Online Additions

Pruning the Family Tree

By Virginia Edwards Castro '64

When I was in grade school my family subscribed to the Saturday Evening Post. There was a cover I will never forget. It was an illustrated family tree, with pirates, dandies, Yankees, confederates, Indians, Puritans, cowboys, dance hall floozies and a Spanish lady with a comb and a mantilla. At the top, like a shining star, was a little redheaded, freckle-faced, blue-eyed all-American boy. The cover wasn’t big enough to include everyone. For example, I don’t recall any kilted men playing bagpipes or Germans in lederhosen. And had there been room, not even Norman Rockwell would have dared to include African slaves.

In the fifties, my family had not yet acquired a television, which they considered a health hazard and a waste of time and money, so I amused myself by playing board games, making scrapbooks, reading books, and my favorite activity-Sunday snooping. I spent weekends at my grandparents’ home, which had five bedrooms, four servants’ rooms, a study, a den, storage rooms, a billiards room, a ballroom, a pantry, the breakfast room, the dining room, the living room, the parlor, the coal room and the laundry room. The dining room had a huge buffet containing secret compartments. My grandmother’s dressing room contained an iron safe built into the wall, worthy of a country bank. My grandfather’s bedroom had a jewelry safe behind an oil painting of a landscape. And the huge buffet in the dining room had several secret compartments. I knew where every key hung and every combination.

The large entry hall with a grand piano ended in a staircase that divided on the landing before it continued upstairs on either side. The walls were covered with family portraits, as were the walls of the ballroom on the third floor. I memorized the identities of all our relatives, living and dead. The library contained volumes of family trees to go with them. The Poages were of Scotch-Irish origin. They were said to go back to the 1300’s to “a mighty Gael named Thorl who slew a would-be assassin of the king”. He was knighted Earl of the Poage, which was variously interpreted as “poke” referring to the blow he dealt, or also “poke”, referring to the kiss bestowed on him by a grateful king. The list of descendents went all the way to my mother, I recall. Their coat-of-arms on the wall featured two wild boars rampant, with the motto “Fortuna Favet Fortibus” (fortune favors the brave.)

A Poage married a Starke, a descendent of General Starke who fought in the Revolution. His portrait was said to hang in the White House. (If it did, it must be in the basement, a victim of remodeling.) My great grandfather was named Return Jefferson Starke, if that is any indication of what side the Starkes were in the Civil War. I remember coming across a portrait of one of the two families in a confederate uniform with a notation of membership in the Ku Klux Klan. Unfortunately, even at my young age my awareness of the meaning of this activated the censor in my mind, and I can’t recall the details. It was this same censorship in reverse which suppressed all memories of other races in our family.

I always suspected something was missing, although at first-to use a well-worn but appropriate metaphor-I barked up the wrong tree. First, there was the portrait of what appeared to be an Italian noblewoman in the place of honor over the mantel in the library. Since my mother and her father both looked Italian, we assumed this was our ancestor. However, my grandmother finally confessed that, lacking a suitable portrait, she had purchased this one at an art auction, when an art curator attending a party at their home correctly identified it as the portrait of a famous Italian courtesan. (After some lengthy family debate, it stayed there, as a work of art.)

Rummaging through the forbidden recesses of my grandfather’s roll top desk, I found references to his mother’s family, the Tongs. I then assumed we had Chinese ancestry until I learned that Tong, variously spelled Tonge and Tongue, was an old English name. There was a letter from my great aunt Flora claiming that she descended from French Huguenots who changed their name from d’Estaing to De Tongue when they moved to England. Whether this is true or not, there are documents and books that show we descended from a William Tongue who fought in the Revolution. In his late seventies he was forced to ride all the way from Missouri to Washington D.C. to see why he was not receiving his pension. I learned that the Tongues, who later shortened their surname to Tong, were on the union side. Another letter from my great aunt Flora stated that grandfather William, in his blue velvet suit with white ruffled collar, cried at the fact that brothers would fight brothers and cousins, against cousins.

My father’s name was Joseph Castro Edwards. Most of my life I was considered to have Hispanic roots-particularly by those aware of the Spanish tradition of the second name being the father’s surname and the last in sequence being the mother’s. Instead, I found out my father was named after Dr. Jose Gabino Castro (by my grandfather, unaware of the aforementioned tradition) in honor of a Filipino doctor who saved my grandfather’s life when he was a prisoner in the jungle for eight months during the Spanish-American war in the Philippines. As my grandfather later told me, the opposing general sent a messenger with the order to “let the enemy soldier die, by the order of the highest authority.” The doctor humbly explained he had to obey even higher orders to save a human life. When asked who might be the higher authority, he replied, “Almighty God.” (Fortunately, the general was a religious man, or I wouldn’t be writing this.)

My classmates at a private school in St. Louis told me I had Jewish heritage through my mother’s father, Grandfather Moser, evidenced by the fact that he had donated a considerable amount of money to a synagogue to buy an organ. He was also very dark and owned a series of banks. In the morning, he wore what appeared to be a yarmulke when he shaved. When I asked him about it, he told me it was a skullcap to hold his hair down until it dried. Otherwise, unless he left it longer than my grandmother liked, it stood up as straight as an Indian’s. I spent considerable time trying to find clues to his real heritage. When the maid first drew his bathwater in the morning (and it took at least 30 minutes for water to heat up and run upstairs through those old lead pipes) he would sit in the large lion-clawed bathtub with the special rack for the newspaper and eat a grapefruit. No clues there. Then he would descend to the breakfast room and eat chili con carne with a slice of apple pie. Mexican-American? He was also fond of sauerkraut. Pennsylvania Dutch, after all? And fried frog legs. Cajun? (He was born on Iron Mountain in Arcadia-- Missouri.)

When I asked him, he told me he was of Swiss origin. Others told me the Mosers came from Alsace-Lorraine and settled in Pennsylvania. He gave me an old, leather-bound book with the signature, “Peter Augustus Moser, Jr., his book, August 11, 1819, ” implying that there was also a Peter Augustus Moser, Sr. who read English.

Apparently, this branch of the family had also been in the country for many years. I do know that my grandfather’s father was Peter Moser, co-owner of the Niles-Moser Tobacco Company in Kansas City, and that he died in California. He probably came to Missouri through Iowa from Pennsylvania. This was the first sawed-off branch I came across. My great-grandmother Tong’s wedding portrait showed her standing in a beautiful veiled dress beside a chair with a gloved hand resting on it. My great-grandfather Peter had been amputated from the portrait with a pair of shears, probably at the time of their divorce. She was very fair, with curly light-brown hair. The fact that my grandfather and his brother were so dark, and that my great uncle had slanted eyes and high cheekbones leads me to believe they were probably part Native American. Perhaps I will never know.

I do remember that when we walked through the fields to the lake where my grandfather took me fishing, he chided me for galumphing along like a white man in the woods, and cautioned me to walk lightly like an Indian with toes pointed straight ahead.

When I spent the summer in Michigan with my family at a resort that specifically prohibited Jewish and “other races” from buying land there, my grandfather Moser took me to a restaurant for lunch. We were never served. When he called the waiter over, we were told, “There is a Mexican restaurant down the street where you would be more comfortable and enjoy the food you like.” I was astonished that my grandfather did not immediately stand up and demand to see the owner. I assumed he would be just as well known in Michigan as he was in St. Louis. Instead, he told me that a waiter as rude as that would probably serve terrible food. We did go down the street and enjoyed some lively Mexican music and a change in menu.

When he was much older, and returned from a fishing trip in Florida on the bus, my mother couldn’t find him at the station. As soon as she came back home, he called to ask where she was. She went back to the station and was told again that there was no one there. This time undaunted, she found her father seated behind a pillar. “That old black man is your father?” exclaimed the attendant.

On another occasion, during a period of racial riots in St. Louis, a new doorman barred him from entering the Missouri Athletic Club, until an older, mortified employee recognized him as a founding member.

I can’t imagine why anyone thought he was black, with hair as straight as his was and a reddish tone to his brown skin. Probably it was because he resembled Adam Clayton Powell, who was prominent in the news at that time.

I may never know the truth about my great grandfather Moser. I had a chance to know, once, but did not dare pursue it. Some letters in the roll-top desk from great aunt Flora, actually my grandfather’s cousin, but raised as his sister, had a return address in New York City. She was still alive when I spent weekends in New York during my years at Vassar, 1960-1964. I could easily have walked up to her apartment and knocked on the door. She wrote of numerous love affairs and a daughter named Dana Levin Pomeroy and another daughter Edith Levin Devereaux, who had a son Dana Devereaux. I fantasized about appearing there under the guise of taking a survey. However, I knew that for some reason she was never allowed to visit and that she had some secret which surely she would have revealed. I loved my grandfather Moser more than anyone else in my childhood and could not bear to hurt him. I also knew how unpardoning my family could be, and I was not yet ready to suffer the same fate as my great aunt Flora, who was never allowed to visit, although eventually, there would be no way to avoid that destiny. It was the price I would have to pay for my choice to find myself.

I had much better luck in restoring the other branch of the family tree that had been pruned back so far that it was no more than a nub surrounded by scar tissue on my father’s mother’s side. Again, there was information all the way back to the Revolution on certain branches. My grandfather Edwards was a descendent of John Edwards who died in Indiana and was said to be a descendent of a Jonathan Edwards of Wales. His mother was a Graft, of Pennsylvania Dutch origin. His wife, Leila Louise Bedell, descended from David Bedell, a plantation owner with numerous slaves whose family originally settled in North Carolina. When they went to Missouri to claim land granted to them for David’s service to his country in the Revolution, they brought their slaves with them. Here is where the family tree became interesting.

One Sunday afternoon, when my brothers were out playing ball in the back lot and my parents were drinking mint juleps with the neighbors, I ventured into the attic, which was forbidden and dangerous territory. I found a box I had never seen before among the belongings of grandmother Leila stored there after she died. First, it contained a huge blueprint of the Bedell family tree prepared by a Mrs. Jane Chrisman. There was also a Mrs. Logan identified who was said to know about the black Bedells. The main branches were filled in detail. Then there were other branches that had fallen from the tree and it was not clear where they belonged. These were entitled, “The Black Bedells,” identified as their slaves. Some had been sent to Arkansas for safety (whose?) during the Civil War. Another, named Jenny, had been sold to Texas. I was to learn the rest of that story later. I saw that my great grandmother’s name was Susan Jane Whitlock and her mother’s name was Sarah Jane Whitlock, whose nicknames, I later learned, were “Sadie” and “Jenny.” Amazingly enough, there were portraits of both of them. I stared hard at each. They were both dressed very fashionably for the day. It was difficult to tell what color they were, with the faded brown of the old daguerreotypes. But my great great grandmother’s face was decidedly that of a proud Native American with high cheekbones and black eyes, while her hair, though drawn back neatly and tightly, was that of an Afro-American.

As I sat cross-legged on the floor, with the open box in front of me, I remembered a lot of things that suddenly made sense. Before I could understand them, I had to accumulate innumerable pieces of a vast puzzle waiting to be put together. I remembered my grandmother’s black eyes, high cheekbones, small broad nose and skin that never acquired a hospital pallor even when she spent all her days inside in bed. I remember how even then she went to the beauty parlor every week to straighten her hair into wide waves, as did my aunt. I saw the photos of her brothers and sisters, and read a brother’s name, Ceola. It could only be after Osceola, the famous Seminole chief who rebelled against the whites--not a very common name for a white person. I looked at my uncle’s portrait again, and how only his light skin made him look white. In fact, he looked more African than many blacks I had met. I thought of my father’s hair, which he eventually shaved close to his head because he was balding on top. My mother’s comments about the way it jumped into the air like little springs when he sat on the kitchen stool while she cut it off. How surprised I was so see how narrow and black his eyes were once when he removed his thick glasses. His and my uncle’s thick lips. Their razor bumps. My mother’s jokes about my father’s prominent derriere. The way she put make-up on me over the top of my lips and then painted in more delicate lips with a brush, the same way my grandmother Leila did. The notes I got home from a teacher asking her please to thin and trim my awful hair. My attempt to fix my own hair by cutting out all the kinky underneath hair and leaving the more wavy top hair, creating a ridiculous thatched roof effect. (Of course, isn't it nice to know, now that I'm sixty, my hair and full lips are in style?) My mother’s efforts to keep me wearing white gloves and a hat whenever I was in the sun, and her dismay when I went fishing with my grandfather and came back brown the next day. Her warning to me never to consider marrying anyone with a suspicion of black ancestry lest I have some too and we might have a black baby. Her orders not to move your hips that way when you walk. “White women don’t dance that way!” (As a result, I have always walked and danced as if I had arthritis.)

I remembered the vacation where we drove to a pueblo in Arizona. The National Guard warned us not to go up there. They could not respond for our safety. An incident had just happened where tourists had taken photos at a ceremonial dance, and a dancer had thrown a live rattlesnake at them. My mother was worried, but my father saw no problem. He began to speak sign language with the people, mixed with a few words. They gathered around laughing, and began giving him beautiful woven rugs and a huge, painted pot that was scorched on one side. "Here, take it, a woman said. I can't sell it like that anyway," she insisted. He traded while my embarrassed mother, who had never questioned a price on anything, watched. We had a wonderful time and the people couldn’t have been nicer. Holding hands with a dark mother and father, a little light-skinned girl with blond hair swayed with the dancers. A woman explained to me that both her parents were half-white. I looked at my parents and wondered. That was the first time I had been introduced to the concept of an “in-between” that was not physically recognizable. Could I be an "in-between?"

I asked my father how he knew sign language. He replied, “Oh, everyone in Oklahoma knows it. That’s how we communicate through trade.” I wondered, “We who? We Oklahomans or we Indians?” I asked him if he was part Indian-foolishly, in front of my mother, who replied quickly, “Of course not! People of our social standing do not intermarry with Indians.” My father just walked off. I made a mental note that my father had not answered me.

We went riding on a dude ranch in Wyoming. My father seemed to handle a horse all right, but he couldn’t seem to keep his feet in the stirrups. I learned later, he had never ridden with a saddle. One day, as I prided myself on riding bareback, I raced my horse around a tree and brought him to a sliding stop in front of my father and a friend, who were both dressed in business suits. “Want to try him?” I asked, anticipating that my father would say, “Oh no, thanks, I’ll wait till you put a saddle on him and I’m in suitable clothes.” Instead, he replied, “I think I will.” He swung on and I was afraid my horse might throw him on a quick turn, but he sat there as if he were glued to him. When I couldn’t help exclaiming, “Dad, I didn’t know you could ride like that!” he said slowly, “There are a lot of things you don’t know about me.” Another piece in the puzzle, another item in a child’s mental file.

I asked him again, alone this time, if he were part Indian. He said, “Well, you know how your grandmother and I have dark skin and black eyes…” “Yes….” “Well, you know how I grew up with the Osage in Oklahoma…” “Yes..” “Well, we weren’t Osage, we were Cherokee,” he suddenly replied, and that was all.

I put these portraits and the papers with them away. Many years later, I took them out briefly to copy them, before returning them to the box. I never knew what happened to the originals-they disappeared with the box when my parents passed away and the house was sold.

Without knowing my mother was within a few months of her death, my oldest daughter suggested a trip to visit her. We drove from Texas to Missouri. She knew of my interest in finding out my family origins and suggested we stop in my father’s hometown. We had breakfast in a McDonald’s which had obviously replaced an old diner or country store, because at one table a group of old men sat playing dominoes as if the old walls had fallen down around them and been replaced by new ones without interrupting their game. We both carried full trays of food. My orange juice was in the middle. I asked her, “Do you think we should go on to Springfield, which is the county seat and would have the county records, or should we go to the small town of Fairgrove where Dad was born?” As I said the word “Fairgrove”, my orange juice jumped out of the middle of the tray and flipped onto the floor without disturbing the coffee, eggs or toast. My daughter, who believes in signs, immediately said, “Fairgrove.”

We found a tiny town with antiques so old they were worthy of New England. I asked a man in the antique store if he had ever heard of the Bedell family. “Of course,” he replied. “If you want to know about them, go next door to the president of the local historical society.” From there, things progressed rapidly. We found her unloading bags of groceries. “You will be pleased to know that we just had a ceremony honoring your family at the old cemetery held by Sons of the Revolution.” She put down a bag. “You may not be so pleased to know something else about your family.” She looked at me carefully. I hoped we were not part of the James gang. Maybe it was Wild Bill Hickock, lived there for a while and shot some poor, unsuspecting soul. I waited. “Your family was mixed race.” I released a small sigh of relief. “I know, my father already told me he was part Cherokee. “ Surprised, she replied, “I don’t know about the Cherokee, but your great great grandmother was a slave.” That, indeed, hit home.

If she had simply said Black, I was prepared for that. Somehow, the word slave burned into my flesh. History suddenly became personal. Slaves were no longer those unfortunate people you read about in times that were distant and, thank God, past. This woman was talking about my great grandmother, therefore my grandmother, my father, and finally, me. I had been guilty of the same thing when reading the paper. You know, how we read about a terrible accident and the first thing we do is look for the names and sigh with relief. As we are exclaiming, “How awful!” we are thinking, “Thank God, it’s no one we know.”

When we see poor people-I mean we, as better-off people-we unconsciously or even consciously think, “What caused them to be poor? Someone made a big mistake somewhere. They must have been lazy or perhaps not too smart. Maybe the family is inbred.” We rarely think, “Wrong place, wrong time,” or “Bad luck! There, but for the Grace of God, go I.” I was willing to accept black heritage. I was not willing to accept how my black ancestors got here and what they had to go through.

When something shocks us, our minds and emotions react too quickly for us to censor them according to standards of appropriateness or correctness. The same thing happened one night when a stranger tried to strangle me and rape me on the streets of Washington, D.C. Although I successfully fought him off, I felt an intense shame. After all, was I not at fault for refusing an escort and trying to walk home alone at one in the morning? What if someone saw him try to reach up my skirt and rip at my underclothing. I could see all the fingers pointing at me from behind closed curtains, and the whispers. “She asked for it. She tempted him. What was she thinking, walking home at one in the morning alone?” At the same time, other kinds of thoughts rushed through my brain. "Why was it wrong for me to be walking home, minding my own business, while it was all right for him to be walking around at one in the morning looking for a woman to rape? Why should I be ashamed? Why shouldn't the fingers point at him? Are men totally out of control of themselves? Are they automatically not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity when they see the opportunity to assault an unprotected woman? Maybe my mother was right. Men are just as crazy as bulls and stallions, and look what happens to them! Just before I threw him into a parked car, a voice said to me, “You are free from restraint. You can kill him if you want to.” I dared him to come back and pick up my purse lying on the ground. And I felt a sudden exhilaration when he ran away. I had to sit alone in my apartment until dawn, trying to organize myself before I could report anything without appearing to be crazy--after which, of course, it was too late to find him.

This is more or less what I felt when I heard those words, “Your great great grandmother was a slave.” My first feeling was one of shame. Color was not an issue. Had I been told my ancestor was an African diplomat or a princess from Ghana, I would hardly have flinched. A slave. Not exactly the heritage a graduate of Vassar and St. Louis debutante is looking for while researching the family tree. Then anger. How dare they do that to my great great grandmother! Suddenly time telescoped and I saw her there before me, just like her portrait. Here I was, priding myself in having rooted out the weeds of prejudice against race and ethnicity, when I had a huge crop of weeds of social and class prejudice I had been completely unaware of.

I saw her mother in chains, with sores on her arms where the shackles had rubbed. I saw them being sold and treated like farm animals, forced to breed with men they abhorred and separated forcibly from those they loved. I saw my great great grandfather, a country doctor who loved her and believed that on the frontier he was out of reach of social conventions. And all this time, her beautiful face and strong, proud look staring from that old picture frame. One of my sons told me, "Mom, sometimes you have the same look she does."

Shock is very much like living in a dream. During a dream, or that brief period of being awake while sliding into sleep, our thoughts run uncensored. Sometimes it’s ridiculous. Other times, we can learn a lot about ourselves. How I admire people who can study history and relate personally to it, without the need to know the individuals involved.

I don’t know how long I stood there shocked, or what I missed while the director of the historical society was talking, but she provided me with a map to the family homestead. While my daughter and I parked in the country road, trying to figure the map out, a helpful farmer slowed down and asked us if he could help. When I showed him the map, he looked at us with a strange expression. “Why, that’s the old nigger cemetery. I can’t imagine why you’d want to go there, or why that lady bought it.”

“You’re talking about our relatives,” I practically shouted. How quickly I had progressed past the shame stage directly into the anger stage. His only response was to drive off in a cloud of dust.

My daughter and I drove up a long, winding driveway with lots of “No Trespassing” signs, which we had to assure each other, weren’t meant for us. There was a field with a gray-haired but energetic woman mowing grass. We told her who we were and received a warm welcome. She showed us the tombstones she had raised and set in place, and others with corners just peaking out. When she had bought the place, there was what might be called a “failure of disclosure.” The headstones were buried in mud and brush. Only after she was planning where to put her house did locals inform her of the existence of the old cemetery so she wouldn’t start digging up graves, or perhaps build a house over it and be awakened by chains rattling or screeches in the night. Luckily, she was an archaeologist and historian, and she herself has interesting stories to tell of her Native American grandmother. Fate was kind in guiding her to history she could preserve-unlike the clerk of the Methodist church who recently destroyed all records of interracial marriage in the belief he was protecting people.

I gave her copies of all my old family portraits and all the details I had been able to find out. She told me that my great great grandfather, Dr. Whitlock, had had a family with a mixed race slave. I assume she meant Sarah Jane Whitlock, my great great grandmother also known as "Sadie" and "Jenny." However, there was also a slave named Julia, who was sold to Texas by a jealous white wife after her husband died. Reportedly, all of Julia’s children stayed in Missouri and passed for white. I don't know who was the father of Julia's children at this time. This may be still another relative. When Dr. Whitlock died, various accounts state he left his large farm to his slaves and others say to his children (without contradiction, as they were one and the same.) Among them was Susan Jane, who married my great grandfather, Mahlon Bedell, and passed for white.

Dr. Whitlock had been one of the first residents of Green County, arriving in l843, when an old history book states, “There were much intermarrying between the Indians and the whites.” It was only after the Civil War that the influx of settlers from Virginia and other southern states brought extreme prejudice with them. My family withstood it for awhile. Great grandfather Bedell was the county tax collector, and that gave him a certain edge over those who would criticize. Then more newcomers came. They first told him he could not send his children to public schools. He replied, “Fine. I’ll start my own.” His was better, so other families started sending their children to his. The same thing happened with the Methodist Church. He started his own. Things got so confused that the two revolutionary war heroes, my great great great grandfather and his friend, Elisha Headlee, were buried in the “nigger cemetery” while Susan Jane Bedell was buried in the white cemetery. There was another Susan Jane Whitlock, probably an aunt of my great grandmother, so heaven knows where she was buried!

My grandfather Edwards once joked about his wife being called a “nigger.” In retrospect, I think it was not so funny. When my father was eight years old, in l917, the family joined the Oklahoma land rush and settled in Enid, where my father was raised among the Osage Indians. His grandfather had been a doctor, he was named for doctor, and a local doctor became his mentor. He graduated from Oklahoma A & M and got a scholarship to Harvard Medical School. Just before World War II, he was an intern in St. Louis, Missouri, where he met and married my mother in a whirlwind courtship just before he was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia for training and then off to Africa and Europe, where he participated in D-Day and left his past behind. If my mother ever knew the truth, she did not allow herself to know. They belonged to many clubs where anyone with black ancestors could not belong, and he achieved a lot in medicine he would not have been able to from behind the closed doors of racism.

When my father was President of the Missouri Valley Medical Association my parents had to hold the reception after the meeting at our home, since none of the clubs they belonged to or even hotels would allow the only black associate, a graduate of Harvard Medical School, to enter. Had they only known that, by some standards, my father, also a Harvard Medical School graduate, was black too.

I feel astonished that I was able to find out this much and hope that someday the tree will be restored. A lot of my upbringing resembled the story of the “King and His New Clothes.” I began to doubt what was real and what was not, and learned to distrust the authenticity of my own perception and feelings. I was made to feel that I did not have a right to identify with other races. I was told that I was white; therefore I was cold and could never feel rhythm or passion. (Of course, had those that said that thought a little longer before making that remark, they might have realized that there was only one way to test that theory—and it wasn’t the one they intended!) To find out who I was, I had to defy family taboos and leave home, where no one pre-judged me by expectations of race, culture or class. Some people were told I was in a mental hospital, so that in case rumors surfaced, they would be excused. Perhaps mine was a selfish quest, because I was so interested in finding who I really was I failed to consider the effects my actions had on my family and other people. I look back on all the important civil rights struggles that were going on at Vassar while I was there, and how I failed to relate. It is only now, that I am more confident in who I am, that I feel I can stop taking and begin giving. How I admire my fellow students, both black and white, who were already confident in themselves and who they were to take the risks they did and start giving then!

Since then, I have found a lot of people like me, suggesting that as many Native Americans were wiped out on paper as by disease or war. They disappeared much more quickly into the general European world than African-Americans did, who took at least one more generation. Not only that, if anyone knew of a drop of African blood even as far back as great-great grandparents in some states, like Louisiana, regardless of the person’s appearance, they were assigned to the black side of the family, which caused blacks to multiply faster than whites! This was only slightly counteracted by those who “passed.” The mathematics of prejudice in the census is astounding. For example, along with fame and fortune and the Gold Rush, a new identity seems to be an important reason many people went west. I used to wonder if the missing black persons list in the south and east correlated with the increase in population in the north and west!

“Passing”, as has been noted, has multiple effects. It is not just a triumph or deception. Whether it’s a matter of life or death, as in Nazi-dominated areas of Europe, or to break free from the notoriety of a family’s criminal past, social transgressions, or to obtain opportunities that would otherwise be denied, passing is painful. It means cutting away a big part of your life, simply because circumventing the secret you want to hide takes so much with it: culture, religion, close friends, family, the freedom to dress and act or even talk and look the way you would like to. And having to make sure your children observe these same restrictions, without their knowing why, takes so much away from them. Their minds are like computers, storing information, sorting and resorting throughout their lives. Sooner or later, they suspect something is amiss, even though they don’t know exactly what, and many will not rest in peace until they find that missing part of themselves.

We are finally at the point we can stop pruning family trees and cutting off roots to graft the tree onto other stems. Even Thomas Jefferson’s family is reattaching roots and branches in their rightful place. I think that we will find that many families who pride themselves on having “come over on the Mayflower” and “fought in the Revolution” will realize at the same time they are stating they are probably of mixed race.

I realize that there are many black people who could have passed and chose, instead, to stay and fight for the rights of their people. Some of them logically resent those who “avoided the draft” and came back after the war is ending, to jump on the bandwagon when they have very little African-American or Native American ancestry and virtually no contact with their culture. I assure them that the purpose of our search is not to declare ourselves member of another race (although there are those who would do that for us). We are just trying to fill in the missing pieces in our lives.

Ironically, the institution of slavery fostered the very racial blending that it tried so hard to prevent. The slaves who worked closest to the home were likely to be the lightest in color, so that any further mixing would result in a totally European appearance. These people tended to the families most basic needs—cooking, cleaning, mending clothes and hanging them in the closet, doctoring wounds and caring for the sick—all functions that should create the emotional closeness between a mother and child and a man and his wife, not his housekeeper. In fact, I have known several men who were not happy “eating out” and would not let anyone else serve them supper but their wives. They seemed to consider it as intimate a function as the one that generally followed.

If I am to believe a friend from North Carolina, who introduced me to the “Nigger-in-the-woodpile” concept, this worked both ways. She explained that the lady of the house had occasion to check to status of the wood for the woodstove, which proved to be a convenient meeting place, so that some of the family’s children were more brunette than expected.

We are all familiar with the scenario of the unscrupulous landowner forcing himself upon defenseless women, but we (perhaps purposefully) ignore the deep emotional attachments that led to children and probably would have ended in marriage if laws and customs had permitted. On the frontier, this often happened, usually with the man being the white partner. European women were scarce. Many died. Men and women of different races got to know each where the rules of society seemed distant and irrelevant. Apparently, this was the case in my family. Whether interracial marriage was legal in Missouri or not in those times, records of these marriages were kept in the Old Salem Church my great-grandfather founded, until they were—quite recently—destroyed by a well-meaning clerk of the new church where they were moved after the old one burned. Fire did not destroy them: a person did.

Although computers and genealogists are able to discover and process enormous amounts of new data, most of the important documents are in our attics: portraits, our family Bibles, and the memories of people who are about to leave this earth. Each time someone moves or someone dies, these records may be destroyed. We need to hurry. I know that I am the last in my immediate family to be able to name the relatives in old family pictures.

The Bedell family is planning their 25th annual reunion, which they hold in different cities each year. This is the first time it will be held in Springfield, Missouri, July 18-20. Information may be obtained from I am forewarned that not all Bedells are interested in some of their relatives' African ancestry, so it should be interesting. I really hope I can attend and fill in more gaps in the information about my father's family, which is very much a part, though until recently, an overlooked part, of U.S. history.

© Virginia Castro 2003