Brass Ankles

Brass Ankles
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Orangeburg County and surrounding counties, eastern United States
Predominantly Baptist
Related ethnic groups
Melungeon, Lumbee Indians, African American, Beaver Creek Indians, whites

The Brass Ankles of South Carolina were a "tri-racial isolate" group, as defined by anthropologists, that developed in colonial South Carolina and lived successively in the areas of Charleston, Berkeley, Colleton and Orangeburg counties as they increasingly migrated away from the Low Country and into the Piedmont and frontier areas, where racial discrimination was less. They were identified by this term in the later 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. They had a combination of European, African, and Native American ancestry.

Although the individuals were of mixed ancestry, after Reconstruction, white Democrats regained power in the South and imposed racial segregation and white supremacy under Jim Crow laws. (Note: United States Census surveys included a category of "mulatto" until 1930, when the powerful Southern bloc in Congress pushed through requirements to have people classified only as black or white. By this time, most Southern states had passed laws under which persons of any known black ancestry were required to be classified in state records as black, what is known as the "one-drop rule". of required classification as one race.

It forced people into the categories of white and black; this discounted and denied people's own identification as Native American or mixed race. Less frequently they were classified as Croatan, a designation in North Carolina of a tri-racial group. The surnames represented among the Brass Ankles have included Jackson, Chavis, Bunch, Driggers, Sweat, Williams, Russell, and Goins, some of which have been represented in other mixed-race groups, such as the Melungeons in Tennessee. Over time, people of mixed race identified with and married more frequently into one or another group, becoming part of the white, black or the Beaver Creek Indians community, for instance.

Numerous people of mixed race have lived in a section of Orangeburg County near Holly Hill, called Crane Pond. The term "brass ankles" generally has been considered derogatory, as it was applied to those of mixed ancestry who were accused of trying to "pass" as white, although they often had a majority of white ancestry.[1] The Crane Pond community has maintained its cultural continuity. Reflecting their ethnic diverse ancestry, there are many local stories about the origins of these people.

Some people formerly classified as "Brass Ankles" have been identified among ancestors of members of the five Native American tribes officially recognized by the state of South Carolina in 2005, such as the Wassamassaw Tribe of Varnertown Indians. Because such tribes often had multiracial ancestry including African, and their neighbors did not understand much about Indian culture, they were often arbitrarily classified as mulatto by census enumerators. After 1930, when the census dropped the Mulatto classification, such multiracial people were often classified as black, a designation used for anyone "of color".[1]

Contrary to some assertions, each US census through the nineteenth century had the category of Indian available for use by census takers. But, especially in the late 19th century, this category was generally applied only to those people living on Indian reservations or at least showing culturally that they fit what the census takers assumed was the "Indian" culture. Persons who were outwardly assimilated to the majority culture were generally classified as white, black or mulatto. Dubose Heyward, author of the notable Porgy and Bess, with music by George Gershwin, wrote a play about the "Brass Ankles," set in the aftermath of the Civil War.

Some Brass Ankles in the community of Summerville, South Carolina identified as "Summerville Indians." During the early part of the twentieth century, when public schools were segregated, the Summerville Indians and other Brass Ankle groups gained approval for some local, separate schools for their own children. Having come from families free long before the American Civil War, they did not want to send their children to school with those of freedmen. The Eureka "Ricka" school in Charleston County was an example.

See also


  1. 1 2 Bo Petersen, "Local tribe reclaims its roots, heritage", 17 April 2005, accessed 14 December 2011
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