The Daniel Mingus Family

Background Information

In 2018, Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM) started The African American Experiences in the Smokies (AAES) project. This project focuses on the experiences and stories of African Americans in the Smokies and surrounding areas to bring visibility to a historically overlooked population.

While the story of the Mingus Mill and the white settler Mingus family is well known in the Smokies, many people do not know the stories of the Black Minguses. Because Mingus is such a well-known name in the park, it is important that we acknowledge and be aware of those who have been previously left out of the story telling of the Mingus legacy. In doing so, a brighter light is shed on the social and racial climate in the late 19th century Smokies, as well as what life was like for African Americans in this area at the time.

The AAES project would also like to thank park volunteer Tom Powers for the research that he has conducted which connects the 20th century jazz musician and composer Charles Mingus’ ancestry to the Smokies. In doing so, he provides details of the life of his father Charles Mingus Sr., and his grandfather Daniel Mingus. This research has been invaluable in helping the AAES project take steps to conduct our own research and share this history with both the staff and public.

1 The first mill was built around 1800 by the Mingus family.

Charles Mingus Sr.

Dr. John Mingus, who replaced the Mingus Mill in 1886, was the great-grandfather of Charles Mingus who was born February 4, 1877 in Swain County.1 Charles’ mother was Clarinda Mingus (b.1862 -d.1926) and his father was a Black man named Daniel Mingus, he worked as a farm hand for Dr. Mingus. Clarinda was 19 years old when Charles was conceived; there is no certainty as to how old Daniel was at the time.

On the 1880 census record, Charles is listed as a white male at age three who was a part of the Dr.John Mingus household. This tells us that the Mingus family was likely raising him as white passing and wanted the family to appear as purely white on paper despite Charles’ Black paternal ancestry. Clarinda’s father Abraham Mingus was the local census enumerator at the time.During his research, Tom Powers found that Clarinda Mingus married a man named William Trentham in 1883 and she moved to Sevier County, Tennessee. She left Charles behind to be raised by his grandfather and great-grandparents at the family’s home in Swain County, North Carolina. When he was 14 years old Charles left the family homestead. There is no known explanation as to why Charles left home, perhaps issues concerning his race or illegitimacy emerged or had been brewing for some time.

While there is no known documentation of where Charles was and what he was doing for the next couple of years, records of his life do re-emerge beginning in 1892 when Charles enlisted in the army in Knoxville, TN, according to Powers. His recorded or stated age at the time was 18, however he was actually about 16 years old. In 1897 he enlisted in the U.S. army at 20 years old. According to Gene Santora, author of Myself When I am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus, he likely served during the Spanish American War in the Tenth Calvary, a Buffalo Soldier regiment, in the Philippines.

Sometime after being discharged in Washington at Fort Wright, Charles returned to his home to Swain County to visit his family when he was in his early 20s. He never returned to the family’s homestead after this one visit. Based on accounts from his family members, Charles did not speak about the place where he grew up often and when he did there were often inconsistencies in his storytelling. One detail that remained constant, however, is that he was not comfortable at his family’s home due to racial issues. Charles reenlisted in the army on June 12, 1902. It is possible that trauma from his upbringing contributed to the cold and stern demeanor that relatives say that he had.

Sergeant Charles Mingus, a Buffalo Soldier

For about the next 20 years of his life, Charles Mingus Sr. served in the 24th Infantry Regiment, a segregated Black regiment. The 24th Infantry Regiment was established in 1869 and was made up of African American men. Known as Buffalo Soldiers, they served primarily in the American West and were assigned with tasks that supported the United States’ efforts in westward expansion. This included fighting indigenous groups so that the government could take their land. It is believed that Native Americans called these men Buffalo Soldiers because of their fighting strength; it is also said that Native Americans gave them this name because of the texture of their hair which they compared to the fur of a Buffalo.

Buffalo Soldiers served as some of the United States’ first park rangers. Because the government wished to preserve the country’s natural spaces during westward expansion, Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872.2 At the time there was no government entity protecting National Parks as they were being established which is why the U.S. army was called to protect the parks. About 500 Buffalo Soldiers served as park rangers beginning in 1899. The soldiers served at National Parks such as Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant. Buffalo Soldiers performed tasks such as firefighting, trail blazing, and road building at these parks.

Mingus’ army career took him to various places such as Montana, New York, and various places throughout the Southwest. Some of his time was spent serving at the U.S. and Mexico border. According to Santoro, during his time in the service, he married a woman named Mary Taylor whom he met during his time in New Mexico. The couple had two daughters. Charles divorced Taylor around the year 1917 and their children remained in her care.

2 Yellowstone was the first national park in the U.S.

Life After the Army

Mingus Married his second wife, Harriet Sophia, nee Phillips on April 14, 1917. They had three children together, Vivian, Grace, and Charles. Harriet passed away on September 7th, 1922, of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. This was just five months after giving birth to their son and shortly after the couple moved to Los Angeles, CA. After serving over 20 years in the army, Mingus Sr. retired as a Staff Sergeant shortly after Harriet’s death.

Harriet was born in Texas in October of 1889. Her father was an immigrant named John Phillips from St. Helena, an island off the coast of West Africa that is a part of the British Overseas Territory. John’s Father was from China and his mother was also from St. Helena. He made his living as a stone mason. Harriet’s mother, Mariah Phillips, was a Black woman from Texas; her father was from Missouri and her mother was from Virginia. John and Mariah had 13 children. The entire family, a family of 11 at the time, is listed as Black in the 1900 census record for Kinney County, TX. However, John Phillips reflects much of his Chinese ancestry in an alleged photo of him found on FamilySearch.

Charles Mingus Sr. went on to marry his third wife Mamie Newton Carson on July 1, 1923 after Harriet passed away. Mamie is believed to have been a half Black and half Native American woman from South Carolina. She had one child named Odell prior to her marriage to Charles. The family moved to a home in Watts, Los Angeles, CA shortly after the couple’s marriage. According to the 1930 census, Charles worked as a janitor at the United States Post Office after retiring from the army. Charles passed away on February 14, 1951 at age 74 in Los Angeles. His occupation on his death certificate is listed as a carpenter and Daniel Mingus is listed as his father. He is buried at the Los Angeles National Cemetery.

Daniel Mingus

Charles Mingus Sr.’s father was a Black man named Daniel Mingus who worked on Dr. John Mingus’ farm. He shares the last name Mingus with the white settler family because he was formerly enslaved by the Mingus family.3 According to Powers’ research, Daniel Mingus is referred to as “Dan Mingus” in a 1934 article which states that he helped build his former enslavers’ new home in 1877. This is the year that Charles Mingus was born and he grew up in the home that Daniel helped construct.

Powers’ research also led him to another 1934 article that was written in the Asheville Citizen Times which describes a walnut chest that was built in the mid 1800s prior to the Civil War by “Dan Mingus, a negro servant in the John Mingus family”. The chest became a Mingus family heirloom. It is possible that those buried at the Enloe Mingus Slave Cemetery could be relatives of Daniel’s, or perhaps people who he had known and interacted with at some point in his life.

Daniel Mingus appears on the 1870 census record as a 35-year-old farmhand who was a part of John Mingus’ household along with Clarinda Mingus.4 On October 27, 1870 Daniel married a white woman named Sarah. The couple is listed on the 1880 census record as parents to five mulatto sons, Abraham, Hamilton, John, Franklin, and Edward Mingus. Given that Charles was born around 1877, he was the product of Daniel’s extramarital affair with Clarinda Mingus.

On the 1880 census record, Daniel is listed as 31 years old and Sarah is listed as 28 years old. This contradicts Daniel’s age on the 1870 census. Inconsistencies like this are common when it comes to individuals who were formerly enslaved, as many did not know their exact birth year. Sometimes enslavers knew the birth years because enslaved people were documented as property and birth years were sometimes marked, but record keeping of this nature was not common in the Smokies. To further complicate things, Daniel’s death certificate states that he died at 90 years old on August 16, 1917. This would make his birth year about 1827. According to the death certificate, he died of heart disease. He is likely buried in Macon County, NC in the Cowee-Wests’s Mill community, possibly at Pleasant Hill Cemetery where several of his descendants are buried.5

Due to his bi-racial parentage, Charles Mingus Sr. was fair skinned with light colored eyes and could have been perceived as a white man. Perhaps to claim or emphasize his own Blackness, one of Charles’ daughters said that he would say that his father, Daniel, was an African who got an enslaver’s daughter pregnant, and that Mingus was an African name. Africa is even listed as the birthplace of his father on the 1930 census record and Charles is listed as Negro, not mulatto or white. His wife, Mamie, and his children are also listed as Negro.We do not know the nature or extent of Daniel and Charles relationship, or if they even had one when Charles was a child.

3 Slavery was officially abolished on December 18, 1865 in the United States.
4 Clarinda is listed as Clarinda Sellers on the 1870 census because she had her mother’s maiden name at the time. Her mother was Martha Adeline Sellers.
5 According to the Cowee School Arts and Heritage Center, “in the 1900 census Cowee had the largest rural, Black community in North Carolina west of the Balsam Mountains”. Please see our oral history folder in the U-drive to learn more about Daniel Mingus’ descendants who still live in Cowee today.

Charles Mingus Jr

Charles Mingus Sr.’s son, Charles Mingus Jr., was a great jazz composer, double bassist, pianist, and band leader popularly known simply as Charles Mingus. To avoid confusion, he will be referred to as Charles Mingus Jr. in this resource brief. Charles Jr. was born on a military base on April 22, 1922 in Nogales, AZ. He grew up in Watts, Los Angeles, CA where he developed his love for music.

Mingus Jr. toured with Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, and Lionel Hampton’s band among many others in the 1940s. His career led him to New York in 1951 where he recorded with Duke Ellington and Miles Davis in addition to several other well-known musicians of the mid 20th century. Charles Jr. eventually created his own recording and publishing companies to protect and oversee the progression of his own work. His record label was called Charles Mingus Enterprises Label. Throughout the course of his career, Mingus Jr. created 300 compositions and dozens of albums. Much of the popular music of the 1950s and ‘60s was produced by Charles Mingus Jr.

Known as a lover of poetry, philosophy, and history, Charles Jr. had a great appreciation for art and film which he incorporated into many of his musical works. He was also known as a very passionate man who was just as romantic as he was hot tempered, perhaps a trait that he inherited from his father.

Charles Jr. created multiple written, spoken, and musical pieces to express his feelings and frustrations as a Black man with mixed racial ancestry living in the United States, as well as his frustrations with the music industry. According to Santoro, he began to write a book titled Memoirs of a Half-Schitt-Colored-Nigger in the 1950s.

It appears that this work was never published. Mingus Jr.’s autobiography titled Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus was published in 1971. However, this autobiography is believed to be full of exaggerated and imagined stories and details of Mingus’ life.

Charles Mingus Jr. was married to at least three different women during his lifetime. He married Celia Zaentz in 1951 who was his wife of seven years. In 1960 he married Judith Starkey; they were married for ten years. Lastly, he married Sue Graham Mingus in 1975. Mingus Jr. is known to have one child, Eric Mingus who was born on July 8, 1964 in New York City. Taking after his father, Eric Mingus is a blues and jazz singer.

In 1977 Mingus Jr. was diagnosed with a nerve disease which eventually bound him to a wheelchair. Unable to write music or play instruments, his later works were sung and preserved on tape recorders. He passed away in Mexico at 56 years old on January 5, 1979. During his lifetime, he toured the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan, and South America. In his memory, April 22 was designated as Charles Mingus Day in New York and Washington, DC.


Research Refrences

“About the Cowee Community.” Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center, Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center, Accessed 15 Mar. 2023.

“Buffalo Soldiers.”, The National Park Service, 4 Jan. 2023, Accessed 15 Mar. 2023.

Clark, Alexis. “Why Buffalo Soldiers Served among the Nation’s First Park Rangers.” HISTORY, HISTORY, Accessed 15 Mar. 2023.

Johnson, Weldon B. “Nogales Celebrates Jazz Great Charles Mingus, Hometown Son.” The Arizona Republic, The Republic, 18 Apr. 2018, Accessed 15 Mar. 2023.

Powers, Tom. “MINGUS MILL SLICES of HISTORY from the GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS.” MINGUS MILL, Word Press, 4 May 2020, Accessed 15 Mar. 2023.

Santoro, Gene. Myself When I Am Real : The Life and Music of Charles Mingus. 2023. New York ; Oxford, Oxford University Press, 29 Nov. 2001, Accessed 15 Mar. 2023.

Shubert, Frank. “Buffalo Soldiers: Myths and Realities.”, JSTOR, 2001, Accessed 15 Mar. 2023.

Last updated: March 15, 2023

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