Did President Obama's "Free" Black Ancestors Own Slaves?
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 byAncestry.com'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.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.
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].
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.