The Indelible Rufus Morrison

Definition of indelible: "Not able to be forgotten or removed."

Probably one of the most interesting and somewhat infamous characters in my family tree is my grandfather Rufus Morrison.

He died more than a decade before I was born so I've only ever heard secondhand information about him, but the tidbits I received are fascinating and have driven me to near obsession to uncover as much as I can about him.

Each person I spoke with had a different story or recollection about him...

Some said his mother was full white, some said she was half Native American (either Cherokee, Choctaw, or Chickasaw depending on who I talked to). One cousin had been told that Rufus' mother was either English or German.

Ancestry DNA results and matches show that his mother was the daughter of a white man. He was the son of the couple who owned her mother (that is a story for another day). The descendants of Rufus (and his siblings) have only a very trace amount of Native American DNA. Perhaps the story of Native American ancestry was told to cover up an uncomfortable truth.

Everyone that I spoke with who did know him remembered him clearly and they enjoyed reminiscing about him. To some he was grandpa or father. To others he was an in-law, cousin, or uncle who would frequently come around and visit.

He must have always had his guitar in tow because I’ve rarely met anyone who didn’t remark at how well he could ‘pick his guitar’. 

It seems that the reason for this sparse and contradicting information was that he was prone to floating in and out of everyone's lives. As such, my immediate family had no pictures of him. They also had little to no information on Rufus' parents or siblings.

Not to be deterred, I scoured the internet looking for photos of him. I also used to post in ancestry forums looking for anyone who may have a picture of him.

An old post of mine, seeking any information or pictures of Rufus.

Research on him has taught me a few lessons:
- The importance of visiting and talking to elders (including in-laws).
- Not to believe every detail passed down through family lore or documents.
- Don't give up, there are family members with answers (and pictures) out there somewhere.

The most important lesson I learned was how to of make use of all available resources. During this quest I had to:
- Order government documents
- Visit local courthouses and state archives
- Scour newspaper records
- Track down living descendants of collateral relatives
- Use ancestry DNA testing
- Use a freelance researcher

I even added pertinent historical details to his family tree timeline to fully track and understand him. I get exhausted just recounting it all!

As a result of turning over every stone, I now have more information on him perhaps than even my father ever knew. I also now have 3 pictures of him:

To some he was a husband; to others he was a lover. Most who knew him said he regularly bragged that he had 34 children.

I haven't even identified all of them. By my count, only seven children resulted from his marriages… three children with his first wife; four with his second wife; none from his last wife.

The remaining children were likely from flings. Perhaps some were conceived after a night of him playing guitar at juke joints and parties. My cousins and I think that it’s highly likely that he may have fathered a child or two with white women as well, since he would be hired to play at both white and black juke joints and parties. Considering how fair I am and that my father was darker than Rufus. There may be children of his who identify as white.

I’ve discovered that he fathered at least two children with his teenage niece. That was something that I really struggled with when it was discovered through DNA testing. It was something I hadn’t even considered. I thought I was testing two 2nd cousins once removed, but the results clearly showed that my father is the half uncle of both of them.

In hindsight, looking back at the records for the children he fathered with his niece, the answers were there all along. He is clearly listed in the obituary as their father. Looking at the timeline I built for him, I could clearly see that when his teenaged niece gave birth to his child; Rufus' 2nd wife (my grandmother) was pregnant with my father.

I was only able to reconcile this revelation after several discussions with these newfound first cousins of mine. We have to consider that it was a different time then (in the late 1920's) and if it never happened, then several of my cousins wouldn’t be here today, their lines simply wouldn’t exist at all.

More recently I discovered that he fathered yet another child with one of his cousins who was already married at the time. So I imagine there may be other discoveries that await. Based on what I already knew of him before beginning my research I anticipated some surprises, but even these discoveries startled me.

I’ve surmised that not much was off limits to him when it came to women, age, marital status, and even a genetic connection was not a barrier. He loved women and women seemed to love him right back. Rufus was light skinned and women I've interviewed said he had nice eyes. He could play guitar well and probably sing a little too. I’ve talked to women in their 80’s and 90’s whose voice went soft with nostalgia at the recollection of just how good looking they said he was.

One of the first DNA discoveries for Rufus was his youngest child. A woman who had never heard the name Rufus Morrison. I’m quite positive that she wouldn’t have been counted among the ‘at least 34 children’ that he claimed. It’s very likely that he didn’t know of her existence.

Yet DNA has proven that she is my dad’s half sister. So, I’ve taken to rounding the number of kids up to 35 for him.  This youngest (known) daughter is just 12 years older than me. She was born 6 months before he passed away.

This means that my newfound aunt, who was born in 1963 and is barely in her 50’s in the year 2021, is the grandchild of two former slaves.

She wasn't even looking for family. Her husband got her an ancestry test as a Christmas gift and she was a close match to my dad and I. She matches my dad at the half sibling level (consumer DNA tests aren't gimmicks, they are so accurate you can discern between half and full siblings).

She had gone years believing another man was her father. When she was very young, the parents who were raising her both died. So she wound up being raised by grandparents who, it turns out, weren't her genetic grandparents at all. As our discussion continued, I had the realization that everything happened they way it did for a profound reason. If it was known then that she was Rufus' child, I'm not sure who in our family would have raised her. So it may have been for the best. She was silent for a moment, then said "I thought I had testimony before. I really have testimony now."

Rufus and his youngest known daughter, Diane.
Rufus and his youngest known daughter, Diane.

I also assured her that no one in the family is clutching their pearls with the revelation of her being Rufus’ child. In fact, despite the surprises that he likes to sling at me from the grave, I’m actively looking for the others and I have at least 3 more women who share DNA with my father and me who directly descend from Rufus. I will share those discoveries as I'm able to.

Historical and family information
Both of Rufus' parents were formerly enslaved. Three of his grandparents were formerly enslaved; the 4th grandparent (William Robinson) was Caucasian. William was the son of the couple who owned his maternal grandmother (Jane Robinson).

Rufus was born around 1887 and died in 1964. He began lying about his age sometime in the late 1920's when he began listing that he was born about 1900. So some of his records, including the listed age for him in his obituary and death record. The earliest records I have found for him list the most accurate age for him.

He and his siblings were likely orphaned at a young age and he continued to experience a great deal of loss in his life. His parents were likely gone prior to 1892 when Rufus and his siblings were listed on the Mississippi educable school record with their grandmother and their uncle (the husband of their aunt Jane Morrison-Thomas).

By 1900, he and his brothers were listed as either servants or hired hands in two different Caucasian households on the census, his sister was living nearby with a cousin. 

Rufus was still living and working as a hired hand in 1910, he was just next door to his first wife, Pearlie Anderson and her family.

One of his brothers (Andrew) likely died as a young man sometime prior to 1910. Rufus' first wife (Pearlie Anderson whom he married in 1911) likely died not too long after they had a stillborn child in 1913; he went on to marry my grandmother (Mabel Walker/McClellan) in 1917.

His paternal uncle George Morrison passed away in Middleton, Tennessee in 1912. (George Morrison had changed his name to Jack Lawhorn by this time).

His only known sister (Decie Morrison) passed away in 1933 and his last known sibling (Jim Morrison) was killed in 1937. His eldest son (MC Morrison) passed away less than a year before Rufus in 1963. So throughout his life he saw much of his immediate family pass away as well as aunts and uncles and even many first cousins who tragically died ahead of their time.

Now that I've been able to piece together his life and I consider all that he witnessed through the eras of Jim Crow, the Great Depression, Prohibition, and the world becoming modernized around him; it's not surprising that he lived life the way he did. With an almost reckless abandon and seemingly without regard for much else other than the moment he was in. Whether it was intentional or not, he did leave an indelible mark during the time he was here.