Records related to Fenner Brantley suggest a life spent straddling the color line. Though Kenyon Howard, the “trusty friend” he appointed as executor, was African-American, Fenner died 6 February 1924 as a white man.
What of his father though? Charlie Brantley, who reared him and cared for him during his battle with tuberculosis? In the 1920 census of Taylor township, Wilson County:
Fenner Brantley, age 26, black, is listed as the servant of Charlie Brantley, 48, white, who was named in his will as his father. Wiley Howard, 21, mulatto, rounds out the household. Was this an brutally awkward attempt to work around a socially unacceptable relationship?
In mid-1917, Fenner Brantley registered for the World War I draft. The registrar first recorded his name as “Fenner Howard,” then marked through Howard to write “Brantley.” His racial designation? “African,” which was standard for anyone of any degree of African descent.
It seems that prior to 1920, both Fenner and his father were consistently regarded as African-American. Here’s Fenner’s 1914 marriage license:
And the 1910 census of Taylors township, Wilson County, on Howards Path: Charlie Brantley, mulatto, his son Fenner Locust and daughter Mena Locust. (Fenner’s death certificate listed his mother as Margaret Lucas. Many Locus/Locusts in western Wilson County shifted the pronunciation and spelling of their surname to Lucas.) Brantley lived next door to his elderly father, Henderson Brantley, who appears in antebellum Nash County census records as a free person of color.
In the 1900 census of Taylor township, Wilson County: Zack Locus, 69, wife Emley, 59, daughter Margret, 29, and five grandchildren Mattie, 14, Hattie, 11, Fenner, 7, Ellen, 4, and Mena, 5; all described as mulatto.
It’s hard to know what conclusion to draw from all this. Fenner Brantley, ne Locus, was born into families deep-rooted in Nash County’s mixed-race free antebellum community. These families were well-known in the larger community and, regardless of their physical appearance, would not have been “mistaken” for white by anyone from the area. As seen here, though, contemporary mores did sometimes allow for certain fluidity in racial identification, and Fenner and Charlie Brantley seemed to have floated at that edge.
Still, when Charlie Brantley died in 1948, 24 years after his son succumbed to tuberculosis, he was a “colored”man.
North Carolina Wills and Estates, 1665-1998 [database on-line], http://www.ancestry.com; death certificates and federal census records also at ancestry.com.