Family  /  Narrative

Was Interracial Love Possible in the Days of Slavery? Descendants of One Couple Think So

A box of 500 photographs, most of them in near-pristine condition, chronicle a family tree full of love and contradictions.

He was buried in a white cemetery. She was buried in a black cemetery. Their marriage was unheard-of at the time.

Both William Ramey and his wife, Kittie Simkins, were born and raised in Edgefield, S.C., or “Bloody Edgefield,” a town known for its grisly murder rate in the antebellum South. Their relationship defied convention, and yet it survived war and bitter family resentment.

Mr. Ramey, born in 1840, came from a prominent white family. Ms. Simkins was born a slave in 1845, most likely on a property called Edgewood owned by Francis Pickens, who would become a Confederate governor.

The love affair could have been lost if not for Paula Wright, a seventh-generation descendant of the couple who inherited vintage photographs that inspired her to document eight generations of her family, dating to 1805.

“I always had this strange, overwhelming feeling as a young girl when I used to look at my great-grandparents’ photo albums,” she said. “Almost every time I visited them, I would ask to see the photos.”

The box of 500 mostly black-and-white photographs offered a rare glimpse into an interracial marriage that took place nearly 100 years before Loving v. Virginia, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that struck down miscegenation laws.

In one photo, family members stand on the steps of their Edgefield home on the day of Mr. Ramey’s funeral in 1912. “On one hand, I thought, ‘look what love made,’” Ms. Wright said of the photo. “And on the other hand, it saddened me because I know life was not easy for any of them.”