I first heard of Robert Stafford from Ken Thomas in the State Preservation
Office in Georgia. Stafford was a successful white planter whose Cumberland
estate was one of the largest in the Georgia sea islands.
It was here on Cumberland Island about a century ago that a most fascinating
account of an interracial relationship took place when Stafford began a liaison
with his slave.
Scandalized and affronted by the affection he showered on this woman and by the
wife-like position she openly maintained in his home, his neighbors forced him
to have her removed from the vicinity. He brought her and their six children
to New England where he built them one of the most imposing residences in the
area. Although reared with all the upper class amenities available at the
time, this family never exactly "passed". Either because they were too dark or
because their wealth and their father's connections would have made it too
difficult to claim Mediterranean or Native American ancestry, for instance,
they registered themselves as "mulatto", a designation then accepted for anyone
of color who was not predominantly black.
Besides being well educated, it would appear that by adolescence they had
become the center of social life of the community. From what has been
gathered, the four accomplished young women of the household entertained quite
extensively, not only over dinner but with the type of musical soirees and
amateur theatricals that appealed to a more sophisticated class. Indeed, the
eldest married a member of the legislature and when that marriage failed took
as her next husband a Yale educated doctor. Due to the death of her first
husband, the second was also wed twice. Both men were fairly well known
artists of the time. The third sister married a naval captain who seems to
have enjoyed a certain amount of prominence in New York political circles. The
youngest, however, far outdid her sisters socially. She became a countess.
Having moved to London, she met and married a nobleman who was then a member of
the Russian diplomatic corps residing there.
The history and archeology of the plantation and the legal and economic
precautions Stafford took to protect the family he sired with his common law
slave wife, are the subjects of serious academic studies. Within the last few
years, three books have already been published. The third, printed privately,
was picked up by a university press and re-released last year.
Besides all the information and memorabilia on this family that is still being
uncovered, the sole scholar of the Stafford saga is herself an interesting
story. Mary Bullard is a voluble and personable woman in her eighties. And
how she came across the subject of her study is quite interesting. This
interracial family received a certain amount of public attention in 1889 when a
suit was brought in New York by a number of Stafford's grandchildren to recover
40,000 acres of his Cumberland plantation from Mrs. Andrew Carnegie. Despite
their wholly white complexion and features, they were prepared to contest the
realtors' ploy to use the grandmother's slave status to nullify their rights as
heirs. In exactly what way, I have not yet found out, but it was Mr. Thomas
who tipped me off that Ms. Mary Bullard is, in fact, a Carnegie.
Footnote: John F. Kennedy Jr. married Carolyn Besette on Cumberland
Island in 1996. The story of Robert Stafford and his family might very well be
familiar to both of them. For Ms. Bullard is a relative of the friend of
Kennedy and Besette's who was their wedding hostess and organizer.....and a
Carnegie too. Thus, their choice of the African Baptist chapel on Cumberland
Island for their marriage takes on added interest.
The Staffords were honest about how they perceived themselves racially,
and they were just as punctillious when it came to choosing marriage partners.
Of the four that survived, three married white men of the same upper-class
social circles to which they themselves belonged in Connecticut.
m. 1. Frederick A. Palmer, a mortgage broker &
(1838-1879)member of the South Carolina legislature
m. 2. Dr. Charles H. Gaylord, Yale 1868 & 1871
m. l. Benjamin Brady, a celebrated NY calligrapher
m. 2. Frederick W. Engels, a well known NY artist
m. Francis W. Vosburgh, NY (1853-1891)
m. Count Charles Cybulski, Russian diplomat
Somewhat reminiscent of the distinct black and white lines of the Van Salee
descent, another family Robert Stafford appears to have originated (after he
had settled the first in Connecticut) and has only just come to light within
the last year, is one in which a granddaughter became the first woman MD to
graduate from Howard.
Researched and Written by Mario de Valdes y Cocom