Black Ancestry, White Supremacist Confederate Officer

The New York Times Opinionator online site has a very interesting commentary by law professor Daniel j. Sharfstein (Vanderbilt) on how some relatively well-off men in the slaveholding South were able to move from being “black” under the later very common one drop of blood rule (that is, some African ancestry) to being treated as “white” because they had some property, including sometimes property in enslaved African Americans, and connections and had done well in the pre-Civil War South.

Sharfstein makes this point about the historical data he has analyzed on a Confederate officer named Randall Lee Gibson in Louisiana who strongly supported the Confederacy, secession, and slavery:

The son of a wealthy sugar planter and valedictorian of Yale’s Class of 1853, Gibson had long supported secession. Conflict was inevitable, he believed, not because of states’ rights or the propriety or necessity of slavery. Rather, a war would be fought over the inexorable gulf between whites and blacks, or what he called “the most enlightened race” and “the most degraded of all the races of men.”

The great, sad, and sick irony about Colonel Gibson’s extremely racist view of the racial hierarchy and white supremacy was that he himself was the descendant of a free black man named Gideon Gibson who came to the South Carolina colony in the 1730s. Because he had married a white woman and had been a landowner in another colony, Gideon Gibson was granted substantial land in expanding South Carolina and eventually became a well-off planter and slaveholder there. This worked out because before the Civil War, as Sharfstein notes,

Most Southern states followed a one-quarter or one-eighth rule: anyone with a black grandparent or great-grandparent was legally black, and those with more remote ancestry were legally white.

As the Gibson’s descendants moved west and thrived in Louisiana, their African origins got “watered down” by more marriages and interactions with whites, and forgotten or hidden, and soon the descendant of a black man, Randall Gibson, became a raving white supremacist and Confederate Officer. This probably happened dozens if not hundreds of times over slavery’s centuries.

This is a clear example not only of how “race” is socially and societally constructed, but also of how powerful the age-old white racial frame is.

Even those whose ancestry is linked outside Europe to Africa can most certainly buy into and operate out of the white racial frame. What Sharfstein and commentators I have seen so far on this story do not do, is to call out the role of elite white men and the broader U.S. racist system and its imposed white racial frame as the reasons why Colonel Randall Lee Gibson felt the need to inferiorize black people and superiorize white people so aggressively. And to conform to the racial oppressor class so aggressively.

The U.S. racist system is so powerful that it dominates all who come within its sphere, including the minds of Americans of color, and counter-framing and resistance to whites’ systemic racism are very difficult for any person, and thus are only rarely attempted in a big way – in part because one can certainly die in this large-scale resistance and counter framing.


  1. cordoba blue

    “The terms mulatto, quadroon, and octoroon originated with the racial policies of European colonizers in the Americas, especially the Spanish. Because civil rights and responsibilities were based directly on the degree of European blood that a person had, such classifications were highly elaborated, and minor distinctions in ancestry were carefully recorded. While these terms have highly precise definitions, in actual practice they were often used based on impressions of skin color rather than definite knowledge of ancestry.”
    As you probably know, mulatto was the term for someone who was half black and half white. Quadroon was someone with 1/4 black ancestry and octoroon was someone with 1/8 black ancestry.Many escaped slaves tried to obtain artificial “birth papers” that stated they had white parents, so they could open up shops etc and start businesses after they’d escaped. Sometimes it worked, sometimes, unfortunately, it did not.
    In the New Orleans area, many slaves tried to pass themselves off as olive skinned French or Spanish people. Again, the lighter the complexion, the better chance you had of using this tactic. A great book about this phenomenon is Alex Haley’s “Queen” written about his great great grandmother who was the daughter of the owner of the plantation.The owner did not acknowledge her, but after she left she was light enough to attempt to marry a white man. I believe this attempt failed (haven’t read the book in awhile). But it illustrates how former slaves tried to “pass” for white to survive, and the obstacles and fear they encountered on this journey.

  2. cordoba blue

    Also this:
    Terceron is a term synonymous with “octoroon,” derived from being three generations of descent from an African ancestor (great-grandparent).

    Mustee also refers to a person with one-eighth African ancestry. Mustefino or quintroon or hexadecaroon refers to a person with ONE-SIXTEENTH African ancestry.

    The mulatto was the offspring of a white and a black person. From the mulatto and a white came the quadroon and from the quadroon and a white, the mustee. The child of a mustee and a white person was called the mustefino.
    You can see how it was considered a severe handicap to have the slightest African American blood. The bias behind this thinking was linked to the notion of black people being inferior genetically to whites.

  3. cordoba blue
    If anyone’s interested this is an excellent detailed timeline of European slavery from 1400-2003. When you get to the bottom of a page, just click on the next 100 year time span. Apparently Columbus was the first man to actually initiate the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He sent 300 Taino Native Americans back to Spain as slaves. It said the “legality” of this action was questioned. Apparently, a great attempt was made to create an accurate timeline.
    I know I comment on here alot, but I keep researching things on the net for my students, and then conclude the articles would be valuable for this website. I was impressed with this particular site.

  4. cordoba blue

    Oh, and you’ll find this interesting. Apparently Queen Elizabeth I was a full blown racist and thought there were too many Africans in England. She wanted them removed.
    11 July 1596: Queen Elizabeth I of England sends a letter complaining that ‘there are of late divers blackmoores brought into this realme, of which kinde of people there are allready here to manie … Her Majesty’s pleasure therefore ys that those kinde of people should be sent forth of the lande”. Accordingly, a group of slaves were rounded up and given to a German slave trader, Caspar van Senden, in ‘payment’ for duties he had performed.

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