Above are my three ancestors who self-identified as 'Moors.' On the left, Mary A. Carney Whittingham, born in 1832 in Delaware to John (listed as 'white' on the census) and Luisa Carney (listed as 'mulatto' which in Delaware often meant 'Indian' ie Native American). In the middle, her youngest son Joseph Whittingham, born 1879 in Pennsylvania, and on the right his daughter, my mother, Dorothea, born in 1906 in Philadelphia.
Scroll down to the 'My Delaware Moor Great-Grandmother' post to read more about my convoluted journey to discover what the 'ethnic secret' of our family was. This secret was withheld from me because to my mother and grandmother I looked 'white' and they wanted me to grow up with a white identity. This certainly makes a lot of sense, since I look so very white indeed! When I first moved to Berkeley California from Philadelphia, I met a beautiful woman with huge dark eyes and the most gorgeous golden curly hair, and she told me she thought I might be 'one of our people.' She went on to explain to me that in the pre-colonial period, European, African and Native American people encountered one another in North America, had families together - and there was plenty for everyone, no fighting, and everyone was very happy that way. This reminded me of a very similar story my mother had also told me. Both of them went on to say that when so many colonists, especially the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the British Isles in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries began arriving on the eastern coast, this idyllic situation began to change, and 'our people' were held in diminished repute, and often marginalized or isolated, primarily marrying in to their own communities. This is why the villains in so many silent films and old-time dime-store literature were portrayed as dark and swarthy white men. We were a sub-class.
At the time she told me this, however, I thought this woman was not in her right mind - making things up - because at the time, I'd more or less forgotten that my mother had told me the same story! This woman's husband got a job in Kingsport Tennessee and she did not look forward to moving there, because, she said, that area was a center for 'our people.' Later, I realized that Kingsport is prime 'Melungeon' territory.
Anyway, in all my subsequent searching and struggling to find out why my mother and grandmother seemed to feel my grandfather was such a special and wonderful guy, but never told me anything about him, and made only disparaging remarks about his mother (she couldn't read or write and did not speak proper English, but some kind of really antiquated dialect), leading me to believe there was some 'secret' involved here, I think I have finally come to the final destination in understanding.
These people were descendents of the Atlantic Creoles. To me, this makes perfect sense, as my mother definitely had a Creole look and vibe to her, which I passionately loved. The Atlantic Creoles were basically a product of the very earliest stage of the Atlantic slave trade which involved Native Americans being transported to distant places as slaves (little known fact), Africans who had been Christianized by the Portuguese and who are sometimes called Charter Generation, Free Blacks, and so on - who were often brought over and used as 'indentured servants' much like the poor white European indentured servants of colonial and pre-colonial times. These individuals often took up housekeeping together - early clerics in America decried the lack of church-going and of legal marriages - had their families and after the massive influx of British, Scottish and (in our area) German immigrants, this group began to take on its own identity and in many regions were marginalized and excluded by the newcomers.
Atlantic Creoles are usually thought of as African-Americans, but of course even the term 'African-American' implies that there's something not African about this group - and in this case it would be the presence of both European and Native American ancestry. Our family knew they had these connections, as both my mother and father attended something called the 'Moorish Science Temple' in Philadelphia, and had small tokens of this identity around the house: a small Moroccan flag, a crocodile letter-opener, various pieces of Tuareg jewelry and other items, indicating an African identity. We also had Lenape textile and a basket in our home, indicating some relationship to local Native American identity.
Linda M. Heywood writes in her book, "Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585 - 1660," that on the eastern shore of then Virginia, "Many of these African-Americans came to be known as 'Indians' in the hostile racial climate of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was from such groups that the modern-day 'Melungeons' or the 'Nanticokes (or Moors)', 'Lumbees,' and 'Piscataway' emerged, as genealogical research has shown." (p.283)
My ancestors John and Luisa Carney first appear on the Delaware Census in the 1790's, around the time that refugees fleeing from Haiti arrived in New Orleans and the Chesapeake Bay area. It's not known whether Luisa Carney (mulatto) was native to Delaware, or whether both may have emigrated from Haiti. I still need to do the research on that. It's a possibility. This would give them Taino ancestry, which I see in my great-grandmother's face.
On the term 'Moors': "When a prize ship carrying 130 Africans arrived in Middleburg in the Netherlands in 1596, its cargo was consistently referred to as Mooren ("Moors"), the medieval European term for Africans." (p.314) However, the Dutch traders quickly switched to the term negroes, borrowing the latter term from the Portuguese. However, our area, New Jersey, eastern Pennysylvania, and Delaware was strongly under the influence of the Dutch, so much so that Dutch ways predominated. Heywood also talks about the heavy Dutch influence among the Atlantic Creoles of the Ramapo Mountain region in northern New Jersey, whose surnames were usually either Mann or Groot (and our family had a marriage with a Groot of northern New Jersey back in the mid-nineteenth century, and this would fit with the notion that these 'ethnic' groups tended to intermarry). Anyway Dutch influence may have cemented the use of the term 'Moors' for our 'Delaware' ancestors. (I mark this word 'Delaware' because in fact these people spread out in a sort of diaspora throughout southeastern PA, NJ, and even as far away as Wisconsin and Canada). Search for www.mitsawokett.com for more information.
In her book, Heywood differentiates between slavery and indentured servitude, but remarks that even the word 'slavery' in the sixteenth and seventeenth century eastern seaboard did not mean what it came to mean during the later period of plantation-slavery. Apparently, from what I've read, there has been a rift even in the African-American community between those who identified as descendents of the 'free people of color' 'charter generation' Africans versus the later mass agricultural slave population. But that is someone else's story.
Heywood writes, "Atlantic Creoles seem to have attained freedom remarkably easily, considering the later history of American servitude." (327) Scholars believe that the fact that they were already Christian and already familiar with European culture facilitated their frequent manumission and subsequent success as free people. "Both English and Dutch popular wisdom, if not law, maintained that a Christian could not hold another Christian as a slave." (p.328)
"Occasionally, mixed-raced individuals petitioned for their freedom on the basis of their upbringing among Christians. Doll Allen, a mixed-race woman of Bermuda, claiming freedom from being a 'perpetuall slave' in 1652, asked to be set apart as 'God set a distinction between her and heathen Negroes, by providentially allotting her birth among Christians.' Elizabeth Key lodged a similar complaint in 1656, also counting her baptism as grounds for obtaining freedom and, like Allen, Key was born of an English father." (p.329)
I'm thinking this may be the case with my ancestors, as John Carney is listed as 'white' on the Delaware Census in the 1790's while his wife, Luisa, is listed as 'mulatto.' I'm sorry to say I have no surname for Luisa, so cannot research her any further back. I have heard that 'Luisa' is considered to be a popular Portuguese name in 'the new world,' and so may indicate an Atlantic Creole origin.
My DNA test showed a high percentage of African DNA, mostly North and East African, which would indicate to me sea-faring Africans, such as pirates, more than the Central and West Africans who apparently made up the original Portuguese Catholic slaves and indentured servants of the precolonial period. And the Delaware Moors used to subscribe to a pirate origin, although now the group still living in Delaware don't want to be called Moors, and regard themselves as Indians.
Thank you for reading, please address any comments to me in an email at firstname.lastname@example.org