Pike County, OH: As Black as We Wish to Be

Pike County, Ohio

In this episode Al Letson and guest producer Lu Olkowski visit a tiny town in the Appalachian foothills of Ohio where, for a century, residents have shared the common bond of identifying as African-American despite the fact that they look white. Racial lines have been blurred to invisibility, and people inside the same family can vehemently disagree about whether they are black or white. It can be tense and confusing. As a result, everyone’s choosing: Am I black? Am I mixed race? Or, am I white? Adding to the confusion, there’s a movement afoot to recognize their Native-American heritage.

Photo Credit: Lloyd Cederstrand


Episode Music

Michael BrookBurning the Proof
Michael BrookCarthage Grain Sale
Act 1
Michael BrookChildhood Adventure
Michael BrookBillie & Hitchhiker
Michael BrookWayne’s Arrest
Michael BrookBirds, Snow, Ice
Michael BrookViolence at Home
Michael BrookBest Unsaid
Michael BrookCarte Noir
Act 2
Michael BrookCarthage Grain Sale
Michael BrookBurning the Proof
Michael BrookArrival at the Slabs
Nightmares on WaxFire In the Middle
Sending Letters to the SeaHopscotch
Michael BrookWaking/Waterskier
Erik FriedlanderKing Rig
Erik FriedlanderDream Song
Michael BrookBillie & Hitchhiker
Michael BrookSalvation Mountain
Michael BrookRon Climbs Hill
Michael BrookSelling Books
Act 3
Erik FriedlanderBlock Ice & Propane
Michael BrookSwimming & Horses
Erik FriedlanderDream Song
Michael BrookFree Satellite and Hunting Advice
Erik FriedlanderThe Wrong Advice
Kaki KingDoing the Wrong Thing
Michael BrookCarte Noir
Kaki KingNight After Sidewalk
Kaki KingNeanderthal
Erik FriendlanderYakima
  • My-two-cents

    As a Caribbean light brown woman with a white Haitian husband and a black Hispanic adopted daughter this story hit home. Well worth the time I spent in my car outside of my home not wanting to come in so I wouldn’t miss a thing. Very thought provoking. Excellent work. Love your show. Thank you!!!!!!!!!

  • Hondo

    This show was a great wake up call to America’s {1 drop rule} Being a Bi racial middle age man, i understand how both sides feel. Get rid of racial classifications and that we are all Americans! This theory who’s “black” it is base on racist believes that is still rampant in our society. No other country in the world classify people this way. To me this is base on the old ” Jim Crow ” style of thinking. We all have the right to be who we want to be regardless, what our peers tell us to be! Hold your head up high and don’t be ashamed who you’re!

  • C J

    Hondo, I said that a long time ago. I though we were all AMERICANS. I am a 15 year Army veteran and the entire conversation about race is just unbearable for me. I’m just sick of hearing it. I was very saddened to hear about the sister who not only disowned her own sister, but aided in the ridicule of her own flesh and blood. The part about how she sits down with a group of her white friends and listen to them bad mouth the black person across the room hit home for me as well. That happens more than people know. It’s quite pathetic. I’m going to stop here now for the sake of I hate to waste energy on something so ridiculous. I guess we’re proud to be anything BUT American.

  • thankgodforpbsandnpr

    Considering all the advantages of being white in the U.S., the young woman’s choice to identify herself to other as white is a rational choice.

    • Lawrence

      How so? How is it ever rational to turn on your family for you own feelings of being wanted?

    • mischling2nd

      I agree. Some families are toxic. A mother who teaches her white children that they are “black” should be horsewhipped. Read “Passing” For Who You Really Are.

      • Really?

        Wow! What a choice of words “horsewhipped”. These people are culturally black because of their upbringing and life experiences. These people are probably more culturally and ethnically black than President Obama.

  • Sara

    This is about the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. It’s sad to hear that people are ashamed of who they are and to have to deny who they are and to be so ashamed to be associated with a particular race- a race I’m a member of. It is sad.

    • mischling2nd

      If you look white, then you ARE white. Why is YOUR race so determined to forcibly claim and assimilate the European DNA of your hated but adored white “enemy”? Do you think you need to improve your stock?

      • Andre

        You are a failure in life, aren’t you? Just an angry, miserable animal not fit to associate with humans.

        • mischling2nd

          Andre, you’re another idiot who thinks that being white is somehow equivalent to being gods. You are still devoted to the racist doctrine of “inferior negro blood.”

          • beltainchild

            mischling2nd, insisting that pale skinned but ambiguously mixed race people identify as white (because that’s what YOU see when you look at them) makes you the one who is elevating whiteness to god status, not the other way around. As an African American, I grew up understanding that it’s genes not blood percentages that impact appearance. When you have obviously black parents and their recessive genes match up to give to fair skin, light eyes and keen features, should you then identify yourself as white or other? Who are you to call people idiots for identifying as THEY CHOOSE to identify.

          • mischling2nd

            You don’t “look white” by having two black parents. That may be a negro wet dream, but it’s not reality. The woman in the Pike County episode who was being humiliated by her pro-one-drop mother didn’t have any blacks in the family at all – only a dumb mother and sister who THINK they are superior varieties of “black.”

          • mischling2nd

            Obviously, beltainchild, you have no respect for the right of mixed-white people to identify as white. They are NOT the property of your “race” and do not want to go around pretending to be genetic freaks of the Negro race instead of the European-Americans they truly are.

        • mischling2nd

          Spoken like the racist you are, Andre.

    • mischling2nd

      I’ll bet you never say that to Latinos and Arabs. They are nearly all “contaminated” by drops (and often pints or quarts) of your dreaded “blood” but you people respect them and don’t dare to claim them. You should also respect mixed Anglos like the white-identified Pike County people and leave them the hell alone.

  • dBark_

    I also understand the feelings within the “One Drop Rule.” I, myself am only 1/16 Native American, but whenever I am asked my background, that is what i refer to myself as. It wasn’t even necessarily how i was raised, it is just the pride I hold about my family’s past that makes me label myself this way. I really enjoyed listening to this podcast, it was very informative and I was glad that I could connect to it in my own way.

  • Sue Richards

    I am a fan of NPR and now a fan of this show. Thank you for sharing this story and please keep up the great work.

  • mischling2nd

    Telling a physically white child that he or she is really “black” is a form of emotional child abuse.

    • enna Reyem

      All of your comments are ignorant! you are definitely part of the problem.

      • mischling2nd

        And if a white parent told a dark mulatto child that he or she must identify as white because black is evil, the likes of YOU would be the first to demand that social workers take the kid away and that the parent be charged with abuse. However, when mixed white children or adults are told (by people like the idiotic black-identified Pike County mother/grandmother) that they are too inferior for the honor of their own ancestry and only fit to enhance the “black race” with the genetic gold of Euro genes, idiots like you think that is the noblest sentiment in the world.

  • mischling2nd

    No one who “looks white” is “proud to be black.” That is ridiculous. You cannot be “proud” of a stigma. The members of the community who identify as what they are – white – are showing pride by refusing to consider themselves inferior or not good enough for their European ancestry.

    • Nik

      What’s the stigma? Seriously.

      • mischling2nd

        You’re seriously claiming that you don’t know? Why would anyone call a person of white ancestry AND phenotype “black” unless you believe that inter-mixture between “whites” and “blacks” degrades one race (whites) and improves another (black)? Explain to me how forcing a black identity on white people is different from forcing a “non-Aryan” identity on Jews, as the Third Reich did.

        • Nik

          Ooohhh, take it down a thousand … I think
          you misinterpreted my emphasis. The concept of degradation comes from an oppressor’s standpoint. It is absolutely true that historically,
          people were made to believe that certain races (well, really just one) were
          superior, and a slew of systems and laws (e.g., one drop rule) were put in
          place to relegate “tainted” people to those lower groups. And yes,
          this is likely what mixed race old-timers used to identify themselves, based on what was
          acceptable at the time. However, many of us no longer subscribe to the
          hierarchies of social stratification, realizing that race is a social construct. And although others might view a particular group as less than, I simply reject the notion that you cannot be proud of your
          declared identity within that group (this is irrespective of phenotype). Hey, my white-looking black
          family members exemplify this every day.

          • mischling2nd

            Nik, can you imagine a Jew calling himself a “non-Aryan” and pretending to take “pride” in it, pretending that it’s a positive identity instead of a badge of inferiority? No, because Jews aren’t stupid. I can’t say the same for these white-looking pretend “blacks.” By calling themselves “black,” they are only validating the alleged genetic inferiority of the “race” they claim to champion.

          • Nik

            Can’t say much about that because the great Aryan debate is not my area of historical expertise, but I DO know that when one constantly reinforces a thought, it can become true in one’s mind. It’s a fundamental of psychology. Since this reinforcement of certain “beliefs” is what makes people think that they or others are inferior, it’s quite possible that the reverse can be true as well.

    • Andre

      Nik – Don’t try to argue w/ a delusional racist who thinks they’re genius – that’s called a psychopath. You take low IQ and combine it with psychopath and you have a very bad outcome.

      • mischling2nd

        Nothing is more stupid than black and pretend-black idiots who want to maintain and endorse a racist system of “one drop” hypodescent based on the supposed biological inferiority of the “race” they claim to champion.

        • Andre

          What kkk pamphlet did you get that from? I think your mother, I mean your wife, is calling you for supper.

          • mischling2nd

            What is more stupid than an idiot like Andre? He claims that people who reject the doctrine of white racial purity are racists and those who support it are …what?

    • Tracey Harris

      So you feel that anyone who cannot directly link themselves to their European ancestry as inferior? Who, may I ask are you? What credentials do you hold to determine what group of people are superior or inferior? Stop for a moment and ask yourself how much of the rhetoric you are spreading was taught by, well meaning, bigoted parent? Did a specific individual hurt you and you decided to lump everyone into one group and levy your hate towards them?

      • mischling2nd

        Tracey, you are expressing your own racial feelings. You have no understanding of why promoting the myth of white racial purity and “inferior black blood” is racist? That is the kind of racism the Pike County idiot who called her white daughter “black” against her will and embarrassed her in front of others is promoting. Blacks like you fear that there is too much racism against you and not enough racism to put down uppity mixed-bloods.

        • Tracey Harris

          I want to first thank you for taking the time to respond to my comment. Secondly, allow me to provide you with some clarification. If you listen to the young woman during the show she states that she is only choosing to identify as “white” because it is easier for her to gain acceptance. I feel that as an American, as a human being she has a right to identify with whatever group she chooses. I just wish she would do it for the correct reason. I am not ashamed of any part of my ancestry. I have African, Native American and Caucasian ancestry, African being most prominent. I am sorry that when you see me you choose to see me as inferior, bu that is an issue you will need to work out with your higher power. As a Christian I see all men and woman, regardless of race or ethnicity, as my brothers and sisters in Christ. Do I realize that some people hate me because of how I look? Yes, but I don’t let that deter me from trying to convey the love that is required of me as a Christian. I cannot speak for anyone else but myself and I can assure you that I am not, nor would I ever “play the race card”. If I have exposed racism in my life there has been solid evidence. Do I recognize that some people are just inherently miserable and feel compelled to vent that misery on others? Yes, I choose to pray for them and move on. May God shower his peace and love on your continually.

          • mischling2nd

            Tracey, you dummy, I did not say that any “race” was biologically inferior. I pointed out that supporting forced hypodescent and the “one drop” myth, as you do, sends a message of inferiority because that’s what the ideas you cherish are based upon. Why do you have this ridiculous idea that everyone with any portion of your “blood” should identify as “black”? You wouldn’t find a Jew stupid enough to call himself a “non-Aryan” because that would appear to validate the very Nazi racism that victimized this people. Unfortunately, YOUR people still haven’t figured out the obvious. Are you going to condemn Hispanics and Arabs for not identifying as “black,” since they are nearly all of African descent to various degrees?

          • Tracey Harris

            Apparently you left your manners in your other suit, or you are so lonely you are attempting to pick a fight to continue the conversation. I was not rude with you and I don’t appreciate the name calling. If you are unable to conduct a conversation on civil terms please feel free to leave me alone. You are entitled to your opinion just as I am. The fact that we don’t agree does not make one person right and the other wrong. I have no personal investment in this family, but I do hope that the Lord brings them peace. Moving forward please feel free to leave me alone. Go in peace.

  • mischling2nd

    Those fools who call themselves “black” when they are white are addicted to the open-mouthed shock they receive from strangers when they make the ridiculous claim of being the opposite of what they look like. That mother who deliberately humiliated her daughter in front of her date should be horsewhipped.

    • pcmustgo

      I mostly see Mixed Race people denying away their white ancestry/heritage as being “white” has become un-hip, un-cool and something to be ashamed of these days. Our entire culture revolves around white-bashing.

      • ADE

        It’s also the fault of some ignorant white people from the past and present who would tell mixed race people they weren’t white because of the one drop rule. If you think about it why would someone want to claim a race that throughout history hasn’t claimed them?

  • Sunshine4

    In what world do these mud race abominations look white? 1488

    • Andre

      I can tell you are two things by the word you used: You are a racist who identifies as a christian. Oh, and you’re an angry, failed sub-human.

  • tad

    The concept of “race” is simply nonsensical.

  • vcragain

    Just found this – I am from the UK and been here for 30 yrs – this country has so much sickness at it’s heart, I am very very sorry for you all – don’t these ‘white’ (actually it’s sludge color! oh my God !!) idiots know that they too likely have black ancestry – every European country has had black immigrants who have blended in for hundreds and hundreds of years AND going back further genetics is showing that Europeans actually had pretty dark skins until only a few thousand years ago – so what are you going to do – root it out ? You also call yourselves ‘Christians’ no doubt ? What a bunch of hypocritical nasty humans with no sense of ‘I am my brother’s keeper’ !!!! I am ‘white’ but not very proud of this race classification – I try to be a caring human being FIRST.

    • Andre

      If you’re from the UK, Britain being the ultimate colonizer, then you’re throwing stones. Do you think hypocrisy ends at the U.S.’s shores? The Brits are just as much hypocritical racists christians as those in the U.S.. So back at ya, mate!



  • ADE

    To be honest I grew up with people who look like this in my family! There are many families like this in Nash, Halifax, and Warren County, NC and just like them they all associate with being black and Haliwa Saponi Native American. The last names of these families in my area are Evans, Richardson, Mills, Lynch, Silver, and Red haired Dunston’s. I’ve added a picture of my Grandfather and his brother who had a saying when asked his race “Well, Im White but I’m Black”!

    • x

      Interesting. I live in this area. Where did you grow up? I personally have never understood people who identify counter to the way they look and I am not familiar with the last name of Dunston. But I also believe that race is a social construct and culture more accurately describes how people identify.

  • Confused

    I could never understand and maybe someone out there can help. When a Black person (person of color) has a child with an Asian, they are considered Black Asian, but when a white person married a Asian they are considered American-Asian (Ameriasian). Is not a Black person also and American or is this reserved for Whites only?

  • Confused

    CORRECTION : When a white person has a child with an Asian they are considered American-Asian (Ameriasian). Is being black mean you are not an American?

  • vpatte1177

    Yep, I am an american mutt and proud of it. We should all treat others as we want to be treated. great storey

  • Jeff Norris

    This isn’t unique to Pike County or Waverly, OH. Athens and Morgan counties have families like this too. Chesterhill, Bartlet, Stewart, Belpre, Marietta, and other communities in SE Ohio have the same thing. Some of the family names there are Croston, Mayle, Goins, Minerd, Tabler, and others… They have been feature as being one the “tri-racial & Melungeon” isolated areas in America. The whole topic just drives me crazy.

  • dj

    When I looked at the Waverly sign with the tree in the background photo, I immediately had the image of a body hanging on that tree flash in my mind.