In new book, two Kentucky families discover surprising racial histories

In the 1840s, Tobias Gibson, a wealthy sugar planter from Louisiana, bought the Thomas January House, at 437 W. Second Street in Lexington.
In the 1840s, Tobias Gibson, a wealthy sugar planter from Louisiana, bought the Thomas January House, at 437 W. Second Street in Lexington.

Freda Spencer Goble of Paintsville knew that she hailed from a proud and hardworking clan that carved a life out of the hills and hollows of frontier Johnson County. What she didn't know was that one of those frontiersmen, her great-great grandfather, was partly black.

William LaBach is a Georgetown lawyer and genealogist who has long studied his Gibson relatives, a clan of Louisiana sugar planters who made a second home in Lexington before the Civil War. He'd heard that a colonial forebear was part African, but could never confirm it.

These two Kentucky families are now the subject of a new book by Vanderbilt University law professor Daniel Sharfstein. The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey From Black to White reveals the complex and shifting history of race in America, a history about people's most basic — and yet most unreliable — assumptions about their own identity.

Sharfstein will discuss and sign copies of his book at Joseph Beth Booksellers on Tuesday.

One of the families he studied included the children of a slave and her owner, who then sent his children to free Ohio before they finally settled in Washington, D.C. Through the generations, they identified themselves as white.

But two of the families in the book ended up in Kentucky, which has its own complicated history of identity, both Northern and Southern, Confederate and Union. Sharfstein says that's no accident.

For the Spencers, a frontier mountain community meant that race wasn't as important as survival. For the Gibsons, Kentucky represented a more settled, genteel existence than Louisiana, where they could establish themselves as quintessential Southerners.

For Sharfstein, the most interesting aspect of his story is how a family history from several hundred years ago can affect people today.

Thanks to books like Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball and revelations about President Thomas Jefferson's black descendants, people have become more used to the idea that family trees branch with different ethnicities. However, the idea they might be a different ethnicity themselves is a new idea that is only recently emerging in genealogy and other historical studies.

"This is a more unsettling story. ... The story really changes the way people approach race," Sharfstein said. "For a lot of the descendants I spoke with, being white meant they really didn't have to think about race for most of their lives. But now they're really paying attention."

'Roll over in his grave'

That's true for Freda Goble. Her great-great-grandfather came to Johnson County in the 1840s from Clay County. Jordan Spencer married a white woman and had 15 children, some of whom survived to marry and have children of their own in the Paintsville area. They cleared the land, raised livestock, grew corn and survived in an isolated and often dangerous terrain.

Goble, 64, found out about Spencer by doing some basic genealogy; Jordan Spencer was described in various censuses as a mulatto. She learned more from Sharfstein, including about a 1912 court case in which one of Jordan Spencer's great-grandsons was kicked out of the Grundy, Va., schools because of an allegation that he was part black.

But no one in her immediate family ever talked about that part of their history, even if they did know.

"This has made me understand some things, like why my family seems like they had a chip on their shoulder," said Goble, who is a retired nurse in Paintsville. "My family thought they had to be the hardest-working people, they had to impress people with the fact that they could do more."

Goble has only briefly talked to her own mother about the Spencers: "The one time I did, she said, 'Your daddy would roll over in his grave.' I think some other family members knew, but I don't think they wanted other people to know because of the ridicule people got when they were considered part black. It was a different era."

But for her, the revelations have been a source of pride and anguish, making her remember the scenes of bloody civil rights activists she saw on her childhood TV.

"I remember feeling so sorry for those people," she said, saying she can't remember one black family in the Johnson County of her childhood.

Passing as white

Gideon Gibson, who lived from 1720 to 1792, has been known to historians for decades. A so-called Regulator, he basically ruled land and men in what was then the wild frontier of South Carolina. He was a man of color who married a white woman in a time when, similar to Johnson County, survival was far more important than color.

According to Sharfstein, Gibson's progeny drifted further west to Mississippi, then to Louisiana, where in the 1820s and '30s, his grandson Tobias Gibson fully passed as white and became a successful sugar planter, owning several plantations and hundreds of slaves.

Gibson married Louisiana Breckinridge Hart (named in honor of her cousin, John Breckinridge, and his involvement in the Louisiana Purchase). Tobias Gibson bought a house in the middle of Lexington and soon made it a second home for his eight children, living a life of white antebellum privilege.

Two of his sons, Randall Lee and Hart, attended Yale, often debating against abolitionists in the run-up to the Civil War. In the war, Randall Lee became a Confederate hero, and in the aftermath began his political career, which culminated in a stint as a U.S. senator from Louisiana, while Hart tried to salvage various plantations in Central Kentucky.

During one point in Randall Lee's congressional career, a political opponent accused him of being partly black, getting publicity in such places as The Washington Post and the Times-Picayune of New Orleans. But as Sharfstein points out, the establishment wagons circled around him and the matter soon dropped.

"I think people felt that if someone as quintessentially white as Randall Lee Gibson wasn't, then very few people were safe," Sharfstein said.

In the 1890s, Hart Gibson was living in a mansion off South Broadway, writing a treatise called The Race Problem. Typical of his time, he argued that while slavery was evil, blacks were inherently inferior to whites.

William LaBach of Georgetown is descended from one of Randall Lee's sisters, Sarah Gibson Humphreys, who stayed in Kentucky during the war and afterward, eventually becoming an advocate for women's rights. A mathematician and lawyer by training, he has also become an ardent genealogist, in part, he says, because he was related to people like Henry Clay, and "it's interesting getting into that."

He's not convinced that his Gibson line is descended from the Regulator Gibsons, but thinks that all the Gibsons were "something other than all white.

"It's all sort of fascinating, and there will be more on this in the future," he said. "Basically, people who came here in the 1600s paired off with whoever was available."

Color lines were hardened during and after the Civil War, with many states adopting rules on what defined blackness, such as the "one drop rule," which decreed that any black ancestry defined that person as black. In post-Civil War Kentucky, and elsewhere, race meant everything: status, education, employment, even basic survival.

Now, those lines have loosened again. And William LaBach does believe the book — along with genealogy and expanded DNA testing — will continue to unravel the false foundation of what people consider to be "whiteness" in this country.

As Sharfstein writes in the book: "The Gibsons, Spencers and Walls embody fundamental tragedies of our past — the vexed relationship between liberty and equality, the possibility of tolerance alongside the choice to hate. At the same time, their histories offer some reason for hope. They provide an occasion to understand race in a different way and an opportunity to acknowledge our enduring, if at times, hidden, capacity to privilege the particular over the abstract, and everyday experience over what we have been told to believe."