherine Gehring.

In the mid-1840s, Katherine, an immigrant teenager, married my great-great grandfather, Benjamin C. Taylor. Grandma paused in her storytelling and left the table to get out their marriage certificate: May 28, 1846, Michigan Avenue Baptist Church, Buffalo, N.Y. My great-great grandfather is known as Buffalo's first black doctor. I have newspaper articles on him.

I have photographs of Katherine and Benjamin. In one of them, Katherine is embracing her child, my great-grandmother, Elnora Taylor.

Years later, at the genealogy library of the Mormon Temple in Oakland, Calif., I was shown a copy of the 1850 Buffalo Census. There was my family: Benjamin, Katherine, Benjamin Jr., 10-month-old Elnora. To the question of "country of origin," neighbor after neighbor answered "Germany," indicating that my great-great-grandparents lived in the German part of town.

Elnora Taylor married a man named Gustavus Anderson Jr. (thus, the origins of Grandma's husband's name, James Taylor Anderson, which is also my name). My father's sister Ora always said that Gustavus's father was an Englishman. Starting with the name Gustavus Anderson Jr., my investigations and best guesses say that his father might have been a Swede with British citizenship. In a photograph I have of him, he looks like Thomas Jefferson.

All this is Buffalo. This family history has nothing to do with the South, white slaveholders or black slave women. It has everything to do with solid marriages and families in Upstate New York from the middle of the 19th century onward.

And our story of blended black and white lineage cannot be unique. One of the newspaper articles mentioning Benjamin and Katherine says that city records show at least 10 marriages between black men and white women about that time, with most of the women being German or Irish.

How many people know of this history of mixed marriages and families in the United States? There are famous stories, such as those of President Obama and Tiger Woods, but what about the many, many other tales of mixed ancestry in this country? What about all the others that contradict widespread assumptions?

Grandma told me that Benjamin C. Taylor was not what one would call an American Negro or an African American. He was a foreigner, she said, perhaps from South America, and in due course became a U.S. citizen who may have participated in the California Gold Rush. She remembered that Benjamin always carried a passport -- a U.S. passport, which she showed me, that described him as "colored." To the family line that he and his wife began, African Americans and Native Americans later joined.

The iconic story of abuse in the South needs to be put in its place. There are other foundational stories of mixed black and white heritage in our country. It is time to start telling them.

The writer is a composer and musicologist in Palo Alto, Calif.

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