The Clamorgans: One Family’s History of Race in America

  • By Julie Winch
  • Hill and Wang
  • 432 pp.

A fascinating saga of the twists and turns of ever-evolving racial identity in our culture.

In spite of the prominent role of race in our culture, American society has spent more than 200 years trying to find a way to downplay the role of it  — whether through proclaiming our society color blind or a melting pot — with varying levels of success. Consequently, there are numerous stories of how race manifests itself as America’s original sin, many involving families that crossed and bridged racial lines, including my own family’s story. Few of these stories are as complicated and fascinating as the one Julie Winch tells in The Clamorgans: One Family’s History of Race in America.

Through the life and times of one American family, the Clamorgans of St. Louis, Missouri, Winch traces the evolving role race has played in family life, the law and broader American society, from slavery to abolition, to Reconstruction and beyond. Today’s millennial generation would label the Clamorgans as multiracial. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, and well into the 20th century, the one-drop rule marked them with a taint of African ancestry, in spite of appearances to the contrary. Still, the Clamorgans challenged traditional notions of race and identity and carefully negotiated a way through society’s complicated racial maze. To do this, they used the same confusing twists and turns used to define them as a means of furthering their own interests. As the author notes, the Clamorgans’ story is one of money, land, power and race. But at its core this is the story of a family with a scrappy survival instinct that transcends race, which is why the reader gets drawn into this saga quickly.

“The Clamorgans Are Fighters.” This title of the first chapter announces a major theme that begins in 1781 with the arrival in St. Louis of Jacques Clamorgan. St. Louis was a French town, even though it was under Spanish rule. Some claim that Jacques Clamorgan was Spanish, others Portuguese, and still others Irish. There are even those who believe he was a man of color and a friend of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the legendary black founder of Chicago, even though there is no historic evidence that the two ever met. But it is clear from the outset that he is a fighter, a trait passed from generation to generation.

Jacques Clamorgan bought up huge tracts of land around St. Louis. Or at least he claimed to, since the title to Clamorgan’s property is questionable. Throw into the mix the “irrefutable fact that Clamorgan had co-habited exclusively with women of color.” Consequently, when Clamorgan dies in 1814 and he bequeaths his estate to his mixed-race, illegitimate heirs, a legal fight ensues that is more entangled than the Jaryndyce and Jaryndyce case in Bleak House. As Winch points out, “The Clamorgans were fighting for possession of land on a scale Dickens could not have imagined — enough to make each and every member of the family a millionaire — and they were fighting against a system infinitely more rigid and oppressive than the hierarchy of class that was the hallmark of the England Charles Dickens was familiar with.”

Race more than class played a role in the Clamorgans’ story. Missouri law defined the Clamorgans as “colored,” though by appearance they looked white. Their race, according to Winch, “was a question of reputation” rather than appearance, and they could never wipe away their one-drop of African ancestry. In the 19th century, the security of people of color was determined by who their friends — or enemies — were. Powerful white allies could insulate people of color from the legal restrictions that kept people of color in check. Although the Clamorgans had a number of white allies, they did not have one powerful enough to enable them to prevail in their various attempts to claim their inheritance.

The Clamorgans’ legal fight begins in the 19th century and continues well into the 20th, in a variety of lawsuits by a seemingly countless number of heirs. The case eventually reaches the Supreme Court in 1880. To clarify the relationships between and among descendants, Winch provides a genealogy chart at the beginning of many chapters. These charts are invaluable in following this complicated story.

Winch did a tremendous amount of research in both the historic and legal record to present this tangled tale, research that is well documented and annotated. Consequently, The Clamorgans provides a great deal of detail, some of which propels the book’s narrative as well as some that bogs it down. For those not familiar with legal issues, the details of the various court cases can be a bit of a grind. But even when the narrative drags because of the detail of court cases, filings and ambiguous court rulings, upon close analysis this detail has a reason. If you are reading The Clamorgans as a sprawling family saga, the detail can be skipped. But if you are a scholar of the role of race and identity and are interested in how people of color may have been prevented from building wealth, the detail is extraordinarily helpful. So The Clamorgans is a book that can appeal to both a general audience and a scholarly audience, which seems to have been the author’s goal. It’s important to know this because the sometimes scholarly orientation of The Clamorgans may put off some readers.

Winch uses census records to provide a continuum within the narrative. These records reveal how the family’s identity changed and evolved over time and how the census was used as a means to shift racial identity. Since the Clamorgans’ legal fight takes place over time, and their identity shifted over time, how the family was identified in the census helps the reader follow the racial trajectory of the story and the family.

Money was a means of whitening, since “a dark-skinned individual with money often made the transition from ‘black’ to ‘mulatto.’ The Clamorgans and other mixed-race people took the next step, moving from ‘mulatto’ to ‘white.’ ” Sometimes it was for a reason, other times it was because the census takers were confused by a person’s appearance or last name. In St. Louis, some names were exclusively “colored,” while others were exclusively white. Certain names existed in both communities, making the census taker’s job more complicated.

While The Clamorgans sticks to historical fact, even the author wonders how things would have been different had the members of the Clamorgan family prevailed in any one of its lawsuits to claim the family’s vast land holdings. How would a wealthy, multiracial family with vast land holdings have changed the prevailing notions of race in the 19th and 20th centuries? But historical and demographic forces were stronger than even the scrappiest member of the Clamorgan family.

Even though the Clamorgan name has faded from the American landscape (it is not borne by anyone in the United States today), racial and ethnic identity in 21st-century America is slowly becoming a more fluid concept rather than a fixed one. Without a doubt, this is an idea the Clamorgan family would have embraced. As America moves toward a multiracial society, one with high rates of intermarriage, and in which people move between groups and have allegiances to several groups, inevitably some differences we see in today’s society will begin to dissipate. Intermarriage was the exception during the Clamorgans’ time. Now it is more common.

The lesson to be learned from the story of the Clamorgan family is that the way Americans think about race will not change by embracing a distinct set of virtues, but it may change because of our ever-evolving demographics. That is why The Clamorgans is not just interesting but relevant, since we live in a time marked by a rapidly changing ethnic landscape, one with distinct links to the past this book documents.

W. Ralph Eubanks is the author of Ever Is a Long Time and The House at the End of the Road. He is director of publishing at the Library of Congress.

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