Damn Near White
An African American Family's Rise from Slavery to Bittersweet Success
Publication Year: 2010
Carolyn Wilkins grew up defending her racial identity. Because of her light complexion and wavy hair, she spent years struggling to convince others that she was black. Her family’s prominence set Carolyn’s experiences even further apart from those of the average African American. Her father and uncle were well-known lawyers who had graduated from Harvard Law School. Another uncle had been a child prodigy and protégé of Albert Einstein. And her grandfather had been America's first black assistant secretary of labor.
Carolyn's parents insisted she follow the color-conscious rituals of Chicago's elite black bourgeoisie—experiences Carolyn recalls as some of the most miserable of her entire life. Only in the company of her mischievous Aunt Marjory, a woman who refused to let the conventions of “proper” black society limit her, does Carolyn feel a true connection to her family's African American heritage.
When Aunt Marjory passes away, Carolyn inherits ten bulging scrapbooks filled with family history and memories. What she finds in these photo albums inspires her to discover the truth about her ancestors—a quest that will eventually involve years of research, thousands of miles of travel, and much soul-searching.
Carolyn learns that her great-grandfather John Bird Wilkins was born into slavery and went on to become a teacher, inventor, newspaperman, renegade Baptist minister, and a bigamist who abandoned five children. And when she discovers that her grandfather J. Ernest Wilkins may have been forced to resign from his labor department post by members of the Eisenhower administration, Carolyn must confront the bittersweet fruits of her family's generations-long quest for status and approval.
Damn Near White is an insider’s portrait of an unusual American family. Readers will be drawn into Carolyn’s journey as she struggles to redefine herself in light of the long-buried secrets she uncovers. Tackling issues of class, color, and caste, Wilkins reflects on the changes of African American life in U.S. history through her dedicated search to discover her family’s powerful story.
Published by: University of Missouri Press
Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
1. The Black Bourgeois Blues
That girl was staring at me, I could feel it from across the room. Tugging surreptitiously at the hem of my miniskirt, I pushed my way through the crowd and poured myself another drink from the makeshift bar. A second paper cup-It was September 1969, and I was attending my first-ever party as a college student. I had never lived away from home before, and hard as I was trying to ...
2. The Research Begins, 1995
I grieved Aunt Marjory’s death for months. She had been my living history book; she made me feel I was attached to something larger than my immediate family. Other family members were hurting, too. My brothers and I talked fondly of the big Thanksgiving dinners she used to give. From time to time at family gatherings, we would all burst out singing “We Are Family” in Aunt ...
3. The Early Career of J. Ernest Wilkins
Although my husband, a former librarian, will tell you that contrary to popular belief, everything can not be found on the Internet, a surprising amount of information can be accessed on-line. Using ProQuest’s large digital collection of historical newspapers, I was able to download and read scores of articles about J. Ernest Wilkins. A trip to the Boston Public Library yielded more treasures: a ...
Although I talk with my mother often by telephone, I don’t get back to Chicago to visit as often as I would like. Part of the reason for this is that my mother is an inveterate globetrotter. Even at the age of eighty, Mom will hop on a plane in a heartbeat. She visits my brother David and me in Boston at least twice a year. When my brother Stephen was working as a stockbroker in ...
5. I Discover a New Ancestor
As usual, Aunt Marjory and I were looking through one of her scrapbooks.
“Look at this picture, Aunt Marj. My dad as a little boy with his parents. When was this picture taken?”
Aunt Marjory pulled the book closer to her rheumy eyes and touched the picture thoughtfully. The large rhinestone rings she wore on almost every finger sparkled in the dimming light....
6. Memphis, Tennessee, 1874–1878
I am a jazz musician. When I think of Memphis, I think of Beale Street, the
blues, and W. C. Handy. As I continued to trace my great-grandfather’s story, I
realized that while he was alive, Memphis was famous not for its music but for
its boomtown status as the fastest growing city in the South.
On February 1, 1873, John B. Wilkins opened an account at the Memphis branch of the Freedman’s Bank, located in the heart of the black district on...
7. The Renegade Baptist, 1885–1887
What my great-grandfather did and where he lived between 1880 and early 1885 is a mystery. Knowing that he ultimately became a Baptist preacher, I spent hours in the Boston Public Library searching for his name in the many rolls of microfilm documenting the early history of African American Baptists. I studied newspaper accounts of tent revivals and prayer meetings and foraged ...
8. The People’s Temple, 1887–1888
On April 17, 1887, the Chicago Daily Inter Ocean reported, “A New Pastor: The members of Bethesda Baptist Church, Thirty–fourth and Butterfield streets, are jubilant indeed. The cause of it is that they have secured the Rev. Bird Wilkins, B. D. of St. Paul, Minn., for their pastor.” According to the article, my great-grandfather was reputed to be “the most eloquent colored ...
9. The Bigamist, 1889–1915
After my great-grandfather left Chicago, he seems to have moved his family
back to Farmington, Missouri. There, Susie gave birth to their third child,
Aravelle, in 1889. In January 1891 Mary Corinne, their fourth child and only
girl, was born.
I do not know exactly how my great-grandfather supported his family during this period. Farmington was a small rural community, and there would...
10. St. Louis
“Look! There’s the Arch!” I poked my husband in the ribs and pointed. From our vantage point in the sky, the Mississippi River looked like a giant dragon coiling its way through the lush Missouri flatland. The moment our flight landed, I was up and out of my seat, eager to get started on the next phase of the research. Consulting the map I had purchased in anticipation of our adventures,...
11. Farmington, Missouri
As John and I merged onto Route I-55 the next morning, a light drizzle misted the windshield of our rental car. By the time we pulled into Farmington ninety minutes later, the rain was coming down in sheets. Gusts of wind threw water up onto the windshield and rippled the puddles accumulating in the street. I had hoped to be able to get a feel for my grandfather’s birthplace by taking a ...
After John and I returned home from our St. Louis trip, I wrote up a chronicle of our research for my diary, emailed a copy of Aunt Sarah’s picture to everyone in the family, and returned to the rest of my life. I was in the middle of preparing for a concert with my jazz group while at the same time writing a textbook on singing. Although I was still curious to find out about my grand-...
13. J. Ernest Wilkins in Washington, 1953–1955
By the early 1950s my grandfather had a reputation in black Chicago as a consummate professional, a “lawyer’s lawyer,” known for his incisive mind. In the one building in downtown Chicago that would rent to African Americans, a building sarcastically referred to by the city’s black attorneys as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” J. Ernest shared office space with some of the city’s most influential ...
14. In Washington, 1955–1957
After months of painstaking research I was on the verge of finding out what had caused my grandfather to leave the Labor Department. I had pestered my older relatives and friends of the family for information. I had spent hours in libraries and hundreds of dollars on books. I had worn out my researcher, Mariah Cooper, with scores of questions. I had flown more than a thousand ...
15. The Civil Rights Commission, 1957–1958
“So, Carolyn. What are you going to do with all this stuff?”
My sister-in-law Ann Marie poked a slender brown finger at the newspaper clippings I had laid out on the dining-room table and repeated her question.
“Really, Carolyn. This is great. You should think about writing this all down and publishing it.”...
As I sit down to write these pages, I am reminded of a song by Bernard Ingner called “Everything Must Change”. In the three years that have passed since I traveled to Missouri, circumstances have changed for some of the people and places I wrote about. After a lifetime of community activism, teaching, and nurturing her large extended family, Mrs. Ethel Porter passed away at age 101 ...
Page Count: 200
Illustrations: 15 illus.
Publication Year: 2010
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Damn Near White