Creeks in Oklahoma: Lochar Harjo, unidentifed man, John McGilvry and Silas Jefferson (aka Hotulkomiko), circa 1877
Smithsonian

Dear Professor Gates:

I have always been told by my grandfather Ruben Lavelle Ingram Jr. that his grandmother, Zula Bell Harry, was Native American. However, no one has provided any Dawes Roll registration for her, or even a tribe. I suspect she may actually be African American, but I would like to learn more about her, including whether the legend is true.

I do know that [Zula Bell] Harry was born in Sylacauga, Ala., to William Harry and Mary Murphy. Her son, Ruben Lavelle Ingram Sr., was born in 1908 in Sylacauga, Ala. He served in the Navy during World War II and later lived in Long Beach, Calif., where he worked as a security guard. He died in Pensacola, Fla., on Jan. 16, 1982.

[Zula Bell] Harry was married to Robert Lee Ingram, the father of Ruben Lavelle Ingram Sr. Robert Lee Ingram was born on Dec. 23, 1890, in Alabama and died in 1968. —Eric Ingram

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The short answer to your question is that the two theories about your great-great-grandmother’s heritage may not be mutually exclusive, but more about that in a bit.

How Zula Bell Harry Identified Herself

When you’re trying to determine the “race” or ethnicity of an individual who was alive during the 20th century, one helpful resource is the U.S. census. From 1900 to 1940, the federal census listed the “race” of recorded individuals, suggesting how they might have identified themselves, but more importantly, how they were perceived by the census taker. It is a surprise to most of us that it was the census taker who ultimately determined into which racial category a person fell, independent of how that person felt about his or her own ethnic designation.

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According to FamilySearch, in the 1900 census, a 17-year-old Jula B. Ingram (note the variant spelling) of Eclectic, Elmore, Ala., identified as white, as did her 20-year-old husband, R.L. Ingram. They were virtually newlyweds at the time: Their marriage license, under the names of Julia Bell Harry and R.L. Ingram, is dated Sept. 27, 1898. (Note the spelling variations for her first name, which are common in these types of records.)

In the 1910 census, 26-year-old Zula B. Ingram, of Precinct 6, Tallapoosa, Ala., and her spouse, Robert L. Ingram, identified as white. Among their children is a 1-year-old son, also white, named Lovell. Perhaps this is your great-grandfather, Ruben Lavelle Ingram Sr.?

In the 1930 census, 48-year-old Zula B. Ingram, of Bevelle, Tallapoosa, Ala., was divorced and identified as white. In the 1940 census, 56-year-old Zula B. Ingram of Alexander, Tallapoosa, Ala., was divorced and listed as head of a household with no one else in it. Again, she identified as white.

As you can see, she consistently identified as white; however, this does not definitively settle the question of whether she had Native American or African origins. This country has a long-standing tradition of some phenotypically indeterminate people shedding the stigma of inconvenient racial heritages and “passing as white.” It’s a subject of great fascination in classic African-American novels such as The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, by James Weldon Johnson, among many others.

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Why Both Theories About Her Heritage Could Be Correct

Perhaps you know that the Creek Indians were local to Alabama until their forced relocation to Oklahoma after the U.S. government passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830. As we mentioned in a previous column, the Creeks were among the so-called Five Civilized Tribes, which owned slaves of African descent (the others being the Cherokee, the Choctaw, the Chickasaw and the Seminole).

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You’ve likely also heard of the dreaded “Trail of Tears,” in which the Cherokees were brutally forced to travel out of the southeastern U.S. in the late 1830s. Similarly, about 15,000 Creeks and those enslaved by them were relocated West, away from their ancestral homes and against their will.

You mentioned the lack of a Dawes Roll record, officially known as the “The Final Rolls of the Citizens and Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory,” for your great-great-grandmother. The Oklahoma Historical Society has a searchable database of the Dawes Rolls, so we searched for members of the Creek Nation with the surname Harry. Keep in mind that enrollment for the rolls occurred between 1898 and 1908.

You told us that Zula Bell Harry’s father was named William, and though we found no one on the list with a similar name who would have been old enough to be her father, we did find a 1-year-old William Harry (card No. 1565) who was a Creek Freedmen (the name for African-American former slaves of the Creek and their descendants). Could he have been named after a parent or ancestor?

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Since you suspect that Zula Bell Harry might have had African-American ancestry, you may want to research baby William further to see if he could be related to Zula Bell Harry. You can access the card by contacting the Oklahoma Historical Society Research Center at 405-522-5225, or by mailing in their printable order form (pdf). Dawes Final Roll packets cost a flat fee of $30.

We also suggest that you take an autosomal DNA test to determine your admixture of Native American, African and European ancestry, if you have not already. These tests are available through companies such as 23andMeFamilyTreeDNA and Ancestry.com. If the ethnicity in question entered the family tree more than six generations ago, it’s possible that the DNA test won’t show it, but on the other hand, you might find confirmation of what you suspect.

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How Death Records Can Provide Even More Clues

Now that you have some leads, it’s prudent to cast a wider net using the names of known ancestors. For instance, you can search for death records in the databases “Alabama Deaths and Burials, 1881-1952” and “Alabama Deaths, 1908-1974” (the latter available via American Ancestors, the site of the New England Historic Genealogy Society) to determine when and where your ancestors died. These records also frequently list the names of parents, which would allow you to seek their census records. We found Zula Harry Ingram’s death-record index listing, which indicates she died in 1954, and her parents were listed as W. Robert Harry and Mollie Murphy.

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Another tool for determining more firm dates of birth and death for ancestors is a gravestone. We found gravestones in Marble City Cemetery of Sylacauga, Ala., which indicated that William Robert Harry was born May 23, 1861, and died Feb. 21, 1937, and that Mary (Murphy) Harry (note variant spelling) was born Oct. 10, 1864, and died June 28, 1934. Bearing in mind that the parents of Zula Bell Harry were alive through 1930, census records could also be located for her parents, which would specify how they identified themselves racially. 

Having the death dates for William and Mary (Murphy) Harry, we used this information to locate their death indexes. The death index for Mary Jane (Murphy) Harry, which matches the date on her gravestone, suggests that her father was named J.W. Murphy. The death index for William Harry indicates that he was the son of Benjamin Harry and Mary Banner. Once again, census records may be used to determine how these individuals identified racially. By using a combination of census records and marriage and death indexes, the ancestry of Zula Bell Harry can be traced back further to determine if any records refer to an African-American or Native American ancestor.

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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Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

This answer was provided in consultation with Zachary Garceau, 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.