I never considered that there might be free persons of color (FPOC) in my family’s history. I assumed that they were all enslaved. After all, my family is African American, from the deep south, Louisiana, and there was no oral or written history to make me believe otherwise. My father’s people were able to tell me some things about my paternal line – that Isadore McKee was my grandfather and that Charley McKee my great grandfather. But no one could tell me who Charley’s father was! It seemed as though any recollection of him, his generation, and preceding generations had already been lost.
So it all began back in 2011 with question – Who was Charley Mckee’s father? A death certificate ordered from the Louisiana State Archive would yield the name of his father James Mckee and his mother Virgina. Birth place of father was listed as Louisiana and birth place of mother don’t know. The informant was Isadore Bolden and the cemetery- Mt. Zion Church Cemetary. I would later find out from a Mckee cousin that Isadore was Charley’s grandson, son of his daughter Leona McKee Bolden. Now armed with the name of Charley’s father I set out to find him in census records. Now mind you I had never been able to find Charley in a census prior to 1900 although he was born in 1872.
The 1870 Census
The first record that I found for James was an 1870 census record. He was living in Port Hudson in East Baton Rouge Parish and listed as being- 38 years old, mulatto, a barber, born in Ohio. He had a wife Rosa, 26, born in Louisiana and two daughters Mary, age 4 and Francois, 3 months. Charley would not make his debut until 1872.
The 1850 Census
But wait, what? Born in Ohio! That’s a free state! The death certificate said Louisiana. His wife was listed as Rosa? But Charley’s death certificate said his mother was Virgina. Side note – Death certificates can sometimes contain erroneous information even though family members typically provide much of the information about the decedent. This information needs to be verfied.
Well there was another census record, from 1850 with a 17 year old James McKee living in Wheeling (city), Ohio(county), Virginia(state). Finding this record was pivotal because it confirmed his existence as a free person ! Enslaved individuals were not listed by name in census records prior to the 1870 census but instead listed on slave schedules. He is listed as being a mulatto barber and has other family members. The age, race, and occupation served to confirm that I probably had the right James Mckee, however I was officially confused with the Ohio County in Virginia (now West Virginia) thing. But again the 1850 census record listed his birth place as Ohio. Well Wheeling, Virginia sat on the Ohio River, right across from Ohio! But where in Ohio was James and his family from?
The 1860 Census
Before I attempted to go further back in time to figure out where in Ohio they were from, I realized that there was something I was still missing, the 1860 census record for James McKee! As a novice, I struggled to search but could not find James or his family in the 1860 census. I began to panic! How does an entire family just disappear? My mind began to race. Had they been kidnapped ,enslaved, and sold “down river” or into the salt mines? After all, in 1850 they had been living in Virginia, which was a slave state. Wheeling, which was situated on the National Road (Route 40) and on the Ohio River was an ideal location for the slave trade. Coffles of shackled slaves passed through Wheeling before being sold and transported on barges further south . Many of the enslaved were kept in nearby slave pens and later sold on the slave auction block in downtown Wheeling. There were also others residing in Wheeling who owned slaves including other Mckee families( not sure if they are related to James). It did not help that around that time there was buzz about a new movie in the making , “12 Years a Slave”, a true story about Solomon Northrup, a free man of color gets kidnapped from New York and sold down south. All this served to fuel my anxiety about what had happened to James and his family.
Enter Diana Olnik, a member of the Ohio County, West Virginia Facebook group. She was able to quickly locate James in of all places Wisconsin! In 1860 , he was living in a settlement house in Whitewater, Dane, Wisconsin. Again, the name, age, race, and occupation served to confirm that I probably had the right James Mckee. The other family members settled in other cities in Wisconsin. As it turns out, they had left Wheeling in 1858. Now mind you if i had been more astute I would have noted that in a later census Charley had erroneously mentioned Wisconsin as his father’s birthplace. Although James was actually born in Ohio, Charley’s answer of “Wisconsin” was where James was in 1860, prior to his arrival in Port Hudson and would have been a clue had I been paying attention.
The 1900 Census
Later, I was able to locate Charley “Mackey” and his wife Minervy in the 1900 census and guess who was living right next door- dear old dad “Jim Mackey” with his wife, “Estella”. “Jim” is a nickname for James and Estella, his wife of 25 years, also born in Ohio is yet another wife. So we have three different names for wives, Rosa, Virgina, and Estella. I don’t think that Estella is Charley’s mother because he says his mother was born in Louisiana. This is the first census record that I have for Charley. Mary , James oldest daughter is living next door with her husband Henry Carmeaner and their children. I have never been able to find Francois or Rose, James other daughter and wife, after the 1870 census.
The 1890 Veterans Schedule
Although I was able to find James listed as “Jim” on an 1890 Veterans Schedule in East Baton Rouge parish, I have not been able to find an 1880 census record for him or Charley . On the 1890 Veterans Schedule, he is listed as living in Port Hudson. To date, I have not been able to locate any information on his death. I have no idea where the McKees were prior to 1820.
Who knows how many of these men had been born and/or lived as free persons prior to volunteering and serving in Port Hudson and other Civil War Campaigns/locations! What about civilian FPOC living across the south prior to the civil war? Louisiana had one of the largest FPOC populations in the United States. I still have many unanswered question about these FPOC McKees. Last summer while attending the MAAGI conference at the Allen County Public Library, I had the opportunity to do some additional research and I was able to generate more leads , some that I still need to follow up on. Stay tuned, as I will be blogging about this later.
So before you assume that the ancestor you are researching was enslaved, take the time to research their status!