To Escape Jim Crow–Era Discrimination and Violence, Some Black Men Passed as White. But How Many?

Posted in Articles, Census/Demographics, Economics, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2021-07-03 03:24Z by Steven

To Escape Jim Crow–Era Discrimination and Violence, Some Black Men Passed as White. But How Many?

Kellogg Insight
Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University
Evanston, Illinois
2021-04-01

Based on the Research of:

Ricardo Dahis, Ph.D. Candidate in Economics
Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois

Emily Nix, Assistant Professor of Finance and Business Economics
University of Southern California, Los Angeles

Nancy Qian, James J. O’Connor Professor of Managerial Economics & Decision Sciences
Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois


Lisa Röper

Hundreds of thousands, according to a new study of Census data. Doing so provided some economic benefits but came at a great personal cost.

In the 1920s, a doctor named Albert Johnston had trouble finding a medical residency. Johnston was biracial, with Black ancestry, and hospitals at the time often did not permit Black physicians to treat white patients. But when a Maine hospital allowed him to apply without specifying his race, Johnston finally secured a position. He and his wife Thyra, who was one-eighth Black, started a new life as a white couple.

Johnston’s decision was an example of “passing”: identifying as a different race. During the Jim Crow era, when Black people were systematically denied opportunities and lived under the threat of lynching, some who were able to pass chose to do so in order to avoid the economic, physical, and social injustices of the time. And while historians and biographers have documented many instances of passing, researchers have not had a clear idea of how common this behavior was.

“The big question is, can we quantify this?” says Ricardo Dahis, a PhD student in economics at Northwestern University, who coauthored a study on this topic with Nancy Qian, a professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at Kellogg, and Emily Nix at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.

To come up with numbers, the researchers searched detailed U.S. census records taken from 1880 to 1940. They were able to thus track specific people through time and note if their race changed from one census to the next. (Women were too difficult to track because they usually changed their last names after marriage.) The team estimated that, on average, at least 1.4 percent of Black men under age 55 started passing as white per decade, adding up to more than 300,000 men over the study period. However, the estimate is very conservative, and the actual rate could be as high as 7–10 percent, the researchers say.

Men who passed often moved to other counties or states. Census records suggest that in some cases, the men passed without their Black wives or children; in others, the entire family may have passed as white.

“Racial discrimination was so extreme that in order to escape it, people redefined themselves,” Qian says. “They changed their own identity.”…

Read the entire article here.

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Passing, in Moments

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2019-07-29 00:07Z by Steven

Passing, in Moments

Topic Magazine
Issue No. 25, Journeys
July 2019

Mat Johnson

The uneasy existence of being black and passing for white.

When I was 12, my Aunt Margaret told me, “You got straight hair, you got pale skin. If people don’t know you’re colored, don’t tell them.”

Aunt Margaret was black, but if you said “black” and not “colored,” she would go off on you. I was black too—still am—but I look white. Or I look whitish; it depends on the viewer. My father’s white and my mother is black, but high yellow and racially ambiguous. Though my mom insisted I was black too, I found a strong argument against that every time I looked in the mirror. And I grew up cut off from my extended black family, which just added to that feeling of disconnection. Sometimes I’d tell other kids I was black, and until they saw my mom, they wouldn’t believe me.

One time I told Aunt Margaret, “Nobody at school knows I’m black—”

“Colored.”

“Nobody at school knows I’m colored.”

She looked at me like I’d lost my mind. That’s when she said it, holding one of my flaccid brown curls in her hand like it was a piece of gold. “You got straight hair, you got pale skin. If people don’t know you’re colored, don’t tell them!”

At 12 years old, I thought Aunt Margaret was confused. I thought her response was antiquated, ridiculously old-fashioned, like how she insisted on using the word “colored” instead of “black.” I thought it was cute. I thought it was funny.

At 19, radical as all undergraduates should be, I thought that, despite how much I loved Aunt Margaret, that she was a color-struck sellout for telling me to live my life as a white man. That, in essence, she was encouraging me to abandon my roots, to reject the black community, in exchange for complete access to white privilege.

At 49, I think she told me what she told me because she loved me. Because she’d been black in America for 80-some years and she didn’t want me to have to endure the way she did. That she wanted the safety of whiteness for me. That she wanted me to thrive, but also to have the full force of America’s wind at my back, instead of getting hit with it head-on.

That Aunt Margaret was expressing what generations of black mothers sometimes told white-appearing children, particularly boys: escape from blackness for your survival.

(And, also, she was color-struck.)…

Read the entire article here.

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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
2018-03-05

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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Philanthropy, Jobs for African Youth, Racial Passing

Posted in Audio, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2016-06-03 14:29Z by Steven

Philanthropy, Jobs for African Youth, Racial Passing

Top of Mind with Julie Rose
BYU Radio
2016-05-25

Julie Rose, Host

Racial Passing (52:22)

Guest: Allyson Hobbs, PhD, Assistant Professor of American History at Stanford University, Author of “A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life.”

A 1949 film called “Lost Boundaries” tells the mostly-true story of Albert and Thyra Johnston – a respected doctor and his blue-eyed high-society wife – who passed for “white” in a New Hampshire town, raised their children to believe they were white and then were outed as having African American heritage. The film ends with a minister preaching a sermon about tolerance. The subtext is that this is a town of magnanimous white Christians willing to forgive the Johnstons for deceiving them.

But were the Johnstons really in need of forgiveness? Or did the greater sin lie with the community’s racist conditions that prompted the Johnstons to claim whiteness in the first place?

Stanford history professor Allyson Hobbs explores the long history of racial passing in America in her acclaimed 2014 book, “A Chosen Exile.” It is fundamentally, she says, a book about loss. Those who “passed” as white had a world of privileges opened up to them from the time of slavery through the era of Jim Crow laws. But they lost family and ties to a community. Many even lost themselves.

Listen to the interview (00:52:22) 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

LIFE
1949-07-04
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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‘A Chosen Exile,’ by Allyson Hobbs [Senna Review]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2014-11-22 03:00Z by Steven

‘A Chosen Exile,’ by Allyson Hobbs [Senna Review]

The New York Times
Sunday Book Review
2014-11-21

Danzy Senna

A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life By Allyson Hobbs; Illustrated. 382 pp. Harvard University Press. $29.95.

One of the best birthday presents anybody ever gave me was a “calling card” by the conceptual artist Adrian Piper. I was in college at the time, and it felt like the ultimate inside joke handed from one racially ambiguous person to another.

Slim and innocuous as a business card, it reads: “Dear Friend, I am black. I am sure you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark. In the past I have attempted to alert people to my identity in advance. . . . I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you, just as I’m sure you regret the discomfort your racism is causing me.”

To be black but to be perceived as white is to find yourself, at times, in a racial no man’s land. It is to feel like an embodiment of W. E. B. Du Bois’s double consciousness — that sense of being in two places at the same time. It is also to be perpetually aware of both the primacy of race and the “bankruptcy of the race idea,” as Allyson Hobbs, an assistant professor of history at Stanford University, puts it in her incisive new cultural history, “A Chosen Exile.”

Hobbs is interested in the stories of individuals who chose to cross the color line — black to white — from the late 1800s up through the 1950s. It’s a story we’ve of course read and seen before in fictional accounts — numerous novels and films that have generally portrayed mixed-race characters in the sorriest of terms. Like gay characters, mulattoes always pay for their existence dearly in the end. Joe Christmas, the tormented drifter in William Faulkner’sLight in August,” considers his blackness evidence of original sin (a.k.a. miscegenation) and ends up castrated and murdered. Sarah Jane, a character in Douglas Sirk’s 1959 remake of the film “Imitation of Life,” denies her black mother in her attempt to be seen as white. Her tragedy once again feels like mixed fate. As her long-suffering mother puts it, “How do you tell a child that she was born to be hurt?”…

Read the entire review here.

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Passing For White

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2014-10-19 21:40Z by Steven

Passing For White

South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Fort Lauderdale, Florida
2003-11-01

David Crary
The Associated Press

America is more diverse than ever and racial pride is strong, yet a new movie and book are highlighting a phenomenon that seems like a relic of the segregationist past — black people passing as white.

The film, The Human Stain, is an adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel about a classics professor, played by Anthony Hopkins, who conceals his racial background.

The book, Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are, by Brooke Kroeger, includes a sympathetic profile of a black man who passed as a white Jew during the 1980s and ’90s.

Kroeger, a New York University journalism professor who spent four years researching her book, said passing has a profound resonance for many black Americans.

“Over and over, I’d hear personal stories about members of their family who didn’t return for reunions, who led clandestine lives,” she said.

“Traditionally, the attitude toward passing was you accepted it, you never exposed a passer. Post-1960s, when people are so proud of their racial and ethnic identities, it seems more like cultural treason, yet still people don’t give passers up.”

Paul Johnston, a retired X-ray technician, knows of passing firsthand. His parents, Albert and Thyra Johnston, passed as white along with Paul and his three older siblings while the family lived in two New Hampshire towns during the 1930s and ’40s. Albert was a physician in the community.

The truth of the Johnstons’ background came out in 1941, when Albert was rejected as a Navy officer. But despite the family’s fears, townspeople in Keene, N.H., were generally receptive to them even after the news spread, and the Johnstons’ experience was movingly depicted in a 1949 film, Lost Boundaries.

Paul Johnston, 68, is now married to a woman of Irish descent who has nine children from a previous marriage.

“Some of the kids were pretty prejudiced, but they grew to like me,” he said in a telephone interview. “They thought it was quite fascinating that something like this [his family’s passing] would happen.”

Johnston, who says some of his relatives continue to pass for white, lives in a predominantly white town on Cape Cod.

“Almost nobody knows of my background, not because I’ve kept it a secret, just because I haven’t talked about it much except to a few people in my church,” he said. “I don’t think it would make any difference to people, but you never can tell.”…

…In The Human Stain, Roth’s fictional protagonist, Coleman Silk, was loosely modeled on the late Anatole Broyard, for many years a prominent literary critic for The New York Times

Read the entire article here.

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‘A Chosen Exile’: Black People Passing In White America

Posted in Articles, Audio, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2014-10-08 00:47Z by Steven

‘A Chosen Exile’: Black People Passing In White America

Code Switch: Frontiers of Race, Culture and Ethnicity
All Things Considered
National Public Radio
2014-10-07

Karen Grigsby Bates, Correspondent
Culver City, California


Dr. Albert Johnston passed in order to practice medicine. After living as leading citizens in Keene, N.H., the Johnstons revealed their true racial identity, and became national news. (Historical Society of Cheshire County)

Several years ago, Stanford historian Allyson Hobbs was talking with a favorite aunt, who was also the family storyteller. Hobbs learned that she had a distant cousin whom she’d never met nor heard of.

Which is exactly the way the cousin wanted it.

Hobbs’ cousin had been living as white, far away in California, since she’d graduated from high school. This was at the insistence of her mother.

“She was black, but she looked white,” Hobbs said. “And her mother decided it was in her best interest to move far away from Chicago, to Los Angeles, and to assume the life of a white woman.”…

…Hobbs began writing about passing for her doctoral dissertation, and was encouraged to turn it into a book. The dissertation became A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in America. It’s a history of passing told through the lens of personal stories…

…Then there’s the sad tale of Elsie Roxborough, a beauty from a distinguished Detroit family who became the first black girl to live in a dorm at the University of Michigan. She tried acting in California, then moved to New York to live as a white woman. When her disapproving father refused to support her, Roxborough — then known as Mona Manet — committed suicide. Her grieving and equally pale sister passed as a white woman to claim the body, so Roxborough’s secret wouldn’t be given away. Her death certificate declared she was white….

Read the article here. Listen to the story (00:04:58) here. Download the story here.

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