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Charley Nelson Defined by the “One Drop” Rule

Blog post by Randi Richardson

registrationOn June 5, 1917, Charley Nelson, age 22, a resident of Bloomington, Indiana, registered for the draft of World War I.  Because Charley’s ability to read and write was limited, as illustrated by his poorly written signature at the bottom of the card, someone else filled in the information for him.  In what appears to be in a different hand than the rest of the information, it is noted that Charley is of “African descent.”

On Monday, April 22, 1918, when the newspaper announced that Charles Nelson had been drafted and his name was among the 47 “Monroe County boys” to head to Camp Taylor on Saturday, April 27, Charley’s mother, Ella Nelson, took immediate action.  The very next day she went before the conscription board and demanded that Charley be sent to war with white soldiers rather than colored troops.

The board, so it claimed, based their decision about Charley’s placement with the colored troops on information provided at the time the registration card was completed.   More specifically, the answer to the question of Charley’s race.

Ella disagreed with how Charley’s race was recorded.  Never mind who provided the information.  She hired Attorney Frank Regester to “get up the necessary papers” to prove that Charley, a son by her husband, Tom Nelson, was only 1/16 negro by blood, that his great grandfather was “a pure, white man” and the great grandmother “one half negro.”  This made the grandfather “one-quarter negro” and he married a “pure, white woman” which makes Tom Nelson, the boy’s father, “one-eighth negro, and he married a pure, white woman which made Charley 1/16 colored and 15/16 white.”

Regester was asked to show the board “that under present Indiana law, a man of 1/8 negro blood is allowed to enter into a marriage contract with a white woman, and so is entitled to be regarded as white” and eligible to go to war with white soldiers.  Charley, with only 1/16 negro blood, certainly met that requirement.

Although the outcome of the action taken by Ella is unknown, there is no doubt that Charley, officially known as Charles Gordon Nelson, did his part during World War I.  In the 1930 federal census, Charley, a “negro,” is identified as a veteran of WWI.  He was enumerated with his white mother, Ella, in Richland Township, Monroe County, Indiana.  And on his flat, granite marble tombstone of military issue at Rose Hill Cemetery, it is noted that he died on December 15, 1954, and served as a “Pvt 2 Prov Sch Det FACOTS,” the latter an acronym for Field Artillery Center Officer Training School located at Camp Zachary Taylor in Kentucky.

A close review of various vital records and military pension applications indicate Charley’s line of descent as follows:  his parents were Ephraim Thomas “Tom” Nelson and Ella (Fender) Nelson.  Tom is consistently identified as black or mulatto and Ella as white.  The couple married in Hamilton County, Ohio, 1893, though there is no evidence they ever lived in Ohio.


An image from the 1900 Monroe County (IN) census record showing Charley Nelson with his racially-mixed family.

Tom’s paternal grandfather, Ephraim T. Nelson, is consistently identified as black or mulatto.  In 1859 he married Mary Ann Fender, white, in Sandwich, Canada, along the Canadian-US border of the Detroit River having gone there from Indiana for about ten days and claiming to be residents of Detroit, Michigan.  Ephraim was drafted to serve in the Civil War; he died of the measles in Tennessee in 1865 less than a year after he was mustered in.

Tom’s paternal great grandparents were Jesse and Lucinda “Lucy” Nelson.  Jesse, born August 16, 1790, in South Carolina, was white and Lucy was identified in census records as black.  However, if Ella was correct in what she told the conscription board, Lucy was only half black.  Perhaps she was one of the 26 slaves previously owned by Jesse, the only white person in his household noted in the 1840 census record in Fairfield District, South Carolina.  Their place of marriage is not known.

Tom’s paternal great great grandfather, James Nelson, was a Revolutionary War veteran. His pension application, and that of his widow, Margaret (Turner) Nelson, is available online at Fold3.  James died on May 28, 1832, and Margaret in 1845.  Afterward the pension was assigned to the two surviving sons, Jesse and his brother, Daniel.

If one looks back at Charley’s paternal ancestors, Charley was consistently defined as either black or mulatto due to the “one-drop” rule meaning that a single drop of black blood, his great grandmother Lucy’s, makes a person black.  Because Lucy was either black or biracial, all those who descended from her were identified as black.  Undoubtedly, however, the color of their skin became lighter and lighter as one after the other of his ancestors married whites.  Many of Lucy’s descendants moved away from Indiana in order to avoid Indiana’s restrictive laws related to blacks and interracial marriage.  Thankfully, throughout the U. S. today those laws either no longer exist or have been much relaxed,  but one must, however, ask if the changes are great and far-reaching enough.

SOURCES:  Bloomington (IN) Evening World, April 22, 1918, p. 1.

Bloomington (IN) Daily Telephone, April 24, 1918, p. 1.

Military pension record for James Nelson, Revolutionary War soldier

Military pension record for Ephraim T. Nelson, veteran of the Civil War

Military pension record for Mary A. Nelson, widow of Ephraim T. Nelson

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