Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Finding of Clarence Burris Potts

“People disappear all the time.  Ask any policeman.  Better yet, ask a journalist.  Disappearances are bread-and-butter to journalists.  Young girls run away from home.  Young children stray from their parents and are never seen again.  Housewives reach the end of their tether and take the grocery money and a taxi to the station.  International financiers change their names and vanish into the smoke of imported cigars.  Many of the lost will be found, eventually, dead or alive.  Disappearances, after all, have explanations.  Usually.”
― Diana Gabaldon, Outlander, Prologue

For generations, men seemingly appeared in the lives of the women in my mother’s family, unknown and seemingly unencumbered by the baggage of family, of a past.  Yet, they stayed, married, raised a family, and died, but conveyed little about who they were or where they came from.  But in one instance, we lost a man born into the family, who seemed simply to disappear without a trace.

Genealogists will tell you that people (often their ancestors) indeed disappear all the time.  Some disappear in a blink -- here one day but gone the next.  Others move slowly, fading away from family, leaving few tantalizing clues behind.  Sometimes the disappeared don’t want to be found.  They adopt new identities, and for some, they change their race, passing for white.  But regardless of how they leave, it is when they die, when they truly have left this mortal coil, that concrete records bring most of them back to life, at least in the memory of those who lost them. 

Clarence’s Story

In the years before the internet, before arm-chair access to local records, my family searched for my maternal grandmother’s long-lost uncle, Clarence Burris Potts.  Born and raised in the family home just blocks from the city limits of Zanesville, Muskingum County, Ohio, Uncle Clarence assumed the mantle of the underachieving brother who had little direction or purpose.  About 1905, he supposedly accompanied older sister Sarah to New York City, where she attended Pratt Institute in the first decade of the 20th century.  His two surviving nieces (one of whom was my grandmother) recalled that sometime before the First World War, Clarence had joined the U.S. Army, followed by a stint in the U.S. Merchant Marine.  He was known to be in Los Angeles in 1924, the year his mother Margaret died.  The last address his family had for him (before 1944) proved to be a transient hotel in post-war San Francisco, after which he dropped from the family radar.

Clarence Burris Potts was born 26 October 1888[i], in Springfield Township, Muskingum County, Ohio, the third child of George Westover Potts and Margaret Gant.  His father, an 1878 graduate of Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, now Hampton University, managed the farm owned by his father-in-law Nelson Talbert Gant.  The family included 9-year old half-sister Mariah Neal Williamson[ii] (Margaret’s daughter from her failed first marriage to Henry Williamson) and 2-year old sister Sarah Ann Elizabeth.  Older brother George Jr. had died of typhoid on August 10, 1888 less than a week after his first birthday.[iii]  The family had moved up from Hampton, Virginia earlier in the year.  By 1891, when Royce Houston was born[iv], George had moved his growing family (which now included Norman Tolbert born in 1890[v]) closer to town to live just down the street from grandfather Gant.  The last of the Potts children, Margaret “Aunt Shug” Potts was born 18 March 1895.[vi]  It appears this Potts-Gant union also had been blessed with one or two other children who, sadly, did not survive.[vii]

What’s in a Name.  One’s identity often begins at birth, when the new babe in arms is given the name by which he or she largely will be known for the rest of his or her life.  Inspiration can literally come from anywhere -- friends, family, religion, ethnic background, famous people. George and Margaret were no different from many other parents of their day.  In 1888, Clarence was the 17th most popular name for baby boys. 

Some names obviously are carried across generations but others are a mystery that once addressed might be used to help identify family connections.   For this family:
  • George Westover Potts – “Westover” came down from his mother, Ellen Westover Green and maternal grandmother, Mourning Westover.
  • Mariah Neal Williamson – “Neal” was the maiden name of her step grandmother, Lavenia Julius Neal who had married the widowed N.T. Gant the year before Mariah’s birth.
  • Sarah Ann Elizabeth Potts – named “Sarah” for her maternal aunt Sarah “Sadie” Gant [Mc]Norton; “Elizabeth” for her maternal aunt Elizabeth Gant Manley.  However, the double middle name of “Ann Elizabeth” also could be a nod to Charle Ann Elizabeth Jane Russell, who had owned Nelson's wife Maria, their maternal grandmother in Loudoun County, Virginia.
  • George – this firstborn son obviously named for his father.
  • Norman Tolbert Potts – “Tolbert” was the middle name of his maternal grandfather Nelson Tolbert Gant.
  • Margaret Potts – named for her mother. 
Unfortunately, the sources of middle names for Clarence Burris and Royce Houston have yet to be discovered.

George W. Potts 1856-1930
Like Father, Like Son.  An examination of Clarence’s early years shows a young man seemingly without direction.  While his siblings all finished high school and went on to college, Clarence took a different, somewhat meandering path that seemed to reflect the disjointed journey taken by his father.

Although not much is known about the early life of Clarence’s father, “Papa” George Westover Potts, we do know that on January 17, 1876, at the age of 18, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the Naval Rendezvous Enlistment at Norfolk, Virginia, for what proved to be a single cruise aboard the iron-clad Montauk.  That fall, George enrolled in the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute at Hampton, where he was prepared to be a teacher; he graduated in 1878.  In his “graduate’s correspondence” to the school in 1889-90, George explained that after teaching for two years he had:

“… been doing different things for a living: from ’81 to ’84, I kept a general grocery and provision store in Williamsburg, and did quite well, until drawn into politics; then negligence of business, and activity in politics caused the former to suffer and the latter to prosper.  In ’81, I was elected member of the Common Council of the great city of Williamsburg on the Republican ticket and was re-elected in ’82.  The position being only honorary, I thought I did not fit in.  So, in ’83, I ran for Commissioner of Revenue of the city of Williamsburg, and was elected for four years over two competitors.  The emoluments were so small that I again sought, and obtained an appointment under the U.S. Government, as Deputy Collector and Inspector of Customs at Yorktown, Va., and served from May ’84 till Sept. ’86 when the Democratic hatchet shied my way.  I then moved to Hampton, and served as butcher and hotel waiter.  In ’88, with my family, I moved to Zanesville, Ohio and now live on and manage a 150 acre farm of my father-in-law, Mr. N.T. Gant, raising principally stock, wheat, and grass.  I am getting along nicely and try to “adapt myself to circumstances,” a principle I learned at Hampton and which has been a great advantage to me since graduating.”[viii]

George was a seeming “disappointment” to both his wife and father-in-law who according to oral history, grudgingly supported Margaret’s marriage to George, if only that it meant she was no longer at the mercy of her abusive first husband.  In 1911, George and several investors attempted to start a pottery works that employed “colored people.”  The enterprise failed within 18 months.  In 1916,[ix] George was no longer in the family home, laboring instead at odd jobs and living about a mile away near the historic Y-Bridge.  In 1920, he worked in a glass factory and lived a few blocks from his wife.  After her death in 1924, George moved in first with son Royce and his family in Brooklyn, New York, and then to Chicago with son Norman, where he eventually died.

Clarence appeared to have inherited his father’s wanderlust.  By 1905, the nearly 17-year old Clarence had quit high school after two years[x] and begun working as a bellboy at the Clarendon Hotel[xi], located at the corner of Fourth and Main streets in downtown Zanesville.  The Hotel was popular among businessmen and politicians traveling to the area, and was well known for its fine dining.  Within a year, young Clarence accompanied his older sister Sarah to New York City, where she (followed later by younger brothers Royce and Norman) attended Pratt Institute.  Sometime before 1910, 21-year old Clarence was back in Zanesville, a laborer working odd jobs,[xii] seemingly without any apparent direction, unlike his siblings who became, in succession, a teacher, a physician, and an engineer.  And, so, like his father before him, Clarence turned to the military for his next career opportunity.

He’s in the Army Now.  On 21 April 1913, 25-year old Clarence Burris Potts enlisted in the United States Regular Army[xiii] where he joined the 25th Infantry stationed at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii Territory.  The 25th was one of the racially segregated units of the Army known as Buffalo Soldiers, established by Congress as the first peacetime all-black regiments in the regular U.S. Army.  

Clarence’s regiment had a storied history.  The 25th served from 1866 to 1946, seeing action in the American Indian Wars, Spanish-American War, Philippine-American War, and World War II.  The 25th Infantry was transferred from Fort Niobara/Lawton, Oklahoma to Schofield Barracks, in Hawaii Territory in January 1913.  During World War I, the 25th was noticeably absent from combat, remaining assigned to garrison duty in Hawaii.  It is said that the 1906 race incident in Brownsville Texas became the basis for excluding the 25th from action during WW1.

In order to receive credit for continuous service, and the dollar-a-month additional pay that went with reenlistment, a soldier had to sign on within 30 days of his discharge.[xiv]  Many men often took advantage of this month-long waiting period to visit family and friends.  Not so Clarence.  Within hours after his honorable discharge on 20 April 1917, Private First Class Potts was reenlisted[xv].  Beyond the obvious fact that Clarence was on an island in the middle of the Pacific with no family nearby, perhaps he thought he could do better in the Army than in civilian life.

While in Hawaii, Clarence may have joined in a pickup game with the regimental baseball team, the Wreckers, from which spawned future Negro League greats, Walter “Dobie” Moore, Wilbur “Bullet Joe” Rogan, Lemuel Hawkins, and Heavy Johnson.[xvi]  The 25th Infantry baseball team rose to prominence after it was stationed at Schofield Barracks where it established itself as the best team on the island of Oahu, and began to compete against college teams and teams of the high classification Pacific Coast League. 

When Clarence was discharged from his second Army stint in March 1919, Black soldiers were returning from having served their country abroad during the war, only to become the objects of savage encounters.  Race riots erupted in nearly 3 dozen cities and one rural county across the nation that summer and late autumn, dubbed the Red Summer.  Perhaps because of the chaos that seemed to be exploding across the south and Midwest, Clarence chose to stay in Los Angeles after returning to the mainland.

Transitioning.  Now a civilian, Clarence returned to his old ways of hopping from job to job, first as a porter to a private family, followed by a stint as a machinist.[xvii]  He first shows up in the 1920 U.S. Census in mid-January.  In 1921, he is listed in the Los Angeles City Directory living at the same residence.  The next year, he is listed among the voters for Los Angeles County.  California's voter indexes were published every two years and are great records to help track individuals over time and place.  In the case of Clarence, indexes for Los Angeles are missing for 1920 and 1932 (among other years).  Records for San Francisco, where he moved to next, are missing 1933 and 1942.

Sometime between 1923 and 1925, Clarence started living under the name of Lawrence B. Potts, although it appears he briefly used his birth name a decade later in San Francisco.  He moved from Los Angeles to Sierra Madre. At sea, he was Lawrence, while on land during the 1930s he had moved up to San Francisco and registered to vote as Clarence. 

At Sea.  Clarence, now Lawrence, joined the United States Merchant Marine as Lawrence Burr(i)s Potts sometime around 1930.  Negroes in the Merchant Marine, just as with the U.S. Navy, were limited to serving as cooks and stewards.  The first record found for Lawrence as a "messman," departing San Francisco on June 6, 1931 aboard the ship La Perla and returning July 9, 1931 from Cristobal, a city in the Panama Canal Zone.  The record indicates that he had not been among the crew during the preceeding voyage for that ship.

In 1942, Lawrence Burrs Potts, registered for the draft,[xviii] in accordance with the Fourth Draft Registration, often referred to as the "old man's registration," conducted on 27 April 1942 -- for men born on or between 28 April 1877 and 16 February 1897.  Surprisingly, Lawrence lists as point of contact a “Mrs. Mary Potts" of the same address, a woman who remains unknown to the family. Lawrence lists his employer as the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (MCS), a Communist-backed labor union that represented servicemen on the West Coast.  Many of the workers were gay and black. The MCS was the first union in the United States to not discriminate against workers based on sexuality or race.  

1942 WW2 Draft Registration Card for Lawrence Burrs Potts

Lawrence’s merchant service spanned pre-World War II through the Korean War.  During WWII, his deployments appeared to skirt most of the action.  One ship, the Benjamin Ide Wheeler, on which he served in early 1943, later was involved in the late 1944 Leyte landings.  During the Korean War, Lawrence served aboard several ships, only one of which appears to have been in the war zone.  Our Mr. Potts was engaged aboard the Sioux Falls Victory on 29 March 1951, when it arrived back in Seattle on 24 June 1951 from Pusau, Korea.  Although the Sioux Falls Victory appears on the U.S. Navy 1956 list of Merchant ships in the war zone which entitled its mariners to the Korean Service Medal and the United Nations Service Medal for their support of the United Nations forces in Korea, it is not clear whether Lawrence applied for or received his medals. I can only assume that Lawrence did not do so because in 1956 he had already begun living again as Clarence.

Lawrence/Clarence served more than 30 years in the Merchant Marine, rising from Messman to Chief Cook.  As his grew in position, so did his waistline, adding nearly 40 pounds to his 5'6" frame.  His ports of departure also migrated over time, moving from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Portland and Seattle.  During that time, Lawrence served on ships with international crews, but never on what Captain Hugh Mulzac, the first African-American merchant marine naval officer to command an integrated crew during World War II, termed a “Jim Crow vessel.”[xix]

Back on Shore.  The last record found of Lawrence returning to a U.S. port is aboard the Washington Seafair which docked in Seattle on July 22, 1955.  It appears soon thereafter he retired from service, reverted back to his birth name, settled in Portland, and worked as a cook.  Portland also was home to his former employer, the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union of the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

On 31 July 1952, Clarence, under the name Lawrence Burrs Potts, registered his Ohio birth in the Portland, Oregon court.[xx]  The new decree for birth registration states that he was born in Zanesville, Ohio and names his parents as “George Westever Potts” and “Margaret Gant."

A name change was not the only aspect guiding Clarence’s (now Lawrence) disappearance.  At birth, Clarence was listed as “colored,” not surprising since his maternal grandfather was often called the richest Negro in Ohio.  While it’s not unusual for light skinned Negroes to be listed as white in an occasional census record, Clarence’s race changed progressively over time, inching closer and closer to passing for white.  The variability of his race going from Negro to mulatto to white in Merchant Marine records varied, whether inadvertent or intentional.  We likely will never know whether these dalliances with white designation was because a lowly officer relied on personal knowledge of the sailor who "looked exotic" or crewman records.  However when Clarence petitioned the State of Oregon to register his Ohio birth, he knowingly declared his race as white.  The transition to was now complete.  The family looking for Clarence Burris Potts, a negro mn, would not have looked twice for a Lawrence Burrs Potts, a white man.

Sometime in late May 1959, Clarence was hospitalized briefly in the Good Samaritan Hospital in Portland, Oregon.  On 1 June 1959, he was transported from the hospital by ambulance to the Multnomah County (Oregon) Poor Farm.[xxi]  For friends and relatives, the admission records list the American Legion Post, an obvious nod to his military family.  On 18 January 1961, Clarence was voluntarily discharged from the farm and transported to the Orient Nursing Home.  Eventually, Clarence moved to Sandy, Oregon, a small town located in the extended suburbs of Portland. Throughout this, Clarence continued to live as a white man.

Clarence Burris Potts died on 11 December 1966 of a short illness in Sandy, Clackamas County, Oregon.  His obituary in the Sandy Post said that he “came to the Portland area after being discharged from WWI.  He worked in Portland as a cook for a long time before retiring in Sandy.  He has no known relatives.”[xxii]  Yet, Clarence must have built a family of sorts because, at his death, someone took the time to publish an obituary and someone ensured that he was interred in the Willamette National Cemetery for veterans.  


“Perhaps it's impossible to wear an identity without becoming what you pretend to be.”
― Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game

So, what makes me confident that Clarence Burris Potts and Lawrence Burr[i]s Potts are one and the same?  The phonetic similarity of the names aside, there are several clues that when cross-referenced, supports this conclusion.

Clarence Burris Potts versus Lawrence Burris Potts
Birth date
Although issued in the name of Lawrence Burris Potts, his 1952 Delayed Birth Registration matches the birth and parental information for Clarence Burris Potts.  This was not a name change as that section of the petition was left blank.
Social Security application
The original Social Security application, issued in 1936 to Lawrence Burris Potts matches the birth date and location and parental information for Clarence B. Potts.
The Willamette National Cemetery veteran’s burial record for Clarence B. Potts matches the official military record of Clarence B. Potts of Zanesville, Ohio.
The 1952 Delayed Birth Registration shows Lawrence living at an address that matches the address shown for Clarence in the 1959 Portland City Directory.
The death date and burial location for Clarence B. Potts matches the death date and location recorded for Lawrence Burrs Potts in the Social Security Death Index.

“Some people seem to fade away but then when they are truly gone, it's like they didn't fade away at all.” ― Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Vol. 1
I found Uncle Clarence in 2003, solving the puzzle of when and where he died and was buried. Although I had not yet fleshed out his story, I was able to close this chapter for the last two family members who had known him, themselves passing in 2004 and 2006.  Despite his brief obituary, Clarence had a family who, although unknown by the friends who surrounded him in death, never forgot him.

Uncle Clarence has been found, yet his story remains unfinished.  Questions remain as to why he changed his name and race:
  • Was he running from something? Had he committed a crime, witnessed a gangland murder in 1920s Los Angeles, been arrested or was jailed?  Remember that at this time, Los Angeles's police department suffered problems of lawlessness, corruption, and graft that took on more institutional forms in the 1920s and 1930s. 
  • Was his disappearance part of a larger plan to pass for white?
  • Was he gay?  Could he have been arrested or avoiding arrest, choosing instead to live in plain sight under a slightly different name? California anti-sodomy laws were particularly strict in the early part of the 20th century, when Clarence was "coming out" of the Army and embarking on a new life.
  • Who was the Mrs. Mary Potts with whom he lived in 1942? Was she his wife or perhaps a relative from his father's unknown family? 
  • Where did the Burris middle name come from? Who was he named after?

Questions also remain as to why Clarence stopped communicating with his siblings, with whom he regularly corresponded -- they and their children knew he had joined the Merchant Marine but knew nothing about his life at sea or afterward. Next steps include (1) locating his Merchant Marine enlistment and service records, (2) ordering a copy of his death certificate -- it will be 50 years in October! when I can finally file the request, (3) locating any extant Los Angeles arrest records for 1923 to 1930 to see whether Clarence is in them, (4) learn more about Mrs. Mary Potts, and (5) locating records of the now disbanded labor union.

It appears that Uncle Clarence never married or had children.  Given his career choices, some may say that he never settled down.  I prefer to believe that he settled into a life that ultimately provided him with a sense of family, sent him around the world on adventures he would not get to experience had he become an educated professional man like his brothers, or provided him with opportunities to live beyond the constraints of being a light skinned, possibly gay, black man in America.


[i]  26 October 1888, Muskingum County, Ohio Record of Births, Probate Court, Volume 3, page 141, line 16
[ii]  Register of Births, Muskingum County, Ohio, , Volume 2, 1876-1887, page 293
[iii]  Death Records, Muskingum County, Ohio, Volume 2, page 207. Birth date based on George’s age at death (1 year and 6 days).
[iv]  21 November 1891, Muskingum County, Ohio Record of Births, Probate Court, Volume 4, page 182, line 47
[v]  28 July 1890, Although his birth record has not been found, Norman’s 1890 birth year is inferred from his being consistently positioned as being 1 year older than brother Royce, for whom a birth record confirms a November 1891 birth. 
[vi]  18 March 1895, Muskingum County, Ohio Record of Births.
[vii]  According to 1900 U.S. Census, Margaret Gant had birthed 10 children, with only 6 living.  Records have been found for seven children (Mariah b 1880, Sarah b 1886, George b 1887, Clarence b 1888, Norman b 1890, Royce b 1891, and Margaret b 1895).  It is likely that at least one additional child was born to the Gant-Williamson union (1878-1884) while at least one additional child was born to the Gant-Potts union (1885-1924) before 1900.
[viii]  Twenty-Two Years Work of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute at Hampton: records of Negro and Indian graduates and ex-students with historical and personal sketches and testimony on important race questions from within and without, to which are added ... some of the songs of the races gathered in the school: illustrated with views and maps (1893), page 113.
[ix]  1916 Zanesville City Directory, George Potts, colored, living at 442 W Main, occupation laborer.
[x]  1940 U.S. Federal Population Census, San Francisco, ED 38-604, sheet 1A, family 1, line 3. Entry states that the highest grade Clarence had completed was “H-2” or two years of high school.
[xi]  1905 Zanesville City Directory, page XXX
[xii]  1910 U.S. Federal Population Census, Falls Township, Muskingum County, Ohio, ED 59-14, sheet 12B, line 98.
[xiii]  United States Registers of Enlistments in the U.S. Army, 1798-1914," index and images, FamilySearch, 130-131, 1909-1913, L-Q > image 648 of 682; citing NARA microfilm publication M233.
[xiv]  U.S. Army Discharge bonus
[xv]  Official Roster of Ohio Soldiers, Sailors and Marines in the World War, 1917-1918. Vol. I-XXIII. Columbus, OH, USA: F. J. Heer Printing Co., 1926.
[xvi]  Green said, “During my connection with the team, it has played against players in different parts of the United States and foreign possessions and who have become famous in both the National and American Leagues, not mentioning the minor leagues at all…” <>
[xvii]  1920 U.S. Federal Population Census, Los Angeles Assembly District 74, Los Angeles, California; Enumeration District: 412; sheet 18B.
[xviii]  “United States World War II Draft Registration Cards, 1942,” Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.
[xix]  An all-black crew < >
[xx]  Decree for Registration of Birth, No 11259/35903; In the Circuit Court of the State of Oregon for the County of Multnomah; In the matter of the registration of the birth of Lawrence Burrs Potts, 31 July 1952.
[xxi]  Records of the Clackamas County Poor Farm, admittance number 16919.
[xxii]  Obituary of Clarence B. Potts. Sandy Post, 22 December 1966, page 4.