James McBride – Color of Water

One of the family trees I occasionally work on is that of my stepmother’s. Her family has a family reunion every two years and at the last reunion, I talked at length with a cousin of hers who also has a strong interest in the family tree. After the reunion, I also began helping him with the side of his tree that is not related to my stepmother (his maternal tree) and have been emailing him back and forth for a few months. Back in Feburary, he emailed me with a question.

So far, on his maternal line, one of the branches he has goes back to a Charles & Ellen McRae Townsend. Both born around 1845, they were former slaves in the Richmond County, NC area. Charles & Ellen had 4 children that we know of – Jennie, Adam, Mary & Tillman. Adam is said cousin’s (we will call him W) grandfather. A few months ago, W informed me that his aunt had told him that through one of Adam’s sisters, they were related to James McBride, author of the book, The Color of Water: a Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother. I was somewhat familiar with this book too – when I was in college, shortly after it came out, I worked at the reserve desk at my campus library and I remember this book being on reserve for one of the courses. I’ve never read it though.

So, W’s question to me was to see if I could help trace the connection. In the book apparently, the author’s paternal ancestry is stated back to his paternal grandmother, Etta McBride. She and husband Nash had one son, Andrew Dennis McBride, who is James’ father.

Adam Townsend as stated earlier had two sisters, Jennie & Mary. Up to this point, I had Jennie identified in the 1870, 1880, and 1900 census. None of her children were named Etta according to the enumeration. But, I had no data for sister Mary, so we thought she may have been Etta’s mother. After some searching, I was able to find out when Etta died – she died 2 Jan 1962 in Guilford County, North Carolina. Fortunately, NC vital records are considered public records, so I was able to order an uncertified copy for $1. That certificate arrived yesterday and you know who her mother was? Jennie Townsend!

This puzzled me because as mentioned earlier, Jennie’s children’s names in the 1910 census did not show an Etta (who would have been 15), but upon re-examination, the oldest child shown in the census is a 15 year old girl, but the name is very hard to discern and I had written it as Dollie. Given what I learned, I figured this Dollie had to be Etta. So, for now, that is who we will say it is. The search for more documentation about Etta is still ongoing. I would love next to search for an obituary. But at least now we know that James McBride is indeed part of his family tree!

The descendants of Charles Townsend as I currently have it is available here.