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The Story of Lewis G. Clarke, Part II

By Carver Gayton

Editor’s Note: In Part I of this article, published in our June issue, the author recounted how his great-grandfather, Lewis G. Clarke, escaped from slavery with his brother Milton.

After Lewis and Milton escaped from slavery, each settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Milton remained there until his death in 1901, while Lewis moved on to New York State, Canada, and ultimately back home to Lexington, Kentucky. Milton never considered himself black, as did Lewis. He consistently made statements over the years such as “… somewhere a link was lost [in his lineage] and a single drop of dark blood flows in my veins, but it is not discernable.” Like Lewis, Milton did not have prototypical black features. Milton married a white woman and they had several children. Newspaper and census records reflect that Milton’s children also never considered themselves black.

After Lewis’s death in 1897, the bloodline issue began to come to a head within Milton’s family. Jim Crow discriminatory laws in the late 1900’s along with the infamous Plessy vs. Ferguson “separate but equal” U. S. Supreme Court decision in 1896 reflected a greater backlash against blacks. Many individuals and families who appeared to be white but had black blood in their veins opted to cross over to the white world to avoid rampant discrimination. Such was the case concerning Milton’s family. His fear for his family is understandable.

The U. S. Library of Congress was in the process of gathering information on black authors and their books to appear as part of an exhibit in the planned Paris World’s Fair of 1900. Library officials wanted permission from Milton to have two books dictated and published by the brothers: Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clarke (1845) and Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis and Milton Clarke (1846) included in the exhibit. Milton refused and became so incensed by repeated efforts to contact him that he placed a copy of a court document in the Boston Globe in November, 1900, prohibiting publication of stories related to the early history of his life because they may cause “annoyance and embarrassment to my children and relatives … except such facts as may be given out by my family after my death.” The decree was obviously an act of desperation. The story went viral and appeared in newspapers throughout the nation. Concern over the “one drop rule” clearly divided the families of the two brothers. My mother never mentioned Milton Clarke to me or other members of my family during her entire lifetime. However, as the result of research on my recent book, two years ago I connected with the great-great grandson of Milton and his family who, after more than 100 years, never realized they had black blood in their veins. Our conversations are continuing.

A sad and sordid example of the one drop rule being still with us happened about a year or so ago when I was invited to attend a party given by a white couple I had known for a few years. The hostess introduced me to her son and his fiancé. I congratulated them on their engagement and began talking with the young lady. During the conversation she said, “I think you know my father.” She told me his name, and I replied, “Of course, I’ve known Bob since high school days.” I was taken aback because Bob was a light-brown-skinned African American, who I heard married a white lady. His daughter did not in any way appear to have black blood. As the conversation continued it became clear to everyone in the conversation that her father was black. The future groom began to sweat and appeared uncomfortable. It was apparent that he had not met the young lady’s father. Less than a week later I was informed by a mutual acquaintance that the engagement was broken off because of the race of the young woman’s father. Appearance, by itself, may not bring about a racist reaction. Just knowing one has the “blood” may trigger the act. It was the young man’s loss because his former fiancé is very bright and attractive.

The tragic shooting of unarmed Tony Robinson recently in Madison, Wisconsin, and the protestations by the mother of the victim that her son was not black but biracial, raises questions that are related to the one drop rule. Clearly, individuals have the right to identify themselves in any way they desire. That right must be respected. However, from looking at photographs of Mr. Robinson, I must say he had the appearance of many young men who also identify themselves as African American. A policeman with a gun and a racist mindset who sees someone like Mr. Robinson will not go down a check list before determining if the suspect is African American, multiracial, mulatto, etc., before he decides to perpetrate unjustified harm. He would see a man of color. I hope Mr. Robinson’s mother was not intimating a hierarchy of acceptability within racial categories. That certainly was the obvious intent when racial categories were first initiated in America.

When it comes to racial mixtures in the United States, 58 percent of African Americans have at least 13 percent European ancestry. Among those who identify themselves as white, 30 percent have some African ancestry. These figures show that we in America, both black and white, are more “family” than many of us are willing to admit. Taking into consideration the aforementioned statistics and anecdotes, and as we see an increase of racial tensions swirling around us, shouldn’t we ask: Are we as a nation operating within a paradigm of race and bloodlines that limit us from making greater strides toward racial harmony in America?

Carver Clark Gayton is the author of “When Owing a Shilling Costs a Dollar: The Saga of Lewis G. Clarke, Born a White Slave” (2014) and a PSARA member

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