Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega
Chicago, Illinois, USA
September 11
A (Sometimes) Respectable Negro
Editor and Founder of the blog We Are Respectable Negroes He has been a guest on the BBC, Ring of Fire Radio, Ed Schultz, Joshua Holland's Alternet Radio Hour, the Burt Cohen show, and Our Common Ground. His essays have been featured by Salon, Alternet, the New York Daily News, and the Daily Kos. The NY Times, the Daily Beast, the Utne Reader, Washington Monthly, Slate, and the Week (among others) have featured his expert commentary and analysis on race, politics, and popular culture.

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Editor’s Pick
AUGUST 1, 2012 2:59PM

Did President Obama's "Free" Black Ancestors Own Slaves?

Rate: 13 Flag

History is a trickster (again).

In all of the excitement over the "revelation" that President Obama is apparently a descendant from John Punch, the first African-American slave in the colonies, many glossed over the following bit of important information.

From ABC News:

The enslaved, black Punch had children with a free white woman. Because their mother was free, Punch's mixed-race kids were born free and went on to become "prominent" land owners in Virginia, Harman said.
Who are these people? What connection did they have to the growing slaveocracy and slave regime?

There were quite a few free blacks and mulattoes who owned African-Americans as human property. Slaves (and their labor) was the number one capital good in the United States up until the Civil War. To be landed and wealthy--or to have aspirations for such social mobility--meant that a white person would likely own slaves.

These arrangements varied. Sometimes free blacks "owned" their children, relatives, or spouse in order to protect them from slave catchers. Other times the relationships were the same as those between white slave owners and their human property--slaves were an investment, owned as property, and treated as such by their free black masters.

It would seem that some basic research suggests that John Punch's descendants were slave owning mulattoes whose descendants likely "passed" over from black to white. This data set listing the "Free Africans Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, and Delaware" offers support for this hypothesis. As also noted's release of the genealogy research on Obama's family, "John Punch" was the father of "John Bunch":

The Bunch family probably descended from John Bunch, born say 1630, who received a patent for 450 acres in New Kent County on 18 March 1662 [Patents 5:152]. He may have been the ancestor of several mixed-race members of the family:
1        i. Paul1, born say 1675.
2        ii. John1. born say 1684.
3        iii. Henry1, born say 1690.

1. Paul Bunch, born perhaps 1675, received a patent for 265 acres in North Carolina on the south side of the Roanoke River joining Quankey Pocosin and Gideon Gibson on 1 January 1725, and he bought a further 300 acres joining this land [Halifax DB 8:283]. He may have been the same Paul Bunch who was listed in the King William County, Virginia Rent Roll in 1704.

His Chowan County will was written on 16 November 1726 and probated on 10 March 1726/7 [SS 876, 3:138-9]. He left his land and eight slaves to his son John and to Fortune Holdbee and her daughters Keziah and Jemima. Elizabeth Bunch (no relationship stated) and his daughter Russell received only one shilling each.(1) He did not mention a wife nor did he mention his relationship to Fortune Holdbee. She may have been his common-law wife since he gave her one slave as long as she remained single.

The May 1734 Bertie court minutes referred to Keziah as "an orphan Child Entitled to a considerable Estate ... (by the will of Paul Bunch) bound to Capt. Thos. Bryant till the age of Thirty one contrary to law," and the August 1735 Bertie County court Minutes referred to the estate of "a Mulatto woman, Keziah Holdebee, and three children [Haun, Bertie County Court Minutes, I:135, 154]...

Henry Bunch Sr., probably born about 1690, was a resident of Chowan County on 18 December 1727 when he purchased 200 acres in Bertie County on Reedy Branch. On 30 May 1729 he purchased 640 acres in Bertie on Conaritsat Swamp from Thomas Pollock [DB C:21, 266]. He was taxed on himself and two slaves in the 1750 Bertie County summary tax list and was a "Free Mulatto" taxable with two slaves in John Hill's 1763 Bertie tax list. Henry made a will in Bertie on 21 April 1775, proved in August 1775. He had already deeded 840 acres of land on Conaritsat and Mulberry to his grandson Jeremiah, Jr., in 1765, and in his will left most of the remainder of his land to his grandson Cader Bass [WB B:34-7].

I wonder about the human experience that lies behind a ledger entry as property to be bequeathed with the horses, furniture, and land, passed from one person to the next upon the death of a family scion or patriarch.

What were their stories?

The race making business was and is messy, dirty, confusing, and complicated stuff. In the United States, the complexities and contradictions of the color line, and the struggles to unmake it, are perfectly present in the literal body of President Barack Obama. He is the descendant of the country's first black bondsman, the latter's ancestors would then go on to own other African-Americans as chattel, and their line would come full circle with Barack Obama as President of the United States.

I do not know if such a story is a tragedy or a triumph. Nevertheless, the human drama is both bizarre and fascinating.

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So much African "blood" running thru the veins of the long-standing white population! One of the bizarre aspects is that of 'white' people who unwittingly (?) hate part of themselves... Could we just get over this appearance (and 'one drop', but only if we know) business?
Bizarre and fascinating indeed. Thanks for writing this up! As you say so well, "The race making business was and is messy, dirty, confusing, and complicated stuff."
I worked on the Kitty Foster homesite as an Archaeology student in the African American studies field, in the early 90s. Kitty Foster was an African American pre-Civil War Virginian Freedwoman - possibly a seamstress - living on a site discovered on the UVa campus in the early 1990s. Interestingly, because our field was historical archaeology, we were able to hit the library and determine that the Foster family had "crossed over" and identified themselves as white. In that year (1994, the summer of OJ Simpson!) an executive decision was made from the University that we would NOT pursue identification of the descendent community. I believe this was in part because there was true concern at that point, 20 years ago, about how the news would be received.
Dear God, I don't care who or where Obama came is where he is going that matters. The slave business was agreeably messy. Immigration is messy. Life is messy. What matters is what you do with it and not how you got it. Birth is an accident. Life is a journey.
Ande -100%. If I found out tomorrow I was a black and a Jew it would change nothing.
"To be landed and wealthy--or to have aspirations for such social mobility--meant that a white person would likely own slaves."

Depending on what stat you look at somewhere between 1/4 and 1/3 of families owned slaves. That number includes the free who became slave owners including those mentioned above who "owned" their families.

The fact is this happened about 300 years before any of us were born. We didn't do it and we don't know anyone who did. That is history of the long ago past. Things were different back them and while we won't agree with it is what it was.

I agree with Ande. Who President Obama was related to hundreds of years ago means the same as who we were related to hundreds of years ago. It has nothing to do with how he leads now unless he is holding a grudge for how he thinks his family was wronged.

Remember, before you go and start condemning people for the past based on what we currently think is right and wrong that is 300 years someone is going to be judging you based on what is right and wrong in their time.

Can your actions be defended by a system that is yet to come?
Who cares. You Obama guys are done.
I'm with Catnlion on this one. It's easy to judge our ancestors, but the bigger issue is: How will we be judged? Wars and occupations, inequality, superstition passing as science, pollution and climate change, wasting resources... Harshly, I suspect.
I have read more colonial wills than anyone commenting here, so I can judge our Colonial American ancestors and how they behaved; I judge them not only on their individual behavior but on the laws they enacted, based on their beliefs. That's the same way we can judge ourselves today and how we vote, and how we judge our current policymakers and how they vote, and the laws they enact.

In many of the colonies, in order to own land, the laws said a property owner had to own slaves. So in addition to owning family members to protect them from ruthless slaveowners, free people and decent people who wanted to own land had to show on paper that they owned slaves.

Much in this research about the President's American ancestors requires further research and discussion, but one point in this Salon article shows that we can judge these ancestors on the content of their character above and beyond any ordinary human behavior. A number of colonial wills stipulated that the white widow, and in some cases, the "mulatto" or "African" mother of children the slaveowner sired, and was leaving even a small inheritance, could not remarry without losing everything. The laws said African-Americans were not allowed to marry. So enforcing single motherhood and sexual abuse by the slaveowners was not a personal error or a personal choice of these colonials, it was something they encrypted in the laws. And these colonial policymakers prevented others from marrying when they were alive and even after they died; this is why they left such clauses in their wills.

So there are behaviors like these and much more that we can judge. It is one thing when people misbehave in their own individual personal lives and a much greater, judgeable offense when they misbehave and insist that a whole colony or a whole nation should misbehave and behave inhumanely.

How is it that it is only in American Colonial history that so many say our ancestors whould not be judged?
I suspect there was far more "melting" in the Melting Pot than many Americans of any color could imagine. Some day we will all understand that the so-called races have been blending all along and will continue to do so.


See you at the polls, bro
Did Obama inhert Winston Churchill's genes for giving bottom line speaches (his mother is a 6th cousin of Chruchill)
Racism was an American invention to divide labor along color lines. It was divide and conquer to prevent collective resistance, which occurred often enough in the very early days of colonization.

The original perpetrators were making it as they went along, white indentured servants allowed to become free (assuming they survived), but black servants became enslaved for life. One only has to examine the records of colonial Virginia to see the outlines of white supremacy beginning to take shape into the vast totalitarian racial system that evolved with plantation slavery.

But as the author points out, things are never simple and some people do not easily fit into the rigid categories. Some people also could not adapt to the rigid totalitarian racial system that existed in much of the USA early in our history and the remnants of which survived well into the 1960's.

The shadow of that ugly racial totalitarian continues to fall on us today, which is why the American Southland is one of the poorest and most oppressed parts of the USA and is the bedrock of GOP corporate reactionary politics.

If we want to break the grip of what remains of white supremacist political reaction, we would do well to study how it began, how it matured, how it has evolved and how it has adapted in the face of resistance.

If studying Barack Obama's family history can cast some light on the complexity of white supremacy and the resistance to it, then it would be well worth the effort to explore this further.
Interesting. Of course, it says little or nothing about who Obama is today. We all have a family history. Honorable and dishonorable.
Genealogists were the first to learn that America's color line leaks. Black researchers often find White ancestry. White genealogists routinely uncover Black ancestry. Molecular anthropologists now confirm Afro-European mixing in our DNA. The plain fact is that few Americans can truly say that they are genetically unmixed. Yet liberals and conservatives alike agree that so-called Whites and Blacks are distinct political "races." When did ideology triumph over reality? How did America paint itself into such a strange corner? Americans changed their concept of "race" many times. Eston Hemings, Jefferson's son, was socially accepted as a White Virginian because he looked European. Biracial planters in antebellum South Carolina assimilated into White society because they were rich. Intermarried couples were acquitted despite the laws because some courts ruled that anyone one with less than one-fourth African ancestry was White, while others ruled that Italians were Colored. Dozens of nineteenth-century American families struggled to come to grips with notions of "racial" identity as the color line shifted and hardened into its present form. This 542-page book tells their stories in the light of genetic admixture studies and in the records of every appealed court case since 1780 that decided which side of the color line someone was on. Its index lists dozens of 19th-century surnames. It shows that: The color line was invented in 1691 to prevent servile insurrection. The one-drop rule was invented in the North during the Nat Turner panic. It was resisted by Louisiana Creoles, Florida Hispanics, and the maroon (triracial) communities of the Southeast. It triumphed during Jim Crow as a means of keeping Whites in line by banishing to Blackness any White family who dared to establish friendly relations with a Black family.
Whites are also multiracial - from colonial times to the present: