Racial islands

by Rick Gildemeister


[Date: 01/22/2000: From: Rick Gildemeister "...include that posting (Racial Islands) as is. As far as Ned (Heite) and Paul (Heinegg) are concerned, at this early stage in research, there are few absolute givens, so it's good that there be these polar opposites, so that synthesizers can tease out what seems reasonable and attempt to further understanding...." ]


Years ago I wrote my senior thesis on groups variously referred to as "local races", "little races" "racial islands" "tri-racial isolates" "third races" and "interstitial groups." Members of these groups can be traced historically through censuses and other materials to the pre-Civil War "free persons of color."

Numerous studies have been done on free persons of color, drawing on the same historical sources as scholars doing research on these groups, with little or no cross-discussion on the part of the two sets of scholars. One recent article stated that research on these groups is not worthwhile, since the phenomenon involves so few individuals. If this is true, why do I keep meeting them here in New York?

What brings all these groups (one researcher estimates there are roughly 200 such groups, I believe) under one rubric is as follows:

Members of these groups are alleged both by scholars and by local blacks and whites in these groups' areas of residence to be of white, Indian, and black origin. Appearance is not necessarily an important criterion by which members are identified, but ancestry, surname, and reputation are called upon in cases of doubt.

Perhaps the most important sociological feature of these groups is that they deny any African origin; what results is that the groups are socially accepted only within their own group and think of themselves as white, Indian, or a separate race altogether. Many people in some of these groups have fought in court and had their racial classification changed to white or Indian. In the old days down South, certain counties supported three separate school systems. In South Carolina there were certain schools that were nominally white schools but were called "special schools" i.e. for children of allegedly mixed-race groups.

These statements are a gross oversimplification but may help clarify what is meant by "third races" etc.

Even if it involves only a few individuals, the subject raises questions about the collective identity of African-Americans as a people. It seems highly possible that the racial classification system of the old South and the identities of people referred to as free persons of color in the South may be more complex than we have thought, and that the persistence of these "third races" indicates the possibility that the phenomenon of "third races" may have been more widespread; the literature on these groups indicate that many groups have dispersed, with the individuals intermarrying with whites and blacks.

One final note: Hiram Revels was descended from just such a group, and the first black insurance company was started by members of the Lowry family, who derive from the same group in North Carolina as Revels. So, any information on listservs on Southern history and African American history would be much appreciated. I would like to write an article on this and, as I am experienced with "electronic conferences." I thought a discussion list might be a good place to share information.

Rick Gildemeister


Wed, 18 Aug 1993 13:55:48









"The History and Genealogy of the
Native American Isolate Communities
of Kent County, Delaware, and
Surrounding Areas on the Delmarva Peninsula
and Southern New Jersey"



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