Henry Louis Gates Seeks Out the Origins of Pioneering Desegregationist, Edmond Edward Wysinger

Edmond Edward Wysinger

Dear Professor Gates:

The paternal second great-grandfather of my wife, Donna Paulette Wysinger Wilson, is Edmond Edward Wysinger. He was a historical figure in California, having brought a lawsuit (Wysinger v. Crookshank) in 1890 to desegregate California schools so that his son Arthur could attend the local high school. We traced Edmond back to South Carolina, where he was born circa 1816. He came to central California, married and had 11 children. Most of their descendants are in Northern California. 

It turns out that there is another large group of Wysingers in the Bay Area who trace their history to Arkansas and believe that Edmond had a brother who went there. However, we have been unable to make the South Carolina-Arkansas connection. The furthest back the “Arkansas” Wysingers can trace their lineage in Arkansas is to Jerden (Jordan) Wysinger, who was born March 9, 1875, in Louisiana. He died June 15, 1924, in Cornie, Union County, Ark. Meanwhile, I looked for plantation owners in South Carolina with the name “Wysinger” or “Weisinger,” but I have been unable to find anything.

Finally, oral family history is that Edmond had two brothers, but I cannot verify that. Can you determine whether Edmond had siblings and if any ended up in Arkansas? —Thomas Wilson

Because of Edmond Edward Wysinger’s historic court case, there is plenty about him published online—not all of it bearing citations to support claims. However, you can use these accounts as starting points and work toward finding evidence either to support or to refute them. According to many published accounts, Edmond Edward Wysinger was born about 1816 in South Carolina and arrived in California with his slave owner about 1849. The other Wysinger family claims to have descended from Jerden Wysinger, who was born in 1875, meaning that if he is related to Edmond, they are likely two generations removed from each other.

Approaches for Linking the South Carolina and Arkansas Wysingers

With this information, there are a few methods you could try to find a link between the two Wysinger families. First, you could search for evidence to suggest that the lore surrounding your ancestor is true in order to ensure that you are looking in the right locations for a link to the other Wysinger family. Second, you could trace Jerden Wysinger’s family back further to determine where his parents originated. Finally, you could search for any white Wysinger families who might have been slave owners to which both Wysinger families could be connected.

Keep in mind that the spelling of “Wysinger” may vary across records, so you’ll likely benefit from using special symbols in your searches. Try searching databases with the surname “W*singer,” since the symbol replaces any number of letters but will keep the beginning and end of the name—the parts of the name most likely to remain consistent—the same.

Is the Lore About Edmond’s Origins True?

Our own search did not uncover any evidence that Edmond had siblings (which does not mean they did not exist). The earliest evidence of Edmond Edward Wysinger that we found was in the 1880 U.S. census, 10 years before the lawsuit. There he is listed as a 57-year-old black laborer living in Visalia, Tulare County, Calif. His birth year is estimated to be 1823, and interestingly, his birthplace (as well as that of his parents) is listed as Mississippi, not South Carolina. He is married to 36-year-old Bernesa C. Wysinger, who was born in Missouri. At the time, Arthur was 3, and his siblings included Jesse, Martha, Reuben, Walter and Hervey (who you told us was your wife’s ancestor). A mother-in-law, Susan Wilson, presumably Bernesa’s mother, is also living in the household.

If we accept the census-record information as accurate, then it’s also worth exploring in which household Edmond might have resided in Mississippi. When we did a search of the 1850 and 1860 U.S. censuses for individuals with a variation of the Wysinger surname in Mississippi, an interesting result came back pointing to a white man named Alexander Weissinger. We double-checked the 1850 United States Census Slave Schedule for Alexander with the double “s” in the name and determined that he did, in fact, own slaves. One slave in the household was born about 1818, which could be a match for Edmond Wysinger.

It looks as if Alexander Weissinger did not move to Mississippi until 1848, so if Edmond was part of his household and was actually born in Mississippi, it would mean that Alexander likely purchased him once he moved to the state. It looks as if Alexander survived the Civil War, so there likely is not a probate record for him that mentions slaves, but it may be worth checking out deeds to see if there is a slave bill of sale for Edmond.

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