I’m White. Was My Ancestor a Free Black Man?

Tracing Your Roots: The paper trail and DNA testing both point to a family secret.


“When I was growing up, there were always whispers of black ancestors among my father’s family, but no one would ever discuss it openly. I grew up across the country from that side of the family, so the question never seemed very important. Now all the family members that might have had some answers are deceased.

“My brother had his DNA analyzed by Ancestry.com in 2008. His paternal haplogroup is E1b1a. Our family name is Wallace. I haven’t been able to trace our Wallace family tree back any further than our fourth great-grandfather, John Wallace, who was born before 1785. He was listed in the 1840 census as a free colored person, along with sons John and Noah (the latter is our third great-grandfather).

“These three people were the only ones in Milton Township, Richland County, Ohio, who were listed as colored. The senior John Wallace wasn’t found in the 1850 census, but the sons, Noah and John Wallace, were listed as white in that and all the subsequent censuses until they died (as were all of their descendants). Noah was born in 1813 in Delaware and John in 1805 in Maryland. They both married Bowser sisters (I am presuming), most likely in Maryland in 1833 and 1828, respectively.

“23andMe has given me racial-admixture test results of 2.3 percent sub-Saharan African and 97.5 percent European composition. When I work that backward, I believe Noah had to have had about 75 percent African ancestry. This scenario seems unusual to me. I would be very interested in any kind of insight that you might have. I would also like to have a reading list to help me understand the history of free colored persons at the beginning of the 19th century.” Sylvia Wallace Snapinn

The scenario you describe is not as unusual as it might seem to you. As previously noted in the “100 Amazing Facts About the Negro” column, geneticist Joanna Mountain of 23andMe.com estimates that 3 to 4 percent of Americans who are likely to consider themselves to be all white do have some African ancestry. We have also noted in another “Amazing Facts” column that there were thousands of free blacks, like your ancestors, living in America before slavery ended.

In fact, by 1860, there were a total of 488,070 free blacks living in the United States, about 10 percent of the entire black population. Of those, 226,152 lived in the North and 261,918 in the South, in 15 states (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas), plus the District of Columbia.

In learning more about your ancestors, you may find it useful to look at the experience of free blacks in each state in which they lived.

The Wallace Family in Maryland and Delaware

Slavery in Maryland was not outlawed until 1864, a year before the end of the Civil War. You know that John Wallace senior was probably born in Maryland before 1785. In tracing your ancestry back further, it will be useful to know if John Wallace was ever enslaved or if he was born as a free African American.