New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps workers, similar to Kelly Godwin, planting a tree in western North Carolina, circa 1936 (North Carolina State Archives)

A grandfather made headlines for his various run-ins with the law, but his origins and racial identity are mysterious.

Dear Professor Gates:

I can’t seem to find much information on my grandfather Kelly H. Godwin. Several newspapers in Robeson County, N.C., have carried stories about his different run-ins with local law enforcement. I even found the advertisement of my mother’s birth to Kelly and his wife at the time, Virginia Fairbanks Godwin.

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I am unable to find any documentation of my grandfather’s birth, his life, his parents, or exactly what percentage of black or Indian he happened to be. Can you please give me advice on where to look, or who to get in touch with for help? —Juaqyna McHoul

You are lucky to have such a great window into the colorful life of your grandfather—even if it was the result of tribulations at the time. As you mentioned, he appears in numerous newspaper articles, mainly in The Robesonian newspaper throughout his early life in that county. They recount arrests, trials and mayhem that related to suspected alcohol use on Kelly H. Godwin’s part. One example, from the July 7, 1930, edition of the newspaper, provides a florid and racially loaded description:

Kelly Godwin, Indian, crazy drunk and armed with a shotgun, held up several motorists on Route 20, 3 miles north of Lumberton, Sunday afternoon and had the road blocked when chief of police Marvin Barker of Lumberton and Rural Policeman Mark Page arrived on the scene about 4 p.m. and overpowered the man, who put up a nasty fight, but did not offer to shoot them. Godwin, who has a police court record, was sentenced to five months on the chain gang by Recorder Ivey this morning.

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We suggest that you comb the newspaper accounts you find for additional leads, as we did.

A Dramatic Youth Leaves a Paper Trail 

An article on Sept. 3, 1934, in The Robesonian (via Newspapers.com; subscription required) noted that Kelly H. Godwin arrived back home on a six-day pass from the CCC Camp at Pisgah National Forest. The Civilian Conservation Corps was a public works program begun in 1933 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal that provided jobs for unemployed men ages 18-25. This description, published by the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, gives us a window into the work your grandfather was doing:

In North Carolina the CCC had 66 camps, employing nearly 14,000 men in 47 counties. One of the earliest of North Carolina’s camps was Camp John Rock in Pisgah Forest. ... Eventually, 220 workers were assigned to the unit. Their major projects included fish and fawn rearing, road building and maintenance, trail improvement, reforestation and forest conservation. Their work is evident today throughout Pisgah National Forest. The camp closed in 1936 and the program was abolished by Congress in 1942.

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CCC enrollee records are held at the National Archives. Ashley Mattingly put together a great guide (pdf) to what kind of information you may be able to locate in CCC personnel records, which include Kelly H. Godwin’s birthdate and place, an address upon entering the CCC and likely his mother’s name. Contact the ranger offices at Pisgah National Forest to see if their offices hold any records or photographs of the CCC that may include your grandfather.

We also noted that it appears Kelly H. Godwin may have been in a Veterans Administration Hospital in 1940. Here, his race is recorded as white and his birth about 1914 in North Carolina. The hospital was in Augusta, Ga., and records that Kelly was in the U.S. Army. You may want to see if you can determine if your Kelly H. Godwin served in the military, or inquire about records of his stay in the VA Hospital.

It will also be useful to note any other individuals associated with your Kelly H. Godwin in the newspapers, since these often provide clues when researching for additional records. An article in the April 19, 1939, Robesonian connects Kelly H. Godwin with Letha Godwin, who was charged with false testimony in the trial of Neill Archie Hammonds, who was convicted of assault against “H. Kelly Godwin.”

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This tells you that Kelly H. Godwin likely had a relationship to Letha Godwin and probably Neill Archie Hammonds. It also tells you that there are court documents that may also be useful to your search. You could contact the Robeson County Courthouse to see if records from this trial, or any others Kelly H. Godwin was involved in, are available for search. A transcript of the trial may provide you with a better idea of his relationships with those that testified.

For example, we located Letha J. Godwin in Saddle Tree, Robeson, N.C., in 1930, the 6-year-old daughter of W.D. Godwin. All the members of the household were recorded as being Indian, and they are living closely to a number of Hammond families. In 1940 this family was still residing closely to the Hammond families, suggesting a close relationship between these two families. You will likely want to investigate this connection further.

Additional Clues Point Back in Time

You mentioned that you had located a birth announcement for your mother, Dwala Juaqyne, on Oct. 15, 1942, in The Robesonian newspaper. It says she was born in West Florida to parents Kelly H. Godwin of Lumberton, N.C., and Virginia Frohock Godwin of Jacksonville, Fla. It also states that Kelly was the son of “Mrs. Texie Godwin of Lumberton, Route 1.” This gives you a great lead to work even further back.

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We located a World War II Draft Registration card for Kelly H. Godwin (on Fold3.com; subscription required) showing him being born Nov. 9, 1913, at Lumberton, Robeson, N.C. He recorded his mother, Texas Godwin, as the person who would always know his address and that she was residing at Route 2, Lumberton, Robeson, N.C. His address was initially given as Route 1, Lumberton, Robeson, but was crossed out and replaced with P.O. Box 221, Havana, Fla. His race was recorded as white, but he was described as being of “dark” complexion with black hair and hazel eyes.

We located another draft card for an individual who listed Texas Godwin as his next of kin: James Avent Godwin, born Aug. 23, 1898 (on Ancestry.com; subscription required) at Robeson, N.C. The card first recorded his race as “white,” but it was crossed off and replaced with “Indian.” He was described as having “light” complexion, black hair and blue eyes. The card does not record the relationship between Texas and James.

An abstract for James Avance Godwin’s death record on Aug. 4, 1963, at Lumberton records his mother as Texie Lee Goins and his father as Daniel Godwin. Based on this, it seems very likely that James is a brother to your Kelly H. Godwin and that their parents’ names were Daniel and Texie/Texas (Goins) Godwin.

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We also located a death record for a Lexie Godwin, who was born in 1877 and died July 28, 1943, at Saddletree Township, Robeson, N.C. Her parents were recorded as James Goings and Vicy Jones, and her spouse as Dan Godwin. She was widowed, and her race was recorded as “Indian.” A view of the original record (subscription required) reveals that her name was transcribed incorrectly and it was “Texie,” not “Lexie.” This is most certainly a record for the mother of Kelly H. Godwin and James Avant Godwin.

A marriage record for Texie Goins and Daniel Godwin in Robeson County records that they were married by Jordan Chavis, Min., on Aug. 22, 1887, and the marriage was witnessed by H.G. Jones, John H. Hammond and Ishmel Chavis. This is another record that connects the Godwins to the Hammond family, and the connection is worth further investigation.

We were able to locate Texie Godwin (spelled “Gowdion” in the record) and six children (including James A. Godwin) recorded in Robeson County in 1910. They were recorded in the “Indian Population” census that was recorded that year. Based on the birth date for Kelly H. Godwin on his draft registration, he was not yet born by 1910, though Texie is recorded as a widow in this census. In the “Special Inquires relating to Indians” section of the page, Texie was recorded first as Cherokee, but it was replaced by Croatan (a designation local to North Carolina), as were both of her parents. The children were all recorded as Creek, with the father being Creek and their mother Croatan.

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What Was His Ethnic Heritage? 

To address your question about what percentage of black or Native American ancestry Kelly H. Godwin had: The records we found identified him as either “Indian” or “white,” with his “dark” complexion noted in one instance. For possible context, read Stacey Ricketts’ posting of “The Mulatto Classification of Indian Families and Related Laws.” It notes that a 1910 petition by the Croatan Indians of Sampson County, N.C., reveals that the white population in the area classified the Native population as being black, and Ricketts characterizes the practice as an attempt to usurp Native land rights.

We also suggest that you take an autosomal DNA test, which will tell you definitively whether you have any Native American ancestry. These tests are available through companies such as 23andMe, Family Tree DNA and Ancestry.com.

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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.

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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, AmericanAncestors.org, 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.