Essays on the Color Line and the One-Drop Rule
by Frank W Sweet
May 1, 2005
n the 1913-1914 school year, three children, wards of G.W. Tucker, were expelled from the Dalcho, South Carolina, public school on the ground that their family surname (Kirby) was rumored to be of Croatan1 origin. Tucker appealed to the state Board of Education and was turned down. He appealed to the South Carolina Supreme Court in Tucker v. Blease, 1914 South Carolina.2
Inspection of the record suggests that the case was not even arguable. The state’s Constitution was clear. As set by Ben Tillman’s 1895 Constitutional Convention, it defined endogamous group membership via a one-eighth blood-fraction rule.3 The school segregation statute was equally clear. It did not contain any rule determining whether a child was Black, but relied on the Constitution. The trial testimony was clear. No witness testified that the Kirby children had any Black ancestry at all, much less one-eighth.
The witnesses who wanted the children defined as Black argued only that the “Kirby” surname reminded people of the Croatans, a maroon community who were said to have Negro blood. They testified that all of the decent White people in Dalcho would withdraw their own children from public school, put them cruelly to work plowing the fields, and condemn them to illiteracy if the Kirby children were allowed to attend the White school.
On April 21 of 1914, Chief Justice Gary rendered a decision that consigned the Kirby children to the Black side of the endogamous color line. He apparently felt that he had no choice:
While the testimony shows that the children are entitled to be classed as white, nevertheless the action of the board of trustees was neither capricious nor arbitrary…. The testimony also shows that the decided majority of the patrons would refuse to send their children to the Dalcho school if the Kirby children were allowed to continue in attendance. Tested by the maxim, “The greatest good to the largest number,” it would seem to be far better that the children in question should be segregated than that the large majority of the children attending that school should be denied educational advantages.4
Although no allegation was ever made that the Kirby children were anything other than of pure European ancestry, South Carolina’s highest court decreed them and their descendants to be Black by public demand.5
* * * * *
The early decades of the twentieth century, especially the years from 1900 to 1919, saw the triumph of the one-drop rule throughout America. Americans of European appearance, culture, and genetic admixture had sometimes been assigned to the Black endogamous group in earlier decades. Indeed, the notion of invisible Blackness started in the North and worked its way into the upper South slave states during the crisis decade of the 1850s, spreading to the lower South after Reconstruction. But no prior progress can compare to the explosion in its court usage between 1900 and 1919. During these years, a dozen states adopted statutory endogamous group membership based on “one drop.” A dozen other states retained blood fraction statutes de jure but amended them to such tiny fractions that they were one-drop de facto. In yet other states, judges and juries ignored their own states’ statutes or Constitutions in order to assign to the Black group anyone with relatives or social connections in the Black group.
As mentioned earlier, some use the term “one-drop rule” as synonymous with Marvin Harris’s term “hypodescent,” meaning that Americans of visible African admixture are considered Black, even if that admixture is less than 50 percent.6 The present work focuses only upon the most extreme form of one-drop—the idea that Americans who look completely European, without even a hint of Africa, are classified as members of the Black endogamous group nonetheless. They are seen as unsuitable marriage partners by Whites but suitable by Blacks because of an invisible touch (one drop) of Black ancestry.
This essay examines, in four topics, the events of those decades that gave rise to the notions of endogamous group membership that are still in force today. Terminology Changed shows that the word “Colored,” no longer denoted an intermediate group in the Franco-American culture of the Gulf Coast but became a polite euphemism for any member of the Black endogamous group anywhere. White Children Consigned to Blackness shows that, by far, the strictest enforcement of the one-drop rule in these years was for school segregation, not intermarriage. White Adults Challenged to Defend Their Whiteness offers a slight viewpoint shift to reveal that the one-drop rule did not affect Blacks at all—it targeted only Whites. African-American Complicity shows that far from resisting or challenging the one-drop rule, members of the African-American ethnic community, especially its leadership, embraced it. They enforced it from their side of the color line, as they had in the late antebellum North, as they continue to do today.
During this period, the word “Colored,” as used in court, no longer denoted a member of the intermediate endogamous group within the Franco-American culture of the Gulf Coast. Instead, it became a polite euphemism for any member of the Black endogamous group anywhere. Three cases show the shift in word meaning: one in North Carolina, two in Louisiana.
Ferrall v. Ferrall, 1910 North Carolina. In November of 1907, Frank S. Ferrall of Franklin County, North Carolina, filed for divorce from Susie Patterson Ferrall and refused to pay alimony or child support because he had recently learned that his wife “was and is of negro descent within the third generation.” (The state Constitution in effect, Part 1, Section 2083, forbade “All marriages between a white person and… a person of negro or Indian descent to the third generation inclusive”—a one-eighth blood fraction rule.) Evidence presented at the trial of Ferrall v. Ferrall, 1910 North Carolina showed that Susie did in fact have a great-grandfather, named Julius Coley, who was of mixed ancestry. The trial centered on whether the one-eighth definition of “negro” meant that the great-grandfather in question had to be of one hundred percent African genetic admixture in order to consign Susie to the Black side of the endogamous color line or whether the great-grandfather’s mixed ancestry sufficed. If the former, as in the case of McPherson v. Commonwealth, 1877 Virginia, then she was White.7 If the latter recursive definition applied, as in State v. Whitmell Dempsey, 1849 North Carolina, then she was Black.8 The jury found that the woman was a member of the White endogamous group, but County Judge Cooke set aside the verdict and ruled to the contrary.
Susie Ferrall appealed and, on October 12 of 1910, the Supreme Court of North Carolina unanimously reversed the lower court’s decision, Justices Hoke and Clark presiding.9 Although the plaintiff had cited State v. Treadaway10 in favor of one-drop, Justice Hoke stuck with the one-eighth blood fraction rule still in effect in North Carolina. His opinion cited several cases, including State v. William Chavers, 1857 North Carolina,11 McPherson v. Commonwealth, 1877 Virginia, and Wall v. Oyster, 1910 District of Columbia,12 to the effect that any blood fraction rule had to be based on the most recent ancestor of one hundred percent African genetic admixture, not on an ancestor with mixed blood. To do otherwise would be irresolvable. He also refuted the plaintiff’s contention that what determined whether the great-grandfather, Julius Coley, was legally a Negro was his acceptance into society, stating:
We may not approve the position earnestly insisted upon by plaintiff’s counsel that the negro ancestor, whose blood must determine the issue, should be considered not a negro of pure African blood, but one who has his status as a negro ascertained and fixed by the recognition and general consensus of the community where his lot is cast. Such a position ignores the ordinary and usual acceptation of the words, “Of negro descent to the third generation inclusive” [and] is contrary, as stated, to a long line of authoritative precedents.13
In short, the rule of association did not trump the rule of blood fraction in 1910 North Carolina. Interestingly, this was one of the last color-line-determination cases ever held in the United States that employed anything other than a one-drop rule, until affirmative action litigation resurrected the rule of association in the 1980s. Incidentally, assuming that her great-grandfather was of 50-50 Euro-African genetic admixture, Susie Ferrall had less of Africa in her than do millions of White Americans.14
Lee v. New Orleans Great Northern RR, 1910 Louisiana. The earliest case explicitly to define “colored” as synonymous with “negro” was Lee v. New Orleans Great Northern RR, 1910 Louisiana. In 1909, a conductor of the New Orleans Great Northern Railroad forcibly ejected two unaccompanied minors, Edith and Belle Lee respectively 14 and 16 years old, from a Whites-only railroad train eight miles before their destination because he insisted that they were “colored.” The girls’ parents sued for damages. They lost at trial and, on January 31 of 1910, they lost on appeal to the Supreme Court of Louisiana.15 In his decision, Justice Land explained that times had changed. “One hundred years ago, in the territory of Orleans, the term ‘persons of color’ was used to designate people who were neither white nor black,” he wrote, citing Adelle v. Beauregard, 1810 Louisiana.16 He acknowledged that, despite a brief interruption just before the Civil War,17 Colored/White intermarriage had been accepted in Louisiana since colonial times, “but by Act No. 54, p. 63, of 1894, marriages between white persons and persons of color were again prohibited. By Act No. 87 of 1908 concubinage between a person of the Caucasian or white race and a person of the negro or black race was made a felony.”
He further explained that the transportation segregation statute, “Act No. 111 of 1890 draws a sharp line of distinction, without a margin, between the white and colored races in the matter of separate accommodations on railroad trains.” Justice Land explained that:
The [antebellum] lawmaker never applied the term “colored” to slaves, but since emancipation that term has been used as synonymous with negro. Among slaves the word “negro” or “nigger” was considered as a term of reproach, and they usually spoke of themselves as “colored.” This nomenclature has survived, and has become a popular term, embracing all persons of negro blood.
Justice Land understood that, in order to sustain their case, the Lee children would have had to prove that they had no Negro ancestry at all, however distant. He understood that proving such a negative was impossible, but he wrote anyway:
The petition charges the defendant company with the violation of a penal statute, and the burden of proof was on the plaintiff to establish the essential facts necessary for a recovery of the damages claimed, to wit, that his children belonged to the white race, and were unlawfully assigned to a coach or compartment set apart for colored persons. One who charges another with a culpable breach of duty must prove the fact, though it involves a negative.18
He concluded that whether the Lee children had one drop of Negro blood was solely a matter for the jury to decide, and that they had decided against the children. As precedent, he cited White v. Tax Collector, 1836 South Carolina.19 Incidentally, according to the record, both of the children’s parents, Sam Lee and his wife, were listed as White.
State v. Treadaway, 1910 Louisiana. This case ruled that “Colored” and “Black” meant two different things. Octave Treadaway of New Orleans and his plaçage mistress were charged with violating the law in State v. Treadaway, 1910 Louisiana. He was a member of the White endogamous group. She was a member of the intermediate Colored group. Two years earlier, in 1908, the State of Louisiana had adopted Act 87 declaring that:
Concubinage between a person of the Caucasian or white race and a person of the negro or black race is hereby made a felony, and whoever shall be convicted thereof in any court of competent jurisdiction shall for each offense be sentenced to imprisonment at the discretion of the court for a term of not less than one month nor more than one year with or without hard labor.20
The couple was acquitted at trial on the grounds that the woman was Colored, and not “negro or black.” The prosecutor appealed, saying that the words “colored” and “black” were synonyms. The woman admitted to being an octoroon,21 so she was “black” by definition, he said.
In a decision handed down on April 25 of 1910, the Supreme Court of Louisiana upheld the acquittal. Justice Provosty wrote the opinion, which focused on the semantics of the statute. Did its words “negro or black” mean the same thing as “colored”? In answer, Justice Provosty cited approximately 213 previous court cases, 24 other states’ statutory definitions (including North Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Maryland, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, New York, Massachusetts, Indiana, Ohio, Arizona, Nebraska, Nevada, Illinois, Montana, Michigan), 7 dictionaries (including Webster’s International, Century, A. & E. E. of Law, Webster’s Thompson and Thompson, Standard ), and 4 encyclopedias (Cyclopedia of Knowledge, Zell’s Encyclopaedia, Britannica, Americanized Britannica) to conclude that nowhere in history had the word “colored” ever been used as synonym for “negro” or “black.” He wrote, “The foregoing review … suffices to show that the word “negro,” very far from having been generally recognized and accepted as including within its meaning persons of mixed negro blood, has, on the contrary, never been so used….”22
After arguing from historical word usage, Justice Provosty turned to set theory:
These decisions are authority that a negro is necessarily a person of color; but not that a person of color is necessarily a negro. There are no negroes who are not persons of color; but there are persons of color who are not negroes. The term “colored,” [was invented] for the very purpose of having in the language a term including… both negroes and descendants of negroes; but the converse is not true. The word “negro” was never adopted into the language for the purpose of designating persons of mixed blood. … Nor can there be, we think, any serious denial of the fact that in Louisiana, and, indeed, throughout the United States (except on the Pacific slope), the word “colored,” when applied to race, has the definite and well-known meaning of a person having negro blood in his veins. We think, also, that any candid mind must admit that the word ‘negro’ of itself, unqualified, does not necessarily include within its meaning persons possessed of only an admixture of negro blood…. else, why should the word ‘colored’ have received such universal adoption as meaning persons of negro blood pure or mixed, if there was already in the language a word expressing that meaning, and no special word was needed to express it?23
Having argued from set theory, Justice Provosty turned to refuting the prosecution’s specific arguments. The prosecution argued that the statute must have been intended to cover people of mixed ancestry, since White/Black concubinage was “practically unknown.” Provosty replied:
That argument would have great weight if it did not… lose sight of… the history of the negro race in Louisiana, and the whole past legislation of the state on the subject of the sexual relations of the two races. [F]rom birth of the state up to the last session of the Legislature concubinage with even the pure-blooded negro was not forbidden,… and that from 1870 up to 1894 marriage with the pure-blooded negro was not only not forbidden, but was legal. … Up to the session of 1908, [the legislature] had not deemed the time ripe for prohibiting concubinage even with the pure-blooded negro. [If] it deemed the time ripe in 1908 for prohibiting concubinage with the person of slight admixture of negro blood, no matter how slight the admixture, and has done so by this statute… it has certainly chosen to do it in most questionable form…. That our Legislature, which in the whole history of the state has not deemed it expedient to impose the slightest inhibition or penalty upon concubinage even with the pure-blooded negro… should all of a sudden… have awakened to the necessity of making concubinage even with persons barely exhibiting a trace of negro blood not only an offense and a crime, but a felony, is not a conclusion necessarily to be adopted.24
Justice Provosty concluded by observing that the original version of the 1908 statute, “as framed by its author and presented to the Legislature… contained the following clause: ‘That a person who is as much as one thirty-second part negro shall be, for the purpose of this act, a person of the negro race.’” This clause was stricken out by the legislature before the law’s passage. If the legislature had intended to redefine the word “colored” as synonymous with “negro” in defiance of ancient Louisiana legal tradition and history, all they would have had to do was to have left that clause intact.25
The Treadaway couple were released. Within a month of the decision, the Louisiana legislature reconvened and amended the statute by re-inserting the stricken clause.26 Louisiana’s three-caste system was legislatively collapsed down to two groups separated by a single color line. The word “colored,” once the designation for the lower South’s middle group became synonymous with “Black” throughout the United States. Incidentally, if the woman really was an “octoroon,” then she had less African admixture than do millions of White Americans.27
White Children Consigned to Blackness
According to Gunnar Myrdal, writing in 1944, “The ban on intermarriage has the highest place in the white man’s rank order of social segregation and discrimination.”28 This may have been the case in 1944. But the evidence of court cases in the 1910-1919 period refutes this. In contrast to the findings of Myrdal and his team, the strictest enforcement of the one-drop rule during these years, by far, was for school segregation, not intermarriage.
Eubank v. Boughton, 1900 Virginia. George Boughton of King and Queen County, Virginia, tried to register his son in the Stevensville District public school for the 1899-1900 school year. The School board refused to accept the child because:
They were informed and believed that the child of petitioner is a negro, and to permit him to attend the school for white children would not only materially interfere with its prosperity and efficiency, but, in their judgment, would destroy it.29
Boughton sued for a writ of mandamus. He presented birth records to show that he, his wife, and their children had been members of the White endogamous group, as all of their ancestors had been for at least three generations. The Circuit Court ruled in his favor and issued a writ ordering the little boy to be admitted to the school for White children, stating that “it established the fact that petitioner’s son ‘has not one-fourth of negro blood in him,’ and is, therefore, a white person.” In Eubank v. Boughton, 1900 Virginia, the school board appealed the writ and, on July 5, 1900, the Supreme Court of Virginia, Justice P. Keith presiding, reversed the district court, withdrew the writ, and ordered the Boughtons to pay court costs. His written explanation stated that a district school board was outside of the scope of authority of the Circuit Court. Indeed, even the State Supreme Court lacked authority over a school board.
Whether a child is white or colored is a fact to be determined by the [school] board, and involves the exercise of a judicial discretion on the part of the board which the courts cannot control.30
Note that, according to the documentary evidence presented, the Bougton children had no more African ancestry than do many if not most White Americans.31
Gilliland v. Board of Education, 1906 North Carolina. For the first seven days of the 1905-1906 school year, the Gilliland children attended the Avery’s Creek Township, Buncombe County public school for children of the White endogamous group. They were then ejected by order of the school board on the grounds that one of their eight great-grandparents was rumored to have had a trace of Black ancestry. The Gillilands sued in Gilliland v. Board of Education, 1906 North Carolina and won a writ of mandamus. The school board appealed on the grounds that opinion and hearsay testimony had been admitted at trial to the effect that the great-grandfather in question had been accepted into White society. The Supreme Court of North Carolina agreed that, “the cause was made to depend and did depend on that single question whether the plaintiffs were children of the white race pure and unmixed with any negro blood.” Nevertheless, on March 22, 1906, Justice Hoke upheld the original verdict. His decision was based the jury’s having reached a decision of fact, and that the testimony about the great-grandfather’s membership in White society had been admissible.32 Again, the only evidence of the children not being members of the White endogamous group was a rumor about a single great-grandparent being mixed. Even if accurate, the rumor would have made the children Whiter (in the sense of genetic admixture) than many if not most White Americans.33
Wall v. Oyster, 1910 District of Columbia. In September of 1910, the child Isabel I. Wall was expelled from the Brookland White School in Washington DC by the principal because she had “negro blood.” Her parents appealed to the school board, to the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, and finally to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. While it was possible that the child may have had a distant touch of African ancestry through one great-grandparent, she, like her parents and grandparents before her was accepted as White in the community. They lost each time in Wall v. Oyster, 1910 District of Columbia. Although the statutes of the District of Columbia contained no definition of endogamous group membership, the courts decided on the basis of a one-drop rule. Each court agreed that, “There was to be observed of the child no physical characteristic which afforded ocular evidence suggestive of aught but the Caucasian.” Nevertheless, the school segregation statute in effect prohibited “colored” children from attending White schools. And so, according to Chief Justice Shepard, presiding over the Court of Appeals, the children were “colored” and could not attend a White school. In explaining his decision, Shepard noted that some states had recently enacted statutes defining “colored” as one with any Negro blood, however faint. Nevertheless, he did not rely on other states’ laws. Instead, as precedents supporting his ruling, Justice Shepard cited two court cases—Lee v. New Orleans Great Northern RR and State v. Treadaway (both discussed above).34 Again, even if the rumor about Isabel’s great-grandparent had been accurate, the little girl would have been Whiter (in the sense of genetic admixture) than many if not most White Americans.35
Mullins v. Belcher, 1911 Kentucky. Early in the 1910-1911 school year, the children Troy and Loucreta Mullins were expelled from Public School No. 28 of Pike County Kentucky because they were said to be “colored.” Section 187 of the Kentucky Constitution read, “… no distinction shall be made on account of race or color, and separate schools for white and colored children shall be maintained.”36 Their guardian challenged the school board in the Pike County Circuit Court, in the case Mullins v. Belcher, 1911 Kentucky, on the basis that the children were completely European in appearance and had been raised as members of White society. The county court found that the children had one-sixteenth of Negro blood and so upheld their expulsion. They appealed the decision. On March 9 of 1911, the Court of Appeals of Kentucky sustained their expulsion. Judge William Rogers Clay cited State v. Treadaway37 to opine:
[The] appellants are as fair as members of the white race, and there is nothing in their personal appearance to indicate the presence of negro blood. In our opinion, however, the question does not depend upon personal appearance. The color of the person may be one means of indicating the class to which he belongs, but the question in its final analysis depends upon whether or not the person has, or has not, an appreciable admixture of negro blood. … As the makers of the Constitution did not undertake to define the words “colored children” as employed in section 187, we conclude that these words were used in their ordinary and general sense, and that they include all children wholly or in part of negro blood, or having any appreciable admixture thereof.38
Again, if the Mullins children truly were of one-sixteenth African genetic admixture, they would have been Whiter (in the sense of genetic admixture) than tens of millions of White Americans.39
Cole v. District Board, 1912 Oklahoma. In the 1911-1912 school year, the children of Morton Cole were expelled from the all-White Public School No. 29 of McIntosh County, Oklahoma on the ground that they were “negroes.” Cole sued for a writ of mandamus in Cole v. District Board, 1912 Oklahoma and lost in the District Court. He appealed and, on April 9 of 1912, Justice C. Ames of the Supreme Court of Oklahoma ordered a new trial.40 His ruling was based on improperly excluded evidence. Testimony had been admitted to show that Cole associated with members of the Black endogamous group, but similar testimony showing association with members of the White group had been excluded. Two points make this case interesting. First, the term “Negro” is used instead of “colored” in its modern sense—that is, as anyone who is a member of the Black endogamous group, regardless of appearance. Contrast this with the terminology used in State v. Treadaway, 1910 Louisiana, Wall v. Oyster, 1910 District of Columbia, and Mullins v. Belcher, 1911 Kentucky, which held that “Negro” denoted African appearance and “colored” meant of mixed heritage. Second, Justice Ames cited eight prior cases setting the precedent that the rule of association alone, even without evidence of African ancestry, sufficed to define someone’s position relative to the color line.41 What is important about this case is that association alone was ruled sufficient to determine one’s endogamous group; evidence of blood was not needed. As mentioned earlier, such a rule of association is usually the principle rule used in affirmative action litigation.42 As in several of the preceding cases, the children were never even alleged to have Black ancestry. No one disputed that they were White, biologically speaking.
Johnson v. Board of Education, 1914 North Carolina. In February of 1914, Mr. and Mrs. J.S. Johnson obtained a writ of mandamus in the Superior Court of Wilson County, North Carolina, ordering the School Board to admit their children into the school for children of the White endogamous group. The School Board appealed the order in Johnson v. Board of Education, 1914 North Carolina. Both parties admitted that Mr. Johnson was a member of the White endogamous group and had no trace of African ancestry. Both parties also admitted that the children’s mother had a trace of distant African ancestry. She had been ruled a member of the White endogamous group, however, when the couple wed because she had less than the one-eighth blood fraction specified in the North Carolina Constitution. The problem was that a 1905 law forbade any child, “with negro blood in his veins, however remote the strain, from attending a school for the white race.” Consequently, the case pivoted on whether a school segregation statute could override a color line definition explicit in the state’s Constitution.43 In September of 1914, the Supreme Court of North Carolina reversed the order, citing as precedent Ferrall v. Ferrall, Wall v. Oyster, and Tucker v. Blease.44 Justices Walker and Clark unanimously ruled that the statute defining Blackness via a one-drop rule, for purposes of school attendance, did not conflict with a constitutional definition aimed at intermarriage. The writ of mandamus was nullified and the Johnson children were found to be on the Black side of the endogamous color line, despite both of their parents being legally White. Again, even accepting the opposition’s testimony, the Johnson children were as White or Whiter (genetically speaking) than tens of millions of White Americans.45
Medlin v. Board of Education, 1914 North Carolina. In the 1913-1914 school year, the children of J.R. Medlin were expelled from Public School No. 2, House’s Creek Township, Wake County, North Carolina, on the ground that their mother, Nan Powers, was rumored to have had a grandmother of mixed ancestry. In Medlin v. Board of Education, 1914 North Carolina, the parents obtained a writ of mandamus after a county court trial characterized solely by hearsay. No witness offered documentation of the grandmother’s ancestry. No witness had ever seen Mrs. Medlin’s grandmother. Instead, every witness testified solely as to rumors that they had heard and whether, in the witness’s opinion, the rumors had been started deliberately and with malicious intent. The jury found the Medlin children to be White and the school board appealed. On November 18, 1914, the Supreme Court of North Carolina upheld the lower court in a split decision. Chief Justice Clark wrote the ruling. The other two justices (Walker and Hoke) dissented. In essence, Justice Clark wrote a three-page explanation justifying his finding that the hearsay and innuendo offered by plaintiff’s witnesses (that the rumor of a mixed grandmother was maliciously invented) were more persuasive than testimony for the defense. In his eyes, the children were members of the White endogamous group. Justices Walter and Hoke wrote a six-page dissent, finding that the hearsay and innuendo offered by defense’s witnesses (that the rumor of a mixed grandmother was not malicious—it was invented out of civic duty) were more persuasive than testimony for the plaintiff. In their eyes, the children were members of the Black endogamous group.46 Interestingly, in this case Justice Hoke abandoned his reliance on the state Constitution’s blood-fraction definition, which he had held to four years earlier in Ferrall v. Ferrall, Instead, he went with the school-segregation statute’s one-drop rule, following the precedent set by Justices Walker and Clark two months earlier in Johnson v. Board of Education.47 Again, no one disputed that the Medlin children were genetically White.
Moreau et al. v. Grandich et ux., 1917 Mississippi. Late in 1916, the children of Antonio Grandich and his wife were expelled from the public school of Bay St. Louis, Hancock County, Mississippi because, according to the trustees, they were of the “colored race.” Denying that they had any trace of African ancestry, the Grandich family applied for a writ of mandamus from the county circuit court. According to the trustees, a rumor had it that the children’s great-grandmother, Christiana Jourdan, must have had Negro blood. This rumor was based on another rumor that two of Christiana’s daughters had married members of the Black endogamous group, something which no White woman would have done had she been completely White. In short, the children were found to belong on the Black side of the color line because of the Blackness by association of two great-aunts from whom they did not descend. The writ was issued and the trustees appealed to the state Supreme Court of Mississippi in Moreau et al. v. Grandich et ux., 1917.48 On March, 1917, citing Lee v. New Orleans Great Northern RR, 1910 Louisiana and Mullins v. Belcher, 1911 Kentucky, Justice Ethridge overturned the county court’s mandamus order and ruled against the Grandich children.49 Again, no one disputed that the Grandich children were genetically White.
Oberly v. School Board, 1918 Louisiana. The daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Oberly attended the Calcasieu Parish Public School from age 7 to 14, when she was expelled for being rumored to have invisible “negro blood.” The parents sought a write of mandamus from the local court, which was denied. They appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court in Oberly v. School Board, 1918 Louisiana. On January 3 of 1918, Justice Provosty handed down the decision that:
The case does not involve any pecuniary amount, and does not fall in any one of the classes of cases of which jurisdiction is given to this court irrespective of amount. This court, therefore, has no jurisdiction of it. … Appeal dismissed.50
No testimony was offered that the Oberly girl was anything other than genetically White.
State v. School District, 1922 Arkansas. In 1921, the three grandchildren of Ophelia James were expelled from Public School No. 16 in Montgomery County, Arkansas for having Black ancestry. Ophelia was the daughter of Maria Gocio, who admitted to a trace of Cherokee ancestry, and the school board held that Cherokees had Negro blood. The children’s parents sought a mandamus order and were refused. They appealed and lost in State v. School District, 1922 Arkansas. The issue came down to which of two Arkansas statutes applied. Section 996, relating to the segregation of public transportation, defined “negro” as anyone “in whom there is a visible and distinct admixture of African blood.” Section 2603, relating to concubinage, defined “colored” as “any person having any trace of negro blood, whether visible or not.” Since the public school statute referred to the segregation of “negro” (rather than of “colored”) children, the parents argued that Section 996 (defining “negro” by visible admixture) applied. On June 5, 1922, Justice Humphreys of the Supreme Court of Arkansas ruled that:
Petitioner’s children in appearance, show no sign of negro blood, and, judged from their appearance alone, would pass for persons of pure Caucasian blood. … [Nevertheless], the purpose and intent of the statute was to prevent social equality or intermingling of the white and African races, thereby maintaining harmony and peace in the schools. As much confusion and disorder would result from admitting children in the white schools who have a trace of negro in them, though not disclosed by their appearance, as from admitting children who possess a visible and distinct admixture of African blood. We think the interpretation placed upon the statute by the [lower] court is correct. The language is broad, and has no relation to the degree in blood.51
In short, the three children were ruled to be Black solely because one grandparent admitted to having Cherokee ancestry.
Someone might suspect that the foregoing twelve cases (including Tucker v. Blease, 1914 South Carolina, which opened the essay) were selected from a larger set of cases in order to showcase only cases where courts consigned to Blackness children who had no more African genetic admixture than the typical White American and whose parents did not self-identify as ethnically African-American. Someone might suspect that the above account deliberately excluded cases where courts consigned to Blackness children who really did have more African admixture than the typical White American, or whose families really did self-identify as ethnically African-American.
Such suspicion would be inaccurate. The above account lists every single appealed court case in the United States between 1900 and 1922 that involved schools where “racial identity” was at issue. Without exception, every such case adjudicated the Blackness of children who, in plain factual reality—assuming the accuracy of opposing testimony—were no Blacker (neither genetically nor ethnically) than the typical White American. Only two cases (Gilliland and Cole) ruled the children to be White. All the others flew in the face of factual reality and banished the children and their future descendants to the Black side of America’s endogamous color line. To be sure, some victims may actually have had a distant trace of African ancestry, as do one-third of White Americans. But if this made them Black, then it means that one-third of all White Americans also were and are Black and the question remains—why single these out?
White Adults Challenged to Defend Their Whiteness
Locklayer v. Locklayer, 1903 Alabama. Jason Locklayer died in Lawrence county, Alabama, on November 29, 1887.52 His widow, Nancy Locklayer, sued the executor of the estate to have $265.81 in personal property set aside from the bulk of the estate and awarded to her. The county probate court agreed with her and ordered the executor to comply. In Locklayer v. Locklayer, 1903 Alabama, the executor appealed on the grounds that Jason Locklayer, although he had lived his life as a member of the White endogamous group, had been accepted as White man for jury duty, and had affidavits attesting his Whiteness, was actually secretly a Negro by ancestry. The executor explained that, since the alleged widow was undoubtedly White, the marriage had never been valid and so she did not have any right to the $265.81. Witnesses were summoned and documents entered into evidence. Some claimed that they had heard that “[the deceased] did not have any African blood in his veins, but was of mixed blood, being part Indian, part Portuguese, and part Caucasian.” Others testified that they had heard he had Negro ancestry. On November of 1903, Justice Tyson of the Supreme Court of Alabama ruled against Nancy Locklayer. He decided that the deceased had been a member of the Black endogamous group, that the widow was a member of the White endogamous group (although no evidence was ever presented one way or the other about her), and so their relationship “was clearly illegal and adulterous.” Consequently, she had no claim on any part of the $265.81.53
Moon v. Children’s Home, 1911 Virginia. In 1911, the Circuit Court of Albemarle County, Virginia, took twelve-year-old Madeline and ten-year old Ruby from the custody of their mother, Lucy Moon, and committed them to the Children’s Home Society of Virginia. The reason was that when the girls’ father died, leaving them and their mother destitute, Lucy remarried a man with known African ancestry. Lucy appealed the ruling and commitment order in the case of Moon v. Children’s Home, 1911 Virginia. On November 16, 1911, the Supreme Court of Virginia ordered the children returned to their mother. According to Justice Buchanan, that although John Moon (the children’s stepfather) had one-sixteenth “of colored blood in his veins,” this fact alone did not make his White wife an unfit parent.54 Since John had less than one-fourth blood fraction (the Virginia rule then in effect), he was “colored” but not legally a “Negro” or “Mulatto.” Assuming the validity of the opposition’s testimony, the stepfather was genetically Whiter than millions of White Americans. Also, the two children suffered the punishment, although neither was alleged to have any African ancestry at all.
Railroad Company v. Ritchel, 1912 Kentucky. On July 9 of 1910, Rella Ritchel, a 20-year-old schoolteacher who had immigrated with her parents from Russia at age nine, was forcibly and rudely ejected from a railroad car reserved for members of the White endogamous group by the train conductor. The man insisted that he could tell by her appearance that she was a member of the Black endogamous group. She sued the railroad and won $3750 in punitive damages in Bourbon County Circuit Court. In Railroad Company v. Ritchel, 1912 Kentucky, the railroad appealed on the grounds that the plaintiff was a Russian Jewess (a fact that Rella did not deny), and that this made her a member of the Black group (“colored,” in the wording of the Kentucky law then in effect). On June 4, 1912, the Court of Appeals of Kentucky upheld the lower court. Judge William Rogers Clay (the same jurist as in Mullins v. Belcher, 1911 Kentucky) wrote that Jews were not colored under the law, “while she was a person of dark complexion and dark hair and eyes, her features were characteristic of the Jewish race, and bore no resemblance to those of a person of the colored race.”55 Even granting the accuracy of opposing testimony, Rella was genetically and ethnically “Whiter” than the typical White American.
Duvigneaud v. Loquet et al., 1912 Louisiana. Adelard Duvigneaud had died in New Orleans in 1873, leaving his wife, Marie Philomene Bechet, with lifetime use of their house. When she died in 1910, an inheritance dispute arose between Adelard’s children and Marie Philomene’s offspring by her second marriage. The pivotal claim on the part of the latter was that Adelard had not been completely White, but that Philomene had been. This would have made their marriage illegal and their children bastards incapable of inheriting. In the intervening years, new laws had done away with the traditional privileges of the Colored endogamous group. Colored-White intermarriage had been outlawed and public transportation segregated. More importantly, the determination of membership in the White endogamous group had become much stricter. Like George Tillman’s “hundred families”,56 the very same man who was a member of the White community when alive in 1873 might well have been relegated to Blackness in 1912 after he was dead. In the event, the Civil District Court, Parish of Orleans, ruled in Duvigneaud v. Loquet et al., 1912 Louisiana, that Abelarde had been White at the time and that the laws did not retroactively redefine him. The children of Marie Philomene’s second marriage appealed. On October 21, 1912, the Supreme Court of Louisiana, Justice Land presiding, ruled entirely on the basis of witnesses’ recollections of association and social acceptance that Abelard had been White (his brother had been a City Court judge), his marriage legal, and his children legitimate.57
Stewart v. Profit, 1912 Texas. A dispute over community property in 1912 Galveston, Texas, centered upon whether a woman could sell real estate without her husband’s participation. The husband, Calvin Bell, was African in appearance and undisputedly on the Black side of the color line. But the woman, Katie Bell, looked so European that the couple had been convicted of criminal intermarriage. Calvin had to live in a house “several hundred yards away in the town of La Marque” in order to avoid further prosecution and the risk of being lynched. When Katie sold the property to Stewart, Calvin’s interest came into question because, if she was a member of the White endogamous group, then their marriage was void but the title transfer was valid. On the other hand, if she were ruled to be on the Black side of the endogamous color line, then the marriage was valid but the property sale was not. Her endogamous group membership was determined at trial in Stewart v. Profit, 1912 Texas, and she was found to be White, despite the couple’s prior conviction having been excluded as evidence. The ruling was upheld on appeal on March 9 and again on March 28, 1912 rehearing, by the Court of Civil Appeals of Galveston, Texas, Judge Robert G. Street presiding. The point of interest here is that, as in the simultaneous case, Cole v. District Board, the judge held that association alone sufficed to determine a person’s endogamous group membership.
Marre v. Marre, 1914 Missouri. Louis Marre and Agnes E. Nash were married in St. Louis, Missouri, on November 2, 1908. On March 15 of 1911 he obtained an annulment from the St. Louis City Circuit Court on the ground that Agnes had an unspecified trace of Negro blood. Agnes appealed in Marre v. Marre, 1914 Missouri. On June 20, 1914, the Court of Appeals of Missouri reversed the annulment. All of the evidence presented regarding Agnes’s endogamous group membership was about her associations and those of her family. None of the testimony attempted to prove or disprove either her blood fraction or her appearance. According to the unanimous decision by Justices Reynolds, Nortoni, and Allen:
The mother of defendant testified in the most positive terms that there was no negro blood in the family, in the veins of herself, her husband or her children; her family had lived in Kentucky and in Mexico; two or more of her daughters are married to white men; their associates are with white people, not with negroes, although they had a few friends who are negroes. One of her immediate ancestors was a Mexican.58
Although the court found that Black endogamous group membership had not been proven, the three justices agreed that appearance was unimportant; invisible Blackness is what determined group membership: “We must bear in mind that the prohibition of the statute is not against color, but blood, or race.” Curiously, they cited Gentry vs. Polly McMinnis, 1835 Kentucky as precedent for this position when, in fact, that case had ruled precisely the opposite, “To a rational man… the best and highest proof of which any fact is susceptible, is the evidence of his own senses. … A white person of unmixed blood cannot be a slave.”59
Neuberger v. Gelder, 1916 Louisiana. In Neuberger v. Gelder, 1916 Louisiana, a man tried to annul his marriage on the ground that he had discovered that his wife was colored. According to Justice Provosty of the Supreme Court of Louisiana (the same who wrote the ruling in State v. Treadaway, 1910):
This is a suit in nullity of marriage, on the ground that the plaintiff is a white man and the defendant a colored woman. The defendant has always passed for a white person. She attended the public schools as such, and was married to plaintiff as such. Her father was unquestionably white, and was married to her mother. The preponderance of the evidence is that her mother also passed for a white woman. Whether she was such really or not is left doubtful. The trial judge saw her on the witness stand, and saw and heard the other witnesses, and concluded that she was white. Judgment affirmed.60
McGoodwin v. Shelby, 1918 Kentucky. According to Judge Sampson of the Marion County, Kentucky Circuit Court:
In May, 1915, Miss Florrie Hood, a most eccentric and peculiar woman, died intestate, childless and unmarried, at her home in Lebanon, Kentucky, she being about seventy years of age, and the owner by inheritance of several houses and lots and some acreage property in the city of Lebanon, and quite an amount of personal property…. There were no close relatives living so far as known. Some very distant relatives… began to assert claim to the estate…. It was known, however, that one Thomas C. Shelby, a nephew of Miss Florrie Hood, had many years before left Marion county on account of trouble and had gone to Florida…, and had not been heard from since his departure, so far as the public was advised. Whether Thomas C. Shelby was living or dead, or if dead, had he left heirs, became a very important question in the settlement of the Hood estate because if he was living or had left heirs of his body, capable of inheriting from collateral kin, he or they were entitled to the entire estate of Miss Hood….61
After dispatching investigators throughout Florida and mailing 1,500 postcards to different post offices in search of Thomas Shelby or his descendants, the estate administrators located Shelby’s widow and two minor children—sole heirs to the Hood fortune. The problem was that the widow (the mother of the heirs) “was the daughter of William Scott, and William Scott was the son of Joe Scott, and Joe Scott was [reputed to have been] a mulatto, so that the mother of the children of Thomas C. Shelby was not a pure-blooded white woman.” This would make illegal their parents’ marriage and render the children bastards incapable of inheriting. All of the claimants agreed that trying to settle such an issue by investigation would be unpredictable and risky to all. The late Miss Florrie had left enough to go around, so the claimants (including the children’s court-appointed attorney) reached an out-of-court settlement to distribute the property among themselves. The case, McGoodwin v. Shelby, 1918 Kentucky, then wound its way through the Kentucky court system for the next three years. First, the original probate court disallowed the agreement as being unconscionable since the children could not possibly be considered anything but White, based on their great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents having always associated solely with White people. Then, the Kentucky Court of Appeals overruled the probate court on the ground that it was a valid choice by the children’s attorney not to open that particular can or worms. Finally, on December 6, 1918, the Kentucky Court of Appeals overruled itself, upholding the out-of-court settlement but reducing the attorneys’ fees extracted from Miss Florrie’s estate. In the end, the Kentucky Court of Appeals, all justices sitting, ruled that:
Under section 233 of the Kentucky Constitution all laws in force in Virginia on June 1, 1792… are in force within [Kentucky] unless they have been altered or repealed by the general assembly [and that] the Virginia act of 1785 declaring that a person having one-fourth part or more of negro blood shall be deemed a mulatto, is in force in Kentucky by virtue of section 233 of the Constitution.
Since the Shelby children undoubtedly had less than the specified fraction of “Negro” blood, even granting the allegations about their great-grandfather Joe Scott, they were legally White in Kentucky and could inherit. This case is the best example of the mismatch between color line criteria for school attendance and for other purposes. The Shelby children were White, as far as inheriting Miss Florrie’s estate was concerned. But there is no doubt, judging by Kentucky Court of Appeals Judge William Rogers Clay’s one-drop ruling in Mullins v. Belcher, 142 Ky. 673, seven years earlier, that the Shelby children would have been rejected from Kentucky’s White schools despite their legal Whiteness.
Reed v. State, 1922 Alabama. In 1921, Percy Reed was convicted by the Circuit Court of Washington County, Alabama, of the felony of marrying a White woman and was sentenced to an indeterminate term in the state penitentiary. Prosecution witnesses at his trial testified that he was Black but, when asked how they knew, they referred only to his swarthy (but not African) appearance. The jury found Reed guilty, despite the judge’s instructions that the court “had ascertained that defendant is of Indian or Spanish origin.”62 When denied a new trial by the county court, Reed took his case, Reed v. State, 1922 Alabama, to the Alabama Court of Appeals. On January 10 of 1922, Justice Merritt ruled that, since the prosecution had offered no evidence that Reed was not Hispanic, the conviction was overturned.63
Rollins v. State, 1922 Alabama. In 1921, a Jefferson County, Alabama, court convicted Jim and Edith Rollins of interracial sex. Rollins was an elderly African-looking businessman. Edith Labue was a European-looking woman from Sicily. Miscegenation was a serious crime at that place and time, punishable with a mandatory two to seven years in the state penitentiary for each party.64 But it would have been hopeless to argue that Jim was not Black. His dark brown complexion had more of Africa than of Europe in it, and the state’s one-drop “racial” definition was clear: “The word ‘negro’ means [anyone with] negro ancestors, without reference to or limit of time or number of generations.”65 The Rollins couple appealed their conviction in Rollins v. State, 1922 Alabama, presenting the state Court of Appeals with a problem. The court apparently did not want to lock up an elderly couple who were respected members of their community.66 How could the court legitimately let the Rollins couple off the hook? The solution was elegantly simple. Alabama’s definition effectively labeled as “Negro” every Mediterranean native from Athens to Gibraltar since ancient times. On January 17, 1922, Judge Bricken reasoned that no evidence suggested that Sicilians were White under the law. Hence, the couple had violated no statute, and their conviction was reversed.67
Some might suspect that the present author exposes the above history because he considers morally acceptable the mistreatment of people of mainly African ancestry or those who identify ethnically as African-American, and that he draws the line only at mistreatment of those who are considered White. Such suspicion would be incorrect. The Jim Crow era saw the cruelest wave of “racial” hatred that America has yet experienced. Millions of Americans of the Black endogamous group were disfranchised, killed, brutalized, and discouraged even from their children learning the three Rs. Mere words cannot describe the horror.68 Even though only about 20,000 American citizens were murdered outright by the system—tortured to death in public rituals called “lynchings”—the duration (half a century) and the number of people ultimately affected (ten million African Americans in 1920) is comparable to the Nazi holocaust. The Jim Crow system was morally reprehensible by any standard, whether evaluated in the light of Benthian Utilitarianism, Kantian categorical imperatives, or religious teachings. That most of its victims were of the Black endogamous group cannot justify it. That some of its victims were of the White endogamous group cannot make it any more or less reprehensible. Nevertheless, to repeat an earlier disclaimer, “These essays do not address the morality of the U.S. system of two endogamous groups—whether any particular feature is ‘good’ or ‘bad’.”69
The above cases are important because they raise two historical questions that cry out for answers. First, why did 1900-1920 mainstream White society (via the courts) punish selected White Americans by decreeing them to be Black?70 How were the victims of this deliberate judicial ostracism chosen? Second, why have American scholars turned their backs on such easily available court records and pretended to believe that the one-drop rule’s victims merely “looked White,” but that they were “really Black” in some metaphysical sense? The next essay, Why Did One-Drop Become Nationwide Tradition? suggests possible answers.
Did as many people of African-American ethnicity embrace and support the one-drop rule of invisible Blackness during the Jim Crow era, as they did in the 1830s?71 As in the antebellum period, we must seek the answer in literature and in diaries, rather than in court cases. We have already seen that African-American delegates to “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman‘s 1895 South Carolina Constitutional Convention were apathetic towards the topic, in contrast to their strong participation in issues of marriage and voting rights.72
The number of “passing” novels written by African-Americans soared in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.73 Although often set in the lower south, they were almost invariably written by northerners and, in contrast to antebellum passing novels, they invariably portray endogamous-group switching as morally reprehensible.74 To be sure, some characters, such as Clare Kendry in Nella Larsen’s Passing, seem comfortable with their position on the White side of America’s endogamous color line, but in the end, they receive their comeuppance for their transgression. (Students love to debate whether, in Passing’s final dramatic scene, Clare accidentally fell to her death from the sixth-floor window, jumped in suicide, or was pushed by Irene Redfield, the heroine who refused to pass.)75 As one scholar explains it, “Passing for white has long been viewed as an instance of racial self-hatred or disloyalty. It is predicated, so the argument goes, on renouncing blackness—an ‘authentic’ identity, in favor of whiteness, an ‘opportunistic’ one.”76
On the other hand, class mobility and mobility among ethnic groups is a fundamental component of the “American Dream.” If anything, the early twentieth century—the time of Horatio Alger stories and the assimilationist “melting pot” paradigm—saw heightened enthusiasm towards self-improvement. The notion of the “self-made man” was a fundamental component of the “American Dream.” In point of fact, Americans born into the Black endogamous group were mobile. Black-to-White endogamous group mobility was and is a hallmark of American society. The step has been taken by one African-American youngster out of every thousand in every year of the nation’s history.77
One would therefore expect critiques of the “passing” novel genre to notice that African-American authors’ hostility to group switching actually denigrates acceptance and embraces intolerance. As one scholar puts it, “The paradoxical coexistence of the cult of the social upstart as ‘self-made man’ and the permanent racial identification and moral condemnation of the racial passer as ‘imposter’ constitutes the frame within which the phenomenon of passing took place.”78 The fact is that, since the Jim Crow era, scholarly interpretations have almost universally supported the African-American authorial consensus that switching from an African-American ethnic identity to, say Irish-American, Italian-American, or Hispanic, is akin to treason. As one exceptional analyst puts it, “Though assimilation is hardly an uncontested component of ethnic identity, the assimilated ethnic rarely faces the kind of hostility—either within the narrative itself or in the critical discourse surrounding it—faced by the passing character.”79
First-hand accounts of educators in the South during this period abound with examples of the southward spread of the Northern one-drop rule custom. Northern traditions were imposed by well-intentioned immigrants. A White Northern schoolteacher of Southern Black children recorded a particularly poignant account in her 1910 diary:
“The talented tenth” was, at birth, farther along than the others. It was lighter in color and had inherited land or education or money from white or free ancestors. It had the first higher education and produced most of the early professional men. … They told me that their particular problem was being colored at all. Being too white themselves, they could not assimilate the lower class. They were the prestige pattern, but too high on the hill—a target for snipers. They suffered in conscience about trouble that could be hardly expressed. Those who came North were sometimes fair enough to pass, but “passing” was then regarded as treason to the race. I never knew anyone who did not think so.80
As discussed in an earlier essay, Yankees of the newly invented African-American ethnicity were inadvertently complicit with White mainstream society in inventing and spreading the original one-drop rule in the 1830s.81 Americans of the White endogamous group invented the one-drop rule in reaction to the fear that White-looking Blacks were secretly in their midst, plotting their murders as Nat Turner’s followers had done. But Black Yankees soon internalized the idea. This should not surprise. When ethnicities form under a hegemonic mainstream society, they often adopt mainstream values. Today, for example, when people of any U.S. ethnicity are asked what makes their particular group unique and different from the “others,” close family ties and respect for education always top the list. Every ethnicity claims to uniquely embrace these two values.82 In fact, these values are internalized from the mainstream and contradicted by the historical record. (Immigrant Irish, for example, forbade their children to learn to read and write.83)
Black Yankees absorbed the one-drop rule from the surrounding mainstream society. For Americans of the newly invented African-American ethnicity, it strengthened the border of ethnic solidarity by retaining within their ethnic community the European-looking offspring of mixed marriages—a century before Du Bois coined the term “talented tenth.” As one educator of the time wrote in her diary, “the unwritten law was that Negroes should form a solid unit against the white man. … Passing over to whites was regarded as betrayal.”84
The hatred and revulsion towards passing that was expressed by both Blacks and Whites of the early twentieth century (and expressed by most Blacks and Whites today, according to academic consensus85) is thought-provoking. One would think that color-line permeability would be embraced and encouraged by those wishing to oppose U.S. racialism. As one scholar puts it, “Understood in [the light of history], passing offers a problematic but potentially legitimate expression of American individualism, one that resists segregation’s one-drop logic and thereby undermines America’s consciously constructed ideology of racial difference.”86 Apparently, however, this was not the case.
Both the White carpetbaggers and the African-American Yankees who went south after the war to teach and lead the freedmen carried the one-drop rule in their cultural baggage. The Northern Black-White cultural unanimity imposed the one-drop rule as a mandatory component of the new hegemony. Sometimes it was imposed gently, as in the literature of “passing” novels. Sometimes it was imposed brutally, as in the preceding court cases. Sometimes it was imposed on former slaves who welcomed it along with their first taste of freedom. Sometimes it was imposed against fierce cultural resistance by the biracial elite of the lower South, whose heritage and traditions stemmed from Barbados, France, or Spain, rather than from Boston, New York, or Philadelphia. But gently or brutally, against acceptance or resistance, it was imposed. It was not a conflict between Blacks and Whites. It was a conflict between the North’s and upper South’s worldview of a single harsh color line on the one hand, against the lower South’s permeable three-caste worldview on the other.
* * * * *
This essay examined events of 1900-1919 that gave rise to the uniquely American conceptualization of endogamous group membership that is still in force today. It showed that the word “Colored,” no longer denoted an intermediate group in the Franco-American culture of the Gulf Coast but became a polite euphemism for any member of the Black endogamous group anywhere. It showed that the strictest enforcement of the one-drop rule in those years was for school segregation. It offered a viewpoint shift to reveal that the one-drop rule targeted only Whites, not Blacks. It showed that members of the African-American ethnic community, especially its leadership, embraced and enforced the one-drop rule within their constituencies.
1 Croatan was the pre-1953 name of a maroon community centered in Robeson County, North Carolina. In 1953, the Croatans renamed themselves “Lumbee Indians.” For details, see topic “The Maroon Escape Hatch” in the essay The Rate of Black-to-White “Passing.” The most common Lumbee surnames are “Locklear” and “Goins.”
2 97 S.C. 303.
3 For details, see under the topic “South Carolina” in the essay The One-Drop Rule in the Postbellum Lower South.
4 97 S.C. 303.
5 For an antebellum case of a family legislatively decreed to be White by popular demand, see the case of the Whartons under the topic “Nat Turner Sealed Virginia’s Color Line” in the essay The Antebellum South Rejects the One-Drop Rule.
6 See footnote 3 in the essay Introduction.
7 69 Va. 939. See under the topic “Three Upper South Cases” in the essay The One-Drop Rule in The Postbellum North and Upper South.
8 31 N.C. 384. See under the topic “Physical Appearance, Blood Fraction, Association” in the essay How the Law Decided if You Were Black or White: The Early 1800s.
9 153 N.C. 174.
10 126 La. 300.
11 50 N.C. 11. See under the topic “Transitional Cases” in the essay The Antebellum South Flirts With the One-Drop Rule.
12 36 App. D.C. 50. For details, see under the topic “White Children Consigned to Blackness,” in this essay.
13 153 N.C. 174.
14 See the essay Afro-European Genetic Admixture in the United States.
15 125 La. 236.
16 1 Mart o.s. 183. See under the topic “French-Speaking Louisiana” in the essay Antebellum Louisiana and Alabama: Two Color Lines, Three Endogamous Groups. This was the case that established the Louisiana precedent that members of the Colored endogamous group were not Black in the eyes of the law, nor vice-versa.
17 As presented under topic “Louisiana” in the essay The One-Drop Rule in the Postbellum Lower South, the late antebellum enforcement of the letter of Article 8 of the Louisiana Code of 1808 (enforcement demanded by Article 95 of the Code of 1825) led to Louisiana’s first one-drop rule case, Succession of Fortier, 1899 Louisiana, 51 La. Ann. 1562.
18 125 La. 236.
19 White v. Tax Collector 1836 South Carolina (3 Richardson 136), Catterall (1968) 2:400, was one of several antebellum South Carolina cases that decided whether someone with a touch of African ancestry had been accepted into South Carolina’s White endogamous group by the rules of association and socioeconomic class. In White v Tax Collector, (as in State v. Davis, 1831 and State v. Hanna,,1831, but in contrast to State v. Cantey, 1835, which went the other way), the South Carolina court decided that a person had not satisfied the rule of association despite passing the rule of socioeconomic class. For details, see the topic “The Rule of Socioeconomic Class” in the essay Barbadian South Carolina: A Class-Based Color Line.
20 126 La. 300.
21 Presumably, someone of one-eight African genetic admixture.
22 126 La. 300.
26 Virginia R. Dominguez, White by Definition: Social Classification in Creole Louisiana (New Brunswick NJ, 1986), 31-32.
27 See the essay Afro-European Genetic Admixture in the United States.
28 Gunnar Myrdal, Richard Mauritz Edvard Sterner, and Arnold Marshall Rose, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (New York, 1972), 606.
29 98 Va. 499.
31 See the essay Afro-European Genetic Admixture in the United States.
32 141 N.C. 482.
33 See the essay Afro-European Genetic Admixture in the United States.
34 36 App. D.C. 50.
35 See the essay Afro-European Genetic Admixture in the United States.
36 This sentence would probably fascinate a semanticist.
37 126 La. 300.
38 142 Ky. 673.
39 See the essay Afro-European Genetic Admixture in the United States.
40 32 Okla. 692.
41 The cases were: Hopkins v. Bowers 111 N.C. 175, Bryan v. Walton 20 Ga. 480, White v. Clements 39 Ga. 232, State v. Patrick 51 N.C. 308, Nave’s Adm’r v. Williams 22 Ind. 368, Chancellor v. Milly 9 Dana 23, Tucker v. State 24 Ala. 77, and Locklayer v. Locklayer 139 Ala. 354.
42 See the essay Features of Today’s One-Drop Rule.
43 166 N.C. 468.
44 As described earlier in this the essay, Ferrall v. Ferrall, 153 N.C. 174, ruled Susie Patterson to be White based on blood fraction. In that decision, Justice Hoke mentioned the newly passed school segregation statute employing a one-drop rule and predicted that its constitutionality would soon be challenged. Wall v. Oyster, 36 App. D.C. 50, also described above, ruled District of Columbia children to be Black, as in Johnson v. Board, but there was no conflicting blood fraction statute or constitutional provision in effect in that case. Finally Tucker v. Blease, 97 S.C. 303, also described above, was the case that overturned centuries of South Carolina color-line permeability.
45 See the essay Afro-European Genetic Admixture in the United States.
46 167 N.C. 239.
47 Ferrall v. Ferrall, 153 N.C. 174, and Johnson v. Board of Education , 166 N.C. 468, are both described earlier in this essay.
48 114 Miss. 560.
49 Lee v. New Orleans, 125 La. 236, discussed earlier in this essay, ruled that a Colored person had to ride in the Jim Crow car, despite the ancient Louisiana tradition that “Colored” denoted a third group with most of the rights of the White group. Mullins v. Belcher, 142 Ky. 673, also discussed above, ruled that Kentucky would follow a one-drop rule because the state Constitution did not define “colored.”
50 142 La. 788.
51 154 Ark. 176.
52 Locklayer or Locklear is one of the most common surnames within the Lumbee maroon community centered on Robeson County, North Carolina (called “Croatan“ before 1953). For details, see topic “The Maroon Escape Hatch” in the essay The Rate of Black-to-White “Passing.”
53 139 Ala. 354.
54 112 Va. 737. The idea that intermarriage proves parental unfitness was eventually embraced in many states. A family friend of the present author is an elderly woman of Irish extraction and of the White endogamous group, whose two children were taken away by the state in 1943 Miami precisely because she married a man of the Black group after being widowed and left destitute.
55 148 Ky. 701.
56 See under the topic “South Carolina” in the essay The One-Drop Rule in the Postbellum Lower South.
57 131 La. 568.
58 184 Mo. App. 198.
59 33 Ky. 382. See under the topic “Court Cases” in the essay The Invention of the One-Drop Rule in The 1830s North.
60 139 La. 758.
61 181 Ky. 230 .
62 How they had ascertained such a thing does not appear in the record.
63 18 Ala. App. 353.
64 Pauli Murray, ed. States’ Laws on Race and Color (Athens, 1997), 30.
65 Ibid., 22.
66 Alabama Court of Appeals Judge P.J. Bricken was also irritated that a city detective named Hubbard had persuaded the defendant to sign a confession by the unorthodox method of pushing the muzzle of a loaded revolver against Jim Rollins’s head and threatening to blow his brains out.
67 18 Ala. App. 354.
68 Although one historian makes a great effort to describe it in Leon F. Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (New York, 1998).
69 See below footnote 10 in the essay Introduction.
70 To be sure, some victims may actually have had recent African ancestry, as do one-third of White Americans. But if this made them Black, then it means that one-third of all White Americans were also Black and the question remains—why single these out?
71 The above words, “of African-American ethnicity,” are meant to exclude the few remaining Colored Creoles of the Gulf Coast (who did not self-identify with Northern-born African-American ethnicity). As shown earlier, they tenaciously opposed the one-drop rule.
72 See under the topic “South Carolina” in the essay The One-Drop Rule in the Postbellum Lower South.
73 For a survey and a hypothesis explaining the suddenly increased popularity of this genre, see Kathleen Pfeiffer, Race Passing and American Individualism (Amherst, 2003), 1.
74 To be sure, some characters in these novels seem comfortable with their position on the White side of America’s endogamous color line.
75 For a particularly deep analysis of this novel, including the suppressed homosexuality that gives it tension, see Pamela L. Caughie, Passing and Pedagogy: The Dynamics of Responsibility (Urbana, 1999), 124-43.
76 Pfeiffer (2003), 2.
77 See the topic “The Average Yearly Rate is Between 0.10 and 0.14 Percent” in the essay The Rate of Black-to-White “Passing.”
78 Werner Sollors, Neither Black Nor White Yet Both (Cambridge, 1997), 250.
79 Pfeiffer (2003), 4. Another exceptional analyst who sees this oddity is M. Giulia Fabi, Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel (Urbana, 2001).
80 Lura Beam, He Called Them by the Lightning: A Teacher’s Odyssey in the Negro South, 1908-1919 (Indianapolis, 1967), 40-41.
81 See the topics “African-American Ethnic Solidarity Benefited” and “Other Voices” in the essay Why Did Northerners Invent the One-Drop Rule?
82 Mary C. Waters, Black Identities: West Indian Immigrant Dreams and American Realities (New York, 1999), 67.
83 Oscar Handlin, Boston’s Immigrants, 1790-1880, Rev. and enl. ed. (Cambridge MA, 1959), Chapter 5.
84 Beam (1967), 51, 89.
85 For a survey of today’s academic consensus, see the topic “Many Scholars Believe the One-Drop Rule is Stronger Than Ever” in the essay Features of Today’s One-Drop Rule.
86 Pfeiffer (2003), 2.
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Frank W. Sweet is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), an analysis of the nearly 300 appealed cases that determined Americans’ “racial” identity over the centuries. It is the most thorough study of the legal history of this topic yet published. He was accepted to Ph.D. candidacy in history with a minor in molecular anthropology at the University of Florida in 2003 and has completed all but his dissertation defense. He earned an M.A. in History from American Military University in 2001. He is also the author of several state park historical booklets and published historical essays. He was a member of the editorial board of the magazine Interracial Voice, and is a regular lecturer and panelist at historical and genealogical conferences. To send email, click here.
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