Roberta Oiler, center, stands with her daughters Janelle Stanley and Jessica Keaton in East Jackson, Ohio. Photograph: Maddie McGarvey/The Guardian The stale, smoky air around Clarice Shreck heaves. She takes a long hit of oxygen from the tube under her nose. She leans forward, shifting in her armchair, before releasing her raspy smoker’s laugh, which is smudged out a second later by her smoker’s cough.
The pale woman with frizzy grey- streaked hair commands her on- and-off partner of over 20 years, Jimmy – who is from one of the few white families in East Jackson – to fetch her purse. He plops it on to her lap; she struggles to get at an old piece of paper folded up in her wallet. She slowly unfolds it to present her birth certificate. “Negro”, it reads, next to each of her parents’ names. She looks up triumphantly, victory in her periwinkle eyes. “It’s a legal document,” she says. The last known full-blooded black person in her family was her great-great¬ grandfather Thomas Byrd, her parents told her. Photos of them, who both look white, adorn the wooden walls on either side of Shreck’s chair. Their stares follow her throughout their former home. They are the ones who told her she was black.
“I’m 53 years old, and that’s all I’ve ever been raised as: black,” Shreck says. “So if you’re taught that from when I’m old enough to understand, up to when you’re a grown woman, then [it’s] born and bred in you and you’re automatically black.”
As first reported in State of the Re:Union, most of Shreck’s generation and the generations before her here in East Jackson, on the edge of Appalachian Ohio, were raised to believe they are black. Never mind that they might register to most as white by appearance, or that there is hardly a trace of black ancestry left in their blood. This inherited identity most East Jackson residents still cling to and fiercely protect is based on where they were born and who they were told they are. It comes from a history rooted in racism and an identity placed upon their ancestors – and now many of them – without their consent. East Jackson is a small community in southern Ohio where many residents identify as black despite appearing white.
East Jackson is, essentially, one long street off the 335 highway after a stretch of green fields. There is no town center, just a cluster of dirt- paved driveways in front of derelict homes passed down from one family member to another. A stone bridge separates East Jackson from neighboring Waverly, a larger, mostly white town.
Though some might say East Jackson does not exist on a map, a number of places pop up on a GPS: the sole bar, owned by Jeff Jackson, otherwise known as Gus; his paving business right behind it; a convenience store; a handful of churches. In the baptist church, a cluster of blond teenage girls sit together in a pew; older women sit towards the front, then greet the pastor, who identifies as black, after service.
Five miles down the road, Waverly boasts field after field of lush farmland and well-maintained homes. With its drive-thrus, car dealerships, Walmart and a giant grocery store assigned its own Starbucks, along with the sudden appearance of traffic, there is a sense of urgency compared to the quieter East Jackson.
This contrast is a byproduct of anti-abolitionist sentiment in Waverly that began nearly 200 years ago. Ohio was established as a free state at the start of the 19th century, but those fleeing slavery in the south by using Ohio’s underground railroads avoided Waverly. It was known to be anti-abolition and anti-black. It was also a sundown town, where black people had to be out of town by dark or face arrest, threats or violence.
Officials in Waverly created East Jackson by corralling any newcomer they deemed to be black because of their appearance, or by second-class status because they were laborers or housekeepers, into the smaller town. Some forced to stay in East Jackson were not black, but because they all lived in East Jackson, grew up together and were treated as black by law, a community that identified as black took root. They married across racial lines, and had multiracial children. Over generations, as fewer black people sought this area out, black heritage thinned out. But black identity did not.
The town functions as a microcosm of what African Americans have had to deal with in America, says Dr Barbara Ellen Smith, a professor emerita who has spent much of her career focused on inequality in Appalachia. Alongside the rise of anti-slavery laws was a parallel rise of what historians and scholars call “black laws” including the one-drop rule – that one drop of “black blood” disqualified an individual from having the legal status of whites – which became a widely accepted social attitude in Ohio beginning in the 1860s. Shreck’s father was a laborer. He told her he was Irish but also told people he was black. Her mother, a homemaker, identified as black, though the only reason she considered herself black, as her daughter does now, is because of her great-grandfather Thomas Byrd.
They sent Shreck to Waverly after the elementary school in East Jackson closed, just as all the families did. “The kids there didn’t want to bother with us,” she says. “I went to school dressed as good as any other kid in Waverly. I think it was just where we had come from.” A few paces down the 335, on an unmarked dirt road with a rickety wooden bridge over a slip of water, sits Roberta “Bert” Oiler’s home. She is Shreck’s first cousin, though in East Jackson, everyone claims everyone as family. Until Oiler was born in 1954, when residents of East Jackson went into Waverly, they were not allowed to use bathrooms in town, her mother told her.
Oiler says when she was in high school in Waverly in the 1960s, even teachers picked on students from East Jackson, and seemed surprised when they answered questions correctly. “‘Huh, well, I guess you are pretty smart.’ That’s what we got,” Oiler snorts, the memory stinging nearly 50 years later.
Those experiences continued well after adolescence. The first time Oiler went to a new doctor in the 1980s, she marked black for her race on an intake form. The doctor asked why she would do that because she clearly was not an African American.
– “not a nigger”, she says she told her
– evaluating her red hair, light skin and freckles. Furious, Oiler told her she was black, and that that was the end of the discussion.
Oiler ticks off her black ancestors on her fingers: grandmother, grandfather, mother. A picture of Oiler’s grandparents hangs on her floral wallpaper. Her grandma was half Native American and half black, and her grandfather identified as white. She says her other set of grandparents were similar: grandfather was black, grandmother was white. “The only reason I turned out white was to do with dad’s pigment from his mother. That was all,” the 65-year-old grandmother says, patting her curly white hair. “Maybe the black has run out of the bloodstream, I don’t know. But I still consider myself as what my mom put me as, and that’s exactly what I say I am,” she says. “You’re either one or the other. That’s the way I look at it. You can’t be both.”
Being treated like outsiders and identifying as people of color, Oiler and Shreck, like many in this township, have chosen to stand behind their identities. They do it proudly, despite having heard people refer to their community as trash and the slums as long as they can remember. Even today, Oiler says: “They say East Jackson has negroes. But they don’t say negroes. They say niggers.”
In recent years, some East Jackson residents have shifted their identity. Oiler’s sister, Sarah Harris, 74, has come to identify as Native American in the latter stages of her life. Until a few years ago, she lived as a black woman.
Harris’s birth certificate notes her parents as “dark”, and that has been part of her reasoning for identifying as Catawba Indian. She has even obtained an identification card that proclaims her new status, even though she has never taken a genetic test to confirm it.
“I don’t care what I am. It doesn’t matter,” Harris says. She looks over at her husband, Brad, sitting in front of the television, who has generally been quiet for the past five years after suffering a stroke. “I married a black man, didn’t I?” she says, walking over to her partner of nearly 60 years and planting a peck on his lips. Brad is paler than most residents in East Jackson, and would easily pass as white, but he is from a prominent family in the community which has identified as black since anyone can remember.
“If you had a kid in East Jackson, they were black,” Harris says. But of her eight children, only three still identify as black. Four others, like her, identify as Catawba Indian, and her son, Jeff – who dons a dusting of freckles and a red afro – identifies as white. Oiler has a daughter, Janelle Hines, who identifies as mixed. “I never connected myself to East Jackson. Because they would have never gave you a chance,” says Hines, 35, adjusting her blond ponytail.
“I had a friend in high school and I really, really wanted her to come out here,” Hines says. “At first, her parents were OK with it, until they found out where I lived. And this is how I figured out how to word where I lived when I was 15.” When the friend’s father found out, Hines says he went ballistic. She knows this because she was on the phone with her friend while he screamed profanities and used the N-word. “You are not going up there and being raped or killed or strung up,” she recalls him saying.
Oiler’s other daughter, Hines’s younger sister, identifies as white and moved away from East Jackson. Shreck also has one daughter who identifies as black, and one who identifies as white, she says, sitting in her usual chair, with her walker and oxygen tank next to her. As if on cue, the front door creaks open and Shreck’s 36-year-old daughter, Carlotta Hixon, walks into the sitting room with her 17-year-old daughter in tow.
The older mother and daughter pair share similar features – thick, frizzy hair, brown eyes, and olive complexions. Shreck’s younger daughter, Alison Lewis, probably has gotten further in life, Hixon admits, because by the time the two were in Waverly for high school, her sister was identifying as white. When classmates asked why one sister identified as black and the other white, the younger sister would tell them they had different fathers, even though it was not true.
The next day, Alison visits her family in East Jackson. She lives a few miles east of her old home and lets it be known she is a resident of Beaver. “I was about 12 and I decided I was going to be white regardless, so I told everybody I was white,” Alison continues, glancing over at her mother. “Look at my eyes,” she demands. “They’re blue. I’m not black.” Shreck’s mouth is clamped as she tries to let her daughter speak. But she can’t hold it in. “What’s wrong with being black?” she asks her daughter. “Nothing wrong if you are black,” her daughter retorts.
“Your parents weren’t black,” Alison reminds her mother.
“They went by black even though they weren’t black. To me, that would be denying my parents and my heritage,” Shreck says.
They go back and forth for minutes before Shreck ends their argument with a refrain commonly heard among the older generation in East Jackson: “You can be what you want to be and I will be what I want to be.”
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