Was My Ancestor a Free Afro-Hispanic of Color?

Tracing Your Roots: A DNA test bolsters a white reader’s belief that she is related to people of color who were free during slavery.

Grave of John Jefferson Driggers,
a likely descendant of the enslaved Emmanuel Driggers
Grave of John Jefferson Driggers, a likely descendant of the enslaved Emmanuel Driggers Barbara LeClaire/Find a Grave

Dear Professor Gates:

I am wondering if you can give me any advice on how to research one of my family lines: the Driggerses. I have learned that the Driggers family was one of a few free African-American families in the South during slavery. I didn’t know that was even “a thing” until I read about it.

My research indicates that the first Driggers was a slave named Emmanuel Rodriguez in the 17th century, whose surname was eventually shortened to “Driggers.” I am trying to trace this line to see if I’m able to connect it for sure to this family and/or Emmanuel Rodriguez, but I am having trouble tracing it back beyond a John W. Driggers from South Carolina, born around 1803. He eventually left the South with his family, including his son, John Jefferson Driggers. They spent time in Texas before ending up in San Bernardino, Calif.

My maternal great-grandfather Walter and grandfather, Delbert, were both born there. My grandfather ended up in Seattle as an adult.

Do you know any tricks on how to research family members who may have been part of these free African-American families? I have looked through the other family lines on my mother’s side of the family and am pretty sure that the African and Iberian DNA trace through the Driggers line and not one of the others. I had my parents test their DNA, and my mother’s results came back with about 3 percent African—about 1 percent each for Mali, Nigeria and Africa south-central. She also has about 4 percent Iberian Peninsula DNA. The rest of her heritage is from various European countries.

Thank you in advance for any advice you can give me. —Summer Whitesell

You have already made a great deal of progress in your search for a connection between your known ancestors and the free black Driggers family. However, before we go any further, we want to assure you that the existence of free African-American families in the South during slavery was definitely “a thing.”

Free Black Families in the Antebellum South Weren’t Actually Rare

As Professor Gates previously wrote on The Root, referencing research by historian Ira Berlin in his book Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South, “[T]here 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.”

As for who they were, Gates wrote:

[F]ree blacks in the South largely resided in cities — the bigger the better, because that’s where the jobs were (in 1860, 72.7 percent of urban free blacks lived in Southern cities of 10,000 or more). They were predominantly female (52.6 percent of free blacks in the South were women in 1860), because, according to Berlin, free black men had a greater tendency to move out of the region. They also were older than the average slave, because they often had to wait to earn or buy their freedom, or, in not uncommon cases, be “dumped” by their owners as weak or infirm (in 1860, 20 percent of free blacks were over the age of 40 compared to 15 percent of slaves and whites). Free blacks also were lighter in color (40.8 percent of Southern free blacks in 1860 reported mixed racial ancestry versus 10.4 percent of slaves); not surprisingly, slaves with their master’s blood were more likely to be favored by him and, as Berlin shows, favored slaves were more likely to be freed.

We highly recommend that you pick up a copy of Berlin’s book to learn more the conditions under which free black people lived in the South.

What We Know About the Free Black Driggerses

As for the Driggers family: According to Paul Heinegg, the author of Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina From the Colonial Period to About 1820, the Driggers family’s descent from “Emmanuel Driggers,” a “Negroe” slave from Magotha Bay, Northampton County, Va., has been verified for a few generations. Heinegg’s article on the family, published on FreeAfricanAmericans.com, is a pretty reliable source to use, namely because it provides citations for the information. For instance, it backs up your assertion that Emmanuel’s original surname might have been “Rodriguez”: “The name Driggers was apparently short for the Portuguese or Spanish name, Rodriguez, since he was called ‘Manuell Rodriges’ in 1660-1663 when he was head of a Northampton County household, taxable on three tithes [Orders 1657-64, 102, 176].”

Locating the documents used in the article on the free black Driggers family may also be helpful to your search, since they may contain additional information that was not included in the article.

As you read through Heinegg’s account, pay attention to any individuals who are in the right geographic location to connect to your family and search for any other clues, such as familiar associated family names, that you know connect to your known family. The surnames of families associated with Emmanuel Driggers’ descendants are highlighted in bold throughout the article, and the same family names—such as George, Morris, Lindsey and Beckett—repeat a number of times. The fact that people with these surnames are associated with a number of Driggers family members over a few generations demonstrates that the free black Driggers family was close to these families. One method of making a connection would be to see if any of these surnames have shown up in association with your known Driggers relatives.