“When I was growing up, there were always whispers of black ancestors among my father’s family, but no one would ever discuss it openly. I grew up across the country from that side of the family, so the question never seemed very important. Now all the family members that might have had some answers are deceased.

“My brother had his DNA analyzed by Ancestry.com in 2008. His paternal haplogroup is E1b1a. Our family name is Wallace. I haven’t been able to trace our Wallace family tree back any further than our fourth great-grandfather, John Wallace, who was born before 1785. He was listed in the 1840 census as a free colored person, along with sons John and Noah (the latter is our third great-grandfather).

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“These three people were the only ones in Milton Township, Richland County, Ohio, who were listed as colored. The senior John Wallace wasn’t found in the 1850 census, but the sons, Noah and John Wallace, were listed as white in that and all the subsequent censuses until they died (as were all of their descendants). Noah was born in 1813 in Delaware and John in 1805 in Maryland. They both married Bowser sisters (I am presuming), most likely in Maryland in 1833 and 1828, respectively.

“23andMe has given me racial-admixture test results of 2.3 percent sub-Saharan African and 97.5 percent European composition. When I work that backward, I believe Noah had to have had about 75 percent African ancestry. This scenario seems unusual to me. I would be very interested in any kind of insight that you might have. I would also like to have a reading list to help me understand the history of free colored persons at the beginning of the 19th century.” —Sylvia Wallace Snapinn

The scenario you describe is not as unusual as it might seem to you. As previously noted in the “100 Amazing Facts About the Negro” column, geneticist Joanna Mountain of 23andMe.com estimates that 3 to 4 percent of Americans who are likely to consider themselves to be all white do have some African ancestry. We have also noted in another “Amazing Facts” column that there were thousands of free blacks, like your ancestors, living in America before slavery ended.

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In fact, by 1860, there were a total of 488,070 free blacks living in the United States, about 10 percent of the entire black population. Of those, 226,152 lived in the North and 261,918 in the South, in 15 states (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas), plus the District of Columbia.

In learning more about your ancestors, you may find it useful to look at the experience of free blacks in each state in which they lived.

The Wallace Family in Maryland and Delaware

Slavery in Maryland was not outlawed until 1864, a year before the end of the Civil War. You know that John Wallace senior was probably born in Maryland before 1785. In tracing your ancestry back further, it will be useful to know if John Wallace was ever enslaved or if he was born as a free African American.

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The Maryland State Archives’ Legacy of Slavery in Maryland documents the history of slavery using archival records. It also contains the online database Beneath the Underground: The Flight to Freedom. This digital archive contains records such as runaway ads, slave jail records, census records and manumissions. Finding manumission records, or legal documents granting a slave his or her freedom, may be helpful. These documents were typically recorded in land records of states that permitted slavery. Occasionally they were recorded in probate documents, since slave owners, upon their death, would sometimes free their slaves.

In your own research, you found that the Wallace family probably moved from Maryland to Delaware between the birth of their two sons in 1805 and 1813. The book Free African Americans of Maryland and Delaware From the Colonial Period to 1810 by Paul Heinegg is a compilation of land, probate and tax records pertaining to free African Americans in both Delaware and Maryland. The book is also searchable on Ancestry.com.

We did a quick search of the Wallace surname and found that there were several records of free African Americans with the Wallace surname living in Kent County, Del., between 1800 and 1810. Kent County is on the Delmarva Peninsula, which is occupied by both Delaware and Maryland. This may be a good place to start your research to see if you can find evidence of your ancestors in Delaware and Maryland.

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In 1790 there were 2,570 free African Americans in Kent County. Although Delaware was a slaveholding state that did not abolish slavery until 1865, it was part of the Union in the Civil War and had a large population of free African Americans. For example, in 1810, 76 percent of the state’s African-American population was free. Although these blacks were not enslaved, their rights were still limited by state legislation, which denied them the right to vote and made it difficult for them to own land. The University of Delaware provides a more detailed account of their lives before the Civil War here. Given these conditions, perhaps the Wallace family left Maryland and Delaware in search of more opportunities further west.

The Wallace Family in Ohio

Unlike in Delaware and Maryland, slavery in Ohio was illegal as early as 1803, when the first Constitution of Ohio was drafted. Although slavery was illegal, fugitive slaves could still be captured and returned. Furthermore, the rights of African Americans were limited and racial tensions persisted, especially in larger cities. Ohio History Central provides a great account of this history.

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From looking at the 1840 U.S. Federal Census record for the senior and junior John Wallaces, we see that both men were listed as working in agriculture. It is possible that the family relocated to Ohio, where land was more available and more readily purchased. However, in looking at the 1850 U.S. Federal Census records for both Noah Wallace and John Wallace junior, we see that neither man owned any real estate. Nevertheless, it may still be useful to search the grantor and grantee indexes of Richland County Land records to see if you can find a record of the Williams family. Microfilm of those records can be borrowed from the Family History Library.

As you mentioned, the descendants of John Wallace were listed as white, rather than black or mulatto, in subsequent census records. It is possible that they were able to identify as white (or “pass,” as African Americans say) and decided to do so in order to avoid discrimination. The fact that your brother’s DNA shows the sub-Saharan African haplogroup E1b1a supports the 1840 U.S. Federal Census record listing the Wallace family as “free colored people.”

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 the editor-in-chief 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 Kristin Britanik, 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.