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A family legend points to a turn-of-the-20th-century transracial adoption. Could that have actually happened?

Dear Professor Gates:

My mother and I have been tracing the family tree on the side of my father, Samuel Gibbs, for a while now. We have not been successful in finding out who the mystery white attorney is on my father’s side of the family who we believe adopted my paternal grandfather, also named Samuel Gibbs.

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Grandfather Samuel Gibbs was born Jan. 22, 1907. His birthplace was Adams, Ill., according to the 1910 U.S. census. He died March 1, 1968, in Cook County, Ill. He was married to Laura Gibbs circa June 22, 1929. His mother’s name was Mary Mortan/Morton, and I believe his birth father’s name was Samuel Morton. I believe “Gibbs” is probably not our true surname if an adoption occurred. I’m hoping to find out who the attorney was who adopted my grandfather. —Denise Vincent

The scenario you present—of your black grandfather being adopted by a white man not long after the turn of the 20th century—is an unusual one, since, according to “The Adoption History Project: Transracial Adoptions,” by historian Ellen Herman of the University of Oregon, the first recorded adoption of an African-American child by white parents happened in Minnesota in 1948. This is more than four decades after your grandfather’s birth.

Of course, we would need to know more before concluding that it did not happen, at least informally. If you’re interested in learning more about the history of transracial adoption in the U.S., we suggest picking up Claiming Others: Transracial Adoption and National Belonging, by Marc C. Jeng, or Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transnational and Transracial Adoption, by Laura Briggs.

Midcentury Clues

Turning to your grandfather Samuel M. Gibbs: The abstract of his death record in Cook County, Ill., on March 1, 1968, confirms much of the information you included in your question, such as his birth date on Jan. 22, 1907, in Quincy, Ill., and his wife’s name, Laura Henderson. The abstract includes the certificate number, 607407, which you could use to order a copy of the original record from Cook County if you do not already have one. The original may contain additional information about his parents.

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More evidence that his birthplace was Quincy and birth date was 1907 can be found in birth records for his children: Carol Jean Gibbs, on Aug. 24, 1932, and Samuel Morton Gibbs (presumably your father), on July 22, 1934.

In 1940, the elder Samuel Gibbs was residing on Michigan Avenue, Ward 2, of Chicago with his wife, Laura, and their three children: Carol, Samuel and Charles. The record indicates that the family was living in the same location five years earlier in 1935.

Working further back, your grandfather Samuel M. Gibbs was residing in the household of his mother, Mary L. Gibbs, at Springfield, Sangamon, Ill., with his new bride, Laura, in 1930. Also included in the household were Samuel’s siblings: Charles Gibbs (born about 1914 in Illinois) and Leola Maat (born about 1910 in Illinois), with her husband, Horacio Maat. These siblings may prove helpful in learning more about Samuel’s early years. Samuel and his siblings all described their father’s birthplace as Louisiana and their mother’s as Missouri. This suggests that they may all be full siblings and have the same father.

Worth noting in the 1930 census record is that Mary L. Gibbs owned her home, worth $3,250, and she was a widow by 1930. You may be able to locate a land record for her home that would reveal who she purchased it from. It also might mean that she inherited the home after the death of her husband, in which case a probate record may include information about him and the home. For comparison with other records, know that your great-grandmother was born about 1883 at Missouri and was about 21 years old at the time of her first marriage.

The Years Your Grandfather Spent With His Father 

In 1920 your grandfather Samuel, his siblings and his mother were all recorded with the surname “Morton” in the household of Samuel J. Morton at Quincy Ward 5, Adams, Ill. We know this is the right family because the names of Samuel’s siblings match those in the household in 1930, and the family is residing in the location that Samuel recorded as his birthplace in numerous other records. So you are correct about “Gibbs” not being the family’s original surname.

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According to this record, Samuel J. Morton, the head of household, was black and born about 1873 in Louisiana. All the children in the household were recorded as his children, and your grandfather went by “Samuel Jr.,” so it seems likely that Samuel J. Morton is your grandfather’s father. The family was renting the home, which suggests that Mary Morton Gibbs either purchased or inherited the home she would later own in Sangamon County between 1920 and 1930.

According to his draft-registration card on Sept. 12, 1918, Samuel Johnson Morton was residing at 915 Vine, Quincy, Adams County, Ill., but was working for Adjutant General Dickson at the State Arsenal at Springfield, Sangamon County, Ill. This is where Mary owned property and was residing with her children in 1930. Perhaps his job was the link between these two places.

Samuel “Mortan” was residing with the family in 1910 at Quincy Ward 5, Adams, Ill., with 3-year-old Samuel Jr. Also included in the household were Mary; Leola Mortan, age 8 months; and Mary’s mother, Laura Williams, who was the head of the household.

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Based on the 1910 and 1920 census records, your grandfather Samuel was living with his “birth father” at least until 1920 (age 12). Your grandfather Samuel was also residing with his mother in 1930. This means that if there was an “adoption” by a white lawyer, it would have occurred between 1920 and 1930.

Since we know that Samuel’s mother, Mary, also changed her surname to “Gibbs” in that time and acquired property, it could be that she remarried. Unlike many other states in the country at that time, interracial marriage had been legal in Illinois since an 1829 anti-miscegenation law was repealed in 1874. (It wasn’t legal in all 50 states until the U.S. Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision blocked state laws against interracial marriage in 1967.) So it is possible that Mary remarried a white man between 1920 and 1930 and that he informally adopted her children.

Your best option to learn about the family during the decade span of time would be to track the property that your great-grandmother owned by 1930. The 1940 U.S. census places Mary L. Gibbs in the household of her daughter and her husband in Cook County, and the family were renting their home, suggesting that Mary also sold the property she owned in Sangamon County between 1930 and 1940.

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Online land indexes for Sangamon County extend only to 1917, so you will need to contact the Sangamon County Recorder to see if it holds a deed for Mary (Morton) Gibbs between 1920 and 1940 in order to identify the property she owned. You can then see from whom she purchased the land, which may help you fill in some of the gaps during this period. Pay attention to any neighbors mentioned in the deeds because they may also help you identify potential matches for Samuel’s adoptive father.

You could also request a search for a marriage record for Mary (Morton) Gibbs through the Sangamon County Clerk that may identify a second husband. You could also search for probate records for individuals with the Gibbs name between 1920 and 1930 to see if you can locate mention of Mary if her second husband died and left her his property. There is a death record for Mary Gibbs in Chicago, Cook County, on Aug. 16, 1969, which describes her as widowed. The original record may contain more information that may be helpful. You would order this the same way you ordered the death record for Samuel Gibbs through Cook County.

You could also try to verify the story by looking for a Gibbs who might match and seeing if you can connect him to your family. A Charles Gibbs, born about 1851, was residing in Chicago in 1920 and was employed as a lawyer. His wife, Lucile, was recorded as a widow in 1930 when she was living with her daughter, suggesting that Charles may have died between 1920 and 1930. However, as we have described in a previous column, sometimes the term “widow” was used in 19th- and 20th-century records as a euphemism for divorce or marital separation.

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To be clear, we found nothing in the records to suggest that Charles Gibbs left his wife or adopted children in his home. However, there are no death records for a Charles Gibbs recorded in the Cook County Death Index between these dates, either. You could request a search from the county to be sure. You could also try to find a probate record for him that might reveal what he did with his property.

Good luck with your continuing search to find out more about your grandfather’s early years.


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, Ph.D., 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 1 billion 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.