History Matters: The story behind ‘Lost Boundaries’

Posted in Articles, Arts, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2018-03-06 21:11Z by Steven

History Matters: The story behind ‘Lost Boundaries’

The Portsmouth Herald (Seacoast Online)
Portsmouth, New Hampshire

J. Dennis Robinson

Albert Johnston Jr. was 16 when he found out he was black. His fair-skinned African-American parents had been “passing” as white, they told him, since moving from Chicago to rural Gorham, New Hampshire, and later to Keene. Albert’s father had been the town’s country doctor with 2,500 white patients and an active member of the school board, the Masons and the Rotary. His mother, Thyra, was a two-time president of the Gorham Women’s Club and active in the Congregational Church.

Born in 1925, growing up skiing the White Mountains of the Granite State, Albert had only a single black acquaintance in high school. In an era of widespread racial segregation and discrimination, Albert felt a seismic shift as he adapted from a dark-skinned Caucasian to a light-skinned “Negro.”

Then Albert took a road trip. Two decades before Ken Kesey and Easy Rider, with only a few dollars in their pockets, Albert and an old school chum named Walt hitchhiked and hopped freight trains from New Hampshire to California. For Albert, it was a spiritual journey into the homes of his long-lost African-American relatives and into the roots of black culture. For Walt, who was white, it was a great adventure with a good friend. Albert eventually found his way home. Renewed and focused, he enrolled in the well-regarded music program at the University of New Hampshire.

And here, in a UNH college lounge in front of 20 fellow students, Albert Johnston Jr. finally laid his burden down. During a seminar on the “race problem” in America, the topic turned to “cross-bred” people. He could offer some insight on that topic, Albert told his classmates, because he, himself, was a Negro.

The room got very still, he later recalled, like the sudden silence after the climax of a concerto. The Johnston family secret was about to explode, first into the pages of Reader’s Digest magazine, and then as a controversial book and feature film called “Lost Boundaries.”…

Read the entire article here.

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They never said a word about their racial background—not even to their children, who absorbed the same toxic prejudices as their white peers.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2016-04-27 18:21Z by Steven

Years passed, and the Johnstons prospered. They moved to Keene, New Hampshire, and occupied a place of professional and social esteem in their community. They never said a word about their racial background—not even to their children, who absorbed the same toxic prejudices as their white peers. One day, Albert Jr. came home spouting some racial epithet, and his father took him aside to explain that he literally didn’t know what he was talking about. The revelation shook Albert Jr. A crisis of identity followed, and led, eventually, to his arrival in [Louis] De Rochemont’s office. Up until then, the family had maintained their secret. Albert Jr.’s story, if published, would blow their cover. The family agreed to face the consequences, and let the story proceed. The Johnstons would later tell the press that their magnanimous and tolerant neighbors never cared, that the Reader’s Digest story and its subsequent adaptations had no adverse effect. The fact is, the town did convulse, and whispered slurs behind the family’s back. Albert lost his practice, and eventually moved with Thyra to Hawaii, whose racial complexity made it a more hospitable place.

David Kalat, “Lost Boundaries (1949),” Turner Classic Movies, (February 2016). http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/81854/Lost-Boundaries/articles.html.

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Lost Boundaries (1949)

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2016-04-21 20:25Z by Steven

Lost Boundaries (1949)

Turner Classic Movies
February 2016

David Kalat

This is not a joke, but it starts like one: two men walk into an office. They have come to pitch an idea to a Hollywood mogul, an idea for a blockbuster movie. Sort of. Their idea is a docu-drama on George Washington Carver.

Perhaps the idea doesn’t strike you as a winning one. But this was no ordinary mogul. His name was Louis De Rochemont, and he was the Academy Award-winning documentarian responsible for the March of Time newsreel series. He’d segued that success into an unprecedented contract with MGM giving him creative freedom to make whatever projects he wished, on his own turf. As a New Hampshire native, his own turf meant that state — and the projects he wished were ones rooted in reality. “The aim of any drama is to give the illusion of real things,” he explained, “So why not use real things in the first place?” These were not idle words, either–he was prepared to put his money where his mouth was, and always had. At the age of twelve, he’d sent away to Popular Mechanics for the blueprints of a motion picture camera, and then built his own according to the plans. With that, he then shot some film around his hometown and sold it to theaters. This hobby found him one day shooting footage of a submarine launch in Portsmouth, which was purchased by a newsreel company. The delighted kid took his earnings and used it–get this–to go to a New York theater and see his film on the big screen. Mr. De Rochemont was an earnest fellow, and that made him an ideal producer for a Carver bio-pic.

So, he sat and listened to the pitch, unconvinced but polite enough to not kick these two equally earnest kids out of his office, like so many other movie people would have done. De Rochemont looked at the two boys in front of him, one black and one white, and asked, “I understand why you want this film made… but what about you?” The white boy, an aspiring composer named Albert Johnston, Jr., smiled at the older man’s misapprehension. He explained that although many people mistake him for white, in fact he had been passing for years. Actually, he’d been passing his whole life, and only just learned the truth.

For contemporary readers, that term “passing” may cause some puzzlement. In the late 1940s, when this took place, however, it’s another matter. It was a time of rigid racial segregation, when even “one drop of Negro blood” was enough to consign a person to a permanent second-class status. Of course, “one drop of Negro blood” is a biologically ridiculous notion. I said it wasn’t a joke, but this part certainly is. There is no scientific way to distinguish one race from another–it isn’t a biological difference, merely a cultural illusion. And as a cultural illusion, it is built entirely atop what people look like. There are people whose lineage would identify them as “black,” but who do not look it. In the absence of some external proof of “Negro blood,” then, it becomes a question of the honor system whether these straddlers would choose to opt into the second class life that their racist society demanded. Little wonder, then, that there were some who were willing to be accepted as white…

Read the entire article here.

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Movie of the Week: Lost Boundaries

Posted in Articles, Biography, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2016-04-21 02:50Z by Steven

Movie of the Week: Lost Boundaries

pages 64-66

THE DOCTOR’S SON, who has just learned he is part Negro looks at the half-moons on his nails for telltale shadows–a widely believed but completely inaccurate test of Negro blood.

Film tells real-life story of Negroes “passing” as whites

Dr. Albert Johnston (below) of Keene, N.H. is a prosperous New England physician who was a Negro for the first 28 years of his life, lived as a white man for 20 more and became a Negro again when the U.S. Navy, having investigated his past, refused him a commission for “inability to meet physical requirements.” The story of what Negroes call his “passing” is not too different from that of thousands of other technically “colored” Americans who have passed over the invisible boundary to the white race. Told by William L. White in a widely read Reader’s Digest article in 1947,  it has now been made into an honest and affecting movie by Louis de Rochemont. Using the documentary technique he popularized in Hollywood (The House on 92nd Street, Boomerang!), De Rochemont filmed Lost Boundaries against the real background of New England towns. As fictionalized for the screen, it tells of a light-skinned Negro couple (played by white actors) driven to cross the color line by poverty and the advice of friends, and of the vexations of discrimination. They build a happy but insecure life in a small town, gaining the respect and friendship of their neighbors and bringing up children in ignorance of their past. Their lives are disrupted when they have to admit the truth, but finally patched together again by tolerance and courage and good sense. Related without melodrama, acted with conviction and force, Lost Boundaries is a direct and honest account of one shadowy sector of American life where unknown thousands live today in secret conflict of loyalties and fears…

Read the entire article here.

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