Two Families Named McCain
* OCTOBER 17, 2008
Two Families Named McCain
Candidate's Kin Share a History With Descendants of Slaves
By DOUGLAS A. BLACKMON
TEOC, Miss. -- Lillie McCain is watching the presidential campaign from a singular perspective.
A 56-year-old psychology professor whose family spans five generations from the enslavement of her great-great-grandparents to her own generation's fight for civil rights, Ms. McCain appreciates the social changes that have opened the way for Sen. Barack Obama to be the first major-party black contender for the White House.
WSJ's Douglas Blackmon speaks with Charles McCain Jr. and his sister Mary McCain Fluker, descendants of slaves held at the Mississippi plantation owned by the family of Sen. John McCain's great-great-grandfather. (Oct. 16)
But she also has an uncommon view on another American passage. Ms. McCain and her siblings are descended from two of about 120 slaves held before the end of the Civil War at Teoc, the Mississippi plantation owned by the family of Republican nominee John McCain's great-great-grandfather.
In a year when the historic nature of Sen. Obama's candidacy is drawing much comment, the case of the Teoc McCains offers another quintessential American narrative in black and white. For the black McCain family, it is a story of triumph over the legacy of slavery; for the white McCains, it is the evolution of a 19th-century cotton dynasty into one rooted in an ethic of military and national service.
"I think that since we can't undo what has been done, that the most effective thing for us to do is figure out how to put things in perspective and go from there," says Ms. McCain, who holds a doctorate in psychology and teaches at Mott Community College in Flint, Mich. "To harbor anger and hostility and all that is counterproductive."
To Sen. McCain, "How the Teoc descendants have served their community and, by extension, their country is a testament to the power of family, love, compassion and the human spirit." It is, he added, in a statement provided by a spokesman, "an example for all citizens."
The black and white McCain families have long acknowledged their shared history at Teoc, a name that applies to both the plantation and the now-sparse community around it. A cousin of the senator still owns 1,500 acres of the original 2,000. Sen. McCain's younger brother, Joe, and other white McCains have attended family reunions organized by the African-American McCains.
Lillie McCain's family is descended from two slaves, named Isom and Lettie, according to interviews and examinations of family documents, county files and U.S. Census Bureau records. They remained closely entwined with the white family for decades after the Civil War, taking its surname and living close by on land rented from their former owners. Lettie McCain's headstone is still visible in an overgrown graveyard for African-Americans not far from the ruins of the last "big house" on the Teoc plantation.
According to members of the white McCain family, the plantation in rural Carroll County, Miss., was purchased by Sen. McCain's great-great-grandfather, William Alexander McCain, in 1851, when many of the flat vistas of the Mississippi Delta region in the state's northwest corner were still swampy wilderness. After his death in 1863, his widow and a brother, Nathaniel Henry McCain, maintained the family's position among Mississippi gentry.
William Alexander McCain's son John Sidney McCain ran the plantation and served in local politics, including a term as county sheriff. A son of his, also named John Sidney McCain but known as "Slew," graduated from the Naval Academy in 1906 and began a military life that would eventually supplant the family's long history as cotton barons. He became an admiral and top naval officer during World War II. His son, the third with the same name but known as John S. "Jack" McCain Jr., also rose to the rank of admiral, in the Vietnam War era -- while his own son, Sen. McCain, was a Navy pilot and then a prisoner of war.
Sen. McCain's family lived primarily on military installations around the world. But they remained attached to Teoc, visiting repeatedly during Sen. McCain's childhood, often for long periods. When they went to the farm in the 1940s and 1950s, the future Sen. McCain and his brother stayed in the rambling house, now abandoned, of their great-uncle, Joe McCain, who had become the plantation's owner.
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Sen. McCain's younger brother, also named Joe, said that though their father "moved around as the son of a naval officer, he too always thought of Teoc as his 'blood ground' and loved visiting there."
The McCains in the early 20th century were known among African-Americans for relatively equitable treatment of their workers and tenants, especially compared with the abuses happening on many other farms. A visitor to the plantation in 1923 published an account that described "a tradition and a policy of fair dealing between planter and laborer."
"That's how I remember it," said Frank Bryant, 90, a black former Teoc sharecropper.
The 19th century had been a different story for African-Americans in Carroll County. In 1886, after two black men filed a lawsuit against a white man, a white mob rushed the courthouse and murdered more than 20 blacks there, according to court documents and newspaper accounts at the time. They weren't prosecuted.
Earlier still, just after the Civil War, Sen. McCain's ancestors, like many former slave owners, made use of newly passed laws designed to temporarily force some freed slaves back into the control of their former masters. Records in a dusty storage room in the Carroll County courthouse show that in February 1866, Sen. McCain's great-great-grandmother, Louisa McCain, and her brother-in-law Nathaniel filed petitions to take legal custody of three girls under age 15 whom the McCains had owned before emancipation. In court, the girls were identified with the surname "Freedman," a common practice with emancipated slaves.
There is no record of the full circumstances, but thousands of young African-Americans at that time were forced under such claims to return to their onetime masters as apprentices. Those apprentice laws in the South were later struck down.
Once freedom was clearly established, two black McCain families remained close to the former owners. One family was led by the former slave Isom McCain, who was 34 at the end of the Civil War, and the other by Henderson McCain, a 16-year-old at the time of emancipation, according to census records. They raised large families in rented houses next door to each other at Teoc.
The black McCains of today were raised to believe that they were blood relatives of the white McCains, dating back to slavery times. White McCains say they're unaware of any biological connection between the families. A spokesman for Sen. McCain declined to comment.
In the 1880s and 1890s, Henderson McCain and later Isom's son, Harry, became trustees of a tiny school for black children, according to records found by a local genealogist, Susie James. In 1922, blacks at Teoc built a four-room schoolhouse with $1,750 they scraped together and $900 from a philanthropy that was helping blacks build schools across the South, the Rosenwald Fund.
Most of the descendants of Henderson McCain left Teoc in the 1950s. Isom's son Harry had a boy in 1885 named Weston. He saved enough to buy a small parcel of farmland.
"He didn't want to be dependent on white people, or needing white people," says Lillie McCain, who is his granddaughter. "He thought it was important to own land. He used to say, 'Everybody ought to have some dirt.'"
Weston McCain's oldest son was Charles W. McCain, who lived from 1916 to 2000. After serving in the Army in France during World War II, he returned to Carroll County and, along with a cousin, bought 160 acres of land.
By then, the black McCains were emerging among the county's most important leaders. Charles McCain was a central figure in the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. When civil-rights workers swarmed Mississippi in 1964, the black McCains housed white activists and received bomb threats and harassing calls.
"Daddy didn't want us to roll over and play dead or live as if you are not a person," says Lillie McCain. Her sister Mary McCain Fluker, 53, says their father "would always tell us you are just as good as anybody. 'You are no better than anybody,' he'd tell us, 'but you're just as good as anybody.'"
Civil-rights organizers held secret meetings at the family's church just off the Teoc plantation. The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state agency formed to thwart the civil-rights movement, kept tabs on Mr. McCain, according to commission records. "Daddy was one of the leaders, one of the people out front," says 60-year-old Charles McCain Jr., a retired brick mason and teacher who still lives on the family land.
Lillie McCain remembers seeing Martin Luther King Jr. speak from the back of a flatbed truck in nearby Greenwood. She and her two brothers were arrested at a march in Jackson, Miss., organized by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, whose leader, Stokely Carmichael, introduced the phrase "black power." Not long after Mr. Carmichael spoke at the McCains' church, it burned down, during a wave of Ku Klux Klan firebombings. The McCain children remember passing its smoking remains on their way to school the next day.
Amid those events, the black McCain children wondered what must be wrong with white people. "I was thinking, 'How can they kill people and they all go to church?'" says Lillie McCain. "I was just baffled by that."
Sen. McCain grew to adulthood largely unaware of his family's ties to slavery. In a statement, he called the abuses of African-Americans in the 20th century "a dark and tragic chapter in American history" and said that "cultivating the bond between the two families...is important."
In the late 1960s, black McCain children were among those who integrated the previously all-white schools in the county seat, Carrollton. In 1969, Lillie McCain was one of the first two African-Americans to graduate from the integrated high school. Four of the six McCain children in her family served in the military and all six earned college degrees.
Lillie McCain earned a Ph.D. in psychology from Wayne State University in Detroit. Her sister Mrs. Fluker retired after a career as special-education teacher in the public schools from which she once was barred. Joyce McCain became a production executive at General Motors. Delbra McCain Roberts became a registered nurse. Charles Jr. taught bricklaying in the high school. The eldest child, George, became the first black fire chief in the town of Greenwood. Lillie and all of her siblings say they support Sen. Obama for president.
When George McCain was killed in a traffic accident in 2003, Frank Bryant, the aged former sharecropper, invited to the funeral Bill McCain, the senator's cousin, who owns the remaining 1,500 acres of Teoc plantation and lives nearby. It was the beginning of a modern dialogue between the two families as equals. At the service, Mr. McCain stood in the family section with the black McCains.
Write to Douglas A. Blackmon at douglas.blackmon@...