When Family Trees Are Gnarled by Race

My paternal grandfather, Marshall Staples (1898-1969), was one of the millions of black Southerners who moved north in the Great Migration. Those of us in the family who were born Yankees in the years just after World War II were given an earful about our place in 19th-century Virginia — and specifically about Marshall’s white grandfather, a member of a slaveholding family who fathered at least one child with my great-great-grandmother, Somerville Staples. Stories like this are typical among African-Americans who have roots in the slave-era South and who have always spoken candidly about themselves and their relationships with slaveholding forebears. In some cases, the Negro second families carried the names of their masters/fathers into Emancipation and settled in the same areas.

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