March 02, 2005

Whatever happened to Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins

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.

Caleb writes:

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.

How this all played out in small Massachussetts towns in the late nineteenth century it's hard to know.

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 ...

There are indexes (or indices?) to the 1870 and 1880 censuses.

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

I found Emma Dunham Kelley in 2003 as is mentioned in "Loose Canons" on "Inside Higher Ed" by Scott Jaschik.


I am submitting my final finished paper this week on the complete study of Emma's life and her entry into the AA literature canon. I was literally proofreading the footnotes for it when Ms. Jackson's article published. It is being submitted to the peer-reviewed "National Genbealogical Society Quarterly".

Katherine Flynn

Posted by: Katherine Flynn at March 3, 2005 06:09 PM


"National Genealogical Society Quarterly"

Thank you.

Posted by: Katherine Flynn at March 3, 2005 06:15 PM

Rob, Given the vagueries of the census data gathering, I don't think you can eliminate "Emma D. Kelley" in 1870 as a possibility simply because it lists a New York birthplace, especially because the data was being gathered in New York. And, of course, we do have non-census evidence about her in the 1890s because that is when her two novels were published.

Posted by: Ralph Luker at March 5, 2005 11:56 AM

RE: Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins

Even if you find a small amount of "black blood" in the woman, that wouldn't make her an "African American." By a "one drop" standard (which really wasn't common in the South until the 20th century), nearly all Latinos and Arabs would be "black." The truth is that lots of white people have "black" ancestry (Ever heard of the Melungeons?). Try to label everyone "black" against their will (the "passing" accusation) and this "one drop" nonsense will soon end.

Posted by: A.D. Powell at March 7, 2005 11:11 AM

I don't know about Emma Kelley, but my Colonial Virginia ancestors were given the racial classification as white or mulatto. This was especially true for Natives, who were either designated as White or Mulatto. In the 1783 Personal Property tax census of Amherst County, my ancestor is listed as white. Two years later, he is listed in the same county as Mulatto. In fact the census taker made a M notation in the cenus record. Yet, we know that the family were Native Americans, who whose racial designation was changed by Virginia's Legislature.

There were many People of Color, attempting to pass, and be white. Few were attempting to pass from white to being a Person of Color (Indian, African, Mulatto). My Virginia lines began as Native, and split off, with some becoming African American and others becoming white. Those who could not be assimilated were shipped to Reservations.

In fact when my ancestors (who were considered Free Persons of Color)left Virginia, they continued to split. I know this because growing up in Pennsylvania, we had white cousins at our family gatherings. My mother pointed out to us that they were our cousins, from her mother or fathers side of the family. She also said there were white cousins in the community that did not consider themselves negro (the pc term of the time). They were assimilated into the white community, and did not associate with us (we were than African American).

I have been tracing descendants of my ancestors, and many have told me that they have family members who consider themselves white. So the split is continuing, and I believe it is more common than we want to admit.

By the way, I took a straight maternal DNA test, and the percentages that came back were 87% European, 8% Native, and 5% African. This straight line would be considered caucasion today. This line entered the Iberian Peninsula from North African 45,000 years ago. I am in contact with DNA cousins from all over Europe, including one from Belrusia. Her family has been there for hundreds of years.

It just goes back to the simple truth that there is only one race..., Human.

Posted by: Anita Wills at March 9, 2005 01:43 AM

I think that you should let it be, I seen the picture and to me she is african american. Yes the one drop rule does pass, and it still do. My children is mix but they are african american children. Alot of african american or even mixed african american and native would pass as white or mark white if it gave them a better opportunity. My aunt passed as white in the 50's-70's until segeration was outlawed. African americans come in all different shades. Don't try to take one of the great african american authors away from our history now.

Posted by: monica at March 17, 2005 05:39 PM

Does any one have more information on Gabrelia, Emma Dunham Kelley Hawkin's mother? Are the names of her grandparents part of the public record at this point? How often are families of Portuguese or Cape Verdian descent identified as such? I know that none of the Dennis Kelley's are from Portugal (as birth place is listed in the census). The name Gabrelia leads one to ask questions about EMKH's ethnic as well as racial classification.

And has Katherine Flynn's article been accepted yet? Is there a publication date pending?

Posted by: at July 5, 2005 02:18 PM

Does any one have more information on Gabrelia, Emma Dunham Kelley Hawkin's mother? Are the names of her grandparents part of the public record at this point? How often are families of Portuguese or Cape Verdian descent identified as such? I know that none of the Dennis Kelley's are from Portugal (as birth place is listed in the census). The name Gabrelia leads one to ask questions about EMKH's ethnic as well as racial classification.

And has Katherine Flynn's article been accepted yet? Is there a publication date pending?

Posted by: Pier at July 5, 2005 02:18 PM

I found something on Emma in 1880...

I'll post more later.


Posted by: Neil at September 26, 2005 06:49 PM

I have found Emma D Kelley-Hawkins in 1870 and 1880... and have done a semi-complete family tree of her family. I am still looking for her in 1900. Has anyone found her in 1900?

I also have more information on her mother, and siblings. I want to contribute this research with someone who will get published, and give credit.


Posted by: Neil at September 27, 2005 04:22 PM

I've up loaded the Emma Dunhma Kelley-Hawkins family tree to the ancestry world tree...
You can find it here (search = Emma Dunham Kelley):

I also uploaded some of the census forms (including the missing 1870 and 1880 census) on my boxing website:

There is some more stuff, and i'll probably add that later...

One thing i havent been able to confirm is that her father (Isaac Kelley) was lost at sea in 1864. I found reference to this in another Kelley family tree. Also, her mother's (Gabrelia) second marriage to a man name "William Quincy" is almost certain, because I found reference to it in a Rhode Island directory.

Have fun, and I hope it answers your questions.


Posted by: Neil at September 30, 2005 02:14 PM

Hello all,

An update: Kathy Flynn's article is slated for publication in the NGSQ in March of 2006. I have seen a copy and I think you'll be pleased to see that she does a truly thorough job tracing Emma's full genealogy back to her Revolutionary ancestors. Great work.

Erika Henning-Dyson

Posted by: Erika Henning-Dyson at November 14, 2005 05:38 AM
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