Question About Delicate Subject

+1 vote
I apologize in advance for any offense, none is intended. Working on the S-A-T and have run into something that I've considered before, but it was never an issue. This probably falls under the heading of white privilege, but it must be considered. With most of my family, I know what to look for, but when I see a census record with the correct place and time, and it says "colored" I have no way to verify if it's the right record. This doesn't matter as much for those who don't live in the U.S. but I think it should be addressed so we can be sure of correct sourcing.
WikiTree profile: Noah Mooring
in WikiTree Help by Lisa Linn G2G6 Mach 4 (45.4k points)
edited by Lisa Linn
Lisa, I scratched my head about the same thing in the past, when several different census records for the same family used words "colored", "negro", "black", "mulatto", "white", and I think "other" was in there too, as well as no entry.  In some of the records, different family members had different of those terms and the terms varied for who I thought was the same person across different records.  I made myself nuts trying to figure out if I was looking at records for the same person - I didn't know or care if he was black, white, purple, or green - all I wanted was to identify which records were for him.

Thank you for asking this question.  I'm going to anxiously watch the answers to see if there are any pearls of wisdom that will help in our ability to research people who were identified as non-Caucasian by most likely prejudiced but definitely ignorant census takers.

Not an answer, as you suggest, it's not something I consider this side of the pond. 

However, the son John has a source which leads to an ancestry tree. 

And what is given suggests that the family would be very hard to find in any case.The owner of the tree has the same name as the pm

The two sources are for 1870 census Lower Conetoe, Edcombe North Carolina for a family surname Morning . 1880 census Tarboro Edgecombe North Carolina surname Mourning; Noah 80, Rachel 74, John 50, Noah 32, Emily 28 + others ( sorry using phone can't c and p detailed ref)

What's the question? You are finding a census record for someone you expect to be white recorded as "Colored" and you're not sure if it's the same person?

Can you state your delicate question directly, and cite the source you are looking at?

What is the S-A-T?
Nathan, my point is, no, I generally pay no attention to that whatsoever and go in with no expectations. S-A-T is a Source A Thon that's happening right now. The profile is listed above and the sources I added are possibly questionable. (I put their URLs on a separate page for later checking) Usually, if I'm sourcing for a "Thon" and I know nothing about the family and no names are listed (other than the primary), I have no way to connect the source because I simply don't know. If it were this century, I'd attach and no questions, but not in the 1800s.
Lisa, I still don't know what source you are looking at or what your question is. Your question refers to a census in which Noah Mooring is enumerated as "Colored", but you didn't add or link the source to the profile or your question; Kathie provided a death record in which Guilford Mourning is listed as "Negro", which you replied is "the record that prompted the question."

It's not clear to me what you are asking.

At least, Guilford's death certificate could be added as a source for everyone named in it.

Today is a day of "delicate" questions it seems -- another PM wanted to know how to tactfully ask someone if they were dead or had miscued their profile or was there someone who had stepped in and taken over for the decedent ... since there was activity occurring after the DOD.  Tactfully. I wonder why not just ask "are you dead, or not? there's a record of your activity after your DOD" 

Admitted xenophobia (I include bias / prejudice about skin color) is more LIKELY to provoke a passionate response if not always. 

However in terms of WT Policy, "You cannot make a mistake, mistakes can be corrected, don't be afraid of MAKING a mistake" so having in hand what Nathan discovered drop it in there, it can be fixed if there's a any objections that it is a mistake 

Nathan, with less tact: Is there a way to mention or include race when the profile is created for people of color? Is that blunt enough for you? I'm sorry, but my best friend in the world is black, and it bothers me when people exhibit white privilege, which is exactly how it looks/feels to POC when something like this comes up. We live in a time when people in the U.S. are more divided than at any time since the civil war, and I don't want to add to the ugliness or create any more of it.

WT creation of a profile seems to have avoided such fields as race / ethnicity and I think there's some discussion about discarding sex (um, no more male/female designation)  .. they might even change the designation "husband" and "wife" to something less ... discriminatory? (what word do we use now?) given the legality of same sex unions ... 

I thought we all started out in the sub saharan with mtDNA from Lucy 100's of 1000's of years ago -- and apparently I've missed out on 20 or 30 yrs of subsequent theoretical explorations after Lucy (or whatever her name was) ??

And again I might be lagging behind the faire on this, but I thought we were all of us, nearly all of us anyway, mixed ethnicity / race / color / whatever ... like in Europe they were saying some 3% anglo-saxon types had ghengis khan's family genes or something like that ... and go look at the countries along the Aegean sea coast European and otherwise ... pretty well mixed there -- or Yemen for instance ... I mean what with one nation or peoples invading or migrating into other nations or regions or areas FOR CENTURIES AND CENTURIES I don't think there's hardly any people anywhere left who are not mixed -- and not because they escaped contamination but because they've been ignored all this time

I don't even know if the New Word now is Ethnicity or Race. Boy, I am so far behind ...

Lisa, thanks, I get that. I think your "tact" buried the question entirely. We can't answer a question you don't ask. Quote the source when you are quoting the source. If a source names someone as "Colored," "Negro," or "Mulatto," then quote the source as saying that when citing the source. Those terms are historically accurate; they are offensive in current use so do use appropriate language if you are mentioning race without quotation in new biographical prose.

Do not bowdlerize source language in a way that misquotes sources as if they used anachronistic language, which can lead to errors. In other words don't write that someone is listed in a death certificate as "black" if they are listed as "colored." Do use currently appropriate language in new biographical text (e.g. refer to someone as "biracial" or "black", rather than "mulatto" or "negro").

I generally don't pull out the race from sources of profiles in isolation where I'm not actually writing a more detailed prose biography, whether they are white or black. If it has a genealogical purpose or you are actually writing a biography then it would make sense.

Although I do tend to try to add tribal categories for native American profiles.

5 Answers

+5 votes
Best answer

I have worked my way through thousands of records for families in Louisiana.  Many of them while not my direct ancestors are ancestors of my family members.  While mixed race is a term I do not know how to define, I found many where some ancestors that were definately from Africa and were labeled as black, negro, mulatto and other terms indicating some mixture of negro and caucasian.  (If you spend some time working through some of the famous race cases you will see that the mixture terms as used were often not accurate at all.)  I found some of these family members later labeled as white.  In some cases it clear to me, from other sources, that the family chose to pass as white and were able to do so.  In some cases the family changed their reported place of birth.  Those that left Louisiana were more likely to be reported as white.  Interestingly enough it seems that the skin color of the darkest member of the family determined the race that was listed by the census taker.  After looking at thousands of these my conclusion was that often the race listed by the census taker told us more about the census taker than the family being enumerated.

So just as we have records where a women reports that she is a widow, when we know her husband is living and even remarried. or where he reports himself as single, it is important to remember that what is reported is often either what is convenient or what works best given the circumstances or what the census taker assumed without actually checking at all.

For myself while I look at all of the fields in the census record and include much of the material in profiles that I work on I do not include what has been written in the race field - there seems to be no benefit.

So is John Smith in the 1870 census the same John Smith in the 1880 census?  You need to check all the possible sources before you make a decision.
by Philip Smith G2G6 Pilot (260k points)
selected by Lisa Linn
Lisa, I agree with Philip.  While researching a DNA match, I had occasion to review many census listings for mixed-race Louisiana Creoles, and people that I knew were the same people from one census to another (due to same name, same family members, etc.) were not reported consistently as to race.

Edit:  Reading through this thread again with many more comments made since I posted, I want to clarify one thing.  When I said I agree with Philip, I meant I agreed that the census is often inconsistent about how it reports people of mixed race.  But if there is a race listed on the census, I do include that in the information I transcribe from census entries.  I think you handicap yourself in doing genealogy if you pretend race doesn't exist.
Philip, thank you for that beautifully written answer. It is certainly true in my family -my dad was from the south and I have a tiny bit of sub-saharan Africa (Ethiopia) in my DNA. No doubt some of those slave owners who passed on their name (intended or not) passed more than the name!
Thanks Julie, Philip is right, it says more about whomever was writing the information than anything else.
+3 votes

Here is the death record for Guilford which ties three
generations together.  This information should help you to determine which other records belong to this family.  Guilford's birth year is uncertain, it got earlier with each census.

Guilford Mourning
Race:Negro (Black)
Age:Abt 90y
Marital status:Widowed
Occupation:Farm Laborer
Birth Date:1828
Birth Place:N. C.
Death Date:23 Jul 1918
Death Place:No 3, Edgecombe, North Carolina
Burial Date:25 Jul 1918
Burial Place:Bethel
Father:Noah Mourning
Mother:Rachel Mourning
Spouse:Charlotte Mourning
Reference ID:cn 219
FHL Film Number:4215514 

The informant was Cromwell Mourning. 

"North Carolina Deaths, 1906-1930," database with images, FamilySearch ( : 16 August 2019), Guilford Mourning, 23 Jul 1918; citing No 3, Edgecombe, North Carolina, reference cn 219, State Department of Archives and History, Raleigh; FHL microfilm 1,892,357.

by Kathie Forbes G2G6 Pilot (141k points)
Thanks Kathie, that's the record that prompted the question, to which I still have no answer.
Lisa, with almost all the people who are good at this stuff being mostly absent from normal activity of reading/researching/answering questions because of the "thon" this weekend, I suspect you're not likely to get an answer too quickly - sorry about that - eventually, they'll get back here and I'm sure there will be one or more good answers - we just need more patience, I suppose.
I guess I’m confused because all the records I see for this family have some version of non-white for race.  The earliest that is clearly Guilford who died in 1918 is the 1870 census, the first on which newly-freed African-Americans appear.  I found an 1840 census for a white slave-holder, no doubt the person who enslaved Noah and/or Guilford.
Kathie, I am still confused by your confusion. If you expected that any of these persons to be white, what is that based on? If you've said that plainly, I'm still missing it. This family group appears to be African American. I still don't see a question, other than a general appeal for sources.
I’m not the person who posed the question.  Every record I found was for a non-white family with the exception of a slave-holding white person by the same name in the 1840 census,  I don’t understand why the original poster thought the records for the African-American family were unclear. Yes, names are spelled somewhat randomly, and yes, the terms for race vary, but dates, location, parent/child relationships all look coherent to me.
Thanks Gaile and Kathie. The sources themselves are not the problem, the question was really about how the profile appears to someone who knows nothing about the family and wants to work on the profile. Therefore, I should ask, should there be a "note" or something else entered when the profile is created to indicate the race of said person's profile?
I would only allude to it in the context of the biography, “Joe Blow and his family first appear in records on the 1870 census, the first census to enumerate formerly enslaved people,”  or “joe’s birthdate is unknown since his mother was enslaved when he was born.”   Then whatever census or other records are found would provide the additional information.
Lisa, I would not ever make a point of identifying a person's race (or whatever the current politically correct word is) when writing about the person … that is, unless WikiTree wants to add a data field for race with an entry for everyone.  If you included a note to indicate the race of a person who is black … or Asian … or native American … or Hispanic … but you don't include such a note for persons who are white then that alone appears to me to be a racist thing to do.

It's kinda like when I saw a vendor at a sports event refuse to sell a beer to a man didn't have ID but (based on appearance) had to be at least 70, if not 80 or more, and I questioned the vendor, he told me that they are not legally required to proof people but if they guess wrong and sell product to someone underage they can be in big trouble.  On the other hand, they are not allowed to only proof some people - that's discriminatory, so they either have to proof everyone or nobody - they can't choose only people who look like they might be young.
Kathie, Gaile et al: You are all correct, and if I'd looked at it through only the lens of paper and ink (or pixels) it wouldn't matter at all. The thing is, it's hard to make a judgement when we're talking about someone else's family. There's nothing delicate about history, but having taught it for more than 20 years, I also know that history is by nature, revisionist. It is written by the "winners" or in this case, the "white people". In the future I'll just add the sources and forget the "delicacy." Thank you all for your thoughtful responses.
I'm waiting to see a professional sports team named the Whiteskins.  Come to think of it, when I was a kid we used to play a game called cowboys and indians … do kids nowadays play cowboys and native americans? … or maybe to be really correct, it should be cowpersons and native americans.
+2 votes
I think many of those terms were interchangeable and about the only value they have is that they at least identify people who were not white (even there you need to be skeptical)!). You can't go wrong using all the other criteria we use, to deal with identity issues: birth dates, names of parents, place of residence, occupations and close associates are much reliable.
by Daniel Bly G2G6 Mach 3 (34.1k points)
+3 votes
In post US Civil War censuses, "colored" was not exclusive to black (African-Americans)._ It was also used to describe immigrants from India, Pakistan, the Arab nations and the Chinese and Japanese. "White " was reserved for Caucasians. Everyone not Caucasian was "colored"
by Eddie King G2G6 Pilot (421k points)
Hmmph!!!  If I remember elementary physics correctly, white includes all colors and black is total absence of color.  Methinks someone needs to educate the census system that to be scientifically correct, they should have 2 options - black and colored.
+4 votes

Well, for future reference, yes, using a political term like "white privilege" that was invented to malign an entire race of people is, in fact, offensive and has no place here.

The problem here is that you've managed to let yourself get so spun up about race (by people for whom it is part of their business model, no doubt) that you can't even ask a question like "Is there a way to mention or include race when the profile is created for people of color?" without burying it deep within the responses to questions.

This is a question with a straitforward and obvious answer: "Yes, there is a way - just mention it." It's the same as for anybody who is from a special or unique population embedded within a different population. You could/should bring up if somebody is Jewish, or Amish, or German-speaking - whatever (if in the US). There are certain customs, traditions, and other implications (involving their interaction with the surrounding population) that make it important to tell other researchers what's going on. It effects the research, and it's something the descendants will be interested in knowing about.

This should be obvious: it's not the least bit racist, or "sensitive", to identify a black person as a black person, if it's relevant to the subject at hand. For something to be racist you need to make broad generalizations (generally negative ones) that because someone is of (whichever) race that they therefore are (a certain way). If such a thing is going on here, it is within your own mind.

If such a profile were in Nigeria, you obviously wouldn't bring that up - instead you'd bring it up if the person was of European heritage, etc.

As to the problem of the census recording such information, they have several terms they used, and you just need to become familiar with what they commonly meant. If they're unreliable as far as getting it right, well that's because it's the census.

by Frank Stanley G2G6 Mach 5 (53.9k points)

Frank, I disagree with your characterization of white privilege being made up to malign an entire race of people. Rather, it is used to define what the descendants of white Europeans take for granted on a daily basis -without even being aware of it. 

"you've managed to let yourself get so spun up about race (by people for whom it is part of their business model, no doubt)"

Actually, you must have missed one of my responses about my BFF but truly, it does not matter. She is a black, female physician. The business model is "First do no harm" Unfortunately, that has not been her life experience and I have been schooled on white privilege watching some of what she's gone through. And yet, there is no way I, or anyone else who is not a "person of color" can possibly understand what the statement really means on any level. You're right in what you say about expectations being different based upon the culture of the place you are in the present moment. In the present moment, I'm very aware of inequality in the U.S. and that's what prompted me to ask the question. Perhaps if I hadn't been exhausted and going cross-eyed from the Source A Thon, I would have thought it through more clearly and simply not asked. That would have been the right thing to do. So, again, thank you all for your thoughtful answers. You've upheld my faith in our purpose and the general goodness of wikitreers.

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