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There is a legend that the “Yellow Rose of Texas” is one Emily West, a mulatto, possibly originally from Bermuda. While the song’s writer is unknown, we do know that the song appeared in the mid-1830’s, and the writer may have been Negro, a solider, and from Tennessee.
In the 1850’s and after,
the song was performed by Negro Minstrels.
Through the years, the song was changed
and during the latter part of the Civil War,
it acquired a stanza about Confederate General John B. Hood’s
retreat from Nashville.
Then came the unkindest cut of all. Mitch Miller’s 1955 version so “whitewashed” our Yellow Rose that she appeared much less than she was. Political correctness at work.
So what does this mean to genealogists? It mean we need to dig for the truth. We can not accept everything at face value.
Things were hidden. Obvious things like the imprisonment of a relative or the commitment of a relative to a mental institution were not mentioned. Among white families, the disclosure of a “colored” ancestor might only appear in a death bed confession -- “Did you know that your great-grandma was part Negro?”
The free Negro had of course adopted surnames mostly of northern European origin. And it should be noted the free Negro were in America during the colonial times.
However prior to the Civil War,
almost all slaves had no surnames.
It is said that during that war,
when the U. S. Army conscripted the Negro,
surnames were applied and those names were
often the names of their former owners.
These surnames are today often referred to as
But a word of caution here.
Not all names that were adopted were
the names of the former owners.
Sometimes the name came from a friend,
even a Negro friend.
Negro men were known to have
changed their post-Civil War names to one more of there liking.
The given names that were familiar to the slaves were the names from the plantations. A friend writes; “. . . I have just noticed that about 1870, there are many folks who take the name of their previous owner . . . even down to naming their children the same names as children of previous masters and of course, lots of kids named after presidents . . .” Another word of caution here. The white families recycled given names. It would be possible to find two white brothers, each with children of the same names, and each brother owning a slave named “Bob.”
Prior to the Civil War, free persons with less than one-eighth or one-sixteenth Negro ancestry were classified a white. When doing genealogy, it is wise to consider that the only absolute is: there is absolutely nothing sure. Question everything!
The terms Negro, Black, and African are the words we find in the old documents and letters, and are so used in this project. It would seem that the term African American is a more modern construction so we do not expect to turn up often in archival material, nor will you see it often on these pages.
Here are a few terms that are defined for your convenience.
Probably, originally white Europeans with pure black features (hair). This term has also been applied to persons with mixed racial heritage.
Free Issue, Free Issue Negro:
A Black or mixed-race person free by manumission or birth; especially the child of a White woman and a Black man. Commonly used in Virginia and the Carolinas.
Free Man of Color (F.M.C.), Free Person(s) of Color, Free Woman of Color (F.W.C.), etc.:
A Black person, not a slave; a person having one Black and one White parent. Used especially in Louisiana.
Probably a person, not a slave, being part Black, and being part White and/or Indian.
Griff, Griffe, Griffane, Griffin:
Offspring of a White and a Black. Used especially in Louisiana.
Half and Half:
A person of mixed blood; a half breed. Part Indian or part Black.
Half Breed, Half Blood, Half Blooded:
The child of an Indian and a White parent. May be applied to people who are part Black.
High Yellow: (pronounced, high yalla or high yaller)
A light-skinned black person. Some say “mostly white.”
For our purposes, a fugitive or runaway slave, one who joined with the Seminole in Florida. Earlier, this word was applied to fugitive black slaves in the West Indies and Dutch Guiana. Interestingly, the word origins of Maroon in this usage is from certain Spanish words: symeron, > cimarron, > cimarrón, meaning wild, free, a runaway person. It is possible that the term maroon may have been misapplied as a color. Maroon is a very dark brownish-red or chestnut color.
Seemingly, a person of mixed racial heritage. Probably, white, Negro, and Native American heritage. Common usage in East Tennessee.
A person who is one-half Negro, one-half white. The child of one white parent and one Negro parent. From the Spanish and Portuguese word mulato meaning young mule. The mule is of course, one half horse and one half donkey, a hybrid.
A person who is one-eighth Negro, seven-eighths white. The child of one white parent and a quadroon. From the Latin word octo meaning eighth.
A person who is one-quarter Negro, three-quarters white. The child of one white parent and a mulatto. From the Latin quartus; >Spanish cuarto, cuarteron, meaning fourth.
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