Some regular readers will have missed it (others won't), but literary and historical types have been debating whether an obscure [and apparently tedious] writer called Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins was not African-American as has been argued, but actually white. The discovery was made by a Brandeis English lit graduate student, Holly Jackson.
In the interests of comprehensiveness (and trackback links) the issue is covered by Scott McLemee at Inside Higher Ed, Caleb McDaniel, The Reading Experience, Begging to Differ, Ralph Luker, and Timothy Burke.
I will mostly leave the issues of literary-historicism, identity, and whether this is another strike against Henry Louis-Gates, and comment on issues I have some professional expertise in.
I will say that in the end it's all English literature. It's written in English. What matters for literary history is not the demographic characteristics of the writer, but the language it's written in. It's a lot harder to find out what authors read, but it's a more accurate way of finding literary antecedents than external characteristics of the authors.
it's interesting to me that almost all of the evidence for her "whiteness" hinges on nineteenth-century census records .... Jackson considers this possibility -- that the family was "passing" -- but rejects it on the slender hypothesis that they could not have fooled the census-takers in a small Massachusetts town, where Kelly-Hawkins' family had lived for more than one generation when she was born .... Before accepting this hypothesis, I'd like to know more about the way the census was taken in Massachusetts at the time. In Maryland, for instance, my understanding is that the census was usually recorded in the antebellum period by hired census-takers, who went (more or less) from door to door, asking for names and ages. Presumably, they sometimes also asked for "race," since there was a column on the census for recording this, usually "W" for white, "B" for black, and "M" for "mulatto." But the column was usually labelled "color," not "race," and it's highly probable that white census-takers often simply identified a person's "color" with their own eyes. That is, if a person looked white, the census taker could mark down his "W" and move on, regardless of the person's own identification of himself or herself. Again, I don't know whether this was the way the census was taken in Kelly-Hawkins' case, but it's a question worth raising. I also don't know whether census takers necessarily knew the locals, as Jackson seems to assume.
Instructions to enumerators, and a procedural history of these censuses can be found here. What's important to know for the question at hand is that in small towns the census enumerator was often a local official, selected because he knew a lot of people. The 'people skills' to be a selectman had some overlap with those required to be an enumerator.
The postbellum censuses also conflated "color" and "race." You can see enumeration forms for all these censuses here. It's not until 1900 that the wording becomes "Color or race."
All of the pre-1950 censuses relied on an enumerator visiting the household, and asking questions of a respondent person. Because of this practice, mis-reporting and vague reporting of ages, occupations, birthplaces and the like is common in the 19th century census. If you weren't there, and someone answered for you, your information was more likely to be wrong. For the ten percent of the population that was boarding or lodging, this was more of a problem. (UPDATE, 5 March. Added "more" to penultimate sentence of this para, making it "was more likely to be wrong." I don't think the census was thatinaccurate.)
The enumerator instructions for the 1850-1890 censuses all stressed that an accurate 'register' of the color of the population was desired. Enumerators shouldn't leave the column blank for whites, and they should enquire about the proportion of black blood for those being marked as mulatto or black. Indeed in 1890 (for which most of the returns burned) they say:
The word "black" should be used to describe those persons who have three-fourths or more black blood; "mulatto," those persons who have from three-eighths to five-eighths black blood; "quadroon," those persons who have one-fourth black blood; and "octoroon," those persons who have one-eighth or any trace of black blood.
What I think is significant is that Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins and her ancestors are always described as white. That is firmer evidence of being white, whatever "being" and "white" mean.
In any case, whatever happened to Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins? Jackson's article locates her grandparents in the 1840-1860 censuses, and Kelley-Hawkins herself in the 1900-1930 censuses in Rhode Island.
What happened to Kelley-Hawkins between her birth and 1900? Jackson says:
Moving backward, I found the record of her parents' 1859 marriage, which provided all four of her grandparents' names. I located them (along with a sizable extended family) in the censuses from 1840 to 1860. Moving forward, I followed Kelley-Hawkins in Rhode Island in the first three decades of the 20th century. The last documents I uncovered were the obituary marking her death at home in Rumford on Oct. 22, 1938 ...
But there appears to be no potential match for an Emma D. Kelley in the 1870 census. There is an "Emma D Kelly" living in New York born around 1863, but her birthplace is New York. And there are no "Emma Kelley"s or "Emma Dunham"s who have Massachusetts birthplaces.
What about 1880? 1880 is a little easier to search, as there is a machine readable database of the complete census (a little plug for my day job), that is available for non-genealogical research. If you search the genealogical indexes there is no "Emma Kelley," "Emma Kelly" or "Emma Dunham," born around 1863 in Massachusetts.
In June 1880, Emma Dunham Kelley would have been 16. So, there's a good chance she might have left home and was working somewhere. People who were out working were more likely to have their ages misreported than those who actually spoke to the enumerator.
I searched the 1880 data for anyone with a first name of "Emma," born in Massachusetts, and aged between 15 and 19 (inclusive). That returned 1520 young women.
Just two of them appear like they could be Emma Dunham Kelley. One is an Emma Dunham, born in MA with both parents born in MA, but living in Illinois on a farm with an aunt who was running a farm.
The other candidate is an Emma Kelly, born in MA with both parents born in MA, living in Quincy (MA) with her grandparents, Ephraim and Priscilla Deane. Ephraim Deane is listed as a "Superintendent," but no industry is reported. When you look at an image of the enumeration the context becomes clearer. (large file)
Ephraim Deane was the Superintendent of the Sailors Snug Harbor in Quincy, an old home for sailors. His wife, Priscilla, was the matron in 1880. They are listed as having a daughter, Minna Deane aged 16. The next listed person is an Emma Kelly, aged 18, and employed as a servant.
Is this Emma Dunham Kelley? Possibly. The sailors home makes sense, when you consider that she grew up in a seafaring community. Possibly not ...
UPDATE: And it turns out, NOT, as this was not her grandfather. So, what did happen to Dunham Kelley between 1870 and 1900?Posted by robe0419 at March 2, 2005 02:48 PM | TrackBack