My Aunt Amaza Reid was not a blood aunt but more of a kissing cousin. This tale, however, stayed with me because she told it at one of my mother’s bridge parties or club meetings when I was seven- or eight-years-old and lived on the second floor of 2250 7th Ave., above my father’s funeral home. Aunt Amaza was born in 1911 in Winton, NC, with light hair and brown eyes, who could have passed for white anywhere in the North. (Her husband, Jack Reid’s eyes were green.) The story probably came from her own mother about how, when the separate-but-equal laws came in, starting with Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, the tiny towns—often with under 300 inhabitants who had been there at least since Colonel Rush C. Hawkins had burned Winton to the ground on September 19, 1862—called town meetings to take down officially who was black and who was white. By that time, everyone was related to everyone else; some blacks in Winton had actually owned other blacks, and because of the Colonel Hawkins debacle, none of the old records had survived.
Only this week, I was able to find, from Aunt Amaza’s daughter, an account of a black man in his 90s named Pleasant Jordan, who’d had a white father and who remembered an identical tale from his parents about the town of Brinkleyville only a few miles away: At the council seat, the mayor had said, “All right. Everybody who wants to be white get on that side of the room, and everybody who wants to be black get on the other side.” And if Aunt Jane wasn’t speaking to Cousin Henry that week, then if Henry got on one side of the room, Jane got on the other because she was fit to be tied if she were going to be the same race as that no-account scallywag. Brothers and sisters and all sorts of cousins ended up on different sides—and officially marked different races—all but arbitrarily, but that’s how races were decided in a great deal of the South when black Reconstruction came to an end.
Even more than the rapes described by Frederick Douglass,* this image from my Aunt Amaza at the bridge party is where a lot of my understanding comes from about how my family got to have members who were black, brown, and every other color.
*Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), the torture and rape of his aunt Hester in the opening four chapters.