He knew his great-grandfather, and he was a coal-black negro.

by Lisa Y. Henderson

State v. Whitmel Dempsey, 31 NC 384 (1849)

Whitmel Dempsey was indicted as a free man of color for carrying arms without a license.  A state’s witness testified that he had heard an old man named Barnacastle say that he knew Dempsey and his family and that Dempsey’s great-grandfather, who was called Joseph Dempsey alias Darby, was a coal-black negro.  The Bertie County Superior Court received this evidence over Dempsey’s objection.  Dempsey then gave evidence that Joseph Dampsey’s mother was a white woman; that Joseph was a reddish, copper-colored man with curly red hair and blue eyes; that Joseph’s wife was white; that Joseph and his wife had a son named William; that William also married a white woman and had a son named Whitmel; and that that Whitmel married a white woman, who was Whitmel the defendant’s mother.  The court found that, assuming that Joseph Dempsey was half-negro, Whitmel, being his great-grandson and therefore within the fourth generation from black ancestors, was a free person of color.  After a treatise on the scope and definition of the term, the Supreme Court upheld Dempsey’s conviction.

The 1840 census of Bertie County listed six Dempsey heads of household, including a Whitmel.  All were classified as free people of color.  Bertie County records show that a Whitmell Dempsey married Anna Bowen on 17 June 1806.