Dear Professor Gates:
My maternal grandmother was very secretive about her family past. Her name was Lucy Laverne Alexander Lee and she was born to Bessie Baker Alexander and Jeffrey Alexander on April 7, 1918, in Richmond, Texas. She was their last child and only daughter (her brothers were Jeffrey Jr., Nolan and Charles).
My great-grandfather Jeffrey died when my grandmother was very young, leaving Bessie a young, widowed mother of four in the segregated South who worked as a domestic. Bessie did remarry, and I do not know the name(s) of her subsequent husbands.
According to my grandmother, her mother, Bessie, was the result of a relationship between a judge in Richmond, Judge Baker (who was Caucasian and married with a family), and a “colored” teacher, whom I believe to have been named Cora Moore (I have sent you her photograph).
According to my grandmother, Judge Baker acknowledged that Bessie was his child and she carried his last name. He even at some point offered to have Bessie live with him and his family, but this was rejected by the woman who later came to raise Bessie (it was never told to me or understood what happened to Bessie’s mother, Cora).
Later, after my great-grandfather died, Judge Baker’s brother would on occasion come by their home and “throw money out of his car” for the children to help the struggling family (and maybe ease their guilt). According to my grandmother, her brothers would run to get the money but my grandmother refused to take it.
I also recalled my grandmother stating that there is a bust of Judge Baker in the Richmond Courthouse. I have tried to trace any history on Judge Baker in Richmond, Texas, but I have been unsuccessful. Also, I have been unsuccessful in finding any census records on my great-grandparents that would help me in searching further.
I have done my DNA through 23andMe. From this my results show 72.6 percent sub-Saharan African, 25.2 percent European, 1.5 percent East Asian and Native American (of which 1.1 percent is Southeast Asian), and 0.6 percent unassigned.
Is there any way to find out what is fact and what is fiction? —Ynette Johnson
Your family lore about the extramarital relationship between Cora Moore and Judge Baker takes place during a time in Texas history when an anti-miscegenation law banning marriages between black and white people was on the books. In fact, Texas prohibited such marriages in 1837 and continued to do so until 1970. According to Albert Ernest Jenks in “The Legal Status of Negro-White Amalgamation in the United States,” in the American Journal of Sociology (1916), Texas was among the states that prohibited marriages between whites and people with “one-eighth or more negro blood.”
Interestingly, the NAACP protested all such bans on interracial marriage, not because it advocated intermarriage but “primarily because whenever such laws have been enacted they become a menace to the whole institution of matrimony, leading directly to concubinage, bastardy and the degradation of the negro woman.” The group’s concern illustrates the limitations that Judge Baker, Cora Moore and Bessie Baker would have faced if the story you were told is true. Judge Baker’s open acknowledgment of a “mulatto” daughter under such circumstances would have been unusual. We did uncover some information that may shed light on why he reportedly did not try to hide his paternity, which will be revealed further on.
However, before addressing the question of Judge Baker, we decided to focus on Bessie Baker to determine when and where she was born. This helped us determine if there even was a Judge Baker in the right place at the right time to be Bessie’s father.
Tracing Bessie Baker Back in Time
We first located Bessie in 1920 in the household of her husband in Justice Precinct 4, Fort Bend, Texas, under the surname “Elexander.” According to this record, Bessie was born about 1882 in Texas. At this time, the couple’s three sons were in the household, but your grandmother Lucy was not recorded. Lucy was in the household by the 1930 U.S. census, when the family was still residing in the same precinct of Fort Bend but now under the surname “Jackson” (and minus Jeff Sr.). This may be why you had difficulty locating the family in census records. The names and ages for the children are all correct, meaning that this is the same family. Perhaps Bessie had remarried between 1920 and 1930 and all the children were recorded under her new surname.
According to the 1930 census, Bessie was born around 1898. This is vastly different from her age in the 1920 census, though it is not uncommon for ages to be recorded incorrectly in the census. To determine which date of birth is closest to the truth, look for other clues in the census record. In 1930 the census recorded that Bessie was 16 years old when she was first married, which closely aligns with the age of her eldest child in this record, suggesting that her birth was likely closer to 1898 rather than 1882. This would mean that she married Jeff Alexander about 1914.
To confirm this, we searched for their marriage record through the Fort Bend County Clerk’s searchable online database for vital records, deeds and probates. Through a marriage-index search for Bessie Baker, we found the marriage certificate for Jeff Alexander and Bessie Baker on April 7, 1912, at Richmond, Fort Bend, Texas, certificate No. 2296. This is close to what we expected based on the information in the 1930 census.
Unfortunately, the record does not contain any further information about the couple, such as their ages or parents’ names. If Bessie was really 16 years old at this time, it means that she was born around 1896. We searched the birth index available through the Fort Bend County website but could not find a record of her birth under either the name “Baker” or “Moore” between 1894 and 1899. You could, however, contact the county clerk directly to see if it just may not be included in the index. Her birth record may provide her father’s name.
We then searched for earlier records for her to see if we could locate any information on her mother, Cora Moore. We were unable to locate any results for a Cora Moore in the census in Fort Bend County, Texas, in the years 1880-1930. However, we did locate Bessie Baker living in the household of Lucy Sibson in Precinct 5, Fort Bend, Texas, in 1910. According to this record, Bessie was “mulatto,” born around 1896, and was the adopted daughter of Lucy Sibson. Lucy was about 50 years old, born in Texas. This is a good match for your Bessie Baker and suggests that she may have named your grandmother, Lucy, after the woman who raised her.
We hoped that Bessie might have lived with her mother in 1900, but we could not locate a Bessie Baker or Bessie Moore in Fort Bend who was the right age. Sometimes it helps to broaden the search a bit in case names were recorded incorrectly. We searched for a Bessie (no surname) born about 1896 in Fort Bend County, Texas, and located a Bessie Richardson living in the household of her adopted mother, Lucy Richardson, in 1900. This appears to be the same person as Lucy Sibson in the 1910 census, since she is the same age and the information provided about her birthplace and the birthplaces of her parents (Mississippi) is a match with Lucy Sibson in 1910. The 1910 census recorded that Lucy was married for the second time, whereas this record says that she was widowed. It seems likely that she remarried between 1900 and 1910.
Also in the household was Lucy’s brother, Levi Robinson, which gives you Lucy’s maiden name. It seems likely that Lucy (Robinson) (Richardson) Sibson will be important to your search for Bessie Baker’s parents, since she adopted Bessie at such a young age.
Locating a Judge Baker Who Could Have Been Her Father
Having found a very early record of Bessie Baker, we began to search for Judge Baker. To determine his full name, we searched a list of “District, County, and Precinct Elected Officials in Fort Bend County, Texas, 1838 to Current” (pdf) for anyone with the surname “Baker” who served around the time of Bessie’s birth. We noted a George C. Baker Jr., who served as a county judge from 1909 to 1912. Also included in this list was Jon H. Baker, a justice of the peace from 1899 to 1900. George C. Baker seemed like the most likely candidate to have been Bessie’s father, based on your family story. We wanted to see if we could place him near Bessie or any others we have determined were close to her in order to find a possible connection.
We first located George C. Baker in 1910 residing in Richmond, Fort Bend, Texas. According to the record, George was a county judge and was born about 1871 in Texas. His wife, Hattie, and daughter, Elizabeth, were also recorded in his household. In searching this page and adjacent ones, we found nothing obvious to connect him to Bessie Baker; however, we did determine that he was old enough to have been her father. Working backward, we located him in 1900 in the household of his father-in-law, Sam H. Blair, in Precinct 1, Fort Bend, Texas. George had just married his wife, Hattie, a year prior to the enumeration of the census, according to the record, meaning that Bessie would have been born before his first marriage. If this is the right Judge Baker, perhaps this is the reason he acknowledged Bessie as his own, since he was not married at the time of her birth.
Although we did not locate any direct evidence of a connection between George C. Baker and your Bessie Baker, the census and vital records we were able to locate demonstrate that there was a George C. Baker who was a county judge and resided in Richmond, Fort Bend County, Texas, and who was old enough to be Bessie’s father. If he did acknowledge her and was concerned for her well-being as your family story suggests, Bessie may have been mentioned in his probate papers.
You can view the probate file for George C. Baker on the Fort Bend County Clerk Web page by conducting a search for surname “Baker” and forename “G,” since some of his probate was recorded under “George Baker” and others under “G.C. Baker.” From what we found, your Bessie Baker was not mentioned in George C. Baker’s will, but you’ll likely want to examine all papers related to his estate to see if she received any money or property from him. You could also search through the various deeds and land transactions of which George C. Baker was a part during his lifetime.
What About Cora Moore?
We were unable to locate Cora Moore in any records in Fort Bend County, Texas. Interestingly, when we opened the search to individuals named Cora (no surname), born circa 1875 (old enough to be Bessie’s mother, give or take five years) and residing in Fort Bend, Texas, we located a Cora Robinson, born about 1874, residing in Precinct 5, Fort Bend, Texas, in the household of her mother, Hager Robinson, in 1880.
We know from previous census records that Lucy, the woman who adopted Bessie Baker, had the maiden name “Robinson.” In 1870 Lucy Robinson was living in Fort Bend, Texas, age 10, in the household of her father, Ironton Robinson. We know this is the right Lucy because her brother, Levi Robinson, was also recorded, and both parents were born in Mississippi. Their post office was Richmond, the same as the household of Willie and Hager Robinson that same year. It might be worth further research to see if there is a connection between the two Robinson families and whether Cora Robinson is actually your Cora Moore. This could explain how Lucy Robinson came to adopt Bessie Baker, if they were closely related somehow.
It could be that the only way to know for certain whether your family story is true would be to try to locate a descendant of George C. Baker to see if he or she would be willing to take an autosomal DNA test to compare with the DNA of a descendant of your maternal great-grandmother, Bessie. (Testing the oldest living generation is recommended for the best chance of a match.) 23andMe, AncestryDNA and FamilyTreeDNA are among the DNA-testing companies that offer such services, and they have databases through which cousins who have taken the required tests can be matched, too.
Good luck in your continued search!
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.
Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.
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.