Late in 2020, a number of white academics were revealed to be passing as people of color, making the concept of racial passing a matter of national conversation. For these white folks, the benefits of being considered a person of color were based on a perception that minorities somehow have special access, abilities, or freedoms unavailable to white people – which is, of course, both untrue and oversimplified. In reality, whites passing as people of color is a manifestation of their inability to believed, or inability to accept, that there might be spaces and roles that might exclude white people. However, historically, it has been Black Americans who have passed as white. Throughout American history, Black Americans have chosen to pass as white for a number of reasons – to escape from bondage, to avoid the oppression of Jim Crow, to succeed in a career otherwise closed to a person of color. Some passed only from 9 to 5, others, for their entire lives. But when Blacks passed as white, it wasn’t quite the same, nor was it just a way to land a job or garner some social cache. They did so to try to slip free of structural racism – and the results weren’t all positive. In this episode, Averill and Sarah discuss the history of African Americans passing as white in the United States. 

Producer’s Note: I have indicated in brackets where I changed the wording of quotes so that we might read it without using racial slurs common in the mid-nineteenth century but unacceptable today.

Transcript for A History of Passing in the United States

Sarah: The year 2020 was rough for a number of reasons: y’know, a pandemic, a contentious presidential election, a massive civil rights movement, all in one stressful, crazy year. But something else happened toward the end of the year that you might have missed, especially if you aren’t in the world of academia: a number of scholars, a surprising number of them historians, were revealed to be white women pretending to be Black and/or Latinx. We all remember Rebecca Dolezal, the head of the Spokane, Washington branch of the NAACP who was found in 2017 to be a white woman pretending to be Black.

Averill: But in late 2020 came the revelation that scholars were doing the same thing Dolezal had done. Jessica Krug, a professor of Black studies and scholar of the African diaspora, who claimed first to be North African, then African American, and then finally Afro-Caribbean, wrote a bombshell Medium post confessing to her false identity after another scholar, Yomaira Figueroa, called her out on Twitter. Shortly after Krug was outed, a graduate student named CV Vitolo-Haddad was also called out in a Medium essay written by a graduate school colleague. Vitolo-Haddad admitted afterward that they were of Italian descent, although they had claimed various racial identities over a series of several years. And not long after that, Kelly Kean Sharp resigned her position at Furman University after it was revealed that she was not, as she claimed, Chicana – a claim that it seems helped her to get a fellowship intended to “enhance diversity” on midwestern college campuses.

Sarah: But there were more! A white male chemistry professor from University of New Hampshire posed as a woman of color and scientist on Twitter to criticize everything from Black Lives Matter to campus activism. And a neuroscientist named Beth Ann McLaughlin spent years creating an elaborate fake queer Native American sexual assault survivor called “Sciencing_Bi” on Twitter. Why were all of these people pretending to be members of marginalized groups?

Averill: LA Times journalist Erin Aubry Kaplan suggests that the answer might have something to do with white people wanting to find legitimacy in their positions in Black and Latinx studies. “The most charitable reading of their ‘passe noir’ is still a troubling irony,” says Kaplan, “[that they are] sincerely intentioned, empathetic white people felt they could only serve Black consciousness by going undercover, slipping on a Black identity like a costume….” Presenting themselves as people of color provided these scholars with a certain kind of social capital – not to mention access to programs designed to provide opportunities for under-represented groups.  Folks like Krug, Dolezal, Vitolo-Haddad and Sharp aren’t the first white people who passed themselves off as Black. White men have pretended to be Black to win in majority Black political districts, or to find success in the jazz world. White women pretended to be fugitive slaves to sell abolitionist books. White men have passed themselves off as Native American to get cast in film roles.

Sarah: For these white folks, the benefits of being considered a person of color were based on the perception that minorities somehow have special access, abilities, or freedoms unavailable to white people – which is, of course, both untrue and oversimplified. In reality, whites passing as people of color is a manifestation of their inability to believed, or inability to accept, that there might be spaces and roles that might exclude white people. But historically, when Blacks passed as white, it wasn’t quite the same, nor was it just a way to land a job or garner some social cache. When Black Americans passed as white, they did so to try to slip free of structural racism – and the results weren’t all positive. Today, we’re talking about racial passing.

I’m Sarah

And I’m Averill

And we are your historians for this episode of DIG

Averill: Wow, we have some truly generous listeners! We want to thank all of our Patreon supporters! We’re so honored to have listeners all over the world, a global community that is reflected in our incredible AUGER & EXCAVATOR level patrons: Lauren and Edward in Ohio, Denise in Albany, Maddie in Texas, Maggie in Oregon, Danielle in Idaho, Lisa in British Columbia, Agnes in Iceland!, Iris in Washington, Maria in Germany, and Colin, Susan, and Peggy right here with us in Buffalo. Thank you, for the bottom of our historian hearts. Listener, if you’re not yet a patron of the show, it’s easy! Check us out at patreon.com/digpodcast to learn more

Before we get started, a really important note: we’ll be talking intensively about race in this episode, and as a history podcast, we’ll sometimes use terminology that’s no longer acceptable to refer to people of color. We’ll always make sure that you know we’re using the terms historically or in a quote.

Sarah: The history of racial passing – a Black person passing as white, as we’ll mostly be focusing on – reveals a great deal about race in America. Passing isn’t a solely American phenomenon, of course, but it’s been most closely associated with America because of its ‘bi-polar’ system of race. For over a century in the US, you were either Black, or you were white. Famously, the “one drop rule,” which was sometimes codified in law but always adhered to socially and culturally, dictated that a person was Black if they had even one drop of “Negro” blood. In other countries, the color line is not, literally, quite so black and white. Brazil, for instance, has 136 different informal designations of race, and five official racial categories. And while it’s no post-racial paradise, the more complex racial system means that passing is no simple matter.

Averill: In the US, on the other hand, racial categories actually hardened over time. As we’ve discussed before – I think Marissa has discussed this in a couple of episodes – race was far more fungible before and during the 18th century, when there was several forms of unfree labor and when race was intertwined with region, ethnicity, class and status. However, by the 19th century, the entrenchment of race-based chattel slavery meant that blackness became synonymous with slavery and whiteness with freedom. And as historian Allyson Hobbs (whose book Chosen Exile we’ll be using extensively in this episode) notes, there has never been a real in-between category as in other countries, such as the mixed-race categories of “branquinha” in Brazil, “colored” in South Africa, and “white” in Jamaica. Americans did utilize the category of ‘mulatto’ on the census until 1930, but the category actually meant very little, since even “one drop” of Black blood made you Black for all practical purposes.

Sarah: This all meant that the ability to pass oneself off as white was particularly powerful in the United States. It was all or nothing. But that doesn’t mean that passing was simple. Passing as white often involved more than just possessing white skin: it meant using skill sets, mannerisms, speaking patterns, costuming, and other artifacts of status to trick not only the eye, but the brain. In the 18th and early 19th century, when racial categories were still relatively fluid, for example, for enslaved people, or in the antebellum North, where slavery had been abolished, passing didn’t necessarily mean passing as white but passing as free.  In fact, I think it’s critically important, as Allyson Hobbs says in A Chosen Exile, to “locate the shift from passing as free to ‘passing as white,” because it is immensely revealing of shifting beliefs about race in the US.

Averill: So let’s start by looking at passing as free. In the 18th and early 19th  century United States, when both race and labor statuses were more complex, passing as free was more important than passing as white. After all, slaves and servants of African and European backgrounds were equally described by the skin tone, ranging from “tawny” to “swarthy” to “brown” and “black,” a term that was sometimes even used to refer to the Irish.[1] So for a light-skinned person of African descent to pass as white wasn’t nearly as useful as anyone of any skin tone being able to pass themselves off as free. Enslaved people could use surreptitiously gained skills like reading and writing to forge passes that would let them move about freely. An enslaved man named Henry Bibb understood that the ability to write could give him the ability to write his own ticket to freedom. As a house servant, he was often entrusted with errands, for which his master wrote out a pass. He understood their power, and knew that if he could only write, he might be able to forge his own. In his memoir, he recalled “whenever I got hold of an old letter that had been thrown away, or a piece of white paper, I would save it to write on. I have gone off in the woods and spent the greater part of the day alone, trying to learn to write myself a pass.”[2] In the 1830s, Frederick Douglass pinned his hopes for freedom on his ability to write. As a child, Douglass was taught to read and write a little bit by a mistress, Sophia Auld, until her husband told her to stop – after which she not only stopped, but endeavored to make sure that he never learned.[3] After that, Douglass strove to teach himself, first by paying close attention to the markings ship carpenters scrawled on timber, then by sneaking away his owners’ son’s instruction books. “I wished to learn to write,” Douglass later explained, “as I might have occasion to write my own pass,” which he intended to use to escape bondage.[4]

Frederick Douglass, 1862 | Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

Sarah: Masters knew that the ability to write was key to escaping slavery – after all, that’s why Frederick Douglass’s master moved quickly and decisively to shut down his wife’s attempt to educate young Frederick. In runaway slave ads, owners warned slavecatchers that their enslaved people had the ability to write to explain away any passes they might display, or complained that their bondspeople had duped others to forge passes for them. The ability to read and write might also give their escaping property the ability to go even farther, finding work, reading maps, or write out freedom papers. Writing made passing as free possible. According to historian Jill Lepore, “to write was to defy bondage,” not only in that it provided the ability to escape slavery, but that it provided the ability to assert humanity. After all, both Henry Bibb and Frederick Douglass used their writing skills to pen narratives which testified to their talents and helped to turn the public against the institution of slavery.  

Averill: If writing allowed enslaved men and women to pass as free, so too did swagger. Part of being free was acting the part to evade the interest of slavecatchers. For example, fugitive slave Isaac Williams and his comrades relied on simply projecting freedom to keep them from being questioned by slave patrols. “All of us lit our cigars and put on our hats on one side of our heads as though we were on a lark together,” he later recalled, “Banks and I strolled along together in a free and easy sort of style. This would be about the last thing the authorities would expect in runaways. We passed along the elegant streets, looking everybody in the face and acting as though we feared nothing. We were not suspected in the least.” Not one person asked the band for their papers that night. It’s not surprising, then, that runaway ads often complained about slaves being “artful, cunning … villain[s]… who make use of every specious and fairy tale to induce belief of his being a freeman.” I think the frustrated whine of the slaver in the runaway ad there is particularly telling, because it captures one of the big issues at the center of passing as a “problem” in America: it was about tricking people who were ostensibly in power. Isaac Williams was able to pull one over on observers just by being a great actor – and for Southern men, especially, who were obsessed with ‘saving face,’ this was a profound insult. (For more on the concept of “the lie” in Southern masculinity, see our episode on manhood in the Civil War era.)

Sarah: But throughout the first half of the 19th century, the United States shifted from being a “society with slaves” to a “slave society,” a process that inextricably linked Black skin with servitude and whiteness with freedom. As skin color became the indicator of slavery and freedom, the ability to forge a pass didn’t necessarily provide adequate protection. Instead, the ability to pass as white became a far safer way to escape. But as masters worried about Black slaves being able to use light skin tone to pass as white and escape, abolitionists began to use the opposite fear – that darker-skinned whites could be mistaken as Black and thus enslaved. For abolitionists, the moral panic that arose from the fear of such “white slavery” was useful – if not because it was realistic, because it was a way of martialing support for the cause of abolition. First, there was the fear that white children might be wrongly enslaved. Stories appeared in antebellum newspapers about white children kidnapped from orphanages in Northern cities and sold into bondage, and white babies hidden away in slave cabins to hide an extra-marital affair. But the idea of ‘white slaves’ was also used as a euphemistic way for abolitionists to talk about one particular horror of slavery: the sexual violation of enslaved women. Light skinned enslaved children, they pointed out, were proof of the immorality of slavery – slavers could not only rape enslaved women or hold them as concubines, but also enslave their own children. Henry Ward Beecher, who (hoo boy) we have also talked about before, used the spectre of innocent, ivory-skinned little girls on plantations to appeal to Northern parents, asking them to imagine girls “of sweet face, light hair, and fair as a lily,” then warning them that “as long as children who looked so white were enslaved, no white child was safe.”[5] (We may want to unpack for a moment the concept of colorism and how it enters in here.)

Averill: But of course, once whiteness became synonymous with freedom, it meant that light skinned slaves could use their appearance to help them escape. One very famous example is the story of William and Ellen Craft. Both William and Ellen were born into slavery in Macon, Georgia, though they were owned by different masters. Ellen was the daughter of her white master and an enslaved woman, who herself was biracial. As a result, Ellen was very light skinned, and sometimes even mistaken as a member of the white family. As a child, this meant that she was a constant source of embarrassment to her mistress, who saw her as a reminder of her husband’s sex (likely nonconsensual) with an enslaved woman. When Ellen was only 11, her mistress seized the opportunity of her daughter’s wedding to send Ellen away as a wedding gift, separating her from her own family in the process. Ellen’s new master bought a half-interest in a boy – William – when he was auctioned to pay for his former master’s gambling debts. Almost a decade later, Ellen and William “jumped the broom” in 1846.[6]

Sarah: William and Ellen almost did not marry. For a few years, they instead tried to figure out a way that they could escape before marrying, largely because Ellen couldn’t bear the thought of having children while enslaved. In their memoir, William wrote, “my wife was torn from her mother’s embrace in childhood, and taken to a distant part of the country. She had seen other children separated from their parents in this cruel manner, that the mere thought of her ever becoming mother to a child, to linger out a miserable existence under the wretched system of American slavery, appeared to fill her very soul with horror….” But it soon set in that escape was probably impossible: they were in Georgia, and a thousand miles from the closest free state. There was no way to simply run away and evade slave catchers and their hounds for a thousand miles. So instead they married and spent the next two years working and plotting to find a safer and more practical means of escape. Finally, William hatched a plan that hinged on Ellen’s light skin. But Ellen couldn’t just pretend to be a free white woman and walk out of Georgia – at least not with William. A unaccompanied black man and a white woman wouldn’t just look suspicious, they would look scandalous. So instead, William reasoned that Ellen could dress as a man, and pretend to be a traveling invalid gentleman accompanied by William, posing as a body servant. They decided to leave at Christmas, when it was somewhat common for masters to provide slaves with passes to visit family. With passes and the excuse of visiting, they figured they could delay notice of their escape long enough for them to get a safe distance away. 

Averill: The plan required Ellen to use more than just her skin to pass. She needed to look the part – this meant acquiring a gentleman’s clothes over a period of months, hiding them away, cutting her hair, and saving money for a pair of glasses to hide her eyes. But then they also realized that as much as she might look like a respectable white gentleman, she also had to play the part. She needed be able to exist around other respectable white gentlemen convincingly, which Allyson Hobbs notes “required a nuanced understanding of southern social and gender norms, thus revealing the crucial linkages that passing forged between race and class.”[7]  Ellen knew that she would have to mask her inability to read and write – illiteracy would be a dead give away. She devised a way of pretending that her right hand and jaw were wounded and wrapped up with bandages and poultices. Once, when a friend of her master happened to sit next to them on the train, Ellen had to pretend to be deaf for hours so Ellen wouldn’t get trapped in small talk. For most of their journey, Ellen was able to use her “injured hand” as an excuse to ask hotel clerks to sign for her. And in one instance, her ability to emulate white Southern masculinity got them out of a tight spot. When a steamship clerk refused to sign for Ellen, just as the couple thought it was time to panic a man that Ellen had met on the train walked up and chastised the clerk for giving her a hard time. He insisted that he knew Ellen’s “kin like a book!” Afraid to cross a wealthy planter, the steamship captain personally signed for Ellen, and later apologized, saying “it was not out of any disrespect to you, sir, but they make it a rule to be very strict in Charleston. I have known families to be detained there with their slaves til reliable information could be received respecting them. If they were not very careful, a damned abolitionist might take off a lot valuable [slaves.]”[8]

Ellen Craft dressed as a white planter
Ellen Craft disguised as a white planter | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: Ellen’s ability to fully embody the role of white master also hinged on her ability to treat her husband like a slave. Over and over, fellow travelers suggested to Ellen that “he” was too kindly toward William. One military officer said Ellen was “very likely to spoil [his] boy by saying ‘thank you’ to him. I assure you, sire, nothing spoils a slave so soon as saying ‘thank you’ and ‘if you please’ to him.”[9] He then reprimanded his own enslaved man harshly just to demonstrate to Ellen how she should best keep a slave in line. It was an enormous relief when Ellen and William finally arrived in Philadelphia, where they quickly got assistance from the underground railroad. In 1850, when the fugitive slave act again put their freedom in jeopardy, they moved to England, where they lived safely until after the Civil War.

Averill: Passing as free, or as free and white, was useful in the years before slavery ended, when the goal was getting out of bondage to a free state. People with all different skin tones could use a variety of means to pass as free. But after the 13th Amendment ended slavery, Americans became more focused on policing the color line than ever before, which made passing as white the only remaining option. Now, literal freedom wasn’t the only goal – instead, it was the social freedom that whiteness could offer. And to be clear we do mean Americans there, because racism was not limited to the South.

Sarah: In some cases, light skin gave a person the choice to live as either Black or white. This decision was highly personal. Take, for instance, the children of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Jefferson and Hemings had six children, of whom four survived: Beverley, Harriet, Madison, and Eston. All four were freed in one way or another – Harriet and Beverley “ran away,” likely with Jefferson’s permission, in 1822. In 1826, Jefferson’s will allowed for the freedom all four of the Hemings children upon their 18th birthday. (Annette Gordon-Reed argues that this was likely the fulfillment of a promise he made to Sally Hemings when he persuaded her to return to Virginia with him from Paris in 1789). By the 1830s, three of four of the Hemings children lived as white people – only Madison continued to identify as Black. This made sense – their mother, Sally, was only ¼ African American, and was described as “mighty near white” herself. His descendants also identified as both white and Black. In fact, one of Madison’s sons, Thomas Eston Hemings, fought in the United States Colored Troops, while another, William, fought as a white man in the Union Army. Eston moved to Wisconsin, where he changed his last name to Jefferson, and lived as a white person. At least for Beverley and Harriet, being white allowed them to slip away into free society. In Madison’s 1873 recollections, published in an Ohio newspaper, Beverley and Harriet used their whiteness to shed any connection to Monticello. For example, Madison says this about Harriet: “She thought it to her interest, on going to Washington, to assume the role of a white woman, and by her dress and conduct as such I am not aware that any identity as Harriet Hemings of Monticello has ever been discovered.” One thing I find fascinating about the Hemings children is how they each forged their own identities – defining for themselves whether they were white, black, or both, the child of Thomas Jefferson or just another free person. 

Averill: We don’t have records that can tell us exactly why Beverley, Harriet, and Eston all ultimately decided to be white – but we could probably assume that at least to some extent, it had to do with their ability to earn a living in a white world. Well-paying jobs were almost entirely closed to Black Americans, whether they lived in the North or the South, and passing as white could mean the difference between struggle and comfort. Because good jobs were almost entirely restricted to white people, Allyson Hobbs points out that when Black families said that a family member had a white-collar job, it was often a way of also admitting they were passing as white.[10] And for some Black Americans, this meant that they only pretended to be white during working hours in what Hobbs calls “9-to-5 passing” or “tactical passing.” In fact, some didn’t even really actively pass, but instead allowed whites to assume what they wanted about their heritage. Anita Hemmings (no relation to those of Monticello) allowed her professors and classmates at Vassar to assume she was white and wasn’t discovered to be Black until just before graduation. The faculty decided at the last minute to let her graduate, making her the first black woman to graduate from Vassar. It was a point of hilarious pride to Henry Park’s family that he was “the only colored fireman in New Haven,”  because he neglected to mention his race when in the hiring process. Barrington Guy, a singer, dancer, and actor, enjoyed great success in vaudeville until 1939, when he was outed as Black – until then, Guy explained, “folks thought I was white and I didn’t enlighten them.” In fact, Guy also used another tactic some Black Americans used to suggest they were “of color,” but not Black – he claimed his father was from India. [11] This tactic could also help Black Americans get out of uncomfortable or even dangerous situations – writer and activist James Weldon Johnson allowed white fellow train passengers to mistake him as Cuban because of his Panama hat. Soon, they were chatting and sharing a flask of whiskey.[12]

Sarah: For others, passing wasn’t a temporary measure, but a new state of living. After she graduated from college, Elsie Roxborough, daughter of a wealthy Detroit family, decided to pursue a career as a model and screenwriter, but wasn’t able to find work in California as a Black woman – so she dyed her hair red and moved to New York, where she passed as white. In 1937, she wrote to former boyfriend Langston Hughes that she “intended to cease being colored.” In New York, she became well-known as Mona Manet, even as Black Detroit newspapers reported on her “incognito” life passing. But Roxborough – or Manet – did not make it long in New York either. In 1949, she was found dead in her apartment of a drug overdose. Her death certificate listed her as white. After her death, a cousin revealed that the family was split by the color line – more than one member lived as white, or as the cousin stated, “was on the other side.”[13] Elsie Roxborough’s passing was well-known in her hometown of Detroit, and she even kept in touch, however loosely, with her Black family and friends. But others who chose to pass felt that the only way to be successful was to cut off any ties to their former, Black lives.

Averill: Hobbs also tells the story of Ernest Torregano, a Black railroad porter who worked traveling between his home in New Orleans and San Francisco. After a couple of years, Torregano – who was married and had a child in New Orleans – set up a secret second home in San Francisco. He slowly established a new, white life, first studying law and establishing a practice in San Francisco, and finally, by 1915, abandoning his former family altogether. He never contacted his wife or daughter again, who assumed he was dead. He came to describe himself as a “French Creole,” married a white woman and became a very prominent bankruptcy attorney. The story would be wild enough if it ended there – but it gets more complicated. In 1957, Ernest Torregano died, leaving on one heir: his abandoned daughter, Gladys. Gladys had no idea her father had even still been alive until her aunt, who Torregano had remained in touch with, told her the truth. So Gladys went about trying to claim her inheritance. Ultimately, the court ruled against her, despite an overwhelming amount of evidence that showed she was Ernest’s daughter. The testimony of her uncle, Alfred, who also lived as a white man, trumped any evidence presented by a black woman – and it was Alfred who ended up with Ernest’s estate.[14]

 Sarah: So passing as white might bring more social freedoms, but it also often brought pain and disconnection. Civil Rights activist Mary Church Terrell wrote an essay (date unknown) that laid out the complicated nature of passing as white – it was tempting, and understandably tempting, she wrote, but resulted in broken families and the perpetuation of white supremacy. She knew a young woman, she wrote, who was light skinned enough to pass as white “She married a young physician who can also pass for white,” Terrell wrote, “He suddenly decided that he would shake off the body of the dusky death, so to speak, and cast his lot with the dominant race. When he revealed his plans to his wife, she told him that she would rather live on a small income, if necessary, than have a large one if she were obliged to forsake her family and friends.” Her husband couldn’t be dissuaded, though, and abandoned his wife and daughter. “I could not help wondering,” Terrell mused, “how the husband and father could have summoned the strength and courage to bid them goodbye.”

Averill: Langston Hughes, the intellectual leader of the Harlem Renaissance, articulated the pain of passing in a powerful epistolary short story called “Passing.”In it, a young man named Jack writes a letter to his mother, apologizing for pretending not to know her when they passed each other in the street. Passing made his life easier. It allowed him to earn $65 a week in an office job, and put him in line for a promotion. Jack had always been mistaken for white, he reminded her, so it wasn’t hard to pretend. But it was still hard. “Ma, I felt mighty bad about last night,” Jack writes to his mother, “the first time we’d met in public that way. That’s the kind of thing that makes passing hard, having to deny your own family when you see them.”[15]

Sarah: The early 20th century wasn’t only the age of Jim Crow, but also the age of eugenics. Suddenly, the American obsession with policing the color line became even more hysterical as the old adage about “one drop” was taken more literally than ever. Within the eugenic scientific framework, even one drop of Black blood would corrupt an otherwise ‘fit’ white bloodline. But it was hard to identify who was really white and who was really Black. In her essay, Mary Church Terrell gives several examples where those charged with enforcing the Jim Crow segregation laws on trains got it disastrously wrong. “This very difficulty of distinguishing between white and colored people has caused several railroad companies to part with considerable cash,” she wrote. “In one southern state, a few years ago, a wealthy white woman with a rich olive complexion was forced to take a seat in the “Jim Crow” car because the conductor told her he knew she was colored and he was hard to fool. Her husband sued the railroad company for $50,000 but compromised on $20,000. In Kentucky, a white man was forcibly ejected from a coach set aside for people of his own race and placed in a “Jim Crow” car. The railroad company paid him $10,000 for making such a terrible blunder. That the courts consider it a disgrace and a misfortune to be colored is shown by the large amounts cheerfully awarded in order to heal the wounded feelings of white people who have been mistaken for colored. A colored man, who is much fairer than the average Caucasian, was once forced out of a “Jim Crow” car, where he was conversing with people, in which the conductor insisted he belonged. When he sued the railroad company for this insult, one cent was considered sufficient to heal the wounded feelings of a colored man who had been falsely accused of being white.”

Walter Plecker
Walter Plecker | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: This ambiguity didn’t stop eugenicists from working incredibly hard to prevent any and all miscegenation. Walter Plecker was a fiercely eugenicist doctor who worked as the Virginia state registrar of vital statistics from 1912-1946. He was an active member of Virginia’s Anglo Saxon Clubs, a white supremacist political organization that lobbied hard for anti-miscegenation laws. The club, with Plecker’s help, worked to get Virginia’s infamous 1924 Act to Preserve Racial Integrity passed. As soon as the law was passed, Plecker devoted essentially all of his energies to ensuring that not a single “colored” person could pass as white and contribute to the corruption of the true white race. Plecker instituted a policy that asked Virginians to register – voluntarily – with the Bureau of Vital Statistics declaring their racial identity. But while it was technically voluntary, a registration was required for children to attend school, men to register for the draft, or for people to marry. As people registered, Plecker tirelessly investigated claims of whiteness. He told county clerks to slow-walk marriage licenses until the racial histories of the betrothed could be extensively researched. One young woman received a letter from Plecker that  interracial marriage was illegal, and that she should “immediately break off entirely with this young mulatto man” that she believed was white. Plecker, through his research, believed he knew otherwise. He wrote to doctors and midwives who delivered babies, reminding them that it was against the law to for them to declare a baby white on a birth certificate without definitive proof of its racial purity. He wrote to midwife named Mrs. Cheatham to insist that she had misclassified a biracial baby as white, saying, “this is to give you a warning that this is a mulatto child and you cannot pass it off as white. See that this child is not allowed to mix with white children. It cannot go to white schools and it can never marry a white person in Virginia. It is an awful thing.”[16]

Sarah: Plecker even wrote to cemeteries, alerting them that they had unwittingly interred Black people in their all-white cemetery. “We are giving you this information to take such steps as you deem necessary,” he wrote, “You probably know whether the State law permits use of a white cemetery by colored people. It might prove embarrassing to meet with [Black people] visiting with one of their graves on an adjoining lot.”[17] Famously (or infamously?) Virginia had an exception to Racial Integrity Act: if a person could prove that they had descended from John Rolfe and Pocahontas, and therefore had Pocahontas’s Native American blood, they would not be considered impure. This “Pocahontas Exception” was largely created because it was fashionable for Virginian elite to claim to be descended from Pocahontas, who had been mythologized into a white Indian princess. Plecker was even enraged by this ridiculous exception in the belief that it would be used as a loophole for Black and mixed race people to claim to be white. He was intent on investigating these claims, even if it meant researching family lines and census records going back more than seventy-five years.[18]

Averill: After World War II, Allyson Hobbs argues that something shifted. Stories of several individuals and even whole families who came out as Black after passing as white made national headlines, and instead of sparking widespread rage and horror, were treated as evidence of racial progress. The most famous was the story of the Johnstons, a popular and well-respected family in Keene, New Hampshire, who lived as white. Albert and Thyra Johnston and their four children were pillars of the community, accepted in all the local civic organizations, and Albert was a successful physician. But when Albert Johnston applied to join the Navy Medical Corps during WWII, the Navy somehow figured out he wasn’t white. Though he was still able to keep that knowledge under wraps, it was a crack in Albert Johnston’s commitment to staying white. The Johnston children did not even know that they were “really” Black, and so when the oldest, Albert Jr., made a disparaging remark about “colored” people, it wasn’t surprising – but it crossed a line for Albert Johnston, Sr. Albert Jr., when describing a friend from school, said that the boy was popular “even thought he was colored,” Albert Sr. shot back, “well, you’re colored.” The boy unsurprisingly was shocked, and Albert Sr. and Thyra spent the next several hours telling Albert Jr. about his real family history and their reasoning for passing as white. When they later told their younger children, the word soon traveled to the rest of the town.

Sarah: The story became a sensation, not just in Keene, but nation wide. Soon, both Life Magazine, Look Magazine, Ebony Magazine, and Reader’s Digest, several of the nation’s most popular and widely read magazines, picked up the story. Each magazine marveled at the family’s normality, at how seamlessly they were able to insert themselves into white society. The subtext, of course, was that there was something different about Black people beyond simply their skin color, something that should set them apart and make them obvious. The Johnstons’ success at “being” white in Keene, however, proved that wasn’t true. Moreover, to one degree or another, each story framed the local community’s tolerance of the now-Black Johnstons as evidence of a change in America’s opinion on race. The story entranced Americans so much that it actually became the basis of a movie, Lost Boundaries.

Averill: The reality wasn’t quite so rosy – Albert Sr. lost his job at the local hospital, though he did continue in private practice successfully for decades to follow. But another part of the story that the magazines didn’t really cover was that Albert Johnston became more open in his civil rights activism. In a speech to a NAACP branch in 1949, Johnston said that he and his family’s experience was proof that racism could be defeated: “when one person through intimate social contact understands another, his weaknesses, and virtues, prejudice breaks down.”[19] In the years that followed the Johnston’s coming out as Black, personal essays about the refusal to pass became increasingly common, especially in Black newspapers. It’s no coincidence, I think, that this coincided with the growth of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s. While there had always been a Black resistance movement and efforts to increase Black Americans pride in their race, the organized movement garnered more national awareness and support. Passing became less common as Black Americans demanded civil and political rights as Black people.

Bibliography

Bibb, Henry. Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave. New York: McDonald & Lee Printers, 1849

Craft, William and Ellen. Running a Thousand Miles For Freedom: or the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery. London: William Tweedie, 1860.

Douglass, Frederick.  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Written By Himself. Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845.

 Gatewood, Willard B. Aristocrats of Color, The Black Elite, 1880-1920. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000.

Hobbs, Allyson. A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014.

Hughes, Langston. The Ways of White Folks. New York: Vintage Classics ebooks, 1990.

McCaskill, Barbara. “Ellen Craft: The Fugitive Who Fled as a Planter,” in Ann Short Chirart and Betty Wood, eds., Georgia Women: Their Lives and Times, Volume I. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009.


Notes

[1] Allyson Hobbs, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), 36.

[2] Henry Bibb, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave (New York: McDonald & Lee Printers, 1849), 135.

[3] Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Written By Himself (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845), 36.

[4] Douglass, Narrative, 42-44.

[5] Hobbs, A Chosen Exile, 43.

[6] Barbara McCaskill, “Ellen Craft: The Fugitive Who Fled as a Planter,” in Ann Short Chirart and Betty Wood, eds., Georgia Women: Their Lives and Times, Volume I (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009), 86. 

[7] Hobbs, A Chosen Exile, 46.

[8] William and Ellen Craft, Running a Thousand Miles For Freedom: or the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery (London: William Tweedie, 1860), 56.

[9] Craft, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, 50.

[10] Hobbs, A Chosen Exile,  152.

[11] Willard B. Gatewood, Aristocrats of Color, The Black Elite, 1880-1920 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press), 340.

[12] Hobbs, A Chosen Exile, 154.

[13] Hobbs, A Chosen Exile, 142.

[14] Hobbs, A Chosen Exile, 166-167.

[15] Langston Hughes, “Passing,” The Ways of White Folks (New York: Vintage Classics ebooks, 1990).

[16] Hobbs, A Chosen Exile, 131.

[17] Hobbs, A Chosen Exile, 131.

[18] Hobbs, A Chosen Exile, 129.

[19] Hobbs, A Chosen Exile, 247.


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