William Elijah Gantt in a family photo
Courtesy of Jennifer Jones

Dear Professor Gates:

My great-grandfather William Elijah Gantt was allegedly born in Charles County, Md., Feb. 4, 1886. He was a light-skinned black man who might have been called “mulatto” in his day. He only exists from the 1910 census to his death, married to my great-grandmother Ruth Folsom Jackson. 

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The family story is that he was never raised with his family, that he was a servant of some sort (in a 1910 census in Cumberland, Pa., both he and my great-grandmother are butler-servant to a white, possibly Jewish, family) and adopted by the family he worked for.

I don’t know how to go about figuring out if he was adopted legally. I also have no idea who his parents or siblings were. Can you help me find these answers? —Jennifer Jones

Your family lore tells you that William Elijah Gantt may have been adopted by the white family that employed him, though you are not sure if this would have been a formal or informal arrangement. Given that you believe he was born in 1886, an adoption would likely have occurred between that year and 1907, when he reached the age of majority at 21.

Did Legal Transracial Adoptions Occur Back When America Was Segregated?

So what’s the likelihood that a legal transracial adoption would have occurred during that era? The Adoption History Project through the University of Oregon has an article that suggests that legal-adoption services for children of color occurred so infrequently prior to 1945 that even after World War II, they were considered to be “special needs adoptions.” The article also notes that when black children were included in adoption services prior to 1945, they were always placed with black families, since transracial adoption was not considered to be an acceptable practice.

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Given this, it is quite possible that Gantt’s alleged adoption was informal, rather than legal; so you’ll want to expand your searches beyond just adoption and guardianship records for each state and also examine the Gantt and related surnames in both locations in order to identify his family.

Although you have not mentioned any potential blood ties between Gantt and his alleged white adopters, you should not rule them out, either, as you search for his parentage. Perhaps “adoption” was a euphemism for a closer, biological tie, a tie that only DNA analysis can determine. As you follow up on the leads provided below, you may uncover descendants of the family with whom Gantt was employed. If so, you and one or more of them could take a DNA test (through Ancestry.com, FamilyTreeDNA or 23andMe) and compare their results with yours. If Gantt was, in fact, related to them, you will know through similarities in your DNA.

Nor should you rule out the possibility that ancestors of the family with whom he lived and was employed might have owned Gantt’s ancestors. As we have written before, these types of close and complex relationships between the races weren’t unusual.

How Would One Find Adoption Records for the Mid-19th to Mid-20th Centuries?

However, let’s suppose William Elijah Gantt was legally adopted or he had a legal guardian aside from his biological parents. You may be able to locate a record of the adoption or an official notice of his guardianship. The laws concerning adoption records vary by state.

Based on the records you have located so far, you know that William Elijah Gantt was likely born in Charles County, Md., and was living in Cumberland, Pa., by 1910 when he was 24 years old. Since you do not have an earlier record for William, it is not clear when he moved to Pennsylvania. This means his alleged adoption could have occurred in either state, so you will likely want to search for him in both Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Adoption records in the state of Maryland are only considered “open” and available to the public if the adoption occurred before June 1, 1947—a condition for which your William Elijah Gantt qualifies. If an adoption record does exist, the county circuit court that granted the adoption will at least have the case number. Since you know that Gantt was born in Charles County, you could start with the Circuit Court for Charles County, Md., and expand to neighboring counties if you are unsuccessful. If the circuit court has the case number for an adoption file but does not hold the record in its facility, it may direct you to the Maryland State Archives for a copy of the file.

Guardianship records are also often hidden in court and probate records. The Family History Library has a number of digitized collections you could search for a legal guardianship for William Elijah Gantt. The collection Maryland Register of Wills Records, 1629-1999 includes guardianship bonds between 1825 and 1952 from Charles County. You could browse these records to see if you can locate any for William Elijah Gantt.

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By law, adoption records in Pennsylvania are confidential and not accessible, but since you are looking for an adoption in the late 19th or early 20th century, you may be able to locate a guardianship in court or probate records. The earliest location you have for William in Pennsylvania is Camp Hill, Cumberland, Pa. The Family History Library has digitized a collection of Orphan Court Records, 1880-1929 for Cumberland County that are available through its Pennsylvania Probate Records, 1683-1994, collection. The documents are not searchable, but you can browse by county, and there is an alphabetized index available that you could search for the Gantt surname to see if the collection includes a record for him.

Who Might Have Adopted William Elijah Gantt?

You could also try to learn more about the family William Elijah Gantt was living with in 1910 to determine if William was living with them earlier. According to the 1910 U.S. census (via Ancestry.com, subscription required), William Elijah Gantt was the butler in the household of Grant J. Schwarz, who was born in Pennsylvania about 1863. We located the Schwarz family residing in the same location in Camp Hill in 1900 via FamilySearch. Searching in and around the Schwarz household in this record, we did not locate any individuals who resembled your William Elijah Gantt, suggesting that if he was adopted by a family who employed him while he was still a minor, it was likely not the Schwarz family.

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You could also conduct a search for individuals with the Gantt surname in Maryland to see if you can identify a family with whom William Elijah Gantt may have been associated, considering both the possibility that he was born with the surname Gantt or that he took the surname of the family who adopted him.

We know that William would have been a minor in 1900, so we started by searching for the Gantt surname in the 1900 U.S. census in Maryland, the state of his birth. We limited the search results to those born in and around 1886 to see if we could locate William Elijah. Interestingly, we located a Frank Gantt, who was born in 1887, living in Bryantown, Md., as a lodger in the household of Frederick Proctor. The race of all the members of the household was recorded as black.

This record is of interest because Bryantown is a census-designated place in Charles County, Md., the county where William Elijah Gantt is supposed to have been born. While this could be a coincidence, it would be worth investigating this Frank Gantt and the family of Frederick Proctor to see if you can identify a connection to your William Elijah Gantt.

Good luck!

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 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.