Censuses provide the framework for much of the family history research that we do.
Because of this, it is useful to consult the instructions that were given to census enumerators. They are online at the University of Minnesota’s website.
The confusing and shifting definitions and “racial” categories are a reminder that race is a fiction and its meaning ever-changing.
Those in power decided those meanings and assigned them to our ancestors imprecisely.
Let’s look at how the instructions for defining “black” (colored, negro, etc.) changed over time.
1860 and 1870 Censuses
In 1860 and 1870, a blank space under Color implied “White:”
Color.– Under heading 6, entitled “Color,” in all cases where the person is white leave the space blank; in all cases where the person is black without admixture insert the letter “B”; if a mulatto, or of mixed blood, write “M”;if an Indian, write “Ind.” It is very desirable to have these directions carefully observed.
By 1880 that was no longer the case. Notice the preoccupation with Mulatto:
Color–It must not be assumed that, where nothing is written in this column, “white” is to be understood. The column is always to be filled. Be particularly careful in reporting the class mulatto.
The word is here generic, and includes quadroons, octoroons, and all persons having any perceptible trace of African blood. Important scientific results depend upon the correct determination of this class in schedules 1 and 5.
(What scientific results depended on this?)
By 1900, there was no “Mulatto” category anymore. All of those people now are “Black:”
Color- Write “W” for white; “B” for black (negro or of negro descent); “Ch” for Chinese; “JP” for Japanese, and “In” for Indian, as the case may be.
By 1910, the “Mulatto” category returned. And a new definition appears for “Black:”
Color or race.-Write “W” for white; “B” for black; “Mu” for mulatto; “Ch” for Chinese; “Jp” for Japanese; “In” for Indian. For all persons not falling within one of these classes, write “Ot” (for other), and write on the left-hand margin of the schedule the race of the person so indicated.
For census purposes, the term “black” (B) includes all persons who are evidently full-blooded negroes, while the term “mulatto” (Mu) includes all other persons having some proportion or perceptible trace of negro blood.
By 1920, there was a slew of other color/race choices. Mulatto was defined as someone with some trace of African/negro blood. Now, Mulatto meant someone with any trace of white blood:
Color or race.-Write “W” for white, “B” for black; “Mu” for mulatto; “In” for Indian; “Ch” for Chinese; “Jp” for Japanese; “Fil” for Filipino; “Hin” for Hindu; “Kor” for Korean. for all persons not falling within one of these classes, write “Ot” (for other), and write on the left-hand margin of the schedule the race of the person so indicated.
For census purposes the term “black” (B) includes all Negroes of full blood, while the term “mulatto” (Mu) includes all Negroes having some proportion of white blood.
1930 and 1940 Censuses
The new category “Negro” appeared in 1930 and 1940, though with conflicting guidelines. A new category, “Other Mixed Races,” appeared:
Color or race.-Write “W” for white, “B” for black; “Mus” for mulatto; “In” for Indian; “Ch” for Chinese; “Jp” for Japanese; “Fil” for Filipino; “Hin” for Hindu; “Kor” for Korean. For a person of any other race, write the race in full.
Negroes.-A person of mixed white and Negro blood should be returned as a Negro, no matter how small the percentage of Negro blood. Both black and mulatto persons are to be returned as Negroes, without distinction.
A person of mixed Indian and Negro blood should be returned a Negro, unless the Indian blood predominates and the status as an Indian is generally accepted in the community.
Other mixed races.-Any mixture of white and nonwhite should be reported according to the nonwhite parent. Mixtures of colored races should be reported according to the race of the father, except Negro-Indian.
The Folly of Race
Notice that nowhere in the instructions does the enumerator ask the person what race they are. He guesses based upon how the person looked.
Except, of course, if the person looked white but had a black parent, then they weren’t white at all. Which means it was ancestry that was important.
This nation’s preoccupation with color, especially when that color was black, is ever-present. Our culture is immersed in the invented concept of race. However, centuries of miscegenation make that problematic.
This post also illustrates how the concept changes over time. Look how the enumerators twisted themselves into knots with the passing years. They invented new categories and merged others.
It would be ridiculous if there was not such a history of violence and theft and tragedy behind it all.
If that’s not enough, consider that at the turn of the century, science recognized several white races, among them Celtic and Saxons. After World War I, someone invented a new term: Nordic.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.