Why Is My White Ancestor Listed as Black in the Census?

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and NEHGS Researcher Meaghan Siekman
Eddie and John Dow
Courtesy of Amber Taylor

Dear Professor Gates:

Growing up, I saw a picture of my great-great-grandparents, and it has fascinated me. My great-great-grandfather John Dow was a white man born in Arkansas. He left Arkansas around age 11 in search of his father, Samuel Ward, in Mississippi. He eventually married Eddie Smith, a black woman, and had 10 children. I can’t find a record of them or their kids until the 1940 census, where he’s listed as Negro. He was clearly a white man, as his picture shows. We have come up with a theory that my great-great-grandmother may have answered the door and the census worker assumed that he was black, but we really don’t know. Their marriage was not a secret to anyone in Jackson, Miss. In fact, he opened an RC Cola stand for an African-American neighborhood.


Do you know why he would have been listed as “Negro”? I’m trying to trace my roots and found that John Dow was born around Jonesboro, Ark., and that we’re distant cousins to the family that owns Dow Chemical Co. What is the best way to get started? —Amber Taylor

It’s not uncommon for information to be documented incorrectly in census records, particularly when it comes to race. As Professor Gates and researcher Anna Todd of the New England Historic Genealogical Society wrote in a previous column, “The status of a person listed in the federal census (black, white or mulatto) was ultimately the personal interpretation of the census taker, based on assumptions made regarding skin color and other aspects of an individual’s appearance, regardless of what the occupant of the home told her or him. Therefore, one can’t necessarily infer parentage, complexion or much else based on that designation in a census record.”


Alternately, someone other than John Dow in the household might have provided information that was not completely accurate; or it is possible that the person providing the information did not mention that he was white and the census taker just assumed that everyone in the household was black.

Of course, there is the possibility that he did, in fact, have African ancestry and chose not to “pass,” or identify as white, despite his European appearance. During much of the slavery era, the law of hypodescent, or the infamous “one-drop rule,” meant that any amount of African ancestry, no matter how small, was enough for an individual to be identified as black. That law was really racist pseudoscience designed to maintain children born to black enslaved women and fathered by white men (often their masters) as property. Typically, the condition of the child of a slave mother followed the condition of the mother, no matter what the child looked like phenotypically. Even after slavery, this tradition of hypodescent persisted.


Any of these scenarios could be what happened in the 1940 U.S. census, where your ancestor John Dow, whom you believe to have been white, was recorded as “Negro.”

So Which Scenario Is the Correct One?

We searched for earlier records of the family to see how John Dow’s race is recorded over time, and we saw a pattern. We noted via Ancestry.com (subscription required) that John and Eddie Dow were recorded in the 1927 city directory for Jackson, Miss. In the directory, the couple were recorded as colored, marked by a “(c),” and were living at 1815 W. Lynch. The city directory provided a clue for how to find even more records of the family: They were recorded at the same address in the 1927 city directory and in the 1940 census, meaning that they would have been living in the same place during the enumeration of the 1930 U.S. census.


In that census, the family’s surname was recorded as “Daw” and John’s age was recorded as 52, placing his birth about 1872. Once again, John Dow’s race was recorded as “Negro,” as were those of the rest of the family. In addition to Willie, James, Joseph, Catherine and Robert, who were also listed in the 1940 census, this earlier census includes three other children: Margaret, born about 1914; John, born about 1916; and Laura L., born about 1920. If you are having trouble working even further back in time searching for John Dow, you could try searching for his older children, who should be recorded in the 1920 U.S. census.

We had difficulty locating the family in an earlier census, but we did note via Ancestry.com that a city directory places John and Eddie Dow at “Taylors add” in Jackson in 1916. John and Eddie Dow were recorded in the “Colored Department” section of the directory.


When we searched for more records of John Dow, we came across the school-enrollment papers for John Dow’s children on FamilySearch. Based on what we know about his children and their ages, it appears that this record, which was filed as “1940?,” is actually closer to 1926. All of John Dow’s children enrolled in school were recorded as “colored” and enrolled in the Jackson Separate School. There is no mention of John Dow’s race in the records. It appears that the whole family was considered by others to be black, since none of the children are even mentioned as being mulatto or mixed race.

Additionally, on FamilySearch we were able to locate a World War I draft card for what appears to be your John Dow. According to the record, he was born Dec. 25, 1886, and he registered in Jackson, Hinds, Miss. The card records that he was married with four children. We know from the 1916 city directory that John and Eddie were already married by 1916, and his age in the record matches what we know about your John Dow. Here, his race is recorded as “African.” It would be unusual for him to be recorded this way on a draft registration if he were not black.


We considered the possibility that he was recorded as black because of his marriage to a black woman, and we were curious to see whether any records prior to his marriage recorded his race this way. We were able to determine that John Dow and Eddie Smith were married April 9, 1908, in Hinds County, Miss. The reference to this marriage that we located was just the index, but it means that the original record exists.

The Hinds County Circuit Court clerk holds the original marriage records. You could request a copy from the Hinds County Courthouse to see whether the marriage record has a race listed for both parties. The original record may also include their parents’ names, which could help you work back into the family tree even further. Even without the original, since we know their marriage date, we know that any records we were able to locate prior to this date would be before his marriage to Eddie.


We were able to locate one record of John Dow prior to this date, via Ancestry.com. It appears that in 1907, John Dow was living alone as a laborer in Jackson. He is recorded in the section of the directory for the “Colored Population,” meaning that he was considered to be of color even before his marriage to Eddie. With this knowledge, you may want to search earlier census records for a John Dow who was recorded in the census as a person of color.

What Now?

With so many records in which John Dow was recorded as black or a person of color, it appears that there is more to your family story than you were previously aware. It’s likely that your ancestor was an African American but that he had a high percentage of European ancestry in his genome’s admixture over the prior few hundred years.


It remains the practice of many Americans of mixed heritage, regardless of physical appearance, to self-identify with the African-American community if they are descended from ancestors who also self-identified as Negro, colored, African American or black. We think of it as the refusal to “pass,” even though that person may be, genetically, way more European in his or her genome than sub-Saharan African. It appears that your ancestor chose to be identified as black, even though he could have passed for white.

You may get closer to an answer if you have your own DNA tested at one of the three major companies that offer tests showing a biogeographic breakdown of your ancestry: 23andMe, AncestryDNA and FamilyTreeDNA. You may even find your DNA connection to the famous Dow family via cousin matching.


So take the test and let us know!

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.

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