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Racial Fluidity in Randolph County, North Carolina: Mary “Polly” Pope (Polk) and her multi-racial descendants

I first saw Mary “Polly” Polk/Pope’s name on the 1880 census. She was living in the home of Colier and Kate Lassiter, in the Lassiter Mill area of New Hope Township in Randolph County.[1] The area runs along the Uwharrie River on the edge of the Uwharrie Mountains in what is today the Uwharrie National Forest.[2] Mary was listed as “white,” the rest of the Lassiter family was listed as “black.” The census didn’t mention a relationship for Mary to the Lassiter family other than “boarder.” However, I already knew that Colier’s wife’s maiden name was “Polk.”

Figure 83-Granny Kate Polk Lassiter
Katherine Polk Lassiter

Colier and Katherine had married in 1854.[3] Unfortunately, the marriage records in that time period did not ask the names of parents. Nevertheless, I speculated that Mary was very possibly Katherine’s (Kate’s) mother. At that time, I thought the “w” for white might have been accidentally written instead of “m” for “mulatto.” (Census schedules were transcribed from field notes which could lead to errors.) Mary was not living with the family in either 1870 or 1860. I didn’t find either Katherine or Mary in 1850, at that time.

Colier Lassiter household 1880
Colier and Katherine (Polk), Mary Polk, and family, 1880 Census, Randolph County, NC

In 1853, the year before Colier and Kate married, Colier Lassiter posted bond for the marriage of Sarah Polk and Nathan Case (known as Nathan Hill in all census records). It seemed likely the two women were related.[4]  In 1860, Nathan, Sarah and their children were identified as black.[5] Like Katherine, I did not find Sarah Polk in earlier census records. Was it an oversight, part of an undercount?

Nathan & Sarah Polk Hill 1860
Nathan and Sarah (Polk) Hill, and family, 1860 Census, Randolph County, NC

Both Katherine and Sarah had married into large families that were founding members of the First Congregational Church of Randolph County, now called Strieby Congregational Church.[6] Another member of that church community was “Aunt Harriet” Cotton. Harriet had married Micajah McDuffie, also known as Micajah Cotton in 1854.[7] In 1860, Mary, called “Polly Pope,” was living with Micajah and Harriet.[8] They were all being called “mulatto” in 1860. Mary was also named as Harriet’s mother on her death certificate, where she was listed as “Polly Pope.”[9]

Micajah Cotton and Harriett Polk 1860
Micajah and Harriet (Polk/Pope) Cotton, and family, 1860 Census, Randolph County, NC

There was another Polk family in the area that seemed to be related, the Macam (Malcom) Polk/Pope family. Malcom married Nancy Jane Smitherman in 1865.[10] In 1870, Malcom was listed as mulatto, but Nancy was listed as black. Around 1881, Malcom and Nancy would leave North Carolina and move first to Mississippi, eventually settling in Arkansas. In 1900, Malcom and Nancy and some of their children were living next door to the family of her nephew-in-law, Thomas Julius Hill, son of Nathan and Sarah Polk Hill, in Jefferson County, Arkansas. [11]

Malcom Polk and Nancy Smitherman 1900
Malcom and Nancy J. (Smitherman) Polk/Pope, and family, 1900 Census, Jefferson County, Arkansas

I was still looking for more information on each of these Polk family members. The fact that Mary, “Polly,” was living in “Aunt” Harriet Polk Cotton’s home in 1860 and Katherine Polk Lassiter’s home in 1880, convinced me that Harriet and Katherine were likely sisters. Additional searches found Mary living in neighboring Montgomery County in 1850 with two children, Malcom and Lunda.[12] Mary was listed as white, but the children were listed as mulatto. They were living in the home of a John McLeod, just a few houses away from Micajah McDuffie, who was living in the home of Thomas L. Cotton.[13] It seemed from this that Mary was most likely white. It also confirmed that Katherine, Harriet and Malcom were most likely siblings. It also seemed likely that Sarah was a sibling, based on Colier Lassiter posting bond for her marriage. It seemed a reasonable conclusion since he would go on to marry Katherine Polk and Mary would live with them in her later years.

John McLeod-Mary Pope-Malcom Pope-Lunda 1850
Mary Polk/Pope, Malcom Polk/Pope, and Lunda Polk/Pope, in the home of John McLeod, 1850 Census, Montgomery County, NC

I also found Harriet in 1850.  Harriet Polk and Elizabeth Polk were living in the home of Levi Nichols. Harriet and Elizabeth were identified as white.[14] Levi Nichols would develop a relationship with Hannah McDuffie Cotton, sister of Micajah McDuffie Cotton who married Harriet. Levi and Hannah would have two children by 1860[15] and be charged with fornication[16] before they would eventually marry in 1867.[17] At that time, Levi adopted the identity of a man of color. Similarly, when Harriet married Micajah in 1854, she adopted the identity of a woman of color.[18] However, where were Katherine and Sarah in 1850?

Levi Nichols 1850 census
Levi Nichols, Harriet Polk, and Elizabeth Polk, 1850 Census, Montgomery County, NC. 

Looking over my research and the 1850 census again for the southern part of Randolph County, where these families lived, I realized that I had been looking at Katherine and Sarah all along. They were living in the home of an older couple, Jack and Charity Lassiter.[19] Jack was the half-brother of Colier’s father, Miles Lassiter.[20] Katherine and Sarah were being called Lassiter. At this point I was fairly certain that they were not related to Jack, but possibly were related to Charity. Charity was old enough to be their grandmother. Jack, Charity, Katherine and Sarah were all identified in this record as white. In 1860, Jack and Charity were identified as mulatto. By 1870, Jack had died, and Charity was living in the home of Colier and Katherine Polk Lassiter, who had a daughter named (Rhodemia) Charity.[21] The older Charity was identified as mulatto. Charity presumably died after 1870; she is not found again in the census.

Jack and Charity Lassiter 1850
Jack and Charity (Polk?) Lassiter, 1850 Census, Randolph County, NC. Katherine and Sarah Polk, are called “Lassiter” here.

Not everything about this family can be confirmed beyond a doubt. However, with the above information along with information from descendants (and DNA results), the following picture has emerged:

Mary “Polly” Polk/Pope was identified as white in 1850. Though identified as mulatto in 1860, she was identified again as white in 1880. She was not found in 1870. She is presumed to be the daughter of Charity (Polk?) Lassiter, identified as white in 1850, but mulatto in 1860. Mary is believed to have had the following children:

  • Katherine Polk, identified as white in 1850, who married Colier Lassiter, a man of color, in 1854 and was thereafter identified as a woman of color.
  • Sarah Polk, identified as white in 1850, who married Nathan Hill, a man of color, in 1853 and was thereafter identified as a woman of color.
  • Harriet Polk, identified as white in 1850, who married Micajah McDuffie Cotton, a man of color, in 1854 and was thereafter identified as a woman of color.
  • Elizabeth Polk, identified as white, but no further information is known at this time.
  • Malcom Polk/Pope, identified as mulatto in 1850. He married Nancy Jane Smitherman, a woman of color.
  • Lunda Polk, identified as mulatto in 1850. She was still living with John McLeod in 1860. No other information is known at this time.

It is difficult to know what prompted these women to choose men of color. Perhaps what is a better question is what about southwestern Randolph County made it a place where interracial marriages seemed to thrive with no obvious community opprobrium. I’m not suggesting that the surrounding white community was throwing these couples wedding celebrations. I am saying that unlike other areas in the South, these families were not being persecuted; the men were not being prosecuted or persecuted for having married these women. In fact, these families were landowners and leaders in their communities, reportedly respected by their neighbors, both white and black. What made Randolph County different?

Southwestern Randolph County was heavily Quaker and anti-slavery, but there was also a large Methodist population, some “Methodist Protestant,” some “Wesleyan.” There were also some enslavers, though very few had large numbers of enslaved people. Most people were family farmers with free laborer assistants. There was a significant number of free people of color, 92 in southwestern Randolph County alone in 1850. Many had been freed or born to those freed by their Quaker (primarily) enslavers in the 1790s or early 1800s as the Society of Friends began to require manumission of slaves as a prerequisite of membership.[22] Quaker influences were strong in this part of Randolph County, but that’s not all. Randolph County was not a typical southern community.

In her book, Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South (1992), Victoria Bynum talked about Randolph County’s rebellious history.[23] Even today when talking to local historians they will tell you proudly that Randolph County was against secession. During the war, North Carolina had the greatest number of deserters from the Confederate army and Randolph County had the greatest number of these, 22%, compared with the state average of 12%.[24]

Unionism, as it was called, was heavy in the “Quaker Belt,” especially Randolph County, Bynum stated. This was not just a matter of politics, but also economics. There were growing textile and tobacco industries, she said, artisans and yeoman farmers who didn’t want the disadvantages of competing with slave labor, along with the religious objections to slavery of Quakers, Wesleyans, and Moravians .[25]

In discussing interracial relationships, Bynum said that counties such as Randolph’s neighbor to the south, Montgomery County, were more tolerant because they had only a small number of free blacks and a relatively homogeneous white population.[26] I’m not sure I agree with her. I think the larger population of free people of color and the more diverse white population made Randolph a more accepting community than Montgomery County. I notice that not only Mary Polk and her children moved into Randolph County, but Levi and Hannah McDuffie/Cotton Nichols and Micajah McDuffie/Cotton did as well.

It is notable that Levi Nichols (a white male) and Hannah McDuffie/Cotton (a free woman of color) had been brought into Montgomery County court on charges of fornication. However, on close examination it becomes apparent that the accusations weren’t only because they were in an illicit, interracial relationship as much as they were being targeted for revenge from an ongoing feud involving Levi’s brother and niece. It seems entirely likely that their move to Randolph County was an attempt to get away from what had become a round-robin of accusation and counter-accusation, leading to lawsuit and counter-lawsuit.[27]

Accusation of Fornication against Levi Nichols
Accusation of Fornication against Levi Nichols and Hannah McDuffie/Cotton, 1858, Montgomery County, NC (In Bynum, Unruly Women)

One might have expected greater outcry over the relationships of the Polk women who were reportedly white and married free men of color. Yet their relationships met no known violence or any legal obstacles in Randolph County. Martha Hodes in her book, White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth Century South (1997), points out that these white-black sexual liaisons (with or without marriage) in the antebellum South were not met with the violence that accompanied the post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow years, right into the Civil Rights era. She states,

“Scholars agree that the most virulent racist ideology about black male sexuality emerged in the decades that followed the Civil War, and some historians have recognized that the lynching of black men or the alleged rape of white women was comparatively rare in the South under slavery.”[28]

Hodes admits that statistics are difficult to gather in the ante-bellum period because these relationships were not found in historical records under one universal category. Rather they were gleaned from a variety of records covering such categories as domestic violence, murder, fornication, adultery, bastardy, assault, and others. She notes that even the word “miscegenation” was unknown before the Civil War era.[29]

Despite the lack of violence in the antebellum years, there was not necessarily acceptance or even tolerance, which she says implies a liberality of attitude. Rather, she says, these relationships were met with toleration, forbearance. She goes on to make the point that forbearance did not mean there wasn’t cruel gossip, or that individuals weren’t ostracized.[30] What changed after the Civil War?

Hodes said that Frederick Douglass explained that accusations of sexual transgressions against white women increased with black men’s new political power, with the conferring of citizenship and the right to vote. Ida B. Wells observed that lynching, often as a result of accusations of sexual assaults on white women, was intended to suppress the black vote by the threat of deatn.[31] By contrast, Hodes notes that these white-black relationships in the ante-bellum South did not threaten the overall social and political hierarchy.  She states that “[f]or whites to refrain from immediate legal action and public violence when confronted with liaisons between white women and black men helped them to mask some of the flaws of the antebellum Southern systems of race and gender.”[32] On the other hand, she notes that the children of these liaisons revealed those same flaws.[33] It was often the presence of children that forced the parents into court on charges of bastardy. It is interesting to note here, that Levi Nichols (white) and Hannah McDuffie/Cotton (of color), were accused only of fornication in 1858.[34] This despite the fact that by 1858, Levi and Hannah had two children, Elmina and Daniel. Nevertheless, they were not being charged with bastardy.[35]

Without further research, I can only conclude that the level of toleration seen in Randolph County was a function of both the Quaker values prominent in Randolph County and the overall southern ambivalence that meant the white majority did not feel threatened as long as the overall political control remained securely in their hands. Whatever the reason, these families thrived. They acquired property, education, and relative economic prosperity, providing a solid base for future opportunity for their children and grandchildren, even in the absence of political power.

References

[1] 1880; Census Place: New Hope, Randolph, North Carolina; Mary Polk, Boarder. NARA Roll: 978; Family History Film: 1254978; Page: 184A; Enumeration District: 223; Image: 0659. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[2] Uwharrie National Forest – Birkhead Wilderness Area/Lassiter Mill. Visit NC. Retrieved from: VisitNC.com

[3] North Carolina, Marriage Records, 1741-2011 [Database on-line]. Calier Lassiter and Catherine Polk, married: 26 Sep 1854, Randolph County, North Carolina. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[4] North Carolina, Marriage Records, 1741-2011 [Database on-line]. Nathan Case and Sarey Poke, married: 11 Sep 1853, Randolph County, North Carolina. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[5] 1860; Census Place: Western Division, Randolph, North Carolina; Nathan Hill, head. NARA Roll: M653_910; Page: 213; Image: 431; Family History Library Film: 803910. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[6] Williams, M. L. (2016). From Hill Town to Strieby: Education and the American Missionary Association in the Uwharrie “Back Country” of Randolph County, North Carolina (Crofton, KY: Backintyme Publishing, Inc.).

[7] North Carolina, Marriage Records, 1741-2011 [Database on-line]. Micajah McDuffee and Harriet Polk, married: 10 Sep 1854, Randolph County, North Carolina. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[8] 1860; Census Place: Western Division, Randolph, North Carolina; Micajah Cotton, head. NARA Roll: M653_910; Page: 211; Image: 426; Family History Library Film: 803910. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[9] North Carolina, Death Certificates, 1909-1975 [Database on-line]. Harriet Cotton, died: 7 Oct 1920, Randolph County, North Carolina. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[10] North Carolina, Marriage Records, 1741-2011 [Database on-line]. Macon Pope and Nancy Jane Smitherman, married: 23 Sep 1865, Randolph County, North Carolina. Retrieved from:  Ancestry.com

[11] 1900; Census Place: Old River, Jefferson, Arkansas; Macon Polk, head. NARA Roll: 63; Page: 8A; Enumeration District: 0090; FHL microfilm: 1240063. Retrieved from:  Ancestry.com

[12] 1850; Census Place: Montgomery, North Carolina; John McLeod, head; Mary Pope, Malcom Pope & Lunda Pope. NARA Roll: M432_637; Page: 127B; Image: 264. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[13] 1850; Census Place: Montgomery, North Carolina; Thomas L. Cotton, head; Micajah McDuffie. NARA Roll: M432_637; Page: 127B; Image: 264. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[14] 1850; Census Place: Montgomery, North Carolina; Levi Nichols, head; Harriet Polk, Elizabeth Polk. NARA Roll: M432_637; Page: 142A; Image: 293. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[15] 1860; Census Place: Beans, Montgomery, North Carolina; Levi Nichols, head; Hannah McDuffie. NARA Roll: M653_905; Page: 483; Family History Library Film: 803905. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[16] Bynum, V. (1992). Punishing Deviant Women: The State as Patriarch. Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press), p. 99.

[17] North Carolina, Marriage Records, 1741-2011 [Database on-line]. Levi Nichols and Hannah McDuffie, married: 28 Sep 1867, Randolph County, North Carolina. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[18] 1860; Census Place: Western Division, Randolph, North Carolina; Micajah Cotton, head; Harriet Cotton. NARA Roll: M653_910; Page: 211; Image: 426; Family History Library Film: 803910. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[19] 1850; Census Place: Southern Division, Randolph, North Carolina; Jack Lassiter, head; Charity Lassiter, Catherine Lassiter, Sarah Lassiter. NARA Roll: M432_641; Page: 136A; Image: 278. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[20] Williams, M. L. (2011). Miles Lassiter (circa 1777-1850) An Early African American Quaker from Lassiter Mill, Randolph County, North Carolina: My Research Journey to Home (Palm Coast, FL & Crofton, KY: Backintyme Publishing).

[21] 1870; Census Place: New Hope, Randolph, North Carolina; Collier Lassiter, head; Catherine Lassiter, Charity Lassiter, age 75. NARA Roll: M593_1156; Page: 407B; Image: 264; Family History Library Film: 552655. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[22] Densmore, C. (n.d.). Quakers and the Underground Railroad: Myths and Realities. Quakers and Slavery. Retrieved from: Brynmawr.edu

[23] Bynum, V. (1992). The Women Is as Bad as the Men: Women’s Participation in the Inner Civil War. Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press), p. 137-140.

[24] Bynum, V. (1992). The Women Is as Bad as the Men: Women’s Participation in the Inner Civil War. Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press), p. 130.

[25] Bynum, V. (1992). The Women Is as Bad as the Men: Women’s Participation in the Inner Civil War. Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press), pp. 135-137.

[26] Bynum, V. (1992). Punishing Deviant Women: The State as Patriarch. Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press), p. 99.

[27] Bynum, V. (1992). Punishing Deviant Women: The State as Patriarch. Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press), pp. 98-99.

[28] Hodes, M. (1997). Telling the Stories: The Historical Development of White Anxiety. White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth Century South (New Haven, CT and London, UK: Yale University Press), p. 1.

[29] Hodes, M. (1997). Telling the Stories: The Historical Development of White Anxiety. White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth Century South (New Haven, CT and London, UK: Yale University Press), p. 2.

[30] Hodes, M. (1997). Telling the Stories: The Historical Development of White Anxiety. White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth Century South (New Haven, CT and London, UK: Yale University Press), p. 3.

[31] Hodes, M. (1997). Telling the Stories: The Historical Development of White Anxiety. White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth Century South (New Haven, CT and London, UK: Yale University Press), p. 2.

[32] Hodes, M. (1997). Telling the Stories: Contradictions, Crises, Voices, Language. White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth Century South (New Haven, CT and London, UK: Yale University Press), p. 6-7.

[33] Hodes, M. (1997). Telling the Stories: Contradictions, Crises, Voices, Language. White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth Century South (New Haven, CT and London, UK: Yale University Press), p. 7.

[34] Bynum, V. (1992). Punishing Deviant Women: The State as Patriarch. Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press), p. 99n38.

[35] 1860; Census Place: Beans, Montgomery, North Carolina; Levi Nichols, head; Hannah McDuffie. NARA Roll: M653_905; Page: 483; Family History Library Film: 803905. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

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6 thoughts on “Racial Fluidity in Randolph County, North Carolina: Mary “Polly” Pope (Polk) and her multi-racial descendants

  1. Excellent analysis.

    1. I agree! I learned a great deal.

  2. Nicely researched. I have a gggrandfather listed as M on one census. His wife and children are listed as W. The neighboring families were B. I don’t know if it is just a mistake, as everywhere else he is listed as W.

    1. Ah a new challenge! you’ll have to do more research! Where did they live?

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