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  • Zelema Harris

Black Child or White Child

I heard Mama and Daddy whispering about something that must have been important they did not want me to hear. They were sitting close together, thighs touching, faces turned toward each other on the sofa in the small living room right off the front porch. City folks who visited called it a parlor. I was picking up the dishes from the oak table in the dining room right next to the living room. It was finally my turn to clean the kitchen and that included stoking the fire in the wood stove, heating the water to wash and rinse the dishes in two separate small aluminum tubs. We always had plenty of soap that Mama made with lye and hog fat. The soap was slimy and did not make many suds, but cleaned good especially the pots.

The family had moved recently to our new home Daddy built on a 25-acre plot of land. I loved having chores and keeping our new home clean and orderly. I was nine years old at the time. My two older sisters, Priscilla, 12 and Tressie, 15 cleaned the entire house on Saturdays. Mama had four children before she married my daddy – two boys and two girls. The youngest was two and the oldest was seven when they got married. The boys, Charlie, 16 and RH, 17 worked with Daddy doing farm chores such as feeding the horses, cows and pigs and other farm chores. I helped Mama in the garden during planting and harvesting season which was pretty much year-round. During the early spring we planted lettuce, tomatoes, mustard greens, snap peas, squash and cucumbers. Fall plantings included beets, carrots, cabbage and collard greens.

That evening as I pretended to find something else to do in the dining room, I tried listening to my parents’ conversation. It was 1949, and at nine, I felt I was old enough to be brought in on the conversation. I heard Mama whisper Mary’s name. Mary was my father’s granddaughter by his youngest son Emerson, who lived in New York with his new family. Before Emerson moved to New York in 1944, he came to our home in Wiergate, Texas from Beaumont to drop off his three children – Bettie, Don and Larry with my parents. The children ranged in age from three to five, with Bettie the oldest and Larry the youngest. I was four years old when they came to live with us and happy to have playmates. My four sisters and brothers were all in school and I was left alone to explore the outdoors.

I moved a little closer to the living room. While dusting the window sills I saw Daddy pick up a small black and white photograph of Mary. He stared at her picture in the small wooden frame. I thought Mary was pretty. She didn’t look like any of my friends at school but it never occurred to me that she was not “colored.” She had long brown hair and pretty little white teeth. I thought she looked like me except her hair was longer and straighter. I recall telling my grown cousin who was visiting us that Mary’s photo was me when I was younger. She looked puzzled:

"Are you sure that’s you?” I did not change my story. “Yes, that’s me when I was younger.”

Mama and Daddy continued to stare at Mary’s photo. And Mama no longer whispering:

“Well, I guess Emerson did what he told you he was going to do before leaving for Buffalo, New York. You remember he said he was going to New York to marry a white woman because she would know how to treat him? Well, he left his three kids with us without giving you a dime to take care of them. Don had worms, Bettie had sores all over her feet. Larry was the only healthy one who was so bad you’d have thought he was sick in his head.”

Daddy didn’t say anything at first but then shook his head up and down, agreeing with Mama. I had no idea what had happened to Mary but I liked seeing Mama and Daddy close like that and agreeing on something important.

The following Sunday after church we all visited Aunt Virtie, my mother’s sister, and her family. Aunt Virtie and her husband, Uncle Ellison had 13 children and lived on a farm near us in Liberty Community (Newton County), not to be confused with Liberty, Texas near Houston. So, when people asked where we were from we said Newton. Most folks never heard of Newton, let alone Liberty Community. It was always embarrassing to be asked where I was from. We didn’t go outside our local community much except when my school participated in scholastic competition. Every year students who won at regional traveled by car to Prairie View A&M University to compete at the state level. I competed in speaking – giving such speeches as Invictus, Recessional, and The Spider and the Fly. I won at regional three years in a row, but only won once at the state level.

While visiting Aunt Virtie, I spent time with her and my mother before going out to play. Mama told Aunt Virtie the complete story about Mary:

“Remember when Emerson left his children with me and his father when we lived up in Wiergate? Left his wife Eddie Mae back in Beaumont to go to New York to marry a white woman? One of Emerson’s sisters who lived in New York told him that a white woman would make a good wife where there wouldn’t be fussin’ and fightin’ like he did with Eddie Mae. Lo and behold Emerson goes to Buffalo, New York and marries a white woman named Marguerite. They had a baby girl named Mary. Marguerite’s mother did not want Mary brought up as colored so she went to court and took her. Can you imagine someone just taking your child?”

Aunt Virtie agreed, “It’s a shame for someone to just take your child.”

However, the story Mama told Aunt Virtie differs significantly from copies of several 1949 newspaper articles I was given recently. Until the past few weeks I thought Mary’s maternal grandparents wanted to raise her as white and went to court to take her from her parents. I did not know until reading the newspaper articles a few weeks ago that my brother, Emerson and his wife, Marguerite gave Mary up willingly when she was a few months old and after four and a half years tried to get her back after they had another child.

It has taken over 70 years for me to understand what happened to Mary in the court case. I am now grateful that my son, Jay insisted that I join 23andMe.

I have never wanted to learn more about my genealogy beyond what I already know. My heritage is tied so close to the terror and violence of slavery. My father was born in 1866. His mother, my grandmother was a slave. My grandfather was a white slave owner. That is the ugly part of my heritage and I had no interest in being reminded of it. My son insisted, so I spit in a vial and he did the rest.

After receiving my DNA results, Jay followed up with folks identified as sharing my DNA. I became curious when I saw my maiden name, Marshall attached to someone named Mark. I contacted Mark on the website and asked “Who is your father?” The response came back “Emerson.” I was overjoyed. I had found my father’s grandson. I remember seeing the photos of Mark and his two brothers and sister when they were babies. His mother, Marguerite, sent black and white photos of the children to my father occasionally.

I assumed Mark did not want to pursue further contact with me because he did not respond immediately. It took a few days for Mark to answer. He said he was visiting his New York family and wanted to know more about his Texas family. Mark gave me his wife Karen’s email address and we began to communicate via texts and emails. Family photos were shared and Karen sent newspaper articles about Mary’s court case and the court’s ruling. This contact with someone so close to my father eliminated any thoughts about whether Mark was white or if he claimed his Black heritage.

Karen and I are still sharing information about the Marshall family. Recently Karen wrote:

“Emerson’s children thought Emerson was Indian. He told his children that lie and they believed it for many years.”

I am still reckoning with the fact that some Black folks will go to any length to deny their heritage. On some level I understand their attempt to avoid the harsh reality of being a Black man or woman in America. Emerson was a young man in 1938 when his sister, Carrie was murdered. According to my father, family members and townspeople, Carrie was murdered by Pete Hughes, Sheriff of Newton County and his deputies. Who knows what affect this horrific crime had on Emerson’s psyche?

The murder of Carrie in 1938 was a constant reminder that the penalty for not following Jim Crow laws, that were separate and unequal, could result in death. Race mixing was unlawful, yet there was more evidence of white men raping Black girls by the number of light skinned Black children in the community.

Carrie, one of my father’s 15 children looked like a white woman. She worked as a maid and baby sitter for the Sheriff’s sister and her husband. A relationship developed between the Sheriff’s brother-in-law and Carrie. A Black woman and the Sheriff’s white brother-in-law was enough for Carrie to be murdered. The details of the murder are gruesome. Carrie was taken on a road in the county and shot 25 times, and her chopped up body was thrown in a sack on my father’s porch.

The horror of what happened to my sister before I was born and the pain my father carried have been an albatross throughout my life.

Establishing a relationship with my Marshall family brought back many memories of my father. My father died in 1956 when he was 89 years old, four months short of 90. Karen, Mark’s wife gave me copies of newspaper articles about Mary’s court case:

The Judge ruled in the case of Mary that she should remain with her maternal white grandparents.

A weekly newspaper, New York Age, Borderline “pinky” Cases, January 1, 1950:

“Up in Buffalo, a State Supreme Court Justice decided that 5 year-old Mary Elizabeth Marshall, whose father, Emerson Marshall is part Negro, part Irish, and part Cherokee Indian and whose mother is white be reared by her white grandparents instead of her own parents.”

Before the Court Case was decided the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal 11/27/49 reported the following:


Five-year old girl will soon learn whether she is to live as a white person or Negro

Buffalo, N. Y., Nov. 26, 1949 A five-year-old Buffalo girl will learn early in December whether she is to lead the life of a Caucasian or be returned to the custody of her all-white mother and mulatto father. The child is pretty and vivacious, Mary E. Marshall, now being reared by her maternal grandmother and grandfather. The grandmother, Mrs. Ella R. Freitus, 52, and her husband, Arthur E. Freitus, 54, a $500 monthly railroad engineer, have had custody of the girl since she was about six months old. At that time, according to hearings held in New York's supreme court before Justice Alger A. Williams, the child's parents, Mrs. Marguerite A. Marshall, 24, and her husband, Emerson Marshall, 32 gave Mary into the grandparents' custody because of a strained financial condition. Better off financially now however, the mother and father are fighting to get their daughter back. The parents have assured Justice Williams that Mary will be reared in the Christian faith if she is returned to them. Justice Williams, in reserving decision on the matter at the conclusion of a lengthy hearing on a writ of habeas corpus, said that he would have to study the case for sometime "because of the grave social problems it involves." . "This case," the court told the grandfather, "raises the question of whether the child is to be raised as a white or colored child." Justice Williams asked Freitus if he was prepared to face possible neighborhood dissension in future years if a negro youth came to his home to pay court to Mary. Studying Case "I haven't thought 'that far ahead," the grandfather said. "All I know is that my wife and I want to bring up the child and give her the best in life. Justice Williams, one of the best known civil trial lawyers in New York state before assuming the supreme court bench several years ago, has been studying the case for the last four weeks in order to arrive at a decision. The child's white mother was a cashier in a large credit clothing establishment in Buffalo and her mulatto father is a butcher. The romance between the couple flourished after she met Marshall in the clothing place where she worked. Mary, who practically devoid of negro characteristics, proved too much of a financial burden for her parents after her birth and the grandparents took her at the request of the father and mother. Mary still is with the grandparents pending the ruling by Justice Williams. Family loves Child, Mrs. Freitus, who was the mother of 10 children, said that five of her offspring are living. "Are you going to bring up this child and pass her off as a white girl?" Justice Williams asked Mrs. Freitus. "I am going to bring her up as she is," came the reply. "My husband and all my children love her and are devoted to Mary. I don't think that either of the parents should have custody of her. She's mine; I brought her up. I gave Mary all the love and affection that the parents didn't give her for 'four and one-half years." During the court hearings, the father told the jurist that his home was in what could be regarded a negro section. On the other hand, the grandparents were emphatic that then home was in a "white" neighborhood. "The neighbors know all about Mary," he said. The grandfather insisted to the court that Mary was afraid of her father, whose ancestry was described by himself as negro, Irish and Cherokee Indian, and that she ran from him on his approach on numerous occasions. Marshall, before his Buffalo marriage, was wed in Texas and fathered three children before he obtained a divorce from his first wife. The Marshalls have another nine-months-old infant who lives with them."

I learned that Mary is still alive and is 75 years old. Karen, Mark’s wife and I have formed a warm relationship. She is spearheading the effort to learn about Mark’s Texas family. They have listened to my daughter, Narissa’s music and their son has read RUBY, my daughter Cynthia’s New York Times best-selling novel. They have also read my two blogs that focus on our family’s history. They seem enthusiastic about meeting me and my children. Karen, who is white has shared photos of her family. Karen and Mark have two children, a son and daughter and five grandchildren.

Karen and Mark have reached out to Emerson’s daughter, Bettie, Mark’s 82-year-old sister and the little girl who came to live with us when she was five years old. They sent Bettie a card at the nursing home where she resides in Beaumont, Texas. Bettie’s daughter called to find out who sent the card and I explained that Mark is Bettie’s brother. She was aware of her grandfather Emerson and had met him when she and her mother took a trip to Buffalo in the 80’s. Her impression of him was not favorable.

Bettie and I have maintained our sisterhood for over seventy-five years. I have visited Bettie twice in Beaumont, since moving back to Texas.

Bettie suffers from dementia and has other health related issues but she always knows who I am and we enjoy talking about my father and other childhood experiences. Her three daughters and I are close. I am Aunt Z to them. Two of them live in the Houston area and one lives in Beaumont. My son and I enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner with Bettie’s oldest daughter, Wilma and her husband Greg and their children.

Returning home has been the highlight of my elder years. I have another group of great nieces and nephews living in the Houston area that I look forward to meeting once the pandemic is under control. And the recently formed relationship with Mark and his wife has brought me a lot of happiness.

I feel the presence of my father in Mark as I study his photograph. His tall, lean and handsome 70-year old frame reminds me of his father Emerson and his grandfather James Robert Marshall, my brother and father respectively. And I am learning the truth about the court case that removed Mary permanently from her parents.

The color of our skin, racism and colorism play a significant role in the development of our identity. I cannot judge my brother Emerson, but I believe he would have had a better life if he had embraced his Black self.

I have my lasting impression of Emerson. In 1980 I was hired as a consultant for McManis Consulting Firm in Washington, D.C. to evaluate the Educational Opportunity Programs in New York. One of the programs was located at a university in Buffalo, New York. I notified my family in Buffalo to let them know I would be in the area for a few days. Mildred, my brother William’s daughter planned a “get together” for me at her home in Buffalo.

My brother William and several of my father’s 15 children by his late wife Rose, migrated to New York. The majority moved to Buffalo after the murder of their sister Carrie in 1938. Emerson and William were the last two of my father’s children to move to New York from Texas – Emerson in 1944 and William in 1947.

As I was preparing to get ready for the event at Mildred’s home, I heard a knock on my hotel door. I peeked through the security window on the door and saw a familiar face. It took a second to realize it was Marguerite, Emerson’s wife. I recognized her from photos she had sent to my father. She stayed in contact with him regularly by sending photos of her and Emerson’s four other children, a daughter and three sons.

I opened the door and we both greeted each other with smiles and an embrace. She said Emerson had sent her to pick me up. I explained that Mildred invited me to her home that evening. Marguerite asked me to call Emerson and explain that to him I called Emerson and invited him to Mildred’s home. His response was:

“I don’t go to that part of town. There is cutting and fighting over there. When are you leaving?”

“In the morning. My flight leaves on American airlines at 1:30 p.m.”

“I’ll come to the airport to see you off.”

Emerson never showed up. I looked for him until I was the last passenger to board the plane. And now, I have a chance to connect with Emerson’s son Mark and his family in an open and honest way. I am not sure how Mark and his children view themselves racially but their hearts give signals of love and understanding and a willingness to learn about their Black relatives.

I thank my son Jay for knowing there was something more fulfilling in life for me.

Connecting to family whether Black or white has opened up my emotional reserve. I know that because I feel Daddy’s presence.

1 Comment

Iantha McBride-Brinkley
Iantha McBride-Brinkley
Jan 15, 2022

It is great to hear this being shared. My grandmother was Creola (Marshall) McBride of Newton, Texas. She told us the story in passing of the death of her sister by white men in Newton. I believe it is Carrie. Her brother (one of them) is William. I don't know much about her family as she and my grandfather (Jim McBride) were in their 60"s when we lived with them in Newton. Creola died at age 92. My name is Iantha McBride Brinkley (named after my Aunt), Creola's sister who lived in Buffalo, New York. You can look me up on Face book, I would love to know more about my family.

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