Tracing Your Roots: Did Racism Force My Ancestors to Hide Their Love?

Bessie Fogg, Mary Elizabeth Fogg and Caroline Fogg Farrar
Bessie Fogg, Mary Elizabeth Fogg and Caroline Fogg Farrar
Photo: Family photo (courtesy of Nedra Farrar Swift)

Family lore about a great-grandparent’s interracial relationship lines up with clues in census records.

Dear Professor Gates:

My paternal grandmother, Caroline “Carrie” Fogg Farrar, was from Raleigh, N.C. She was a product of a relationship between her mother, Mary Elizabeth Fogg (who we had been told was 100 percent Cherokee), and a white landowner named Hal Witherspoon. Their relationship was such that they lived next door to each other; he never married or had other family.


My dad and his siblings grew up knowing Hal Witherspoon, and when he died, he left all of his property to my grandmother. My grandmother and one of her sisters attended St. Augustine School, which was actually walking distance from their home, but Witherspoon hired a carriage and driver to take them around the corner every Sunday and return them from school on Fridays.

Can you please help me to learn more about the origins of Mary Elizabeth Fogg and Hal Witherspoon? —Nedra Farrar Swift

The paper trail we found on your great-grandmother Mary Elizabeth Fogg and Hal Witherspoon suggests two people who went to great lengths to be near each other during a time in American history when interracial relationships were taboo and marriage across the color line was illegal in many states. In their home state of North Carolina, whites were prohibited from marrying black or Native American people until the U.S. Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision overturned that ban in 1967 and legalized interracial marriage nationwide.

Did They Have Two Households or One?

Like you, we started with census records to learn as much as we could about Hal Weatherspoon and Mary Elizabeth Fogg. One of the first things we noted is that according to census records, his first name was William and middle name Henry. Hal was clearly a nickname. Also, in various records, his surname was spelled Witherspoon or Weatherspoon.


In 1920, Mary and her son, Samuel, were residing at 719 S. East St. in Raleigh, Wake County, N.C. (via FamilySearch; free registration required). Directly next door at 721 S. East St. lived Wm. Henry Weatherspoon, who was born about 1859 at North Carolina. This census recorded that Mary was born in Georgia about 1868 and was a widow. Keep in mind that “widow” was often a term used on census records for women who had been abandoned by their husbands or perhaps had never married but had children, which, based on your family story, may be the case in this situation.

Ten years later, William H. Weatherspoon and Mary Elizabeth Fogg were recorded as neighbors in Raleigh, Wake County, N.C. William H. was 71 years old, placing his birth about 1859 at North Carolina. Mary Elizabeth was 55 years old, placing her birth about 1875. This census also tells you that William H. owned his home and that Mary Elizabeth rented her home, possibly from Hal, based on the proximity. The marital status of each suggests a previous relationship for both parties, with William H. recorded as divorced and Mary Elizabeth recorded as a widow. Mary’s son, Samuel K. Fogg, born about 1903, was also residing in her household.


In 1940, William H. Weatherspoon was still residing on South East Street in Raleigh, Wake County, N.C., though Mary Elizabeth Fogg is not recorded anywhere near him. William was recorded as being born about 1859 at North Carolina and was divorced, which matched the other records we located for him.

We located a death record for W. Hal Weatherspoon on March 8, 1943, at Raleigh, Wake County, N.C. The record states that he was born in January 1859 at Wake County and that his parents were Benjamin Weatherspoon and Carolina Barber. His address at the time of his death was 721 S. East St., and he was buried at the City Cemetery in Raleigh.


We searched the Wake County Grantors Index for a land record that might mention the land he left to his children, but we did not locate a transfer of land from William Hal Witherspoon. Working the other direction, we also did not locate a deed in which a person with the surname “Fogg” received land from anyone with the surname “Witherspoon.” Since the land transfer was not recorded in a deed, you will likely want to search for a probate record for William Hal Weatherspoon, since he may have bequeathed the property in his will.

We tried to work backward in time, too. We located Mary E. Fogg residing at 719 S. East St., Raleigh, in 1910 with her children, Bessie, David and Samuel, but William Hal Witherspoon is not residing in or near the household. We know from other records that this is an address associated with him, so perhaps Mary and her children were residing on his property.


We could not locate William Hal Weatherspoon in the 1910 census in Wake County, regardless of how we searched. It could be that his name was transcribed into a database incorrectly, so you may want to browse the census page by page for anyone around Mary Elizabeth Fogg who could be William Hal Witherspoon.

The Possible Origin of a Familiar Name 

With the information about William Hal Witherspoon’s mother from his death record, we located him residing with his mother, Caroline Weatherspoon, at 719 S. East St. in 1900. It is very likely that your grandmother Caroline “Carrie” Fogg was named for William Hal’s mother. This record again records that William Hal was divorced. His mother, Caroline, was born in November 1829 at North Carolina and had borne four children, three of which were still living in 1900, meaning that William Hal had siblings you could investigate further to learn more about the family. That same year, Mary Elizabeth Fogg was residing at East Cabarrus Street in Raleigh, very close to South East Street. She had six children living with her, including your grandmother Carrie, though the record states she had eight children living.


William Hal resided with his mother as a young man as well. In 1880 he was 21 years old and living in the household of his mother, Caroline Weatherspoon, in South East Raleigh, Wake County. It seems likely that Hal remained on the same location his entire life, perhaps on the same property. We located a Mary Fogg that year who was a single mother of two young children: Annie Fogg, born about 1876, and Delman Dewight, born about 1879. She is in the right place and of the right age to be your Mary Fogg, and both children would have been old enough in 1900 to have resided outside of her home. Given that Delman has a different surname, this may be a child from a previous relationship prior to her relationship with William Hal Witherspoon.

Working further back, we located William Hal as an infant in the household of Simpson Weatherspoon at the North Western District of Wake County, N.C., with his mother, Caroline. Though William Hal’s death record named his father as “Benjamin,” it seems likely that this is the right family and that perhaps Simpson went by a middle name or that by the time of William Hal’s death, the name had been remembered by the informant incorrectly. This record includes two elder sisters for William: Eliza and Nora.


There is a marriage record for Simpson Weatherspoon and Caroline Barly in Wake County, N.C., on July 4, 1850. As newlyweds, the couple were residing with Clarky Barby in Wake County in 1850. Because Barby or Barbee is a family name in Wake County, it is likely that her surname in her marriage record was a poorly written “Barby.” This gives you yet another generation to search for more information.

We were unable to definitively take Mary E. Fogg’s line back any further, but you will want to investigate three close matches to her description in the 1870 U.S. census to see if you can determine which one may be her. To do this, trace the families forward to see if you can find one of these Mary Foggs living somewhere when you have a record of your Mary Fogg living elsewhere. This will mean that you can rule them out as a possible match. Anyone you cannot trace forward may be your Mary Fogg and could help you uncover another generation on your Fogg family tree.


The Complicated Question of Mary Fogg’s Identity

As for whether your great-grandmother was “100 percent Cherokee,” the only records we located for Mary Elizabeth Fogg identify her race only as black or “mulatto.” Since race in census records was often determined by the census taker, this could just be due to a judgment based on the pigment of her skin. However, it could also mean that she was not self-identifying as Cherokee.


An additional explanation is possible: As we noted in our previous column “Where Did My Infamous Ancestor Come From?” a 1910 petition by the Croatan Indians of Sampson County, N.C. (roughly 70 miles from Wake County, where Mary Fogg lived), reveals that the white population in the area commonly classified members of the Native population as being black. Read Stacey Ricketts’ posting of “The Mulatto Classification of Indian Families and Related Laws” for more context.

With that in mind, we noted a number of people with the surname Fogg included on Cherokee Enrollment records. Many of the applications include detailed interviews about their families and where they originated. We did not locate anyone named Mary mentioned in the few records we reviewed, and it appears that some of these Foggs were from Arkansas, a location we have never seen associated with your Mary Elizabeth Fogg. However, we suggest that you closely examine the records yourself to see if you can find any family details that may connect to your Mary Elizabeth Fogg.


We also suggest that you take an autosomal DNA test to determine if you have Native American ancestry, if you have not already. These tests are available through companies such as 23andMe, Family Tree DNA and

Furthermore, if you identify and connect with living descendants of William Hal Witherspoon’s siblings and they are willing to have their DNA tested (or share the results of DNA tests they have already taken), you could confirm the family connection. The aforementioned companies currently also offer autosomal DNA cousin matching. If you have blood relatives in the Witherspoon family, their DNA may already be in the databases of one or more of these services.


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

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,, 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.

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