I continue to look for Oliver connections. In the meantime, I’ve delved into Mungin lore, which is more plentiful.
My grandfather, Isaac, who was never married to my grandmother, Pearl, shows as “Black” in census records. Once I recovered from the shock of the illegitimacy, I couldn’t help but find humor in the seemingly fair trade: the Mungins had infiltrated the Oliver family with Colored; the Oliver family had, in turn, infiltrated the Mungin family with crazy. Quite the trade-off, n’est pas?
The Mungin family is interesting, from a genealogical standpoint. I vaguely remember my grandfather, Isaac, though I knew him as “Uncle Ike” from my few trips to Washington, D.C. I did not know he was my grandfather until I was grown and he was long dead. The last time I saw him was probably 1968 (one year after I met him). I recall that he and “Aunt Inez” were fair-skinned, but since they were related to Mommy, I didn’t think much of it. When I found out Isaac was my grandfather, I assumed Inez was my grandmother. Later, I was to find out she was not. Even later, I was given information that leads me to believe the woman I recall had not been my step-grandmother, but possibly my grand-aunt, Sadie O, Isaac’s sister. Is anyone who they represent themselves to be?
Isaac was “Black” because his mother, Renelda, was “Black.” His father, Isaac, was “Mulatto,” even though his parents-of-record were David Mungin and Sarah, both “Black.” David and Sarah had three sons: John, David, and Isaac. John is listed in the census as “Black,” while David and Isaac are listed as “Mulatto.” So, it is highly likely that I have no biological ties to Betsey and March Mungin who were enslaved on the Butler Island Plantation. Leaving me, once again, in a position of having no clear idea of who I am or from whence I came, at least on my maternal side.
I don’t have the words to properly explain the significance of these seemingly simple and boring facts. I know all the names are – most likely – confusing to you, because you do not know these people. But I have spent a number of years getting to “know” them, only to find out I may or may not have an actual blood connection with many – or any – of them.
As brutal as the practice of slavery was, perhaps the most brutal part is its legacy. In addition to lingering social and economic inequity, there is a sense of disequilibrium. While the identification of race in a census record may seem an innocuous thing on its face, it is unusually cruel in its simplicity. In addition to dividing and stratifying the Community of Color, it evidences in perpetuity a system that stole not only labor, but birthright and identity. Based on “the rules,” David and Sarah’s children had no choice but to be black. And yet, two are not, including the one ostensibly named after his father. While the Old South utilized the “One Drop Rule” operationally, the federal government, through the census, adjudicated the populace very differently. What we are left with is an encoded record of the inhumane behavior visited upon blacks during slavery and in the decades immediately following. A black man had to know when his children were being identified as “Mulatto” by the census, and what that meant. Did he not realize this would be a permanent record? Did it make him feel angry? Victimized? Did it make his woman feel ashamed? Did both of them feel powerless to protest? Or was their acknowledgement a courageous move? A message to us who would come after maybe not so much of who we are, but of what we are made?