22 May 2014

Black and Blue?

The May/June Yale magazine considers who the university’s first African-American graduate was. The usual names are Richard Henry Green, MD 1857; Courtlandt Van Rensselaer Creed, MD 1857; and Edward Bouchet, 1874, PhD 1876. They were recognized as having black ancestry and (at least at times) classified as black in the racial categories of their time.

But what, Mark Alden Branch asks, about Moses Simons, 1809, already identified as Yale’s first Jewish graduate?
…evidence uncovered recently by two scholars—Adam Wolkoff of Rutgers and Laura Copland of Eugene Lang College—suggests that Simons could have had an African American mother, and that he was viewed by others as “colored,” in the parlance of the time.

Simons came from South Carolina, apparently the son of one of five Jewish brothers who emigrated there from London. Records are not clear as to which of the brothers was his father, and no record of his mother has been found. At least one of the brothers is known to have fathered a mixed-race child.

Simons became a lawyer in New York City. The only hints that he had African American ancestry come from an account of a criminal trial in 1818 after Simons was charged with assault. As told by a lawyer and journalist named Daniel Rogers in a contemporary legal periodical, Simons and his brother were asked to leave a dance because other patrons were uncomfortable with the presence of the “two coloured men.”
And the story of Randall Lee Gibson, 1853, reminds us that the whole question of racial classification is based on a series of fictions.
Gibson…grew up on a sugar plantation in Louisiana, the descendant of a family of wealthy planters and slave owners. He was a colonel in the Confederate army, fought to defend slavery, and called black people “the most degraded of all the races of men.” He became a US senator from Louisiana after Reconstruction.

But as Vanderbilt law professor Daniel Sharfstein ’00JD details in his book The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White, Gibson’s great-grandfather Gideon Gibson came to South Carolina in the 1730s as a “free man of color” with a white wife. By Randall Gibson’s time, the family explained any dark complexion in the family as due to Gypsy or Portuguese roots, Sharfstein says.
Both these Yale men had family roots in South Carolina, which had a fairly cosmopolitan port at Charleston, at times a legally “black” majority, and a racial code that differed from the Virginia laws that have been so studied.

1 comment:

Chaucerian said...

Thanks for the Sharfstein book mention -- it's making me think and reconsider, more than I expected --