Cousins? African American Irish and DNA insights.

Martine Brennan writes about her digital public history project, ‘Enslavement to Citizenship: African Americans in Irish Slaveholder Records, 1670-1862’ and the insights into the diversities of Irish diaspora history gained by DNA testing.

For Edwina Harleston Whitlock, born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1916, there is no doubt about her Irish ancestry. She can trace her lineage through William Harleston (1804-1874) back to his great grandfather John Harleston of Dublin who arrived in Charleston about 1698. This oral and documented family history was passed down in her family from generation to generation. Mrs. Harleston Whitlock is only one of an estimated 38% of African Americans who have Irish ancestry.

Death Certificate of Edwin G Harleston which acknowledges his parents as William Harleston and Kate Wilson.

William Harleston, though never legally married, had a large family of eight children with Kate Wilson (1820-1886), a woman that he had enslaved.  He made provision for Kate Wilson in his Will and his descendants went on to become significant members of the African American community and owners of the Harleston Funeral Home in Charleston. However, Edward Ball, a European American, descended from Elizabeth Harleston Ball, John Harleston’s sister, did not learn of his African American cousins until he began the research which resulted in his ground-breaking book Slaves in the family [1]. The book documents his family’s 167 years as slaveholders during which time they enslaved almost four thousand African Americans.

Ball’s lack of knowledge of his African American cousins is replicated time and again in the family histories of Irish, and other European American families [2]. In 1938, John Clowney Brown of Fairfield County, South Carolina, noted that his mother was an unnamed European woman and his wife Adeline Cabean was the daughter of John Cabean, an Irish overseer on the Clowney plantation and an enslaved woman named Charity [3]. Yet for many European people, our first knowledge of shared ancestry with African people comes when we undertake DNA testing.

As DNA testing becomes more commonplace, our shared Irish and African American history is coming into focus. Genetic science has much to teach us as historians. Given the history of the ownership of enslaved people it comes as no surprise that, on average, people who identify as African American have been found to have a genetic make-up of 73% African genetic ancestry and 24% European genetic ancestry. However, the fact that 4% of U.S. citizens who identify as white have 1% or more African genetic ancestry may surprise many. This indicates an African ancestor within the last 200 years. In South Carolina, the percentage of people who identify as white but have African ancestry rises to 13% [4].

Irish involvement in the ownership and enslavement of human beings can be traced back to the foundation of the British Carolina Colony in 1670. Affra Harleston Comming of Dublin, John and Elizabeth Harleston’s aunt, was on the first ship into the Carolina Colony [5]. Among her fellow passengers was Florence O’ Sullivan of Kinsale, Ireland and Joseph Dalton of Dublin. These early Irish settlers and their European peers established the legal and economic framework of the Carolina Colony. Many of them were heavily influenced by time spent in the Carribbean as planters and owners of enslaved people. They were followed by other Irish people such as Richard Kryle of Cork, Ireland elected Governor of the Carolina Colony in 1684, Michael Mahon of Limerick, the owner of Limerick Plantation and Thomas Aiken who owned Irishtown. Under their watch the African population of the Carolina Colony grew from 1,500 in 1690 to 4,100 in 1710. These early Irish settlers created a cushion of wealth for their legal descendants based on the labour, purchase and sale of enslaved people [6]. Their presence, and that of their African American descendants, contradicts the ‘white’ Irish Famine emigrant narrative with which we are all familiar. In the words of Tanya Evans ‘the discovery of manifold secrets and lies, throw into question not only the history of (a) family, (and) class relationships … but also the history of nation and empire.’ [7] This largely unexplored aspect of the history of the Irish Diaspora needs to be addressed if we are to come to a more complete and representative understanding.

Photograph of marker denoting the auction house of Irishborn William Payne, slaveholder and slave trader. Contributed by Margaret Seidler, Charleston.

To this end the digital public history project Enslavement to citizenship: African Americans in Irish slaveholder records 1670-1862 was established in 2020. Its primary goal is to create a Census substitute for African Americans enslaved by Irish men and women who are unnamed in Federal Census records prior to 1870. The focus is predominantly on property records: Wills, estate inventories, Dowry records and Bills of Sale, which African American scholars have been using for decades to identify enslaved ancestors. However, in order to do that we must firstly create a database of Irish slaveholders. To date, over 200 Irish-born slaveholders have been identified in South Carolina alone. Establishing an exact place of birth in Ireland is challenging. Following the trail of documents of individual enslaved families is even more challenging. The project invites contributions from scholars and researchers already engaged in work on specific Irish slaveholding families in the U.S. and is indebted to Margaret Seidler of Charleston, Steven Harper of Pennsylvania, Stacy Ashmore Cole of Georgia, and Cindy Hines of Oregon. The project is committed to democratising access to the past by making records previously hidden behind pay walls, freely available to African American families and their European cousins.

The research reveals the complex relationships between men and women of the Irish Diaspora who were slaveholders and their Irish American and African American descendants. It also highlights how much of this information is common knowledge in many African American families but is unknown to Irish and Irish American families. Edwina Harleston Whitlock was always aware of her Irish ancestry but it was a revelation to Edward Ball that he had African American cousins. Adeline Cabean Brown was aware of her Irish ancestry but it is doubtful that her Irish grandparents ever knew of her existence.

Irish slaveholders in South Carolina 1670-1862 map

Martine Brennan graduated with First Class Honours in 2020 from the M.A. Programme in Public History and Cultural Heritage at the University of Limerick, Ireland. She is the creator and curator of the digital public history  Enslavement to citizenship: African Americans in Irish slaveholder records 1670-1862 (https://www.enslavement-to-citizenship.com/). You can follow the project on Twitter.

[1] Edward Ball, Slaves in the Family (2nd ed., New York, 2014).

[2] The African American Irish Diaspora Network (https://www.aaidnet.org/).

[3] John Clowney Brown, The Federal Writers Project:  Slave Narrative Project, 14:1, Manuscript/Mixed Material (1936), The Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/resource/mesn.141/?sp=130).

[4] J. L. Mountain, J. M. MacPherson, C. B. Do, B. T. Naughton, R. A. Kittles, N. Errikson, ‘Exceptions to the one drop rule? DNA evidence of African ancestry in European Americans’, Institute of Human Genetics, University of Illinois at Chicago (2014)

[5] St. Julien Childs, ‘The First South Carolinians’ in The South Carolina Historical Magazine, 71:2 (April 1970), pp 101-8.

[6] Alan Taylor, American Colonies:The Settlement of North America to 1800 (London, 2001).

[7] Tanya Evans, ‘Secrets and Lies: The radical potential of family history’ in History Workshop Journal, 71:1 (2011).

3 thoughts on “Cousins? African American Irish and DNA insights.

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  1. I question your use of the word “diaspora.” It assumes a global spread of the Irish that happened in the future relative to the move from Ireland to South Carolina made by the seventeenth-century historical actors on which you focus. Furthermore, the great nineteenth-century migration that created an Irish diaspora was not foretold or guaranteed. As of the late seventeenth century, it did not have to happen. By using the word diaspora, you are reading later events into the seventeenth-century past.

    It’s more accurate to say that these slaveholders from Ireland simply moved within the British Empire or that they helped to extend the British Empire. They were not part of a diaspora, as the Irish diaspora did not yet exist.

    There is also absolutely no reason to compare impoverished Irish famine immigrants of the nineteenth century to the well-off, Ireland-born slaveholders of the seventeenth century just because both cohorts happened to leave the same island. It’s one thing to escape the British Empire because it fostered your poverty. It’s another thing entirely to benefit from the expansion of the British Empire or to aid in its expansion. We can call them both “Irish” because they came from a place designated on a map as Ireland, but that means very little. They existed on the same island at different times, but they were separated not only by time but also by class, wealth, language, culture, and, especially, access to power and capital. I highly doubt that they would have recognized themselves as being of the same people.

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    1. Interesting – by that understanding, can we only call the Famine generation the Irish ‘diaspora’ because they fit with the victim narrative understanding of diaspora? The Irish diaspora has always been made up of people (and generations) of different experiences of wealth and oppression. There were well-off people who left Ireland during the Famine decade (and after) – do they not count as the diaspora? Plenty of Irish people who left Ireland in an impoverished state went on to be rich, shift class and cultural markers, and access power and capital – we still consider them part of the Irish diaspora. As you’ll see elsewhere on the site, the diaspora are and were a very mixed bunch. Not fitting the victim understanding of ‘diaspora’ doesn’t exclude them from being part of it.

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  2. This is such important work. I’m thankful to Martine Brennan for her work in developing the Irish Slaveholder database. I look forward to adding more names to the database in the future as I continue to research my Irish enslaver ancestors.

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