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Navigating the Color Line

The Getting Word project has revealed the legacies of miscegenation and the complexities of racial identity. Many of those formerly enslaved at Monticello and their descendants had to navigate the ambiguities and absurdities of racial definitions in order to build successful lives for themselves and their children. Some struggled to occupy a shifting middle ground; others chose to cross the color line forever.


The life of Robert Scott, Betty Hemings's great-grandson, spanned almost an entire century during which the inexorable forces of law worked hand in hand with the more ambiguous dynamics of society to fix assumptions about race.  When, in 1888, Robert Scott talked of attending a white school in Charlottesville in his boyhood, he noted that "the prejudice between the races was not so strong then as now, and he had never heard of any objection being made to the presence of the colored pupils in his school."  According to a Charlottesville physician, the Scotts were allowed to vote, "the courts deciding they were nearer white than negro," and a prominent attorney recalled that Jefferson's grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph had testified that the Scotts "were not Negroes."

Until 1910, Virginia law declared that a free person with more than three-quarters white heritage was "not a Negro."  Three of the grandparents of Robert and James Scott were white and the fourth, Mary Hemings Bell, was of mixed heritage (her grandson described her as an "octoroon"). Thus, the Scott brothers were legally white.  In 1888, Orra Langhorne said to Robert Scott: "You have scarcely any African blood in your veins."  "None, I may almost say none," he replied, "for my mother was almost white; we considered ourselves white people."  She noted that the Scotts' appearance and manners had brought them special treatment; at the Springs, for instance, they were given private rooms and, after the paying guests had left, were waited on in the dining room. Yet, while they were legally "not Negroes," the Scotts were not treated as white people. They were still "socially black," as a judge proclaimed in the case mentioned below.

The middle ground was hard to maintain in the postbellum Albemarle County world, with fourteen thousand freedmen flooding the territory formerly claimed by the several hundred free blacks.  By the 1890s Mary Hemings and any connection to slaves at Monticello were erased from the public versions of the Scott family history; in some accounts she has even become an Indian.  In 1892, the death of James Scott provoked a lawsuit that hinged on this issue of racial identity and brought an end to the Hemings family's residence on Main Street.  Because he had never legally married, James Scott's daughter had to prove her father was not white in order to claim her portion of the Bell-Scott legacy.  Her mother had been enslaved and her inheritance depended on the 1866 act legitimizing marriages of blacks prior to the Civil War.  Robert Scott opposed his niece by contending that he and his brother were white, and lost both his case and his home.

The final assessment of Robert Scott's position in society followed the account of his sudden death, at age ninety-six, walking down Ridge Street: "While regarded as a colored man, Robert Scott was not a negro.  He claimed a large degree of Indian blood in his veins, and his every lineament and his gigantic stature went far to prove his claim.  He was a man of excellent principles, courteous as a king, gentle in manner, and even in the anti-bellum days, he and his brothers were regarded more as the comrades of the people they served than as menials doing their bidding."

Adapted from Lucia Stanton, "Monticello to Main Street: The Hemings Family and Charlottesville," Magazine of Albemarle County History 55 (1997), 94-126


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