MAXWELL:  Crossing the color line

4/26/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


FREEDOM’S CHILD: The Life of a Confederate General’s Black Daughter.

By Carrie Allen McCray

Reviewed by BILL MAXWELL

Few Americans have ever heard of John Robert Jones of Harrisburg, Va. He was an extraordinary white man who, not long after the Civil War, committed the sin of miscegenation and became more despised than a leper. His relationship with his lover, freed slave Mary Rice Hayes Allen, a black domestic worker, and their children is the subject of Carrie Allen McCray’s book Freedom’s Child: The Life of a Confederate General’s Black Daughter.

McCray is the general’s granddaughter.

At the outset, McCray, who was born in 1913, entices the reader into this remarkable voyage with the literary strategies of a mystery and a Greek tragedy:

“When we were young, we lived in a big yellow house across the road from the campus of Virginia Seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia. In Mama’s bedroom there was a huge four-poster antique bed, the “birthing bed,” where all except one of her ten children were born. In that same room, on the mantelpiece over the fireplace, was a picture of a white man in a uniform. I don’t remember ever asking who he was. I don’t ever remember being told. In later years my brother Hunter told me it was a picture of Mama’s father, a Confederate general named Jones. Somehow I could never think of him as anything except my mother’s father, as if he had no connection to us children, nor to all the future generations of children yet unborn.

“Mama never talked about her father. The hush-hush of the times covered the truth like a shroud.”

McCray did not muster the courage to remove that shroud and stop the hush-hush until she was 73 years old. Her initial searches were hesitant, yielding mere snapshots of events and people. She learned, for example, that Jones’ wife hired her grandmother as a housekeeper and that the general fell in love with the new domestic servant. Emboldened by initial success, McCray, began to unravel an ordeal that was marked by love, hate, joy and tragedy, as were most experiences between the races.

Jones retired as a brigadier general in the Confederate Army but died in disgrace. Unlike other white men of his time who fathered black children and remained silent, Jones publicly accepted and financially supported his two illegitimate mulattoes and paid for their schooling. In the case of McCray’s mother, Jones paid for all four years of college. Remember, now, we are talking about the Reconstruction era.

For these acts of humanity, Jones was stripped of all important military recognition. When his name is mentioned at all, it’s in relation to scandal and failure even though he graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in the top tier of his class. He ranked seventh among 24 students graduating, second in tactics, and he landed the honor of an appointment to first captain.

A photograph of him as a young soldier or as an officer cannot be found in the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. Rather, in a poorly rendered print, he is shown as an old man.

The only extant biographical sketch of him is a thinly veiled dismissal: “During his later life the former general suffered some personal difficulties and eventually made domestic arrangements decidedly unusual under the circumstances. Jones died in Harrisonburg (Va.) on April 1, 1901, and was buried in Woodbine Cemetery.”

Obviously, the “unusual domestic arrangements” refer to his support of his children.

Reports of his behavior on the battlefield allude to cowardice or worse. Rumors suggest that he came close to court martial, even though no hard evidence of his crimes is provided. After he was captured by federal troops, Confederate officials did not petition for his release as was routinely done for officers. He remained behind bars for two years, for the duration of the war.

Jones was so thoroughly despised by other Rebels that even a historian assisting McCray was shocked to read the hatred in a letter from a Confederate veteran who had known the grandfather:

“General Jones is dead, and peace be to his ashes, for they were not very clean. . . . In the Pennsylvania campaign he was relieved of his command for what cause I am not able to say. My information is he was captured and spent the remainder of the war in prison. . . . His subsequent life was a great disgrace to him and this community. I could write more but I think enough has been said. Draw a line through his name and be sure to have it Black.”

Aside from his career as a soldier, Jones founded a military institute and operated two seminaries in Florida.

McCray does not heap praise upon her grandfather but depicts him as a man who was wronged for being his own man at a time when black people literally were property in the South, when a white man had no business claiming the children of his black concubine.

But McCray, who became a highly respected social worker and teacher, tells more than the tale of her grandfather. She also shares her personal growth, her slow acceptance of a white man, a Confederate general, as her grandfather _ thus the title, Freedom’s Child. She comes to understand herself better by publicly acknowledging the white blood in her veins.

The narrative outlines her individual war against racism, her friendships with civil rights figures such as James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois, and their mission to make the nation a better place for African-Americans.

The ugly history of slavery and the Civil War and its effects on people living today are skillfully dramatized in Freedom’s Child. Sensitive readers will realize that blacks and whites _ who consciously accept the differences between the races _ can work together to create a wholesome society where close relationships across racial prohibitions are possible.

Perhaps more than anything else, McCray shows that, like it or not, African-Americans and white people share an inseparable bond.

Bill Maxwell is a Times columnist.