“Lost Boundaries”: Racial Passing and Poverty in Segregated New Orleans

“Lost Boundaries”: Racial Passing and Poverty in Segregated New Orleans

The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association
Volume 36, Number 3 (Summer, 1995)
pages 291-312

Arthé A. Anthony, Professor of American Studies, Emeritus
Occidental College, Los Angeles

On sunny summer Sunday afternoons in Harlem
when the air is one interminable ball game
and grandma cannot get her gospel hymns
from the Saints of God in Christ
on account of the Dodgers on the radio,
on sunny Sunday afternoons
when the kids look all new
and far too clean to stay that way,
and Harlem has its
washed-and-ironed-and-cleaned-best out,
the ones who’ve crossed the line
to live downtown
miss you,
Harlem of the bitter dream,
since their dream has
come true.

—Langston Hughes, 1951

Racial passing is a well-known theme in pre-World War II African-American literature. Adrian Piper’s recent essay, “Passing for White, Passing for Black,” is an example of continued interest in the topic. In addition, “passing” is used in cultural studies as a metaphor for masking the real-and most often marginalized-self. This article examines racial passing, with an emphasis on the lives of black Creole women, in relation to the economic impact of racial repression and segregation on black life in New Orleans. My conclusions are drawn, in large part, from an analysis of thirty extensive oral history interviews that I conducted with eighteen women and twelve men born between 1885 and 1905, and living in downtown New Orleans in 1977. Each of the men and women that I interviewed thought of themselves as “Creole,” and participated in the familial and social networks of the city’s black Creole community.

Their occupations and educations were representative of the choices then available in New Orleans. All of them worked, although the kind of work that they did changed over the life cycle; they were primarily cigar makers, seamstresses, skilled craftsmen in the building trades, postal carriers, printers, and school teachers. A few of them attended the city’s private high schools and normal schools, an accomplishment that has to be understood within the context of the limited availability of an education-private or public-for African-Americans at the turn of the century. Many others were forced to terminate their educations, in more than one instance as early as the third grade, to begin working, whereas others finished apprenticeships. Their personal lives were equally varied as reflected in the extended, nuclear and augmented households in which they lived, and their individual experiences with parenting, divorce and remarriage, as well as widowhood and desertion. Most, but not all of them, were Catholics. Despite their individual differences, as a group the Creoles of color that I interviewed shared first-hand experiences with hard work and racial discrimination. The women-a group that has been overlooked in New Orleans historiography-experienced both racial and sexual discrimination.

Each of the men and women I interviewed offered insightful interpretations of the worlds in which they lived. They were all very familiar with the myriad practices of racial passing; although they were not all light-skinned, they all knew of individuals-often a parent, spouse or friend-who had passed. More important than examples of the intricate mechanics of passing were their observations about the reasons individuals did so. Lillian Gelbart Simonet, for example, born in 1904, identified a relationship between passing for white and poverty when she remarked:

There are whole families of these people in New Orleans, (who are not necessarily Creoles), who have just been absorbed and gone to various parts of the country and they’re white. Sometimes you just can’t blame them because they have had a hard time. Creole people, with all of the airs, had a hard time to get along [because] they [the young women] would not be domestics. Some were fortunate enough to get work at El Trelles, a cigar factory . . . and Wallace Marine had a cigar factory . . . they weren’t prepared to do any kind of work that required any kind of education at all because half of them hadn’t finished high school.”

The observations of Mrs. Simonet, a retired public school teacher, call attention to the limited opportunities available to the majority of black Creoles who were poor and uneducated, unlike herself.

In the larger scheme of twentieth-century American race categorization, individuals were either black or white. Individual whites may have had preferences for light-skinned or dark-skinned African-Americans in their employ.  But overall the ethnic and cultural nuances and phenotypical differences that were critical to the intraracial dynamics of the black community were disregarded by whites in the segregated economy of New Orleans in the 1900s-1920s. Many Creoles of Color consequently were willing to accept the risks of passing for white rather than suffer the deteriorating material and social conditions endured by persons living and working as “colored.”…

…Although the history of racial passing does not evoke the clearcut ethical responses that we have to slavery it is an important part of the larger story of racism and racial repression in this country. The frequency of passing is further evidence of the fraudulence of race as a meaningful construct for other than divisive exploitation. The experiences of the black Creole men and women that I have focused on are examples of the extreme risks African-Americans born at the turn-of-the-century often felt forced to take to circumvent a poverty that was socially engineered by white supremacists who wanted to preserve decent paying jobs for whites. Therefore, to read the history of “passing” as a tragic mulatto story of self-hatred, or as evidence of a “devil may care,” Caribbean-style multiracial identity in South Louisiana is to misread the history of American race relations…

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