In several recent posts, we have explored a bit of the history of the French Negroes of Illinois. Well educated and devoutly Catholic, these families thrived in several Southern Illinois communities for a number of years. But as the 20th century began, the young people in these communities had few prospects even with their relatively strong educations. The French Negro families gradually moved across the river to St. Louis or upstate to Chicago. Few remained in the small communities of Southern Illinois where they descended from the slaves of the Philip Renault.
Emblematic of the French Negro families of Southern Illinois is the Micheau family. As we noted in a previous post early ancestors of this family are found in St. Genevieve, Missouri, in the late 18th century. We also told the story of George Micheau born into slavery in 1852 in Washington County, Missouri. George Micheau was one of five sons of a man also named George Micheau born in about 1815.
The younger George Micheau’s children eventually moved to St. Louis, where a number of his descendants live today.
At various times, George Micheau spelled his name different ways. Sometimes he spelled it “Mischeaux” and sometimes “Micheau.” (In the 1870 census, the enumerator spelled the name as “Misho”). Sometimes the two different spellings could be found in the same document. The spelling variation eventually lead to a split in the family tree. The “Mischeaux” branches headed for Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, while the “Micheaus” tended to venture just to St Louis. (Of course, these are generalizations. Many of the “Mischeaux” can be found in St Louis and many of the “Micheau” branch likewise went upstate or to California.
(Warning: Controversial remarks ahead. The meek are advised to bury their heads in the sand now).
It may be that the spelling difference served to cover something else that may have represented a split in the family tree.
Just as the spelling of George Micheau’s name varied, so did the description of his race in census records. At some points, he’s “black” or “colored”; elsewhere he’s “mulatto.” His “Mischeaux” cousins also are described by differing labels. For example, Joseph F. Mischeaux is “mulatto” in the 1920 census, but “Negro” in the 1930 census. According to other government documents, many of the “Mischeaux” whose grandparents were “Negroes” in 1930, were “white” by the 1960’s. (I’ve been deliberately vague about specifying which government documents in order to protect the privacy of the individuals involved. The documents are publicly available online). Some lived in upscale communities where blacks were mostly servants or not permitted at all forty or fifty years ago.
The issue of race is always a touchy one. From my point of view, the best use of race in genealogy is simply to identify people. But, of course, it’s not that simple from a historic, cultural, and sociological point of view. And the Micheau/Mischeaux family illustrates that very clearly. It is a remarkable fact, and a uniquely American phenomenon that today some descendants of the French Negro families in southern Illinois identify themselves as Caucasian. This circumstance reinforces the unsurprising fact we all have what I have irreverently called “a checkered past.” And if you think about what has to happen to create that checkerboard, it should give you comfort in the basic goodness of humankind.
Let me be clear about this: I have no personal issues one way or the other about this. It is to me simply an interesting historical and sociological phenomenon. But I recognize that others will not feel this way and the very discussion of the issue is controversial among many people, black and white.
December 22, 2006 Friday at 4:02 am