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The Author Speaks

Interview With Daniel J. Sharfstein

His powerful new book examines how three American families became white

Q. The Gibsons and Walls both seem to have played fairly important roles in American history.

A. Absolutely. As I was writing about Reconstruction and the transition from slavery to Jim Crow, I found it really fascinating to be able to follow someone working incredibly hard to forge a new world for African Americans — O.S.B. Wall — and at the same time follow someone working just as hard to undo those gains — Randall Gibson. The idea that two people on such opposite sides of these issues could both share the same history really says something about who we are and how race has functioned in the United States.

Q. There's plenty of irony, too — Randall Gibson was a military leader for the Confederacy, his father Tobias railed against race mixing, the Walls actually took a social step down in becoming white.

A. To me, it treads the line between irony and tragedy.

Q. Each family had at least one moment when its claim to whiteness was challenged. Is that how you found them?

A. For the Wall family and Spencer family, my search began with court cases where the issue was whether they were white or black. For the Gibsons, it began with the Colonial history, which historians have been talking about for 50 years. Comparatively late in my research, I learned about the public accusation that they had African ancestry — and their remarkable response to it. Publicly, they said it was the most preposterous thing they had ever heard. In private, they wrote a couple of local historians who had known their grandparents and said, "We know nothing of our family roots. What are they?" The historians said they might have been Portuguese. [In fact, their ancestor] Gideon Gibson was from a family that was among the first free people of color in Colonial Virginia. They were classified as mulatto and lived in a community with free people of color.

Q. In slavery's absence, you write, "preserving white privilege seemed to require new, less flexible rules about race and constant aggressive action to enforce them." Why?

A. What really mattered in the South, in the antebellum period, was not who was black and who was white, but who was slave and who was free. The prospect of freedom for African Americans was a motivating force getting people to think about what racial categories themselves meant. In the last days of slavery, because slavery as an institution was under such attack, white Southerners were countering with race-based justifications, and that survived the demise of slavery. After the Civil War, as black freedom was taking root, right alongside it were modern forms of racism that persist to this day.

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