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Mixed Race Ohio

July 9, 2020

A family story as complex as American history, tracing in part to 1820s Berlin Crossroads in OhioIMG_2657.jpg

As the celebration of this country’s revolutionary independence looms, I cannot help but reflect on my own ancestry and what it says about place and race, politics and perspective. A mixed-race Ohioan, I was born in Cuyahoga Falls and raised in the Akron/Cleveland area. Like most Ohioans, I am proud of our wooded forests, our first-rate colleges, our winning sports teams. I want to believe that if more people knew about Ohio’s Black and mixed-race histories, we would be cautiously optimistic to note those times when Black lives have mattered in Ohio — in the solemn presence of mourning those times when Black lives should have mattered more.

 

This won’t be a linear story. As with all history, including complicated family histories, and, particularly, family trees made more complicated by the intersection of different races, it moves from Akron to Germany and back to Ohio, with some side branches that go back 200 years to a once-storied and now largely forgotten African American community in Ohio’s Appalachia.

 

Akron 1976: I celebrated the Fourth of July with my father. He cheered with my brother and me on the driveway with sparklers and cherry bombs. Though he looked white (more on that later), he had married a visibly mixed-race woman while serving overseas in Germany.

 

My mother was an “occupation baby,” born of an African American G.I. and a German woman. She grew up with brown skin in a very white Germany. She was named Angelina so as to pass as Italian, but she identified as African American. After she left my father, she brought my brother and me to Cleveland Heights, a town renowned for its interracial tolerance. It was there my brother and I spent many more Fourths of July, bottle rockets and smoke snakes.

 

Cleveland Heights was a mecca of mixed-race families. Fourth of July get-togethers at my grandpa’s home with my cousin Dietrick and my brother Tony, my mother and stepfather: Skin colors ranged from my own — white looking skin — to my brother and mother, to my grandfather’s very dark complexion.

 

My grandfather didn’t like other people’s racial assumptions. He avoided these by reminding everyone of his national identity and veteran affiliation. “I’m American,” my grandpa liked to say, as a Black man in America, with particular pride and defiance on the Fourth of July.

 

My father doesn’t hail from the same African American line as my grandfather, whose family line includes many more veterans, reverends, and teachers from a free Black community in Florida. By contrast, my father’s African-Americanness was hidden, perhaps like my own.

 

My father’s veiled Black Ohio ancestry brought me back to Columbus in the 1920s. There, in my research, I found my father’s mother, Edna, living with her father and her mother, Norma Jessie (or Daisy). Sometimes this woman was recorded as Norma Jessie Cassell or Cassells, claiming to be white. At other times, however, her last name was recorded as Carrell. It turns out, Daisy descended from a Black family living near the Berlin Crossroads, a famous African American town outside of Jackson, Ohio, in southern Ohio’s Appalachia.

 

Moving backwards another hundred years to 1820 Ohio, we find the Cassells (sometimes Carrells) living as a prominent African American family near the Berlin Crossroads of Jackson County. This family from whom I am descended on my father’s side (where in a perfect Cleveland story, I find out I am Black even on the White side) have established themselves in a household led by William and Rachel Cassells from Virginia. In 1820, William Cassells would have just arrived in Ohio with Rachel, who was listed on the Virginia census as his concubine and later as his wife after an official ceremony in the early 1820s.

 

According to historical sources, William was a slaveowner who freed Rachel and her children and brought them to Ohio. He hoped to establish them on their own land. He is said to have fought duels to defend their right to that land. William did not stay with his family in Ohio, and Rachel did not live long. The fate of her children was decided in a small probate court in Jackson County a few years later. The orphans were appointed a guardian, a white man who held their inheritance until they were old enough to receive it. The Cassell children each held 100 acres and a house in Jackson County for decades, until the Berlin Crossroads became a battle site in the Civil War and many of its homes, churches, and businesses were burnt to the ground.

 

It is worth noting that, thus far, White Ohioans have been more interested in the Berlin Crossroads as a Civil War battle site than as a site of Black and mixed-race Ohio heritage. This is a grave shame. The Crossroads were a rural community of free African Americans and a powerful home of the Underground Railroad and Black church.

 

But history is fickle. Even when remembered, it is often malformed through present-day lenses, and shaped by our expectations for a simple, unified story of a relatable past. But sometimes the past comes to us full of complexity. Instead of one story, there are two, or more. Instead of reinforcing assumptions about family resemblance, where like things (such as members of a family) are expected to look alike, the stories of the past could challenge us to live our most complex lives.

 

To conclude, I am reminded of a seeming contradiction in the reporting of a Fourth of July from 1855 at the Berlin Crossroads. The Jackson Standard newspaper, in one column, claims that not a sound is heard throughout the town on the Fourth of July, as if no one cared to celebrate, while another column describes parades of young schoolchildren mustered to the center of town, where they heard the Declaration read aloud and ceremonial music played.

 

This kind of complexity and seeming contradiction is central to history, and to my own experience as a mixed-race person (in which people often ask me to explain away that which doesn’t seem to make sense). It is like that newspaper page from 1855, complicated and multi-voiced. But it suggests what is deeply true in this case: That more than one thing can be true at the same time.

 

I hope to live in a world eager to tell and to share in the complex and difficult stories of the past without omitting the contradictions that make us American — and some of us, distinctively Ohioan.

 
(Originally published as an op-ed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Cleveland.com )

From → Archives, My Stories

One Comment
  1. Fabulous story! And certainly very true! Nothing is completely clear cut and rarely a straight answer. History is definitely complex because people are; so many different perspectives and experiences build a very intricate and detailed story. Thanks for sharing your story.

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