Johnny Cash and wife Vivian Liberto

Johnny Cash with his first wife Vivian Liberto


Sally Shields was born in South Carolina in 1821, one of many children born to an enslaved woman and her so-called “owner”, a man named William Bryant Shields.

Details are sketchy, but some form of human bond must have slowly developed between William Shields and his “consort”.

Within a few years, Shields felt compelled to release all of the children resulting from this “union” from their legal birth condition of slavery.

It may be unpalatable and difficult for us to comprehend, but William Shields went further, and made gifts of property – including slaves – to many of his now liberated “mulatto” offspring.

His daughter Sally Shields would go on to marry twice – first to another slaveholder named Anderson Robinson, and second to a man named Irving McGraw, who was also enumerated as a “mulatto” in records.

It is almost impossible to write of these things in a sensitive and wise fashion with the USA still so divided over the legacy of slavery and ongoing systemic racism.

The most left-leaning liberals or progressives will query the motive for even bringing-up the subject of slaveholding among people of color.

Dispicable extremists on the other side will point excitedly, and say “See? Black people had slaves, too.”

As if this fact might somehow excuse centuries of color/ethnicity-based hatred and bigotry.  As if it might excuse “whites” erecting barriers to “black” education and equality before the law.  As if it could lessen the brutality of lynchings, the dehumanisation of Jim Crow laws, and red-lining, and, and…

But let’s set all that aside for now, and try to understand a past historical moment.


Slavery has existed in human societies since time immemorial.

But “color” or “race”-based slavery?  That was a relatively recent development.

Before the invention of “race”, slavery was more likely to be a condition brought upon a person due to a difference of religion, political allegiance, country of origin, social status, poverty, criminality, indebtedness, or simply through being a war captive or the human “booty” taken by pirates.

Medieval England, like most other European kingdoms, had broadly continued with the type of slavery practices left behind after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.  In England, the people most likely to be enslaved included those in debt, criminals, or people captured on the field of battle or on the high seas.

Beyond England, in the Eastern European, Ottoman and Arab worlds of the 1500s, 1600s and 1700s, people of color were often slaveholders.  Eastern European warlords in places like Wallachia (modern Romania) enslaved entire ethnic groups, most notably the Romani.

The Ottoman, Persian, and Arab worlds purchased slaves from as far north as Finland.

Central Asian cities like Samarkand and Bukhara (now in Uzbekistan) acted as international slave markets, moving human cargo between east and west, and from the Arctic Circle to the eastern Mediterranean.

The Moorish, Jewish and Romani merchant classes expelled from Spain in the aftermath of the Christian Reconquista of 1492 went on to set-up shop throughout the Mediterranean world.  These slave traders operated from North and West Africa, all the way to the Ottoman world far to the east. Markets in places like Persia, Tangiers, and Madagascar also supplied slaves to the all-devouring maw of various European colonial empires run by the Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, or French.

This alters the common perception that slaves were captured and shipped only from West Africa during the 1500s and 1600s.

As Europe came to be synonymous with “Christendom”, the Catholic Church began to discourage the enslavement of fellow Christians, and the list of people “deserving” to be enslaved was relocated to the non-Christian world.

This change during the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Period also happened to coincide with the busiest period of European exploration and colonialist expansion.

Because most people being subjugated and/or colonised were seen as pagans, heretics, or worse, European Christendom felt able to justify their enslavement and exploitation.

Portuguese colonies were mostly in Africa and India, so most of the enslaved were of course sub-Saharan Africans and South Asians.

Spanish, French and English colonies were mostly in the Americas, so most of the enslaved there came from local indigenous populations – at first.

African slavery didn’t become the basis for entire economies immediately, but certain circumstances hastened its advent.

Events like plague, the introduction of tobacco, sugar cane, and rice cultivation – and even The Great Fire of London in 1666 – created labor shortages making indentured labor much more expensive.

Add to this the catastrophic collapse of indigenous American populations, as tribes and nations became decimated by enslavement, disease, and warfare, or simply migrated inland to escape the reach of coastal slave traders.

The rest is history.  Colonial powers in the Americas eventually turned their baleful, greedy gaze to Africa’s non-Christian peoples.


I have written it elsewhere, and it is worth repeating again and again:

Racism did not lead to slavery.

Slavery and greed led to racism.

In the earliest days, Africans and other people of color were not enslaved due to their skin color.  They were indentured or enslaved simply by virtue of being non-English or non-Christian, or both.

But a problem soon arose.

Many Africans and other people of color began to abandon their old faith systems (including Islam), becoming Christians.

This removed much of the justification for their condition of servitude, and during the first few decades of the 1600s, many, many such people of color managed to remain free (or successfully petition courts for their freedom) in places like colonial Virginia.

Many became slaveholders themselves; remember that slavery wasn’t yet based on skin color.

But human greed is seemingly limitless, and the English who had begun to amass fortunes from the labor of slaves decided to change the rules.  Professing the Christian faith would no longer offer protection from servitude.

Christian or not, if a person looked non-European, they could be enslaved.

Racism was the eventual (and much later) thought system invented by innumerable self-interested, greedy people in an effort TO JUSTIFY their ridiculously arbitrary legislative changes and shockingly immoral level of avarice.


The actual ideology of racism did not take root overnight.  A slow but steady creeping change to attitudes and legislation meant that for many decades, North America was a complicated place, with slaveholding families and their slaves coming from many different ethnic backgrounds.

In Anglo-America – especially in places such as New York and Maryland in the north, or Virginia and the Carolinas in the south – there were substantial populations of free people of color, and many were slaveholders.

Members of many indigenous tribes such as the Creek and Cherokee held slaves.

Africans held slaves.

Jewish and Romani people held and sold slaves.

And again, although the majority of these slaves eventually arrived from West Africa, many came from elsewhere.  They came from anywhere within reach of a trading path or sailing vessel.

But as Anglo-America slowly began to crystallise its novel concept of exclusively African or color-based chattel slavery during the late 1600s and early 1700s, these slaveholding and slave-trading people of color in Virginia and the Carolinas felt the full weight of karmic irony dropping like a planet-sized lead ball upon their heads.

Many of these slaveholding free persons of color decided to get the hell out while the getting was good.

Some headed for the remotest hills of Western Virginia, Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Tennessee, where many were part of early statelet experiments like The Watauga Association or The State of Franklin.

Others took the southern route into Georgia, Alabama, and Spanish Mississippi, Louisiana and Tejas.

People like Sally Shields and her family.

But Sally would have been the exception, in that she was actually the slaveholding daughter of an enslaved woman.

The families and community all around her, however, were slaveholding people of color who had never known servitude.

The ones who went into Southern Appalachia ended-up being a foundational part of the people later called Melungeons.

The ones who went into Spanish and French territory became a foundational part of a predominantly ranching people later called “Redbones“.

But we know both groups are related when we see the ancient surnames shared between both groups.  Names like Perkins, Ashworth, Bunch, and Goins.

As already noted, Sally Shields was married twice, and her descendants intermarried freely among many different ethnic groups including the Redbones, the Melungeons, the Choctaw, Mexicans, Louisiana French – and even among Italo-Mexicans.


I was contemplating all of this deep history while listening to an old Rosanne Cash album a few nights ago.

Everyone knows about the long-term love affair between Johnny Cash and June Carter, but fewer might be aware that Johnny’s daughter Rosanne came from his first marriage to Vivian Dorraine Liberto.

You see, Vivian was a direct descendant of Sally Shields, and became a target of white supremacist hate during her not-so-brief marriage to The Man in Black.

Live footage of Rosanne Cash from the 1980s shows a beautiful young woman with a voice to match. She also shares a clear resemblance to her equally beautiful mother. It may be my own imagination, but it seems as if the make-up and lighting on Rosanne’s earliest album covers was designed to minimise her mixed-ethnic background. If this was indeed the case, one suspects this was a record company decision. It would not be the first time.

Rosanne Cash screenshot from Seven Year Ache video

Rosanne Cash performing her hit “Seven Year Ache”


Rosanne Cash album cover

Cover of Rosanne Cash’s third studio album “Seven Year Ache”, released 1981


This is how the fall-out from racism diminishes everyone in a society – not just the direct victims of said racism.

Perhaps the biggest irony of all lies in the fact that many of the white supremacists who pointed a finger at Vivian Liberto HAD DEEP ROOTS IN THE EXACT SAME COLONIAL ERA MULTI-ETHNIC SLAVEHOLDING FAMILIES AS HER.

Ignorance might be bliss.  But ignorance can be a thing far worse, too.


©Brian Halpin-Before We Were White


#BeforeWeWereWhite  #FreePeopleOfColor  #melungeons  #redbones  #JohnnyCash  #RosanneCash  #VivianLiberto

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