Sunday, April 09, 2006

Does Race Matters In A Race???

Even in Ford family, race divides generations

Wendi C. Thomas
Courtesy of the Commercial Appeal
March 19, 2006
Was the matriarch of a Memphis political dynasty a white woman who married into a black family?
Or was she a black woman with a white forefather buried in her lineage, a past shared with millions of black people?
And why does it matter?

Vera Ford The Matriarch of the Ford Dynasty

The race of Vera Ford, the paternal grandmother of U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., came up when Harold Jr. declared she was white while campaigning for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee.

His statement, first reported in December in a USA Today profile of the congressman, surprised many longtime Memphians who knew the Ford family and believed that Vera was black.

But no one was more surprised -- and shocked and angry -- than Barbara Ford Branch, one of Vera's daughters and Harold Ford Sr.'s older sister.

She vehemently insists that her mother was black and is absolutely baffled as to why her nephew, Harold Jr., would try to rewrite his family's history.

But former U.S. representative Harold Ford Sr. says he's talked with the rest of his siblings and they all agree: Vera was white.

More than a curious tidbit in what will surely be a hotly contested Senate race, the dispute speaks to the larger issue of race -- not just between black and white, but the pressure intraracially to choose sides.

With the advent of DNA testing that claims to trace ancestry back to specific African tribes, and a growing rejection of the one-drop rule that said anyone with even one drop of "black blood" was black, the question of what makes you black or white is more complex than ever.

U.S. Congressman and U.S. Senate hopeful the Hon. Rep. Harold Ford,Jr.


Pictures of Vera, who died in 1994 at the age of 78, show a very fair-skinned woman. The race on her death certificate is recorded as "black." Her parents, John Davis and Lottie McGinnis, are noted as "Negro" on their death certificates.

Vera Davis went to Booker T. Washington High, which was then (and practically is today) an all-black school.

In 1934, she married N.J. Ford, a black man, when it was illegal for a white woman and a black man to wed.

Vera was named the Tennessee Mother of the Year, "the first black woman ever so honored in Tennessee," the Nashville Banner wrote in 1976. This, Barbara told me, is proof that Vera was a black woman and lived as such.

Harold Sr. and Jr. "are denying their heritage," says Barbara, a retired attorney in New York and one of the few Ford children who has never sought public office.

Relatives have asked her to keep quiet, she says, because "my nephew is running for office.

"If you're not going to stand up for your mother, then who are you going to stand up for?"

There was a white ancestor, Barbara says, but it wasn't Vera. It was Vera's grandfather, John McGinnis.

She says that in some ways, Harold Jr. simply stated the obvious, as anyone who looks at her siblings, with their thin noses, straighter hair and pale complexions, knows they have white blood.

"Harold [Jr.] is fair-skinned. ... He wants to be whiter than he is?" she asks.

Harold Jr. dodged my phone calls, but he did ask his father to call me.

Vera's race wasn't anything the family ever discussed, Harold Sr. says, but they knew she was white.

"It was a foregone conclusion" that didn't require analysis around the dinner table, he says. "My [maternal] uncles didn't want to come to the house because my father was brown-skinned."

Some family members have had DNA tests, Harold Sr. says, that back up his assertion that his mother was indeed a white woman.

Shelby County Commissioner Joe Ford hasn't seen any DNA tests, but he too says his mother was white.

"It was just one of those things," Joe says. "It never crossed my mind to think about it. She looked white."

In fact, he was listed as white on his driver's license, a mistake he didn't notice until he was 19.

But because their father was black -- or perhaps a mixture of black and Native American -- Joe and Harold Sr. always saw themselves as black men.

"I was always African-American. I'm still African-American. I'm proud of that," Harold Sr. says.

Proud? Don't get Barbara, who also identifies as black, started on proud.

She was proud when Harold Sr. was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, but now, she thinks her parents are rolling over in their graves at the mess most of her kin have made.

As I listened to Barbara, I could almost hear the gloves falling to the floor.

"If he (Harold Sr.) calls my mother white, I can say anything now," Branch says. "I will not let them try to make my mother something she wasn't."


Although Barbara leans on death certificates to prove her case, and Harold Sr. relies on oral history and DNA tests, none of these is reliable, says Tony Burroughs, a pre-eminent black genealogist.

"No one record can prove a fact," says the author of "Black Roots: A Beginner's Guide To Tracing The African American Family Tree."

"You have to take a multitude of records to prove a fact. ... A death certificate is only one record."

DNA tests that claim to track a person's ancestry back to a certain country or tribe can't be trusted, he says.

The best method, Burroughs says, is to weave together details found in oral histories, birth and death certificates, census records, baptism records, diaries, letters, family Bibles. Even then, there's only so much that can be known for sure.

And race isn't something that's as simple as black and white, although for years we've tried to make it so.

Before the civil rights movement, the one-drop rule kept even the lightestskinned black people, those who probably had more European blood than African blood, segregated, relegated to second-class citizenship. Mulatto, quadroon, octoroon -- we had names for varying degrees of blackness, but you were still black. No wonder those who could pass for white sometimes did so.

There are still benefits bestowed upon light-skinned black people, says Cedric Herring, author of "Skin Deep: How Race and Complexion Matter in the 'Color-Blind' Era." Studies show that on average, fair-skinned black people earn more money, marry earlier and are better educated than dark-skinned black people.

If you're black, get back. White is right. Sentiments from sayings popular years ago linger in the black community, creating tensions to which many white people are oblivious.

Still, all skin color news is not bad. Research shows that younger Americans see race as a fluid notion. In the 2000 Census, for the first time people of mixed ancestry could check as many ethnicity boxes as they wished. Perhaps the controversy over Vera's race simply reflects a generational shift in attitudes toward race, the Tiger Woods "Cablinasian" effect.

While many Americans are reforming their ideas of race to include gradations on the scale from black to white, politics has yet to follow suit.

Harold Jr.'s decision to point out his white ancestry, Herring says, is "not the kind of thing that's going to get white people to rally around him, and it's not the kind of thing that is going to get black people to rally around him."

In fact, it could drive some white voters away, because it reminds them of the tortured relations that created these mixed-race children and the prejudices the issue dredges up.

And for black voters, introducing issues of mixed-race ancestry raises issues of authenticity. The less "black" a politician proclaims to be, the conventional (outdated?) thinking goes, the less commitment he may have on issues of particular concern to black constituents.

"Once he injects it," Herring says, "it racializes the whole thing."

By doing so, Harold Jr. may be unwittingly tapping into another part of his family's legacy: making political hay by riling white people. Harold Sr. infuriated white voters in 1994 when he lambasted the "devils" in East Memphis, a comment that over time has morphed into "white devils," although Harold Sr. never assigned the devils a color.

Ophelia, who narrowly beat a white Republican to take a state Senate seat, invented a villain -- "Jim Crowism" -- to blame for the attention paid to a race in which several felons and at least three dead people voted.

Former state senator John Ford has blamed the "white media" for his woes, which now include a federal indictment in a corruption scandal.

Harold Jr., who claims Memphis as his home even though he didn't grow up here, is the city's darling and will rake in the black vote for his Senate race. In Middle and East Tennessee, where white voters are in the majority, he's got a tougher fight.

The Ford family may never agree on Vera's race, and eventually we may come to understand that race isn't about DNA trails, but a social construct that divides humans who are all, genetically speaking, more than 99 percent identical.

Looking forward, the question to be asked and answered is why does race matter, says Brooke Kroeger, the author of "Passing: When People Can't Be Who They Are."

"Who says I am obliged," says Kroeger, "to be what you think I am? Or what I think you think I am? Or even what I think I am but sincerely wish I weren't?"

Barbara Branch isn't ready to move forward.

"I'm not in a campaign here," Branch says, although she's lobbying so hard to have her mother's racial record corrected that you might disagree.

"I'm about the truth."

Oddly, in Latin, that's what Vera's name means.

To see more pics of Mrs. Vera Ford as well as her marriage license and death certificate click here:

Vera Ford Pics
Marriage License
Death Certificate

About Wendi C. Thomas
A proud product of the Memphis City Schools, Wendi C. Thomas began her newspaper career as an obituary writer for the Indianapolis Star. After she graduated with a degree in journalism from Butler University in Indianapolis, Ind., she worked as a reporter at the Indianapolis Star. In 1995, she moved to Nashville, Tenn., where she was a reporter and editor at The Tennessean. In 1999, she moved to Charlotte, N.C., where she worked as a night news editor and then an assistant features editor at the Charlotte Observer. Wendi returned to Memphis in 2003 to be a metro columnist. Since then, she was named the Best Local Columnist in 2004 and 2005 by the Memphis Flyer and profiled as one of six Memphis women to watch in Memphis magazine. Other honors include receiving the 2004 Best in Commentary award from Scripps Howard newspapers, taking first place in humorous commentary in the 2004 Society of Professional Journalists' Green Eyeshade Awards and being honored in 2005 as one of 20 newspaper industry leaders under 40 in the Newspaper Association of America's Presstime magazine.

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