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.

The Maryland State Archives’ Legacy of Slavery in Maryland documents the history of slavery using archival records. It also contains the online database Beneath the Underground: The Flight to Freedom. This digital archive contains records such as runaway ads, slave jail records, census records and manumissions. Finding manumission records, or legal documents granting a slave his or her freedom, may be helpful. These documents were typically recorded in land records of states that permitted slavery. Occasionally they were recorded in probate documents, since slave owners, upon their death, would sometimes free their slaves.

In your own research, you found that the Wallace family probably moved from Maryland to Delaware between the birth of their two sons in 1805 and 1813. The book Free African Americans of Maryland and Delaware From the Colonial Period to 1810 by Paul Heinegg is a compilation of land, probate and tax records pertaining to free African Americans in both Delaware and Maryland. The book is also searchable on Ancestry.com.

We did a quick search of the Wallace surname and found that there were several records of free African Americans with the Wallace surname living in Kent County, Del., between 1800 and 1810. Kent County is on the Delmarva Peninsula, which is occupied by both Delaware and Maryland. This may be a good place to start your research to see if you can find evidence of your ancestors in Delaware and Maryland.

In 1790 there were 2,570 free African Americans in Kent County. Although Delaware was a slaveholding state that did not abolish slavery until 1865, it was part of the Union in the Civil War and had a large population of free African Americans. For example, in 1810, 76 percent of the state’s African-American population was free. Although these blacks were not enslaved, their rights were still limited by state legislation, which denied them the right to vote and made it difficult for them to own land. The University of Delaware provides a more detailed account of their lives before the Civil War here. Given these conditions, perhaps the Wallace family left Maryland and Delaware in search of more opportunities further west.

The Wallace Family in Ohio

Unlike in Delaware and Maryland, slavery in Ohio was illegal as early as 1803, when the first Constitution of Ohio was drafted. Although slavery was illegal, fugitive slaves could still be captured and returned. Furthermore, the rights of African Americans were limited and racial tensions persisted, especially in larger cities. Ohio History Central provides a great account of this history.

From looking at the 1840 U.S. Federal Census record for the senior and junior John Wallaces, we see that both men were listed as working in agriculture. It is possible that the family relocated to Ohio, where land was more available and more readily purchased. However, in looking at the 1850 U.S. Federal Census records for both Noah Wallace and John Wallace junior, we see that neither man owned any real estate. Nevertheless, it may still be useful to search the grantor and grantee indexes of Richland County Land records to see if you can find a record of the Williams family. Microfilm of those records can be borrowed from the Family History Library.

As you mentioned, the descendants of John Wallace were listed as white, rather than black or mulatto, in subsequent census records. It is possible that they were able to identify as white (or “pass,” as African Americans say) and decided to do so in order to avoid discrimination. The fact that your brother’s DNA shows the sub-Saharan African haplogroup E1b1a supports the 1840 U.S. Federal Census record listing the Wallace family as “free colored people.”

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.