26. Identity

July theme: Identity

Definition (b): The characteristics determining who or what a person or thing is

My identity, my sense of self, is multi-faceted. Over the years I’ve been daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandma, nurse, teacher, foster parent, author, genealogist, seamstress, artist, musician, Christian, American, Scandinavian, German… Depending on how you know me, you may identify me differently: ADHD. Messy. Impulsive. Blunt. Bossy. Friendly. Standoffish. Outgoing. Private. Rich. Poor. Writer. Hack.

Our identity comes from who our parents are, what our income is, talents, abilities, disabilities, what we look like, what we *think* we look like. Society exerts a certain pressure on us and decides who measures up and who falls short. Our identity influences our actions, and our actions influence our identity. We do this, too, with our ancestors. We critique them based on what we think we know, and often by our modern standards. It’s a challenge to separate fact from fantasy.

Someone I know from Oakland Cemetery posed a question recently – If we could time travel to meet some of our Oakland “residents” above ground, who would we visit? I think I would like to meet Fred and Julia Palmer. I know what history says about them. I would like to hear what they say about themselves.

Here are some facts about Frederick Brainard Palmer:

He was born 09 Jul 1838 in Athens, Georgia (where UGA is).  He was the second of seven children born to Edmund and Helen Herrich Palmer.

His father, Edmund, owned 10 slaves in 1850. Edmund’s estate records after his death in 1863 include “Mary & her two children,” “Mary, Julia’s child,” and “Amanda” among the household property, stocks, and bonds.

Fred was a Confederate soldier and POW in the Civil War. His older brother George was also a CSA soldier and was disabled at Sharpsburg.

He became a respected physician and pharmacist in Atlanta. His younger brother Henry also was a doctor and owned a chain of drugstores.

That’s a fair amount of information to create an identity for him. A privileged white son of the Confederacy.

Why then, is he buried in the African American section of Oakland cemetery?

Oakland cemetery was founded in 1850, and in 1852 it was determined that there should be a separate area set aside for burial of African Americans. That segregation lasted until the mid 1960s, when Atlanta outlawed segregation. Interracial marriage was likewise banned in Georgia until 1967.

So, in 1872, when Dr. Palmer married a formerly enslaved woman, it would not only have been shocking to his peers – it would have been illegal.

Her name has been given as Julia Hays or Hayes. The Julia part is consistent with censuses. I did not find any marriage record and cannot independently confirm her maiden name. The 1872 marriage date comes from the 1900 census, which states they have been married 28 years. I have very little information about her. Censuses (all after her marriage) say that she and her parents were all born in Georgia, and that she is literate. Her son’s death certificate gives only her first name and says she was born in Covington, (Newton Co), Ga.

Son Loring’s death certificate gives minimal information about his mother.

As Georgia law did not allow interracial marriage, they may have married in another state where it was legal (they would have had to go pretty far north or west), or they may have simply lived together as man and wife without any formalities.

Fred earned his M. D. degree from the Southern Medical College (in Atlanta) in 1883, but was working as a pharmacist, and was called “doctor” long before then. He may have received his early training formally at school, or informally by apprenticeship with another doctor or pharmacist. The family physician in Athens where he grew up was Crawford Long (The doctor who developed anesthesia). Perhaps Dr. Long was his mentor (along with his brother who took a similar professional route.) The Atlanta city directories document his work history from 1867 on.

The Atlanta Constitution, Jan 6, 1895

Early records show him working with the Taylor family drugstore (father, succeeded by son), which was bought out by Joseph Jacobs in 1884. The Taylors stayed involved, at least with the manufacturing aspect, and Fred was the president of the Walter A. Taylor Company in 1888, which made chemist supplies and perfumes.

Joseph Jacobs was Jewish, the son of a merchant, and brought his business acumen to his shop. Jacobs’ drugstore is famous as being the place Coca-Cola was first created and sold in 1886. Joseph Jacobs was also the first to bring pennies into circulation in Atlanta and give exact change. He served a diverse clientele, and I could find no indication that he had any problem with his pharmacist’s personal life.

The Jacobs pharmacy was a large building with divisions for dry goods, soda fountain, pharmacy, doctor’s office, chemist’s lab. The City Directories alternate between calling Fred a “druggist,” a “prescriptionist,” a physician, or a chemist. And once, a salesman. He was all of those things.

Jacobs Pharmacy created and sold many of their own concoctions. One of the popular items was a skin-whitening cream, named after Fred. Jacobs Pharmacy had a large patronage from the black community, and the cream was heavily advertised. In fact, it’s hard to research Fred in the newspapers because his name shows up on pharmacy ads all over the country.

The Pittsburgh Courier, June 2 1935

The cream was also toted as good for other skin conditions. In 1915, however, the FDA investigated, and found that it contained mercury among its ingredients, and the claim that it was perfectly harmless was false. Moreover, it was found to make other false and fraudulent claims. Jacobs Pharmacy pled guilty and was fined $25. [Note: the suit was brought against the business, not against Fred.] And yet, it continued to be sold after that date. The African American newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier, was still publishing ads into the 1950s. [You can still buy various Palmer skin products today, such as Cocoa Butter and “Fade Cream”.]

There is precious little by way of Society news items about Fred. A mention that he went to Texas a couple times. That he went on vacation with his boss. That Jacobs threw a party for his staff. His wife’s name never appears in the paper; there isn’t even any mention that there is a wife. His obituary doesn’t mention her or their son. Was this personal preference, and if so, his or hers? Or could it have been an editorial decision?

The lone mention of Julia I was able to find. The Broad Ax, (Utah) Jun 9 1900

There is a story – that I would dearly love to document, but so far only have hearsay – that when Fred met with criticism about his wife, he responded, in essence, with “Don’t like it? Shop elsewhere.”

I did find this article in the 1902 Atlanta Constitution that might help to explain his attitude. Compare it with the second article – He was able to brush off all manner of opinions, but don’t call his competency into question!

Fred and Julia had only the one child, Loring. His passport application says he was born 1 Sep 1871 (which is earlier than his parents were said to have married, but their marriage date is not confirmed.) His gravestone says he was born 1875. It seems his passport is more likely to be correct, as he would have filled it out himself. Interestingly, his application identification is confirmed by Walter A. Taylor, his father’s former employer.

The 1880 census, which says he is 8 years old (consistent with the 1871 birth year), shows the family living on Whitehall St. among other black and mulatto families. Fred is marked as white, whereas his wife and son are heavily marked W, covering over what looks to be an M (for mulatto). I’d love to know why the census taker changed it. Did someone correct him, or did he just need them to all match?

1880 census, Palmer family in center

The 1896 Atlanta census lists all three as white, as does the 1900 census.  Fred is missing from the 1910 census. Son Loring is now also a physician, and Julia is listed with him at their home address. They are listed as mulatto. Perhaps Fred was at work, and the wife or son didn’t bother to mention him? A 1910 version of “Don’t ask, don’t tell”?

The City Directories also seem a bit confused. Fred’s race is usually not mentioned (meaning, by its absence, that he was white.) The two times Julia is listed with him, in 1904 and 1913, their race is not indicated. Similarly, their son Loring is not marked (c) in 1903 and 1904. In 1905 and 1908, both Fred and Loring are marked (c). Loring is also listed as (c) in 1906, 1907, 1910, 1913, and so on. One interesting mistake – on the 1910 directory, Fred is listed alone (and white); Julia is listed as if she is Loring’s spouse, and both are (c). Note – the address for all three is consistently the same.

In the times they lived, there were frequent lawsuits concerning miscegenation. To stay under the radar of the casual observer, it was in their family’s interest to not advertise. Perhaps it would have been braver of them to have done the equivalent of hanging a flag challenging the prejudice. But their desire may have been simply to protect their family from the nastiness of society.

Fred and Julia’s son Loring was also light-skinned. (Genetically, he would have been, at most, ¼ black). He did not attempt to hide or ignore his race. He was quite active in racial equality endeavors. He trained up north at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, earning his M. D. there in 1899. He lived for a time in Utah, and the greater New York area, before coming home to practice in Atlanta. He married a nurse, Rosa Harris, and had a daughter Julia Lorraine, about 1917. From 1923 to 1929 he lived and worked in the Virgin Islands as well. He was a doctor to prominent families in Atlanta, both black and white. He was a friend of W. E. B. DuBois, and letters Loring wrote to him speak of working on behalf of “our race.” [Letters can be found at this website, including this one from 1917: https://credo.library.umass.edu/view/full/mums312-b010-i245%5D

Julia died 19 Jun 1916 and was buried in the African American section of Oakland. Fred died three years later, on 13 Mar 1919, and is buried beside her. It is frustrating that I cannot find any obituary for Julia, and Fred’s is brief, and mentions neither wife nor son. (When Loring died, his obit also did not mention family.) The burial log for Fred was marked B (for black) with a heavy hand, likely overwriting a W. It was against the rules to bury African Americans in the white section, but there was nothing prohibiting the reverse. My guess is that “B” in the records represents some confusion on the part of the sexton. Loring, his wife Rosa, and her extended family eventually joined them in the cemetery lot.

Fred would have had the option of being buried in the “general” [i. e. white] section of the cemetery. He chose to be buried with his family (or his family chose for him), valuing his identity as husband and father over any identity acquired by race.



  1. Barb LaFara says:

    A very fascinating history. I imagine their choices simply reflect the era in which they lived. What a shame it was ever like that, for them and everyone.


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