Thursday, September 13, 2012

These Negroes Reveal A Curious Superiority

I'm coming to grips with the idea that my 3x-great-grandfather, Thomas Turner (1764-1847) or his son Squire Turner (1793-1871) fathered children by his slaves. I've been encouraged in becoming reconciled to this possibility by the caring relationship I've developed with a great-granddaughter of that union. I like my new cousin.

I've begun to wonder whether her ancestor looked like our shared ancestors. I wonder to what degree others in my family regarded Jeremiah Turner (1840-1917) as unmistakable kin. In an earlier post, I found modern acknowledgement that larger numbers of mixed-race children were appearing among the property of rich, white, Madison County, Kentuckians than were recorded by family units holding only one or two slaves in captive servitude.

I suspect his musings were far from politically correct even in his own time, but the following account expresses cultural effects that might have resulted when 'well bred' white men had offspring by African American women.
From a collection of writings by Baltimore critic H. L. Mencken titled Prejudices, c 1920. In this tract, Mencken decries the absence of arts & culture in the south.
Page 77 of The Sahara of the Bozart - [A desert of the Beaux Arts - RDH]
“… in the south, the men of the upper classes sought their mistresses among the blacks, and after a few generations there was so much white blood in the black women that they were considerably more attractive than the unhealthy and bedraggled women of the poor whites. This preference continues into our own time. A southerner of good family once told me in all seriousness that he had reached his majority before it ever occurred to him that a white woman might make quite as agreeable a mistress as the octoroons of his jejune fancy. If the thing has changed as late, it is not the fault of the southern white man, but of the southern mulatto woman. The more slightly yellow girls of the region, with improving economic opportunities, have gained self-respect, and so they are no longer as willing to enter into concubinage as their grand-dams were.

As a result of this preference of the southern gentry for mulatto mistresses there was created a series of mixed strains containing the best white blood of the south, and perhaps of the whole country. As another result the poor whites went unfertilized from above, and so missed the improvement that so constantly shows itself in the peasant stocks of other countries. It is a commonplace that nearly all negroes who rise above the general are of mixed blood, usually with the white predominating. I know a great many negroes, and it would be hard for me to think of an exception. What is too often forgotten is that this white blood is not the blood of the poor whites but that of the old gentry. The mulatto girls of the early days despised the poor whites, creatures distinctly inferior to negroes, and it was thus almost unheard of for such a girl to enter into relations with a man of that submerged class. This aversion was based on sound instinct. The southern mulatto of today (1920) is proof of it. Like all other half-breeds he is an unhappy man, with disquieting tendencies toward anti-social habits of thought, but he is intrinsically a better animal than the pure-blooded descendant of the old poor whites, and he not infrequently demonstrates it. It is not by accident that negroes of the south are making faster progress, economically and culturally, than the masses of the whites. It is not by accident that the only visible ├Žsthetic activity in the south is wholly in their hands. No southern composer has ever written music so good as that of half a dozen white-black composers who might be named. Even in politics, the negro reveals a curious superiority. Despite the fact that the race question has been the main political concern of the southern whites for two generations, to the practical exclusion of anything else, they have contributed nothing to its discussion that has impressed the rest of the world so deeply and so favorably as three or four books by southern negroes.”
These are themes that Edward Ball addresses in his 2001 book, The Sweet Hell Inside: The Rise of an Elite Black Family in the South.  He too met a cousin descended from his people's slaves. Ball describes distinctions (and economic advantages) allocated by skin color and class, even among people of color. Harleston children, though deprived of the inheritance left by their upper-crust, slave-owning father, held higher rank than darker blacks after the Civil War in Charleston, SC. Perhaps Mencken (above) in his accolades, is crediting Harleston offspring; such as the talented black photographer Teddy Harleston, or childrens' choirs his sister Ella (Harleston) Jenkins made popular as America entered the Jazz Age.


  1. Dave, I love your post and it is very interesting in content. I like you new cousin. :-) Thanks to you and thanks to my Dad for telling us, our family history as we grew up into adulthood; we were also taught not to judge anyone by color, but by how they treat you. I have always been proud of my heritage and still as proud. Thanks for the enlightening, and your open mind to accept, when some do not.

  2. From what I've read fathering children of slaves before the civil war was somewhat common. The documentation of these and any slaves for that matter makes slaves very hard to trace. My wife is a descendant from a slave in Georga. To date, I've been unsuccessful in identifying the slave owner.

    Regards, Ji
    Hidden Genealogy Nuggets


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