Years ago, I received a photograph of Jean-Baptiste Chevis(c1824–1907) from a researcher whose name escapes me. The year of the photograph is unknown. From a quick glance, many would take him to be an elderly, well-dressed white man posing for a picture on a bright sunny day. The truth is that he was born well before the Civil war to Héloïse Meuillion and John Chavis, free persons of color, in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana. His father John migrated to Louisiana from North Carolina and he was likely a descendant of the numerous fpoc Chavis family that traced it’s origins to Colonial British Virginia . Héloïse Meullion was a Louisiana Creole and my 4th great-grandmother.
I descend from her daughter Julie she gave birth to while living in a common-law relationship with François Birotte, a free man of color and native of New Orleans who settled in Opelousas in the 1820s. Both siblings grew up in the same household and appeared with their mother in the 1850 census of St. Landry parish.
Jean-Baptiste Chevis was apprenticed as a carpenter by his mother as a teenager and spent most of his adult life living in the town of Opelousas working at this trade. He later married his long-time paramour Marcelite Stratten, a native of Virginia, in 1869 and raised nine children. Jean- Baptiste and Marcelite were deeply embedded within the well-do-to world of elite persons of color and Whites after the Civil War in Opelousas. His brother-in-law Ludger Birotte (who was also his half-sister’s brother on the paternal side of her family) owned and ran a grocery store in town. All the children of Jean and Marcelite were educated in the local public school system established for Black children during a time when most children of color didn’t receive a quality education after Reconstruction. They interacted and socialized with people of the same social class.
Jean and Marcelite’s daughter, Louise, married Ernest Jules De Grey, a French immigrant at Opelousas in 1885. Ernest was born in Paris and immigrated to the United States by way of New Orleans a year earlier. He was listed as Black in the 1900 census of St. Landry Parish living with his father-in-law and his wife’s family and employed as a carpenter. Louise’s brother, Emile Chevis, married Vesta Donato, daughter of Jean Baptiste Gustave Donato, a store merchant in Opelousas, and Marie Hardy five years later. Marie’s biological father was Pliny Hardy, a White Anglo from Maryland and her mother was Marianne Boulard, a free woman of color.
Sometime after the death of Jean- Baptiste Chevis, Ernest De Grey and Louise moved to the cosmopolitan city of New Orleans with their growing family perhaps seeking other opportunities. In 1910, they appear in New Orleans. Ernest is still working as a carpenter and Louise Chevis is employed as a seamstress. The De Grey family also went from “Black” to “White”. Not only did they leave Opelousas behind , they also left Blackness behind.
What the De Grey family did is known as “passing”. People who passed pretended to be a race other than the one they were born into or known to be a member of within the community they were from. The United States has a long history of African Americans and Louisiana Creoles of African ancestry who subverted the American binary racial classification system by going back and forth across the color line for multiple reasons from seeking freedom from slavery to escaping the draconian laws of Jim Crow that restricted their economic opportunities. Some passed simply to reinvent themselves and take on new identities in places no one knew who they were or asked questions about their past. There were even cases of Whites passing as Indian or Black. Modern examples such as Rachel Dolezal reveal that passing still occurs in American society.
Like his sister, Louise, Emile Chevis and his bride Vesta Donato decided to leave Opelousas. Emile moved to California like many Louisiana Creole families. Most of his children lived as White and married Whites. After Emile’s death, his widow Vesta married Edward George Kaufman, a native New Yorker. Like her children, Vesta lived the rest of her life as a white woman in California far from the prairies and the segregated world of Louisiana.
I don’t condemn or judge my relatives for making the choices they did. They were from a time when Jim Crow restricted the economic and educational opportunities for people of color. What I learned from reading about the passing and the people who’ve done it is something has to be given up. There is loss. There is mourning. But the death is not physical. In order to make it as Whites, the De Grey and Chevis had to cut themselves from their past and family in Louisiana and the beauty of their Creole heritage. One of the sisters, Ida Chevis, who also passed for white, never wed nor had children. I wonder if her reluctance to had something to do with what she was hiding about who she really was? Who knows.
Not all the children of Jean Baptiste Chevis and Marcelite Stratten made the choice to cross the color line. Their son, Frank Edward Chavis, left the Catholic faith all together and married Hagar Douglass, an African American Protestant and remained in Opelousas. Daughter, Pauline Chevis, wed Frank Leslie Defils and spent the rest of her life in the place of her birth. I wonder what they thought of their siblings and the choices they made and whether or not they had to sacrifice their relationships to protect their identities as White?
Race and it’s child, Racism, was and still is a never-ending Tragedy Shakespeare would weep for.