Magazine, Baton Rouge Advocate, 4/20/2000 Uncovering the 'White' House By LINDA ALEXANDER Special to Magazine (photo: Linda Alexander, held by grandmother on Galveston Beach, TX, circa 1958)
"We can't know where we're going until we know where we've been." Someone else may have said this before me but, if so, I don't know who they were. I've said it for as long as I can remember. It's become my personal mantra.
My mother's family hails from the New Orleans, New Iberia, and Opelousas areas of Louisiana. I've always known this. I never knew until recently, however, that her roots held numerous well-shrouded mysteries, mysteries I'm still trying to solve to this day. I may never know the whole truth. I spent much of my childhood in Houston, Texas. As a baby I lived there with my parents, and continued to return for summers throughout my teen-age years. My mother, after living her childhood and early teen years in New Orleans, moved to Houston with her mother, Ella May. Ella, or "Grandma" to me, had, in turn, gone to Houston years before with her sister to search out her mother, Clara Genevieve Rowe Bouterie.
Clara had run away from New Orleans. She literally left her children there, to live with their newly married older sister. Some years later, Ella and her sisters found her in Houston, re-married to a man named Paul Fornerette. A long story, one none of us ever understood, was behind Clara's flight from her life in New Orleans, a life she apparently no longer could force herself to live.
I was 6 years old when, in her early 80s, she passed away. I have recollections of an old lady whom I -- and the rest of the family -- called "Dear" but whose real name was Clara. She never wanted to be reminded that she was old enough to be a grandmother, nonetheless a great-grandmother. "Dear" was a shortened version of "Dear Mother." None of us ever addressed her otherwise. My memories call to mind a stern, austere woman, no-nonsense ... almost scary, at least to a child.
She always looked "different" to me. I could never pinpoint it yet the difference forever nagged at me, staring out through her dark, nearly black, piercing eyes. She had wavy, beautiful, and shockingly silver hair. Not gray. Literally silver. I'd only seen that color occasionally on the heads of old black ladies in stores and restaurants. Once seen, one could not forget it, or her. A spotlessly clean woman, there was never a time when she wasn't dressed as if she were receiving guests.
I was always told that Dear was "born in Washington, on the grounds that the White House now stands on." She herself told my mother this. Even Ella's birth certificate indicated that Clara Rowe was born in Washington, D.C., so, for many years after I began my genealogical digging, I searched District of Columbia records, looking for Dear's birth certificate. Nothing was to be found. More family lore stated that my great-great-grandfather, Robert Rowe, from England, was "of the sea." This was about all we had to go on. Rather, I should say, it was all I had to go on. No one else -- mother, siblings, aunts, cousins -- was possessed like I was to find out the truth of our heritage. They seemed content to let it pass.
I live in the Washington, D.C., area, with the National Archives at my fingertips. Numerous bumbling trips told me little, until one day I happened upon the New Orleans, Louisiana 1900 listing for Robert A. Rowe. I verified the family by knowing names of some of Dear's sisters and brothers, even though not all names matched. In 1900, in New Orleans, the Robert A. Rowe family lived at 807 France St. Sixty-one year-old Robert, born in Mississippi on May 7, 1839, a white male, was the head of his household. He had been married for 35 years to Alice L., indicated as a 49-year-old white female, born in Louisiana in January of 1851.
Dear's mother was born in Louisiana? Why, then, was Dear born in Washington? And where did the White House fit in? The words I read stated that Dear's father was born in Spain. Her mother was good, old-fashioned Louisiana born and bred, if I was to believe what I saw in front of me. Both of Robert's parents, the census indicated, were from New York. This dispelled the idea that he was from England. He was listed as a painter, of what, it didn't say but again, snippets of family stories rang through my head. From listening to my mother and aunts, I recalled that their grandfather had been a house painter. He and my grandmother lived with her parents early on in their marriage in New Orleans. Was this how he began? Had he worked with his father-in-law, Robert Rowe?
Robert could read and write, spoke English, and "owned" his business (probably more accurate to say that he worked for himself; likely there was no company involved). This told me that the "of the sea" theory was all wet. And Robert's children provided more surprises.
My mother had told me about two brothers and two sisters: Uncle Pete. "He lived above a bar on Bourbon Street and was a decorator." Aunt Pinky. "Dear used to get all gussied up--dress, hose, jewelry, hat, gloves, the works--board the train in Houston, and go visit Aunt Pinky in New Iberia." Aunt Pearl. "She married a man from a wealthy New Orleans family who then disowned him. They moved to Pass Christian, Mississippi and had a bunch of kids." Another brother, name unknown. "Dear always said he moved to Ohio and died in a snowstorm."
Yet this is what I found: Leonard, born in March of 1876 Clara, born in November of 1880 Pearl, born in October of 1885 Prisca (a son), born in January of 1887 Edna, born in February of 1893 I knew, from my mother's family and other Louisianians, that people there didn't always call each other by their given names. Add to that, names they did use often had no apparent correlation to the legal name. The list didn't compare with what I knew, and I could account for only two, Clara and Pearl. The rest were up for interpretation.
I was now armed with more information -- confusing but information nonetheless. I continued my search. Backward. Nationwide, most of the 1890 census was lost in a fire. For 1880, I found no Robert Rowe in New Orleans so, on a whim, I checked the name throughout the state -- a good move, because I found him in Iberia Parish. "Dear used to ... visit Aunt Pinky in New Iberia." We had a match. I knew it was my family because Clara was there, as a 1-year-old girl. Further proof came in the listing of her middle initial as "G." Dear's middle name was Genevieve, a name handed down to my mother, and from her to my youngest sister. Robert was there, too. He was a 40-year-old white male, which neatly compared to the information from the 1900 census. He was a farmer back then, and his 30-year-old wife, Alice, listed as a white female in this particular record, was "keeping house."
Yes, these were Dear's parents. There were three other children listed; all were Rowes. I now had these names to follow: Emily, 13 years old; Adam, 6 years old; Ambroise, 4 years old. New names and I'd no idea where they fit. Why hadn't Dear ever mentioned them? I had an even greater feeling of something shrouded, a hard line of secrecy never before penetrated.
I couldn't put a finger on how I knew, but I knew there was more. Points had been intentionally left out over the decades. And I was about to break the code. It was both exhilarating and frightening. I was now possessed. Maybe literally.
Determined to push back more, I visited the National Archives again and headed for the rear room where state directories are held for census listings prior to 1880. I located Louisiana, found 1870, and searched the Rowes for Robert A. He was in St. Landry Parish, with the town listed as "Wash." Suspicious now, I checked the directory roll number and located the correct microfilm. The anticipation made my hand shake.
The town was Washington. Washington. So there was a Washington in Dear's history, yet not the one expected. Hers was in Louisiana, a small village outside Opelousas. It was here that I found Robert A. Rowe in 1860. Alice L. was there, too, but she wasn't called Alice. Her name was Allecia. Also, she had a last name -- DESSESSARTS. Dessessarts. Beautiful! Certainly it was French, and if so, that brought me to yet another point out of sync with what I'd found earlier. If the surname was French, then her father wasn't likely Spanish.
I was getting more confused but couldn't have walked away if someone offered me a substantial amount of money to do so. This was my history I was stepping into. I was finding out where I came from ... so that I might find out where I was going. With Robert and Allecia, there was one child -- Emily, 4 years old. Clearly, none of the others had yet been born. Robert was a 39-year old white farmer. And Allecia? I nearly fainted. I know I read and re-read ... and read again. I adjusted the focus on the microfilm viewer. I pushed my glasses up my nose, closer to my eyes. I moved the microfiche roll up and down, returning to where the family was listed. I squirmed.
Allecia and Emily were listed as "mulatto." What did that mean to me? About 125 years after a long-forgotten enumerator knocked on the Rowe door and forever recorded their vital information, how did that one word, "mulatto," have any direct meaning to me?
It indicated that I descend from a mixed race union. I was shocked, thrilled, and a little bit scared, wondering how I could know so very little about myself and family. The term "mulatto" had been used loosely in Louisiana in the mid-1800s. Still, I knew from a book titled, Who Is Black? that in the 1870 and 1880 United States census the term officially defined "quadroons, octoroons, and all persons having any perceptible trace of African blood." And it wasn't logical that a "pure white" woman, in that time in United States history, would've allowed herself to be considered a mulatto if, indeed, she hadn't been one ... whatever the actual mix. That would've been unacceptable.
This answered so many questions yet, simultaneously, created countless more. I considered what it might have been like to live in a white man's world in the mid 1800s. It was a time of slavery. In Louisiana, there had been subcultures allowing some mulattos to live as "Free People of Color." Society deemed that they were truly neither white nor black, but caught somewhere in the middle. Louisiana was where "quadroons" (a quarter black) and "octoroons" (an eighth black) and variations in between came into being. Where had Allecia fit in? How did she come to be? Exactly who were her parents?
I had no real answers, only more questions. Still, I had found Dear's parents and the United States census records had been invaluable. By going back to 1870, I'd verified Allecia's surname and learned that she and one of her children -- and by simple logic, all of her children, which would include my great-grandmother, Dear -- were People of Color. What might happen if I looked backwards 10 more years, and did a search on the Dessessarts in St. Landry Parish? Would I find Allecia with her family? In 1870 she was listed as 22 years old. That would mean that in 1860 she would've been about 12. Was her mother a free woman of color, or a slave? Was her father a black man? Or maybe he was a white man of means, and her mother was forced to have a child with him.
Again ... to the National Archives. The St. Landry, Louisiana 1860 census did not turn up Allecia Dessessarts. This musical, poetic-sounding surname was not common, though it was found more than once attached to male heads of households, in what was called Opelousas Corporation. There was Hillaire, and Constance. Each man was listed as a white male, with a white wife, and white children, but none of the children had a name sounding anything like Allecia. Still, one of those men may have been her father. If I entertained the possibility that Allecia was illegitimate, either of these men in this Louisiana parish could've fathered her. I used my imagination and searched for anything that might've been a variant spelling on the Dessessarts name. I was tiring. My eyes watered. My brain hurt.
My reward came when I was sure there was nothing more to find. There was Allecia Dessas. Could this be my great-great grandmother? I repeatedly said the name, thinking about how it must've sounded when spoken in a culture that was heavily French and Spanish, with a southern lilt. I'd taken four years of high school French. This didn't anywhere near make me an expert, but I was grateful that I'd retained some of my lessons. It was possible that the last syllable was nearly inaudible, considering accents. If so, the name, Dessas, could have been a variation on the original name.
I knew I was reaching, but checked it out. I pulled the microfilm for that name and rolled down the pages until I came to the one with Allecia Dessas on it. She was there and I intuitively knew the 12-year-old child shown was my great-great grandmother. There were no other Dessessarts in the household. There was only one adult -- Melite Gradenigo, a 36-year-old woman. There were two other children, males with the last name of Perrault. Including Allecia, all four were mulatto.
I was exhausted. Secrets just kept popping out at me. I was meeting up with tight-lipped ghosts around every corner. Where would I go from here? A search of the 1850 census found no Allecia but did turn up Melite. This time she was in a white couple's household, a scenario which, on paper, looked to show her as, at best, a servant and, at worst, a slave. It was my guess that Melite was a Free Woman of Color (FWOC), a housemaid.
I went home with those tight-lipped ghosts as close companions. It was as if they begged to be found and embraced, yet couldn't come right out and tell me anything. They had to give only the barest of clues, making me work for every slip of information which might prove -- or disprove -- the reality of my heritage as I'd come to believe it.
I had dreams about Allecia. It was important to me to find out about her daily existence. She had been Dear's mother and her life had directly affected my great-grandmother's life. Dear had made choices that, at first glance, seemed unforgivable. Yet by looking under the surface, those choices may have been almost understandable. I needed to understand. Was Allecia's mother Melite Gradenigo, a free woman of color who, for whatever reason, had at least three children by two different fathers? I was only guessing then and am still guessing now, though each day I find more slivers of information to solidify what I've suspected all along.
People live much of their lives in re-action as much if not more than in action. This search wasn't meant to judge, only to learn about a history for which I'm eternally grateful. If not for it --for those re-actions as well as actions -- I'd not be here today. "For better or for worse," these realities were my realities.
This search has proven one very important point to me. Researching a mixed race genealogical line is not only difficult, it's nearly a closed door. Few formal records are to be found for slaves and Free People of Color in general, but it is even more disheartening than that. There is defined discrimination in genealogy. If I mention mixed blood when I find a possible family link, I often have that door slammed in my face. People of Color many times don't want to hear they're part Caucasian any more than Caucasians want to hear they're mixed. Genealogical racism runs both ways.
My sense is that Caucasians don't want to admit to the race-mixing, likely out of shame, even as a historical reference. People of Color, more attuned to the reality, don't want to acknowledge it. Caucasians deny the reality; African Americans and others of color block it. Fear is at the core of both denials. Fear of so much ... past hurts, different cultures, humiliation, guilt, and plain old ignorance.
I keep on keeping on, though. I've learned about the Dessessarts, who were prominent in Opelousas in the mid-1800s. Because of geographical placements in the census, I believe Allecia's father was probably Hillaire. I'm nearly one hundred percent positive that her Dessessarts father and unknown mother were unmarried, another stigma in a never-ending search for genealogical truth. I'm also nearly convinced that Melite Gradenigo was her mother.
I've begun to unravel the confusion of the Rowe family children, too. There were seven that I know of. Emily, or "Pinky," was the eldest. We still don't know why she was called that. She lived out her life in New Iberia, Louisiana, marrying a mulatto man.
Adam was the second born. He married, left Louisiana with his wife and went to Missouri, where he had at least one child. Little is known of his life except that he and his family ended up in Ohio, outside of Akron. He did, indeed, die there in a snowstorm.
Leonard Ambrose -- called Lenny, but listed as "Ambroise" in one of the census records -- was next. Of him, I know only that he lived in New Orleans.
Next there was Clara, or "Dear."
Pearl followed. She did marry a man named Bentz and lived in the Pass Christian area of Mississippi. The story telling that he was disowned by his wealthy family after he married Pearl has been corroborated by a Mississippi family member.
The next one was Prisca ... an unusual name. It must've been unique enough even then, because Prisca was known in later years as Howard; the family always called him "Uncle Pete." He was a decorator and an artist. He was beloved and apparently the peacemaker, possibly the one that brought once-distant family members back together.
And the baby was Edna. All we know of her is that she supposedly became a published writer.
What about the original story's "white house"? There were many white houses in Washington, Louisiana, circa 1850. Clara may have been born in one. Or maybe it was hypothetical. If they called their house "white," that made them "white." Or maybe as some suggested, it was where white folks lived.
All this set the stage on which family secrets have been kept for more than a century. My great-great-grandmother, Allecia Dessessarts, lived the life of a mixed race woman in the Civil War South, a difficult life, indeed. She was clearly light-skinned, taken to be a white woman most of her adult life. Her children, including Dear, were obviously also light-skinned. These people, to my knowledge, (except for Pinky), left their mixed heritage world behind as soon as they could and lived as white people, deserving and worthy of all privileges and rights afforded the "purely" white public. They never gave even a clue to the outside world or, more curious, to those of us descended from them, of stories they could tell ... if only they had dared.
I won't judge nor condemn. Their decisions must have been based on many different factors. Not the least of which, I'd expect, was to allow their children, and their children's children, a chance at a better life removed from the hatred, bigotry, and deprivation that existed in that day and which they'd likely known in their early years. That they had to deny the truth of their own existence to be allowed to partake in that better life is a sad commentary on our collective history, and more punishment than any human should have to endure.
That it happened, however, to many more people than just my family, is fact. As a published professional book author and journalist, I primarily write biographical stories. Allecia's saga will be told. So will Dear's. I'll see to it and, I pray, all my relatives and subsequent descendants will be proud to call that story their own.
NOTE: Since this story originally published, I've found documentation that cements the relationship between Melite Gradenigo and Allecia Dessessarts -- they were mother and daughter. I've learned that Melite had at least 5 children by at least 3 different men. I have not yet verified which Dessessarts man was Allecia's father; that search continues. If anyone reading this has any knowledge of these names, or of Opelousas or Washington, Louisiana in the related timeframe, I'd love to hear from you. And anyone who would like more information on searching out their own multicultural roots, feel free to contact me.