The Boss Lady: Nancy Balkcum aka Harpo, Who Dis Woman?

Nancy Balkcum.

My 3rd great-grandmother. A white woman.

Nancy Balkcum was born about 1805 in North Carolina. She was the daughter of Hester Balkcum, but not the daughter of Hester’s husband, John Balkcom (d.1803). Nancy’s sister was Mariah Balkcum. Though neither Mariah nor Nancy was a child of John, they did receive the Balkcum surname.*

*A quick note: DNA testing has matched me with a number of confirmed Balkcom descendants. There is much to learn about the connections.

Nancy had at least four children: Mary, Harmon, Mary Eliza, and Harmon. At least two of Nancy’s children were mixed race, Margaret and Mary Eliza, my 2nd great-grandmother.

Nancy and her family lived in Sampson County, North Carolina during the 1840’s. Though Nancy had at least two mixed race children, according to the 1840 US Census, she was also a slaveholder, having at least one enslaved male child under the age of ten in her household, per the census record.

1840 U.S. Census, Nancy Balkcum
Sampson County, NC Will Book 1 which includes the 1854 last will and testament of Nancy Balkcum
Nancy Balkcum Will I
Nancy Balkcum Will II

The mixed race children of Nancy Balkcum were legally considered to be free persons of color. The condition of slavery followed the condition of the mother. The system was called partus sequitur ventrem, literally “the offspring follows the mother.”

While many formerly enslaved persons were manumitted or freed via the instrument of a legality, many people were born from unions of white women and black men. In the case of white men being fathers to children of color, their state remained as their mothers’ did. For more information on this, refer to the precedent setting case of Elizabeth Key Grinstead.

Researcher Paul Heinegg of writes:

  • Most of the families were the descendants of white servant women who had children by slaves. Over 1,000 free children were born to white women by slaves in Maryland and Virginia during the colonial period.
  • Many descended from slaves who were freed before the 1723 Virginia law which required legislative approval for manumissions. The Chavis, Cumbo, Driggers and Gowen families who were free in the mid-seventeenth century had several hundred members before the end of the colonial period.
  • Very few African American families that were free during the colonial period descended from white slave owners who had children by their slaves, less than 1% of the total.
Mary Eliza Balkcum Aldridge (1829-1924), daughter of Nancy Balkcum
Nancy’s son, Harmon Balkcum, died in the service of the Confederate Army in 1863.
Nancy Balkcum had a daughter named Margaret. Research by Lisa Y. Henderson explores the possibilities…

I say this respectfully, but I say it nonetheless, when I learned about Nancy Balkcum and this family history, my reaction was totally akin to that infamous scene in the classic film, The Color Purple:

We have no idea who may turn up in our family history. If one wants to venture and learn, be prepared for surprises along the way. It’s more than interesting to think about the possibilities of Nancy’s life and I wonder what her experience was as a woman-a boss lady-regardless of her color, in such a situation.

Our situation. Because Nancy Balkcum was, we are.

The Genealogy Situation Room

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