Dear Professor Gates:
The paternal second great-grandfather of my wife, Donna Paulette Wysinger Wilson, is Edmond Edward Wysinger. He was a historical figure in California, having brought a lawsuit (Wysinger v. Crookshank) in 1890 to desegregate California schools so that his son Arthur could attend the local high school. We traced Edmond back to South Carolina, where he was born circa 1816. He came to central California, married and had 11 children. Most of their descendants are in Northern California.
It turns out that there is another large group of Wysingers in the Bay Area who trace their history to Arkansas and believe that Edmond had a brother who went there. However, we have been unable to make the South Carolina-Arkansas connection. The furthest back the “Arkansas” Wysingers can trace their lineage in Arkansas is to Jerden (Jordan) Wysinger, who was born March 9, 1875, in Louisiana. He died June 15, 1924, in Cornie, Union County, Ark. Meanwhile, I looked for plantation owners in South Carolina with the name “Wysinger” or “Weisinger,” but I have been unable to find anything.
Finally, oral family history is that Edmond had two brothers, but I cannot verify that. Can you determine whether Edmond had siblings and if any ended up in Arkansas? —Thomas Wilson
Because of Edmond Edward Wysinger’s historic court case, there is plenty about him published online—not all of it bearing citations to support claims. However, you can use these accounts as starting points and work toward finding evidence either to support or to refute them. According to many published accounts, Edmond Edward Wysinger was born about 1816 in South Carolina and arrived in California with his slave owner about 1849. The other Wysinger family claims to have descended from Jerden Wysinger, who was born in 1875, meaning that if he is related to Edmond, they are likely two generations removed from each other.
Approaches for Linking the South Carolina and Arkansas Wysingers
With this information, there are a few methods you could try to find a link between the two Wysinger families. First, you could search for evidence to suggest that the lore surrounding your ancestor is true in order to ensure that you are looking in the right locations for a link to the other Wysinger family. Second, you could trace Jerden Wysinger’s family back further to determine where his parents originated. Finally, you could search for any white Wysinger families who might have been slave owners to which both Wysinger families could be connected.
Keep in mind that the spelling of “Wysinger” may vary across records, so you’ll likely benefit from using special symbols in your searches. Try searching databases with the surname “W*singer,” since the symbol replaces any number of letters but will keep the beginning and end of the name—the parts of the name most likely to remain consistent—the same.
Is the Lore About Edmond’s Origins True?
Our own search did not uncover any evidence that Edmond had siblings (which does not mean they did not exist). The earliest evidence of Edmond Edward Wysinger that we found was in the 1880 U.S. census, 10 years before the lawsuit. There he is listed as a 57-year-old black laborer living in Visalia, Tulare County, Calif. His birth year is estimated to be 1823, and interestingly, his birthplace (as well as that of his parents) is listed as Mississippi, not South Carolina. He is married to 36-year-old Bernesa C. Wysinger, who was born in Missouri. At the time, Arthur was 3, and his siblings included Jesse, Martha, Reuben, Walter and Hervey (who you told us was your wife’s ancestor). A mother-in-law, Susan Wilson, presumably Bernesa’s mother, is also living in the household.
If we accept the census-record information as accurate, then it’s also worth exploring in which household Edmond might have resided in Mississippi. When we did a search of the 1850 and 1860 U.S. censuses for individuals with a variation of the Wysinger surname in Mississippi, an interesting result came back pointing to a white man named Alexander Weissinger. We double-checked the 1850 United States Census Slave Schedule for Alexander with the double “s” in the name and determined that he did, in fact, own slaves. One slave in the household was born about 1818, which could be a match for Edmond Wysinger.
It looks as if Alexander Weissinger did not move to Mississippi until 1848, so if Edmond was part of his household and was actually born in Mississippi, it would mean that Alexander likely purchased him once he moved to the state. It looks as if Alexander survived the Civil War, so there likely is not a probate record for him that mentions slaves, but it may be worth checking out deeds to see if there is a slave bill of sale for Edmond.
Searching for a White Wysinger Family as the Common Link
You also asked about a link between Edmond and Jerden Wysinger. If the story about Edmond arriving in California with his slave owner is true, then we would expect to find a white man with the Wysinger surname who could have been Edmond’s former slave owner in California by 1850.
Interestingly enough, we located a John W. Wissinger in San Francisco in 1860. According to the record, John was born about 1824 in Virginia. We noted that a daughter in the household, Carolina Wissinger, was born around 1847 in Louisiana and another daughter, Ellen Wissinger, was born around 1858 in California. This seems to suggest that the family lived in Louisiana for a time before moving to California. You mentioned that Jerden Wysinger was born in Louisiana, so at least from a geographic standpoint, a connection is worth exploring.
We then searched the 1860 United States Census Slave Schedule but did not locate a John W. Wissinger who owned any slaves. We also had difficulty locating any information on John W. Wissinger earlier than this record, but researching this family forward in time may reveal new information to help you work backward to determine whether there is a connection to your Edmond Edward Wysinger.
We then tried to locate more information about Jerdon Wysinger of Arkansas. We located Jordon Weisinger in 1880 living in Jackson, Union, Ark., in the household of Eli Weisinger, presumably his father. According to the record, Eli Weisinger’s parents were born in Louisiana. Given that the whole family was born in Louisiana, we would expect to find them there in 1870, but a search of the census did not record them living there, although there was another African-American Wysinger family recorded in Louisiana in this census who originated in Alabama.
While we were searching for slave owners with the Wysinger surname, we did note that there seemed to be a couple of white Wysinger/Weisinger families who had migrated from South Carolina, through Alabama, to Texas. These individuals were born around the same time as your Edmond Edward Wysinger and appeared to be the only individuals with the surname born in South Carolina around that time.
The first family we located included a woman named EE Wysinger, born in South Carolina and living in Montgomery, Texas, in 1860. We located an Elizabeth in the 1850 U.S. census with her husband, Michael Wisinger, in Walker County, Texas. Walker and Montgomery counties border each other. Interestingly, Michael Wisinger was one of two people we could locate with a variation of the name “Wysinger” that owned slaves. The other was his neighbor and likely relative, Sam Wisinger.
The 1850 Slave Schedule shows that Michael Wisinger owned at least six slaves in 1850, although the record is so faded that it is hard to decipher the information. Please note that while FamilySearch has identified the county he is living in as Victoria County, Texas, if you read the location on the page prior to this, it is, in fact, for Walker County. It is unfortunate that the record is now illegible, but this does tell you that there was a slave owner named Wysinger. We also noted that Michael Weisinger and Elizabeth Derick married in Montgomery, Ala., in 1840. This also provides you with Elizabeth’s surname, since it is possible that she owned slaves whom she brought into the marriage.
Based on the fact that Elizabeth was a widow in 1860, it means that Michael likely died between 1850 and 1860. Because this was during slavery, his probate might include information about the slaves he owned. Furthermore, since Elizabeth did not own slaves by 1860, according to the slave schedules, it is possible that he freed his slaves upon his death. You could search Montgomery County, Texas, Probate Records, 1838-1906, for his probate record. It seems possible that the folklore may not be entirely correct and that if Edmond Edward Wysinger was once a slave in Michael Wysinger’s household, he could have been freed between 1850 and 1860 and then made his way to California.
A Black Wysinger Family May Hold the Key
We also noted an African-American Wysinger family in Montgomery, Texas, in 1880 who might help connect all these threads. According to the record, the head of household, George Wysinger, was born in Alabama about 1840, and his wife and children were born in Texas. His mother, who was in his household, was born around 1814 in South Carolina. They seem to have made the same migration as Michael Wysinger’s family. It also means that Alabama may be a link between Jerdon Wysinger’s family and your Wysinger ancestors.
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 chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
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This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, a senior researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today about researching African-American roots.