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Genealogy

How I Found Out my Great Grandparents Weren’t Married

Happy Martin Luther King Day!

I was trying to explain the holiday to Eva this morning over breakfast but it turns out that four might be a little young to understand complicated topics like race equality if you don’t have any personal experiences to draw on. I even brought up the idea that part of our family is Chinese and other parts aren’t Chinese and some people used to think that being not Chinese meant you were better…which she only found funny and ridiculous. She’s so removed from it and I guess that’s a good thing, but I have plenty of stories for her when she’s a little older. Many have to do with her great great grandparents, Grace and Henry.

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Grace was a single woman with no family working as a clerk. Henry was a fisherman’s son living in a Chinese shrimping village on the bay. One of the stories that I’ve heard about Grace is that after she met Henry, my great grandfather, she would wake up early on Saturdays and walk the seven miles from San Rafael to China Camp in the fog by herself because she was so eager to see her beau.

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Their love story is actually the love story of four people: Grace, Alice, Henry, and George. Grace and Alice grew up in San Francisco in an orphanage and when they were old enough to move out on their own, they went to San Rafael. While at a party with friends, the girls met two handsome brothers, Henry and George, who were the sons of a successful merchant and shrimp exporter in nearby China Camp. The pairs paired up, with Alice falling in love with George and Grace falling in love with Henry.

Grace Alice Henry George

From what I’ve found, each pair married within a year of meeting. It would be a very common American love story for the time, as lots of Georges, Alices, Henrys, and Graces were meeting, falling in love, and marrying, if it weren’t for this twist: three were Chinese and one was not. Through a series of very unusual events, the orphanage that Grace and Alice had grown up in was actually a rescue home for Chinese girls and, as a result, Grace spoke Chinese and had spent most of her life around Chinese people. However, she was not Chinese (in either race or appearance) and although her relationship with a Chinese man makes sense in context as we look back, it wasn’t the norm for that time.

George and Alice were married in 1925 in Solano County. I found their marriage license when I was doing genealogical research because the base of any American’s history starts with four types of records: birth, death, marriage, and the US census records from that person’s life. These records are the most common because many are online and for the last hundred years or so they’ve been a mandatory part of being in this country.

Unlike George and Alice, Grace and Henry weren’t married in the state they lived in. Family lore said that they crossed the border to be married in Nevada since California prohibited interracial marriage and the pair looked decidedly interracial. The story of their Nevada marriage has been retold for generations and reprinted in many newspaper and magazine articles covering the story of China Camp. It’s the explanation for how a white woman ended up being one of the faces for a big piece of Chinese history in California and also a colorful anecdote that says a lot about how race relations have changed in the last hundred years. This was a couple so in love that they challenged what everyone else thought marriage should look like and when he passed away, she stayed in the family business and kept it going. That was the story of Henry and Grace.

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For this reason, I was frustrated when I couldn’t find their marriage in the state records of Nevada. I had plenty of proof that the two had been together, so the marriage certificate wasn’t as important genealogically as it would have been for someone six or seven generations back who may or may not have been married. That being said, the story was so good and this pair was such a large part of my immediate family history that I really wanted to find that piece of paper and tie up that loose end.

Giving up on my fruitless online searches, I decided to go straight to the state office. You can contact state offices or county recorders for any place in America and they will be able to help you locate marriage records even if the marriage took place a long time ago. We’re still within a hundred years of Grace and Henry’s marriage so I knew it would be on file, but (again) I hit a brick wall. Emails came back saying that there was no records found for the couple and when I called and got a live person to talk to, she and I spent a long time on the phone trying different spellings, combinations, cities, etc. Nothing.

Finally, in frustration, I started running through a list of names that don’t remotely resemble my great grandfather’s name. One of the annoying things about doing Chinese genealogy from scratch is that Chinese people historically used different names for different things. Someone might be one name at work, one name at church, and another at home and these names don’t even sort of resemble each other. My great grandfather had gone by other names on some of his business and military registrations so I started to run through them, explaining the whole Chinese name thing to the registry clerk on the phone. We still found nothing and she asked if perhaps my grandmother had done the same thing (making the records even harder to find) and I explained that it was unlikely because she was actually Caucasian and had always gone by Grace.

At this point there was a long pause and I can now imagine that nice woman trying to figure out how exactly to phrase what it was she needed to tell me. I think she ended up asking me if it was noticeable that one of my great grandparents was Chinese and the other wasn’t and when I said that it was very obvious, she gently informed me that it wasn’t likely that we would find a 1925 marriage license for Grace and Henry in the state of Nevada because Nevada prohibited interracial marriage until 1959.

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Some Google searches and newspaper microfilms later revealed that this was true. Not only were interracial marriages illegal in Nevada in 1925, they were illegal in Oregon, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Idaho, and a handful of other states surrounding California. If they had wanted to get married legally, Grace and Henry would have needed to go all the way up to Washington or even southeast until they hit New Mexico. A look at those records (and the simple logistics of such a large trip by two young people without wealth going unnoticed in the mid-twenties) confirmed that no such extraordinary efforts had taken place.

I have a photo of Grace and Henry taken on their honeymoon in Reno, the photo they brought back after they crossed state lines to be married. They’re posed at a professional photo studio, but the kind that wouldn’t have cost very much even back then with the cheap backdrop and the silly props. He’s sitting on a cardboard horse and holding his cap in his hands (although his unruly hair makes me wonder if he should have left it on) and she’s behind the horse with her short hair blending in to the background. Henry is 31. Grace is 24.

Grace and Henry

Looking at it makes you hope that they found some clerk who didn’t agree with the law and who let them get married anyway since they had come all that distance, but realistically I know that it isn’t likely. For one, a sympathetic clerk would have left a paper trail with a legal marriage on the books. Two, racism was alive and well in Reno when this photo was taken as a quick scan through the newspapers revealed. So now I wonder what that trip was like for them. With fewer Chinese people in Reno than in California’s bay area, were people not as civil to Henry? Was the photographer uncomfortable taking this photograph? Or did Grace and Henry seek out the small pocket of Chinese people that gathered in every large city and find friends who helped them celebrate a marriage that never happened?

I don’t have any records to answer those questions because it’s a story that wasn’t told in our family. Grace and Henry came back and told everyone that they were married, from what I’ve gathered. Their children always believed that they were married in Nevada and if anyone ever challenged their marriage it didn’t show up in the newspapers. In fact, the newspapers clearly recognized their interracial marriage as evidenced by this piece of family history I dug up from the Oakland Tribune, 1932:

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How does this information change our family history? Is the story less romantic because we know they were never legally married (even common law marriage didn’t apply to interracial couples until after Henry’s death) or do we look at their honeymoon photo with the understanding that they wanted very much to be married but couldn’t find a place that would let them?

Does it change the story that they didn’t tell anyone the truth or is it nice that they created a fictional world for their kids that was kinder than the one they had found?

What do we do with the fact that seven years after their honeymoon, Grace was arrested for attempting to shoot the husband that wasn’t her husband? Does that change anything about the life they built together with their five children, four of whom are still living and who gather at China Camp often to talk about how great their parents were?

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I think the answer is as complicated as the search. I, for one, prefer the facts and the “real” story but that’s a privilege that I have since I can look back at all of the information from a place where nobody is telling me or my children that being interracial is a bad thing. I cannot understand the complexity of Grace’s life as she navigated life as a Chinese woman who wasn’t Chinese in a time when being Chinese was a huge hurdle so it’s hard to judge her for a lie or anything else. If anything, I’m so grateful for every piece of the puzzle that genealogy gathers because I want Eva to see the grit and the challenge and the “realness” of this woman who is only four mothers up from where she is.

Genealogy isn’t just flipping photos back and forth and matching them to names like they’re paper dolls that have nothing to do with you. The lines that go back from each of us have these messy stories full of half-truths and bad decisions and terrible parts of this country’s past and there’s so much value there, especially for our kids. I don’t know what anyone could possibly get out of thinking that they were descended from a long line of noble, moral, perfect people. The imperfections are much friendlier, because they tell us that you can have those hiccups in time (from little lies to huge injustices) but that doesn’t have to be the whole story whether you’re talking about our country, our community, or ourselves.

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2 Comments

  • Reply Christina Fung

    Thank you for sharing your great grandparent’s story, I was captivated as I read it. Like them, I am white and my husband is Chinese so it definitely struck a personal chord. I know my husband has a white grandmother several generations back and reading about your great grandparents has me wondering if his went though something similar (although I’m fairly certain they were not in America). I think I’m going to have to start looking into their story. Thanks for the inspiration!

    January 19, 2016 at 12:41 pm
  • Reply Lila

    It’s so fascinating to me that people faced such hurdles. I realize that my marriage would have been illegal in Nevada until 1974( two years after I was born) because they didn’t include Natives in the interracial marriage act until then. It’s so strange to think that, if I had been born a few decades earlier, I wouldn’t have been allowed to get married to my husband. I think your kids are lucky to have this story about people they came from defying the odds and the huge pressures against them to make a good life and raise a family. Both of you should be very proud you come from people who truly demonstrated that love can overcome anything.

    January 19, 2016 at 1:07 pm
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