The Invisible Line Between Black and White

The Invisible Line Between Black and White

T. A. Frail

Vanderbilt professor Daniel Sharfstein discusses the history of the imprecise definition of race in America

For much of their history, Americans dealt with racial differences by drawing a strict line between white people and black people. But Daniel J. Sharfstein, an associate professor of law at Vanderbilt University, notes that even while racial categories were rigidly defined, they were also flexibly understood—and the color line was more porous than it might seem. His new book, The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White, traces the experience of three families—the Gibsons, the Spencers and the Walls—beginning in the 17th century. Smithsonian magazine’s T.A. Frail spoke with Sharfstein about his new book:

People might assume that those who crossed the line from black to white had to cover their tracks pretty thoroughly, which would certainly complicate any research into their backgrounds. But does that assumption hold?

That’s the typical account of passing for white—that it involved wholesale masquerade. But what I found was, plenty of people became recognized as white in areas where their families were well known and had lived for generations, and many could cross the line even when they looked different. Many Southern communities accepted individuals even when they knew those individuals were racially ambiguous—and that happened even while those communities supported slavery, segregation and very hard-line definitions of race.

So how did you find the three families you wrote about?

It was a long process. I began by trying to find as many of these families as I could in the historical record. That involved reading a lot of histories and memoirs, and then moving from there to dozens and dozens of court cases where courts had to determine whether people were black or white, and from there to property records and census records and draft records and newspaper accounts. And I developed a list of dozens, even hundreds of families that I could be writing about, and then narrowed it down. The three families that I chose represent the diversity of this process of crossing the color line and assimilating into white communities. I chose families that lived in different parts of the South that became white at different points in American history and from different social positions.

And how did those families come to know about their ancestry?

For many generations, members of these three families tried to forget that they had ever been African-American—and yet when I traced the families to the present and began contacting the descendants almost everyone I contacted knew about their history. It seems that the secrets of many generations are no match for the Internet. In many families, people would talk about going to the library and seeing that it had, say, a searchable 1850 census. One woman described the experience of typing in her great-grandfather’s name, finding him, and then having to call over the librarian to go through the handwritten enumeration form with her—she had to ask the librarian what “MUL” meant, not knowing it meant he was mulatto, or of mixed race. Every family seemed to have a story like this…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , ,