Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy by Alisha Gaines (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2019-01-09 22:27Z by Steven

Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy by Alisha Gaines (review)

Journal of Southern History
The Southern Historical Association
Volume 84, Number 3, August 2018
pages 787-789
DOI: 10.1353/soh.2018.0230

Martha J. Cutter, Professor of English and Africana Studies
University of Connecticut

Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy. By Alisha Gaines. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. Pp. xvi, 213. Paper, $27.95, ISBN 978-1-4696-3283-4; cloth, $80.00, 978-1-4696-3282-7.)

For many years, we have been told that passing is passé. Yet the recent media frenzy surrounding Rachel Dolezal proves that U.S. culture is still vehemently invested in defining the boundaries of whiteness and blackness. When I flashed a PowerPoint slide of Dolezal last spring in my African American literature class, students broke into a cacophony of groans, shouts, and exclamations of “she’s not black!” I was surprised that all but one of my students instantly recognized Dolezal’s image and that virtually everyone had an opinion about her. The plethora of recent books on racial passing—both on African Americans who pass as white and Anglo Americans who pass as black—further demonstrates this topic’s great fascination. Despite postmodern views that race is a construct, scholars often want to pin a racial passer into one category, usually as either a seeker of freedom from racial codes or a betrayer of his or her “true” race. Yet few have considered what passing tells us about our own investments in racial binaries.

I therefore turned with pleasure to Alisha Gaines’s thoughtful book, Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy, which joins a slim list of studies of “‘passing, in reverse'”: the phenomenon of white people who pass for and sometimes claim to become black (p. 17). Other books on this subject include Baz Dreisinger’s Near Black: White-to-Black Passing in American Culture (Amherst, Mass., 2008) and some chapters in Julie Cary Nerad’s edited collection, Passing Interest: Racial Passing in US Novels, Memoirs, Television, and Film, 1990–2010 (Albany, N.Y., 2014). Gaines mentions only one of these works, although I trust that she has consulted both of them.

Gaines’s book is well written and compelling. Her argument that white people’s attempts at “cross-racial empathy” and identification often fail because of their refusal to consider the larger structural and institutional causes of racism is certainly sound (p. 8). Moreover, her use of archival sources is exemplary. I have written about white-to-black passing, yet I still learned much factual information about the passers she studies, including Ray Sprigle, a journalist who published In the Land of Jim Crow (1949); John Howard Griffin, whose book Black Like Me (1961) eclipsed the accounts of all other would-be white passers; Grace Halsell, a white woman and a journalist who took on Griffin’s mantle and published Soul Sister (1969); and finally, the families who switched races in the six-episode television series Black. White. (2006). The book concludes with a short examination of Rachel Dolezal, whom Gaines refuses to consider as “transracial” because the theorization of this term “falls apart” (p. 170). She explains that “blackness becomes the space of racial play, performance, and affect, whereas whiteness does not” (p. 170). This ignores that some light-skinned African Americans did play with whiteness (Jean Toomer, for example) and that some white people crossed over into blackness never to come back (Clarence King and Mezz Mezzrow, for instance). Gaines focuses on creating a genealogy of “temporary black individuals operating under the alibi of racial empathy” in order to illustrate the frequent failure of cross-racial empathy and intimacy (p. 8). Still, I found myself wondering what conclusions Gaines might have reached had she looked at less famous individuals who passed permanently into blackness.

As I have argued elsewhere, passing is a slippery term with roots in deceit and disguise, magic and transformation. The examples Gaines has chosen to include support her argument that temporary assumptions of blackness cannot lead to structural or institutional change. The book might have benefited from a deeper excavation of previous scholarship on white-to-black passing and empathy, but even so, Gaines offers a valuable assessment of how white people problematically inhabit the…

Read or purchase the article here.

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A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life by Allyson Hobbs (review) [King]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2017-02-24 01:04Z by Steven

A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life by Allyson Hobbs (review)

Journal of Southern History
Volume 82, Number 2, May 2016
pages 465-466
DOI: 10.1353/soh.2016.0107

Wilma King, Professor Emerita of History
University of Missouri

A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life. By Allyson Hobbs. (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 2014. Pp. [xii], 382. $29.95, ISBN 978-0-674-36810-1.)

An insightful introduction prepares readers for five deeply researched chapters and an epilogue constituting what Allyson Hobbs describes as a history of racial passing in American life. Two well-developed themes in the text add to its significance. First, Hobbs argues that the perceived need for racial passing changed over time. Before the Civil War, slaves passed to escape bondage, not blackness. Later, the promises of Reconstruction encouraged blacks to believe treatment equal to that enjoyed by whites was imminent. Instead, political disenfranchisement, social intimidation, and economic deprivation followed. Racial passing was a viable option to escape those circumstances. However, during the 1920s the Harlem Renaissance expanded conceptions of racial identity and offered alternatives to passing. The elimination of some racial barriers after World War II rendered racial passing passé. Second, the author calls attention to both the intended and unintended consequences of blacks passing as whites. On one hand, passing offered opportunities for economic gains, but on the other hand, there were social losses associated with leaving families and friends behind. “Once one circumvented the law, fooled coworkers, deceived neighbors, tricked friends, and sometimes even duped children and spouses,” writes Hobbs, “there were enormous costs to pay” (p. 5).

The author contends “the core issue of passing is not becoming what you pass for, but losing what you pass away from” (p. 18). Passing, a performative, subversive, and tactical exercise, required constant vigilance to protect a newly crafted identity from exposure. Eventually, those who passed, temporarily or permanently, faced questions about gains and losses. A variety of historical and literary sources, supplemented by materials from popular and mixed media, make A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life come to life as readers are introduced to racially ambiguous women and men, including Ellen Craft, Henry Bibb, John H. Rapier, and descendants of Sally Hemings and Sarah Martha Sanders, all of whom were interested in acquiring equal opportunities, suffrage, and citizenship, more so than in actually becoming white…

Read the entire review here.

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Power, Perception, and Interracial Sex: Former Slaves Recall a Multiracial South

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Media Archive, Native Americans/First Nation, Slavery on 2011-12-21 01:27Z by Steven

Power, Perception, and Interracial Sex: Former Slaves Recall a Multiracial South

The Journal of Southern History
Volume 71, Number 3 (August, 2005)
pages 559-588

Fay A. Yarbrough, Associate Professor of History
University of Oklahoma

My father’s name wuz Robert Stewart. He wuz a white man. My mother wuz named Ann. She wuz part Indian. Her father wuz a Choctaw Indian and her mother a black woman—a slave.” This is how Charley Stewart, a former slave, described his lineage. Stewart was not alone in claiming parents and grandparents of mixed racial heritage; there are many references to mixed-race ancestry in the interviews of ex-slaves collected by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s. The interviews also contain candid observations about interracial unions in general and about how people of African descent understood relationships that crossed social. legal, and racial boundaries. The former slaves described various combinations of racial unions and their ramifications for the participants, families, fellow slaves, and offspring. This article will consider the words of ex-slaves, using the WPA collection and a selection of biographies and autobiographies of slaves, and will re-create descriptions of and attitudes toward interracial sex during the nineteenth century. These accounts…

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“The Last Stand”: The Fight for Racial Integrity in Virginia in the 1920s

Posted in Articles, History, Law, Media Archive, United States, Virginia on 2011-07-21 23:52Z by Steven

“The Last Stand”: The Fight for Racial Integrity in Virginia in the 1920s

Richard B. Sherman, Chancellor Professor of History
College of William and Mary

The Journal of Southern History
Volume 54, Number 1 (February, 1988)
pages 69-92

By the 1920s many southern whites had come to believe that the race question was settled. White supremacy had been assured and the subordinate position of blacks effectively guaranteed by ostensibly constitutional methods of disfranchisement, Jim Crow laws, and other forms of racial discrimination. In Virginia, however, a small but determined group of racial zealots insisted that such steps were not enough. The race problem, they argued, was no longer political; it was biological. Believing that extreme measures had to be taken to prevent the contamination of white blood, they initiated and led an emotional campaign for stringent new laws to preserve racial integrity. Without these, they warned, amalgamation was inevitable. These racial purists were convinced that their fight was a “Last Stand” to keep America white and to save civilization itself from downfall. The campaign for racial integrity in Virginia was not the product of a great popular ground swell. Rather, it was primarily the work of this dedicated coterie of extremists who played effectively on the fears and prejudices of many whites. Ultimately they were able to achieve some, although not all, of their legislative goals. Their activities, nonetheless, were significant and had an impact on Virginia that was felt long after the 1920s.

During the first two decades of the twentieth century a number of steps had been taken in Virginia to “settle” the race question and to guarantee white supremacy. One of the most important measures had been the adoption of a new constitution in 1902 with provisions that severely contracted the franchise. As a result Virginia came to be controlled by a remarkably small political and social elite, while blacks were largely eliminated as a political force capable of providing…

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The campaign for racial purity and the erosion of paternalism in Virginia, 1922-1930: “nominally white, biologically mixed, and legally Negro”.

Posted in Articles, History, Law, Media Archive, Passing, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science, United States, Virginia on 2011-05-18 01:52Z by Steven

The campaign for racial purity and the erosion of paternalism in Virginia, 1922-1930: “nominally white, biologically mixed, and legally Negro”.

The Journal of Southern History
Volume 68, Number 1 (February 2002)
pages 65-106

J. Douglas Smith

In September 1922 John Powell, a Richmond native and world-renowned pianist and composer, and Earnest Sevier Cox, a self-proclaimed explorer and ethnographer, organized Post No. 1 of the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America. By the following June the organization claimed four hundred members in Richmond alone and had added new groups throughout the state, all dedicated to “the preservation and maintenance of Anglo-Saxon ideals and civilization.” For the next ten years Powell and his supporters dominated racial discourse in the Old Dominion; successfully challenged the legislature to redefine blacks, whites, and Indians; used the power of a state agency to enforce the law with impunity fundamentally altered the lives of hundreds of mixed-race Virginians; and threatened the essence of the state’s devotion to paternalistic race relations.

The racial extremism and histrionics of the leaders of the Anglo-Saxon Clubs have attracted the attention of both legal scholars and southern historians, particularly those interested in the 1924 Racial Integrity Act, the major legislative achievement of the organization, and Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed three centuries of miscegenation statutes in the United States. Historian Richard B. Sherman, for instance, has focused on the organization’s leaders, “a small but determined group of racial zealots who rejected the contention of most southern whites in the 1920s that the “race question was settled.” Sherman, who has written the most detailed account of the legislative efforts of the Anglo-Saxon Clubs, has argued in the pages of the Journal of Southern History that the leaders of the organization constituted a “dedicated coterie of extremists who played effectively on the fears and prejudices of many whites.” Convinced that increasing numbers of persons with traces of black blood were passing as white, they made a “Last Stand” against racial amalgamation.

While Sherman is certainly correct that the Anglo-Saxon Clubs owed their success to the commitment of their leaders, their views and policies resonated with a much broader swath of the white population. The Anglo-Saxon Clubs did not merely manipulate the racial fears and prejudices of whites but also tapped into the same assumptions that undergirded the entire foundation of white supremacy and championed segregation as a system of racial hierarchy and control. The call for racial integrity appealed especially to elite whites in Virginia who were obsessed with genealogy and their pristine bloodlines. Lady Astor, for instance, reportedly informed her English friends that they lacked the purity of the white inhabitants of the Virginia Piedmont. “We are undiluted,” she proclaimed. Author Emily Clark satirized this prevailing view in Richmond when one of her characters remarked, “for here alone, in all America, flourished the Anglo-Saxon race, untainted, pure, and perfect.” White elites across Virginia gave their support to the Anglo-Saxon Clubs and allowed Powell’s message a hearing: state senators and delegates approved legislation; governors publicly advocated the aims of the organization; some of the most socially prominent women in Richmond joined the ladies auxiliary; and influential newspapers offered editorial support and provided a public platform for the dissemination of the organization’s extreme views…

…In addition to exposing a fundamental weakness in the system of managed race relations, the Anglo-Saxon Clubs unintentionally revealed the absurdity of the basic assumption that underlay their mission: it proved impossible to divide the state, or the nation for that matter, into readily identifiable races. The longer they waged their campaign, the more apparent it became that they could not divine the precise amount of nonwhite blood in a given individual. Furthermore, the Anglo-Saxon Clubs met a great deal of resistance from individuals and communities who rejected the clubs’ particular construction of racial identity. Communities across the state revealed a variability in race relations that confounded those most committed to a discrete, binary definition of race…

…Although Powell and Cox initially placed their efforts within the broader nativist context of the national debate over federal immigration policy, they soon ceased to mention immigration at all. (11) Instead, they focused their energies toward “achieving a final solution” to the “negro problem.” Their ultimate concern, as they suggested in lengthy articles in the Times-Dispatch, was to prevent “White America” from devolving into a “Negroid Nation.” Writing in July 1923, Powell argued that the passage of Jim Crow laws and the disfranchisement of blacks had “diverted the minds of our people from the most serious and fundamental peril, that is, the danger of racial amalgamation.” “It is not enough to segregate the Negro on railway trains and street cars, in schools and theaters,” the pianist declared; “it is not enough to restrict his exercise of the franchise, so long as the possibility remains of the absorption of Negro blood into our white population.” Powell acknowledged that Virginia’s laws already prevented the intermarriage of blacks and whites but warned that such laws did not necessarily “prevent intermixture.” He and his colleagues in the Anglo-Saxon Clubs also believed that a 1910 Virginia statute that defined a black person as having at least one-sixteenth black blood no longer protected the integrity of the white race. Pointing to census figures that showed a decrease in the number of mulattoes in Virginia from 222,910 in 1910 to 164,171 in 1920, they argued that an increasing number of people with some black blood must be passing as white. Consequently, a new, “absolute” color line offered the only “possibility, if not the probability, of achieving a final solution.”

Powell’s analysis of census data, however, points to the absurdity of his campaign to define race in absolute terms. While Powell interpreted the steep drop in mulattoes as proof of increased passing, historian Joel Williamson argues that by the early twentieth century the only significant “mixing” occurred between lighter-skinned blacks and darker-skinned blacks. Even census officials warned in 1920 that “considerable uncertainty necessarily attaches to the classification of Negroes as black and mulatto, since the accuracy of the distinction depends largely upon the judgment and care employed by the enumerators.” Mulattoes in Virginia did not become white between 1910 and 1920 but rather became black. In fact, the census bureau did away with mulatto as a category for the 1930 enumeration…

…Although Powell was the Anglo-Saxon Clubs’ leading spokesman, Walter Plecker, as director of the Bureau of Vital Statistics, was without a doubt the group’s primary enforcer. From 1924 until his retirement twenty-two years later, Plecker waged a campaign of threats and intimidation aimed at classifying all Virginians by race and identifying even the smallest traces of black blood in the state’s citizens. In short, the statistician operated on the belief that a person was guilty of being black until he or she could prove otherwise.

Plecker considered it his mission to encourage as many Virginians as possible to register with the state. Between ten and twenty thousand near-white Virginians, he noted, “possess an intermixture of colored blood, in some cases to a slight extent, it is true, but still enough to prevent them from being white.” Such people previously had been considered white, which had allowed them to demand “admittance of their children to white schools” and “in not a few cases” to marry whites. Although such people were “scarcely distinguished as colored,” they “are not white in reality.” Registration, he argued, would enable the Bureau of Vital Statistics to head off such trouble…

…Linking racial integrity and segregated schools assumed a level of critical importance as the General Assembly prepared to meet in January 1930. Revelations that a number of mixed-race children attended white schools in Essex County provided advocates of a stricter racial-definition law the means of persuasion that they had lacked in 1926 and 1928 when they were seen as unnecessarily harassing the state’s Indians. The situation in Essex County first developed in 1928 as local school officials took steps to remove from the white schools children considered mixed. One family resisted, hired a lawyer, and filed suit. In the Circuit Court of Essex County, school officials acknowledged that the children in question had less than one-sixteenth black blood. Consequently, Judge Joseph W. Chinn ruled that the children could not be kept out of white schools.

Chinn based his ruling on what racial integrity advocates had long understood as a loophole in the original legislation. The 1924 Racial Integrity Act defined a white person as an individual with “no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian,” making an exception only for certain Indians, and failed to define a black person. Furthermore, the act specifically prohibited the intermarriage of a white person with a nonwhite person, but it made no mention of the schools. Powell later testified that he had assumed that all persons not deemed white would be automatically classified black. But since the 1924 statute did not amend the 1910 act which termed blacks as persons with one-sixteenth or more black blood, an individual with less than one-sixteenth black blood could not be considered black, and therefore he or she could not be prevented from attending white schools.

A reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch concluded that under Chinn’s ruling “any child having less than one-sixteenth Negro blood, not only can attend a white school, but must attend it, and is by law prevented from attending a colored school.” The judge’s opinion, moreover, opened the door for persons with less than one-sixteenth black blood to attend any of Virginia’s colleges or universities. In the wake of Chinn’s decision, local officials understood that their only avenue of relief lay with the state legislature passing a stricter law; consequently, sponsors introduced a measure that defined as black “any person in whom there is ascertainable any Negro Blood”—the so-called one-drop rule

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Miscegenation and competing definitions of race in twentieth-century Louisiana

Posted in Anthropology, History, Law, Louisiana, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2011-02-12 04:59Z by Steven

Miscegenation and competing definitions of race in twentieth-century Louisiana

Journal of Southern History
Volume 71, Number 3 (August, 2005)
pages 621-659

Michelle Brattain, Associate Professor of History
Georgia State University

MARCUS BRUCE CHRISTIAN, AN AUTHOR AND PROFESSOR AT DILLARD University, observed in the mid-nineteen-fifties that while New Orleans might be known for “gumbo, jambalaya, lagniappe, poor boy sandwiches, pralines, Mardi Gras and Creoles,” it also has “another claim to distinction which has not been bruited about very loudly. ” New Orleans is a place, he wrote, where family lines “waver back and forth across color-lines like wet wash in a high March wind.” The city has given to America “more ‘passer pour blanches’ [people who pass for white] than any other city in our country.” A poet and scholar of black history, Christian anticipated much of the current academic interest in race as a social construction. (1) His meticulous histories of eighteenth—and nineteenth-century families recreated an era when racial lines were more fluid and southern society accepted—or at least expected—interracial sex. In the latter half of Christian’s career, as a civil rights struggle charged with anxieties about interracial contact swirled around him, his interests broadened to include the progeny of those early families. Among thousands of newspaper clippings that Christian saved over his lifetime—documenting New Orleans history from the protracted fight over school desegregation to the debate over stereotypical and degrading representations of Africans in Mardi Gras–one finds dozens of society photographs, wedding announcements, and obituaries that he compiled, seemingly in an attempt to discover a similar secret interracial history of the twentieth century. In the margins, he sometimes annotated genealogies, alternate spellings, or anecdotes about similar names encountered on the other side of the color line. In 1959, for example, he noted, and documented, the strange coincidence of a death notice for a man he thought was a “Negro,” who had died at an “all white” hospital, and speculated on the dead man’s familial relationship to a realtor listing a “colored” apartment a couple of weeks later. Of the family name in question, he later wrote to himself, “Joubert? What about the white family that says it spells its name ‘Jau’ and not ‘Jou’ [?]” Christian often wrote simply, as he did on a 1960 photograph of a couple cutting their fiftieth-anniversary cake, the word miscegenation. (2) The basis for such judgments was rarely explained. Perhaps it was a distant memory, a rumor, or merely Christian asserting his ability as a black man to spot passer pour blanches. Unfortunately he never published his side of these stories…

…Two striking conclusions emerge from an analysis of these records. First, Louisianans held much more complicated and historically contingent views of race than the statutes and court decisions alone would suggest. The legal adjudication of race in the twentieth century, as Pascoe has argued, historically had a complex, interdependent relationship with popular and scientific beliefs about race. This essay examines one aspect of that tension. By necessity, politics and the courts represented abstract law that could recognize only black and white, but the people who entered the courts worked with a more practical understanding that was also born of necessity. Most noteworthy about the testimony of people brought into Louisiana courts by miscegenation law is the fluidity and contextual nuance with which many people viewed race. In spite of the mid-twentieth century’s increasingly rigid lines of demarcation with regard to race, many ordinary Louisiana citizens instinctively understood and accepted the essentially social nature of racial definitions, and they worked with these definitions in the most private areas of their lives…

…Second, though miscegenation law frequently failed to prevent sex across the race line, it served another equally significant function in the twentieth century: a tool to monitor racial boundaries. Louisiana state law had often been able to tame and contain the contradictions of black and white, but by the mid-twentieth century, the demands of massive resistance increasingly brought about more ideological and less practical applications of jurisprudence. Official public records associated with essentially private and gendered actions such as birth and marriage became a gatekeeping mechanism for maintaining segregation in Louisiana schools, sports, and public conveyances. Government-employed bureaucrats carried out increasingly stringent investigations of once-routine applications for marriage licenses, death certificates, and birth certificates in order to police the boundaries of race and expose those who in the past might have “passed” as white or married across race lines. These private points of individual connection with the state, therefore, took on a substantial burden in the maintenance of racial boundaries, the punishment of miscegenation, and the defense of whiteness. The objective of anti-miscegenation law was ostensibly to discourage and punish sex across the race line, but it also permitted the state to use gender and private life to control the same boundary. In doing so, it made significant contributions to the redefinition of miscegenation and race itself.

Incidents of “race mixture” and white attempts to control such encounters have a long and infamous history in the South. Although prohibition of interracial sex was typically legislators’ stated objective, recent scholarship also underscores the deeply contextual nature of the statutes’ various incarnations. In colonial Virginia, where the earliest legislation on interracial liaisons appeared in 1662, the law reflected first the English conception of broadly defined racial hierarchy and later the social and economic dominance of explicitly racial slavery. At all times, colonial law addressed the reality of ongoing racial mixing, even as it represented what A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. and Barbara K. Kopytoff have aptly described as “attempts to patch holes in the fabric of the system.” (10)

The solution, as Peter W. Bardaglio puts it, was a legal attempt “not so much to eliminate interracial sexual contacts as to channel them” in directions that bolstered the slave system and existing racial and gender hierarchies. (11) While the specific definitions of the crime and punishment varied, as Charles Robinson notes, “In each colony a violation of the law required some party, man, woman, and/or child, to make restitution by sacrificing freedom.” Doubling the fine for interracial fornication, Virginia’s assembly, for example, declared in 1662 that an interracial child’s status would follow that of the mother. This ruling insured that the most common transgression of the color line–between black women and white men–would not undermine a social system increasingly based on a dichotomy between black slaves and free white persons. Maryland’s 1664 anti-miscegenation law did not proscribe marriage, but it declared that a white woman who married a slave would serve that slave’s master for the remainder of the husband’s life and that any offspring would be required to labor for the parish for thirty-one years. After 1692 in Maryland and 1725 in Pennsylvania, free black men who married white women were sentenced to a lifetime of slavery. In the first half of the eighteenth century, Massachusetts, North Carolina, South Carolina, Delaware, and Georgia enacted provisions similar to those of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. (12) Colonial officials also singled out white women who had sex with black men for special punishment, a double standard that reflected, among other concerns, a perceived need both to control white female sexuality and to eliminate the threat that interracial offspring posed to the institution of slavery…

…In the early nineteenth century, as moral reformers encouraged the spread of anti-miscegenation laws throughout the United States, Louisiana law continued to reflect a greater preoccupation with racial hierarchy and property than with sex. In 1825, for example, the legislature revised the civil code to outlaw the legitimization of biracial children by white fathers, prohibit children of color from claiming paternity from white fathers, and make it more difficult for biracial children to receive an inheritance by disallowing all but formal legal acknowledgement as a basis for establishing paternity. Through such measures Louisianans eliminated the old French laws governing support of children born within placage and protected the interests of white heirs from siblings of color. Interracial marriage remained illegal in the sense that it was legally invalid, but the law did not prescribe punishment for violators…

Read the entire article here or here.

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“White Negroes” in Segregated Mississippi: Miscegenation, Racial Identity, and the Law

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Mississippi, United States on 2010-11-27 02:08Z by Steven

“White Negroes” in Segregated Mississippi: Miscegenation, Racial Identity, and the Law

The Journal of Southern History
Volume 64, Number 2 (May, 1998)
pages 247-276

Victoria E. Bynum, Emeritus Professor of History
Texas State University, San Marcos

Not until David L. Cohn returned to his native Mississippi after an absence of two decades did he understand the complexities of the racial system in which he, a white man, had been reared during the first decades of the twentieth century. “I began to discover that this apparently simple society was highly complex,” he wrote in the 1948 foreword to his memoir of Delta life. “It was marked by strange paradoxes and hopelessly irreconcilable contradictions. It possessed elaborate behavior codes written, unwritten, and unwritable.”

In the same year that Cohn’s words were published, Davis Knight, a twenty-three-year-old Mississippi man, collided with this system of paradoxes, contradictions, and codes. On June 21, 1948, the Jones County Circuit Court in Ellisville indicted Knight, who claimed to be—and certainly looked—white, for the crime of miscegenation. Two years earlier, on April 18, 1946, he had married Junie Lee Spradley, a white woman. The state claimed that, even though Knight appeared to be white, he was in fact black…

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The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis (Book Review)

Posted in Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States on 2009-10-26 22:10Z by Steven

The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis (Book Review)

Journal of Southern History
Vol. 67

Lloyd A. Hunter
Franklin College of Indiana

The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis. By Cyprian Clamorgan. Edited and with an introduction by Julie Winch. (Columbia, Mo., and London: University of Missouri Press, c. 1999. Pp. xiv, 122. $27.50, ISBN 0-8262-1236-0.)

When Cyprian Clamorgan wrote The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis in 1858, he described what it took to “make it” as an anomaly in that city. He recognized that, in St. Louis as in antebellum communities throughout the United States, to be free and of African descent meant that one did not fit into a society that assumed that black people were meant to be slaves and that only white people could know freedom. Yet Clamorgan observed that there existed in the Mound City “a certain circle; … a peculiar class–the elite of the colored race” who attained their high status through “wealth, education, or natural ability” (p. 46). And the greatest of these was wealth. This stress on wealth as the key component of St. Louis’s black aristocracy comes through clearly in Julie Winch’s reprint of Clamorgan’s brief work. Through her informative introductory chapters, meticulous editing, and extensive annotation, Winch enriches our perception of the African American community of pre-Civil War St. Louis.  She also makes a valuable contribution to the study of free blacks.

The Cyprian Clamorgan who emerges on these pages was a barber and a well-traveled steward on numerous Mississippi River boats. He was also a mulatto with an exceedingly complex ancestry. Winch adeptly unravels the snarled tale of Clamorgan’s family and of Cyprian’s descent from an apparently unsavory French voyageur, the ambitious slave trader Jacques Clamorgan (ca. 1734-1814), and one of Jacques’s parade of “Negro wives” (p. 23). Although Jacques amassed a considerable estate, he failed to gain entry to the white upper class of St. Louis. Later his equally opportunist grandson Cyprian sought to benefit financially both from the sale of Jacques’s land claims and the marketing of a literary challenge to the white “notion that black people were all alike because they were black” (p. 2). Hence his publication of The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis in 1858, a propitious time when the Dred Scott case, which also emanated from St. Louis, was commanding national attention.

Clamorgan’s little book is a virtual tour of the free black neighborhood of antebellum St. Louis. Through colorful vignettes and often humorous comments, the reader meets the African American elite while also receiving, in Winch’s view, “a serious message about race, class, and power” (p. 3). Here for example is Mrs. Pelagie Rutgers, a former slave who bought her freedom for three dollars but who is now “worth half a million dollars” (p. 48). Around the corner is Mrs. Pelagie Nash, who owns nearly the entire block on which she lives. Here also are the “inveterate gambler” but “strictly honest” Samuel Mordecai (p. 51) and the “nearly white” Antoine Labadie (p. 56). Interspersed with the visits are some of Clamorgan’s bold judgments. Although adamantly opposed to slavery, he believed that abolitionists suffered from “the same morbid and diseased brain” as that of Harriet Beecher Stowe (p. 45). Moreover, the colored aristocracy, while unable to vote, controlled elections because “wealth is power” (p. 47).

It is Winch, however, not Clamorgan, who tells the more balanced story of St. Louis’s black elite. Her voluminous annotations provide a wellspring of information based on a wide array of primary sources ranging from church records and court cases to deeds and census data. The annotations occasionally contain more facts than are necessary, and many of the archival materials could be more adequately dated, but Winch’s careful research and its insightful presentation offer a valuable window on black society, and on the roles of class and race, in a vital southern river city.

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