Jami FloydBack to OpinionJami Floyd

On this Civil War anniversary, one family’s journey toward America’s future

Jo Ann and James Floyd in Harlem, 1962

Today is the 150th anniversary of the start of the War Between the States — the Civil War. Union soldiers fired cannons during the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the first shots of the war, on April 12, 1861.

The war has great resonance for all Americans, of course, but it has special meaning for my family. My father’s grandmother, Ollie James, was born into slavery in Mississippi. He was just 5 years old when she died, but his life and worldview were forever affected by the knowledge of her beginnings in bondage.

My mother’s people were slaveholders, white Anglo-Saxons from Missouri and, later Texas. When the issue of slavery became a source of contention between the Anglo-American settlers (called that because they spoke English) and Spanish governors in Texas, let’s just say my mother’s granddaddy was not on the right side of the issue.

Fast forward to 1954. My parents (who had met abroad) decided to marry. It was illegal, however, in a majority of U.S. states for them to marry because my father is black and my mother is white.

That is going to seem so nuts to anyone born after 1970. But that’s how important skin color was in those days. There were actually laws criminalizing interracial marriage (and sometimes sex) between members of two different races.

No match was more reviled than the match between a white woman and a black man. This was the greatest offense of all. And there were pecuniary considerations for my parents: My mother was reminded by her family that she would be far better off financially if she married a wealthy white Texas boy and stayed close to her Texas relatives (who by this time had given over cotton farming for oil). Now she would see none of that.

And then, of course, there were the children. Think of the children!

But my parents had considered all of that, and had their minds made up. They traveled to three states, all told, until they got to Illinois, where they found a doctor willing to give them the requisite blood test and a justice of the peace courageous enough to sign the marriage certificate.

In the early years, they faced horrible discrimination in employment and housing. Think about it. The Civil War had been fought less than 100 years before. Jim Crow was still alive and well. And they were married for 13 years before the landmark Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which overturned the anti-miscegenation laws.

Loving came down in 1967, which means that, for the first three years of my life, I was not entirely legitimate in the eyes of most state governments. Even here in New York City, I suffered untold abuse. But that is another blog for another day.

Except that it all colored my view of the world (pun intended). One hundred fifty years after the Civil War started, I believe America is still defined, at least in significant part, by its race problem.

Race remains one of the most persistent problems in the United States precisely because we have refused for a century and a half to speak to one another openly and honestly about the subject. The topic is so emotionally charged that it is almost impossible to talk sensibly about race relations, even among friends, let alone in the public discourse.

I have found this in my own work as a legal and political analyst. I can talk about almost anything else on radio or television: the economy, sports, Glenn Beck, feminism, the death penalty, abortion, the Tea Party, you name it. But when it comes to race, the comments I receive on the web, Twitter, my Facebook page, or from callers during a show are often made in anger.

Still, I hope for a reasoned dialogue over the subject, free from charged emotion and the polemic, but I often find disappointment. There is something about race. I believe it is rooted in slavery and the unfinished business of the Civil War.

There is also something that gives me hope, however.

Next month, on June 20, my parents will celebrate their 57th wedding anniversary. And marriages like theirs have become less the exception. (I’m not talking about the length. That is exceptional. I’m talking about interracial marriages.) People don’t stare anymore when an interracial couple, even a black man and a white woman, walk down the street.

The social byproduct of all that coupling: the demographic of America is changing. This suggests that we can talk to each other in ways that are both mundane and meaningful, as my parents have done for more than half a century.

 

Comments

  • Auntses

    I can relate to your family story, my mother was white and father black. My mother had been married before, she’d had three children, when she started dating my father in 1964 Illinois, she lost custody of her three children, because the court did not think it proper for a black man to raise three blond haired, blue eyed children. We moved from Illinois to Portland, OR in 1971, my mother wanted to see her mother before she left, she was told she could come but that she had to leave the three of us at home. My mother didn’t talk to her mother for nearly 20 years. Yes things are different now, people don’t stare at interracial couples as much, but I’ve been asked more times than I can count “what are you?” “where are you from?” and my mother who had a bunch of brown skinned grandbabies was always asked if she ran a daycare when she took them all out and about. Thank you for your commentary.

  • Krkatanick

    God bless your parents for their mitzvah, and keep talking. Our planet, that we all rent for awhile, needs to get over it’s obsession with class, race, and superiority. We are one family.

  • EMerlin

    To have a conversation about race, we would need people from all races to speak without words colored with anger and fear. We often base our thoughts and perceptions on emotions rather than facts; on what we believe happened rather than what truly happened. We are an emotional species and our emotions dictate our behaviors. We talk at each other rather than with each other. I believe that this keeps us from openingly speaking about race.

  • VIVIAN BOOKOUT-RODGERS-CHAUVIN

    AM I ABLE TO FIND MY FAMILY NAME IN CIVIL WAR VETS

  • Chrissysails

    wow! your should write a book, seriously. your story brought me to tears. it is the kind of story that needs to be shared.

  • Omabrews

    Good comes in all colors~ and so does bad….
    I’d rather be around good people no matter what color!

  • Aval

    First of all, you need to be educated on the history of slavery and race. It by far precedes the establishment of slavery in this country. Also, slavery included all races in bondage, staying with them for generations.
    Yes, some people are unable to discuss race objectively. I’ve observed it first-hand in a graduate class on that very topic. Those considering themselves as Black American also considered themselves as authorities when in fact they were not. They (including the instructor) also functioned biasly that all Caucasians had slave owners in their lineage which was far from the truth.
    In order for racism to be addressed, it must be accomplished without bias and opinion to get at the root.
    In regards to mixed marriages, I always hope that it is a marriage full of love. Marriage can be difficult without having to contend with opinions of others regarding differing races. And, people do stare today–just a little less noticeable.
    Having read your article, I believe you are seeking something. I’m not really sure of your objective. I do hope you find what you are seeking and it fills what ever need you have.
    But, you know, it’s been my experience that those who go about their lives are pretty much allowed to do so. Those who don’t are those who keep bemoaning their plight (a mixed marriage, I don’t think, is a plight).
    Any way, yes, an interesting story. I would prefer to read it not as a piece of propoganda but more of a historical account (which will work more wonders than you ever dreamed of).

  • mak3

    Thank you for naming the elephant in the room.

  • Bchk0058

    The photo of your parents is beautiful. Your mother is stylish and feminine. Your father, strong and intelligent. Together they look comfortable and loving in this ‘black and white’ photograph. This is an example of a family, a loving one. Happy Anniversary to your parents.

  • Jh9999

    Hi Jami,

    Thank you for this piece. It is still a hot button issue, but I honestly think that’s out of ignorance – largely by white people (of which I am one). The landmark cases you site in your article are totally unknown to probably 95% of white Americans. Talking about it to other white people, you get the idea that all bigotry ended a long time ago and what the heck are these people dragging it all out for. The devil is in the details and I’m afraid that the vast majority of Americans don’t take the time to learn those details. Making February African American History month helps slightly. The documentary “Eyes on the Prize” should be required viewing in all high schools as well as other information about the failure of the Reconstruction and the subsequent Jim Crowe laws, many of which I don’t even know myself, and I try to pay attention. Being ignorant of all of this, the typical white reaction to talk of racism is that it just doesn’t exist anymore; you folks all just want special privileges and affirmative action takes jobs away from deserving white people… blah blah blah. I recently read an article somewhere about how middle class white people who are unemployed in this recession feel that they are the victims of reverse racism. Apparently they didn’t know that the unemployment rate among African Americans is, and almost always has been, much higher. I wish I knew where they get this stuff. TV?

    JMH

  • Fowensfjo

    I certainly respect your opinion, I just don’t know what it is.

  • Aval

    Pretty much boils down to the author writing the story she knows which is that of her parents. She attempts to include history of which she obviously lacks some knowledge. I have no problems with mixed marriages but I was left feeling her defense with her perception that people would disagree and they needed some tellin’. She simply needed to tell the story. The story would be convincing enough to make the disapprovers change. Shoving never makes anything palatable.

  • joslin

    I am just a few years younger than your parents and share their time in and experience of American life. I understand full well all that you have written here, as those who are younger can never comprehend, even though they think they do. My heartiest congratulations to your parents on knowing who they were/are and what they wanted so strongly and so sincerely. Fifty-seven years of marriage is no easy feat for anyone, but for a non-celebrity interracial couple who started out in 1954, it must be something of a miracle. Aren’t you a fortunate woman to have had such parents!

  • Anonymous

    Like you, I am the product of a Black father and White mother—both of whom I have never met. I cannot imagine what it was like for them back in 1950. I thank you for your article, and congratulate your parents on their anniversary. Fifty-seven years with any one person is hard enough, but it had to be worse for them. Race is still a serious matter, and is still very apparent in society today. Yes, you will see more interracial couples than ever before, but somewhere along the line, Black folks seem to be going backwards. Prisons are the homes for a majority minority population–as conveyed in an Eric Close article in Time almost 20 years ago. This tells me that it is systematic. All those hard-fought years that Thurgood Marshall and the rest of his NAACP defense team spent in providing equal education for Black students seems just a blip in history. I work at a community college, and 85% of the minority freshman population places developmental or remedial. In the inner city, education is still very minority–Black and Latino–and substandard. Before and years after the Civil War, slaves could not read or write–would have been beaten if trying to do so–but they sure could entertain—kind of like–now.

  • NotSoFast

    This post is just plain offensive.  It seems to me, Aval, that you are the one  who’s being defensive.  What do you have to hide?

  • Anonymous

    Criminalization@#$%  Can you believe that?  I wonder if there are any current laws prohibiting IR Marriages.  I am from MS but moved to WA.  I met my wife on http://www.swirldates.com.  There are many IR marriages here in WA.  We may occasionally get a stare but not like in MS.