Essays on the Color Line and the One-Drop Rule
by Frank W Sweet
June 1, 2005
n 1826 South Carolina, Justice Colcock had to decide a probate case on appeal: Real Estate of Hardcastle, 1826. The issue was whether the late Mrs. Hardcastle’s 2,377 acres of prime South Carolina land should go to her niece, Catharine Cleveland, or escheat to the state instead. Mrs. Hardcastle had died six years earlier. The problem was that no record could be found of her parents’ marriage. Cleveland would not be considered a niece if her aunt had been illegitimate. Given the absence of a marriage record, Colcock ruled for the state and that was the end of it. But the case is remarkable because of an argument made by the state and how it was dismissed. It opens a window through which you can glimpse the color line of early antebellum South Carolina.
The state’s attorney had argued that Mrs. Hardcastle had been born in Africa, the daughter of a Captain Cleveland of the British Royal Navy and an African princess. This, he said, made her a “colored woman” and so she could not legally own Charleston real estate. True, he admitted, she had achieved wealth and was “well connected” to the powerful Kinloch family of South Carolina, but she was colored nonetheless
Judge Colcock’s answer had two parts. “Free persons of color” had only limited rights by South Carolina law and custom. “They have not, like the freed men of Rome, or Athens, become incorporated into the body politic.” Colcock knew very well that the United States would never emulate those alien or ancient lands where former slaves were embraced and welcomed into society. But then he said:
[Free Black subordination] has no doubt been the result of the mark which nature has put upon them. For where this has been obliterated, some have obtained, and now enjoy all the rights of citizens; some who have lost that distinctive mark, hold offices, as well as lands, and even seats in the legislature. My earliest recollections are associated with the knowledge of one of this description, who owned a plantation and negroes.1
* * * * *
This essay introduces the first of four societies, within what became the United States, whose color-line customs differed from the mainstream—Barbadian South Carolina. It presents three topics. The Rule of Socioeconomic Class explains that antebellum South Carolina lacked a rule of blood fraction but used a rule of socioeconomic class instead. A Permeable, Shifted Color Line shows that it was acceptable for wealthy White adults to have a Black parent, and that some swarthy White South Carolinians might have been seen as Black elsewhere in the United States. An Echo of Barbados suggests that South Carolina’s unique color line had been adapted from the Barbadian color line.
The Rule of Socioeconomic Class
At first glance, Justice Colcock’s decision in Real Estate of Hardcastle seems to suggest that he applied the rule of physical appearance, “the mark which nature has put upon them.” But a closer reading reveals that who was deemed White was not just anyone in whom “this [mark] has been obliterated.” Colcock specifically cited only people who held offices, lands, seats in the legislature, plantations, negroes. In a one-sided sense, of course, the rule of physical appearance has always applied. The genetic selection apparent in phenotype versus genotype variation shows that the U.S. mainstream has consistently relegated African-looking families to the Black side of the color line.2 But Colcock was citing another rule, beyond the rule of physical appearance, beyond the rule of blood fraction, beyond the rule of association. It was the rule of socioeconomic class. The following case shows that acceptance into upper class White society was more important than mere appearance.
In State v. Davis / State v. Hanna, December 1831, Justice William Harper granted a new trial because the original jury had allowed predominantly European-looking witnesses to testify in a case involving members of the White endogamous group. The jury had found the witnesses also to be White by inspecting them. Judge Harper ruled that:
It is certainly true, as laid down by the presiding judge, that “every admixture of African blood with the European, or white, is not to be referred to the degraded class.” It would be dangerous and cruel to subject to this disqualification, persons bearing all the features of a white, on account of some remote admixture of negro blood; nor has the term mulatto, or person of color, I believe, been popularly attributed to such a person.3
Nevertheless, Harper ruled that the jury should also have taken into account whether the witnesses had been “received into society.” Membership in South Carolina’s White endogamous group, it seems, depended on both appearance and social standing. Each was insufficient by itself. The witnesses in question had not been so received into society, and so Justice Harper ruled them to be Black, despite their mostly European physical appearance.4
In this case and in others like it, Justice Harper was troubled by the lack of clear legislative intent. He would have preferred a statute codifying a blood-fraction rule, as in Louisiana. In another case, he wrote:
In Louisiana, as I understand, and by the Code Noir of France for her colonies, the descendant of a white and a quadroon is accounted a white. Perhaps it would be desirable, that the Legislature should adopt some such uniform rule here. The rule may be of use to juries—not as a rule of law, which we have no authority to declare it, but as being founded on experience and conformable to nature.5
Harper’s suggested ratio was also Spanish colonial law at the time, under the Recopilación de leyes de los reinos de las Indias.6 In fact, this very same ratio was in effect in Virginia in Justice Harper’s time, and eventually became the law in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.7 Alas, Justice Harper’s wish that the legislature establish a fixed blood fraction for endogamous group membership was never granted.
Four years later, it was Harper himself who wrote the legal precedent that continued in effect in South Carolina thereafter. A larceny conviction, State v. Cantey, 1835, was appealed on the grounds that Black witnesses had been allowed to testify. The original trial judge had accepted the witnesses because:
The father of the witnesses was a white man. … The maternal grandfather of the witnesses, although of dark complexion, had been recognized as a white man, received into society and exercised political privileges as such; their mother was uniformly treated as a white woman; their relations of the same admixture have married into respectable families, and one of them has been a candidate for the legislature. The witnesses were ordinarily fair and exhibited none of the distinctive marks of the African race; they are respectable, have always been received into society, and recognized as white men—one of them is a militia officer, and their caste has never been questioned until now.8
In deciding the appeal, William Harper resigned himself to the fact that it was going to be up to him, not the legislature, to lay this problem to rest. And so, in May 1835, Harper and two other justices (Johnson and O’Neall) unanimously wrote the decision that would be followed as South Carolina law until 1895:
It would be an absurdity to say that such a one [as the witness in question] is, in the popular sense a person of color. If we should say that such an [sic] one is to be regarded as a person of color, on account of any [emphasis in the original] mixture of negro blood, however remote, we would be making, instead of declaring the law, and making a very cruel and mischievous law. We cannot say what admixture will make a colored person. The condition is not to be determined solely by visible mixture but by reputation and it may be proper, that a man of worth should have the rank of a white man, while a vagabond of the same degree of blood should be confined to the inferior caste. It is hardly necessary to say that a slave cannot be a white man. We wish it to be understood that this matter is regarded as settled. I think it to be regretted that the question was made in the present case, it is doing unnecessary violence to the feelings of persons of much worth and respectability.9
This above case law was not overturned until the redemptionist South Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1895 legislatively codified a rule of blood fraction.
South Carolina’s rule of socioeconomic class to determine whether you were White or Black was unusual for the United States. In most regions and periods of U.S. history, even a very wealthy member of the Black endogamous group was still Black. But basing group membership (and appearance designation) partly upon class was the norm throughout the rest of the Western Hemisphere. “Money whitens” is a cliché elsewhere in the New World and it has been demonstrated statistically in Brazil.10
A Permeable, Shifted Color Line
In addition to the absence of a rule of blood fraction, and the presence of a unique rule of socioeconomic class, the color line in antebellum South Carolina had two other distinctive features. First, it was unusually permeable.11 The children of Black parents were routinely accepted into White society if they passed the two rules of socioeconomic class and appearance. Second, the color line was shifted towards the African end of the Afro-European genetic admixture continuum. The same individual seen as physically Black-looking in Massachusetts, say, could be seen as physically White-looking in South Carolina.
The permeability of South Carolina’s color line is apparent in marriage and tax records, as studied by Larry Koger. The historian faced an epistemological (or perhaps semantic) challenge in researching records for his book, Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860. That is, “Whom should you count as within the ranks of Black slaveowners, assuming that you want to be understood by modern Anglo-American readers?” Clearly, you must count it when a former Negro slave becomes a slaveowner, even if he marries a woman who is a member of wealthy White society. But what of their children? Say, for instance, that you count the first generation of mixed offspring as Black group members also, even if they marry White spouses in their turn. But then, what of their children? What of the fourth generation, the fifth? Koger discovered that if you adopt modern America’s one-drop rule, you wind up counting many White slaveowners in South Carolina as “Black,” including the state’s wealthiest and most influential White families. And so, in order to keep his results within commonsense reason, Koger arbitrarily cut off hereditary “Blackness” at the second generation, and tallied third-generation and subsequent descendants of Black slaveowners and White spouses as members of the White endogamous group.12
As mentioned in the Essay Features of the Endogamous Color Line, color line permeability comprises two components. The first is made up of children with at least one Black parent who, even as infants or toddlers, are assigned to the White endogamous group by their families and by mainstream society (usually, in the form of a census taker). The second component consists of young adults with at least one Black parent who reject their families’ designations and reinvent themselves as White when starting adult life on their own.
Judging by the many South Carolina court cases accepting people with known African ancestry into the White endogamous group, and by Koger’s study of Black slaveowners, crossing the color line in infancy was higher in South Carolina than anywhere else in the English-speaking United States of the time. Indeed, the practice of European-looking infants of Black parentage being accepted into White society by the rule of socioeconomic class remained a hallmark of South Carolina well into the twentieth century.13 The second component, color-line switching in young adulthood, is harder to measure but the few known cases suggest that it was not particularly socially acceptable when attempted openly.14
It is important to understand that the children of Black parents who were seen as members of the White endogamous group in South Carolina really were accepted as White. South Carolinians then, like most Americans now, were convinced that they could distinguish a Black person from a White person on sight.15 The difference was that the very same person seen as visibly a member of the Black endogamous group in, say, New York or Virginia, might be seen as visibly White in South Carolina. There are accounts of swarthy professionals (physicians, lawyers) moving to South Carolina for that very reason. An elderly North Carolina judge advised a would-be lawyer:
As you have all the features of a white man, you would, at least in South Carolina, have simply to assume the place and exercise the privileges of a white man…. [T]he matter has been adjudicated there in several cases, and on the whole I think South Carolina is the place for you.16
Alexis de Tocqueville was a French political scientist whose government sent him on a nine-month study of the American penal system in 1831-32. De Tocqueville took advantage of his visit to write Democracy in America, a combination travelogue and social commentary on the United States, which he published upon returning to Europe. During his visit to the lower South, he wrote:
There are parts of the United States where the European and Negro blood are so crossed that one cannot find a man who is either completely white or completely black; when that point has been reached, one can really say that the races are mixed, or rather that there is a third race derived from the two, but not precisely one or the other.17
Similarly, when General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, of Little Round Top, Gettysburg fame, was in the occupied South after Appomattox, he saw:
wild-looking men in homespun gray, standing sulkily by, or speaking only to insist that they are civilians and not soldiers; sometimes white men, or what seem to be, declaring that they are not white, but colored;—a claim not often set up in that part of the Republic, though there may be some truth in it for all that; for there was in those days a whimsical variance between law and fact,—between being actually white and legally white…18
That the South Carolina color line was shifted towards more African admixture does not mean that the state had a “Colored” endogamous group, intermediate between Black and White, as did Louisiana and Alabama, discussed below. It is true that South Carolina had a large and powerful Mulatto elite within the Black endogamous group. Some Mulattos were among the wealthiest men in the state. William Ellison’s slaveholdings put him in the top one percent of South Carolina planters.19 Six Mulattos owned more slaves than Ellison. One owned 152 slaves; another was worth $250,000 (twelve and a half million in today’s money).20 The South Carolina Mulatto elite founded their own exclusive clubs. The Brown Fellowship Society of Charleston is the earliest known instance of the grocery-bag rule of the Colored upper-crust of the 1930s.21 To be admitted, the skin of your forearm had to be lighter than kraft paper.22 As of 1830, 474 South Carolina Mulattos owned 2,794 slaves, about one South Carolina slave in a hundred.23 Nevertheless, despite the efforts and occasional successes of the South Carolina Mulatto elite to create a middle ground for themselves, no officially recognized intermediate endogamous group ever existed in the eyes of mainstream society. The Mulatto elite may have tried to create an intermediate group resembling Louisiana’s and Alabama’s. But court case records reveal only one color line, not two. To White South Carolinians, the Mulatto elite were all just free members of the Black group.
In short, South Carolina employed a rule of socioeconomic class to determine if you were White or Black, but the state lacked a rule of blood fraction. The color line was permeable in that it was acceptable for a wealthy White person to have a Black parent. For today’s English-speaking Americans, in contrast, a person’s parentage trumps his or her appearance, even among children.24 Finally, the color line’s endogamous barrier was shifted towards the African end of the Afro-European admixture continuum.
An Echo of Barbados
Consider all of the features of South Carolina’s endogamous color line in combination. It was discontinuous, dichotomous, legally enforced, impermeable by adults, permeable by children, dependent upon socioeconomic class, and shifted darkwards. Only one other former colony in the New World had a color line with those very features—Barbados.25 Barbadians, of course, had colonized South Carolina in 1670, and so similarity of customs is not a surprise. What is strange is that Barbados was the only British West Indian colony that, like South Carolina, lacked a large intermediate group of Coloured landowning yeomen. There was good reason for this in Barbados, but the reason did not apply to South Carolina.
Geography explains the lack of an intermediate yeoman group in Barbados. Although often considered part of the Lesser Antilles, geographically the 14-by-21-mile island is not volcanic, but a coral-capped sedimentary seamount, a hundred miles to the east—upwind—of the nearest other island (the way that Bermuda lies off South Carolina, but not as far). It is the first New World landfall for ships following the trade winds, and this made it unique in three ways. First, it was never attacked because there is nowhere to stage an assault. Invasion fleets must refit and resupply shortly before attacking, oceangoing ships could not sail upwind very well, and Europe or Africa are too distant. So, unlike all other Caribbean islands, that bled their wealth into defense, Barbados could single-mindedly develop its economy. Second, Britain used Barbados as military staging area for its near-constant warfare against the downwind Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Dutch colonies. Consequently, Barbados was usually crawling with imperial soldiers. And so, unlike every other slave-based economy in history, Barbados did not need a yeoman class to crush slave revolts. Finally, since Barbados did not need a landowning middle class, the younger sons of Euro-Barbadians and upwardly mobile biracial Barbadians were economically driven off the island. (Some of these exiles founded South Carolina.) Consequently, Barbados quickly evolved into a unique population of wealthy Euro-Barbadian planters who owned nearly every scrap of land, a large number of Afro-Barbadian slaves who did all the work, and a small, landless, biracial group sandwiched uncomfortably between.26
But South Carolina did not enjoy the presence of a permanent garrison of imperial troops, and so one would have expected them to adopt the three-layer systems of, say, Jamaica or Trinidad after the Stono Rebellion of 1739.27 Instead, they apparently copied one feature of the Chesapeake two-layer system—the use of poor Whites for the social control of slaves.28 This then prevented even the Mulatto elite of the free Black South Carolinians from forming an intermediate group (see the mention of the Brown Fellowship Society, above), and so South Carolina’s culture retained the Barbadian style of color line.
* * * * *
This essay introduced Barbadian South Carolina, the first of four U.S. societies whose color-line customs differed from the mainstream. It explained that antebellum South Carolina lacked a rule of blood fraction but used a rule of socioeconomic class instead. It showed that it was acceptable for wealthy White adults to have a Black parent, and that some swarthy White South Carolinians might have been seen as Black elsewhere in the United States. It suggested that South Carolina’s unique color line had been adapted from the Barbadian color line.
1 Helen Tunnicliff Catterall and James J. Hayden, Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and The Negro (New York, 1968), 2:334; 2 Harper 495, 1826.
2 See “Physical Appearance, Blood Fraction, Association” in the essay, How the Law Decided if You Were Black or White and “Genetic Admixture is not the Same Thing as Appearance” in the essay Afro-European Genetic Admixture in the United States.
3 Catterall (1968), 2:346; 2 Bailey 558.
4 An interesting point raised by Ariela J. Gross, “Litigating Whiteness: Trials of Racial Determination in the Nineteenth-Century South,” Yale Law Journal, 108 (no. 1, 1998), 109-88 is whether association or social acceptance (what she calls “performance”) was more or less determinative of group membership than the other rules (physical appearance, blood fraction, socioeconomic class).
5 Catterall (1968), 2:347; 2 Bailey 558.
6 This is not to suggest that the law was enforced or even obeyed throughout Spain’s empire.
7 For an explanation of why 1/8 was so popular, see Physical Appearance, Blood Fraction, Association” in the essay How the Law Decided if You Were Black or White.
8 Catterall (1968), 2:358-59; 2 Hill 614.
10 See George Reid Andrews, “Racial Inequality in Brazil and the United States: A Statistical Comparison,” Journal of Social History, 26 (no. 2, Winter 1992), 229-63 for a study showing that the skin-tone designations assigned to individual Brazilians in their census lighten or darken from one census to the next depending upon the individuals’ income and net worth.
11 For a definition, see “Impermeability” in the essay Features of the Endogamous Color Line.
12 Larry Koger, Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860 (Jefferson NC, 1985), 17.
13 See, for example, 195 S.C. 1, It is the anecdote that opens the essay The Rate of Black-to-White “Passing.” Of course, one case does not prove a point. It is merely an example.
14 See, for example, the arduous process that the Gibsons had to follow to become White in Larry Koger, Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860 (Jefferson NC, 1985), 12-13. Today in contrast, switching from Black to White in young adulthood is much more common than in infancy. See “The Average Yearly Rate is Between 0.10 and 0.14 Percent” in the essay The Rate of Black-to-White “Passing.”
15 See the essay The Perception of “Racial” Traits.
16 Charles Waddell Chesnutt, The House Behind the Cedars (Boston, 1900), 172. See also Daniel J. Sharfstein, “The Secret History of Race in the United States,” Yale Law Journal, 112 (no. 6, 2003), 1473-509, 1489-91.
17 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York, 1966), 356.
18 Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, The Passing of the Armies (New York, 1915), 158.
19 Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roark, Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South, 1st ed. (New York, 1984).
20 William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay 1776-1854 (New York, 1990), 43.
21 Marina Wikramanayake, A World in Shadow: The Free Black in Antebellum South Carolina (Columbia, 1973), 81-85.
22 Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (New York, 1988), 101; Lawrence Graham, Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class (New York, 1999), passim.
23 James Hugo Johnston, Race Relations in Virginia & Miscegenation in the South, 1776-1860 (Amherst, 1970), 47; Peter Kolchin, American Slavery 1619-1877 (New York, 1993), 242.
24 See “How U.S. Children Learn to See Two Endogamous Groups” in the essay The Perception of “Racial” Traits.
25 See Hilary Beckles, A History of Barbados: From Amerindian Settlement to Nation-State (Cambridge UK, 1990) for an overview. A humorous view of Barbados’s darkwards-shifted color line comes from Anthony Trollope’s 1850 visit to the island, when he reported that only White men could legally run for public office, but then said, “How it is decided whether a man be white or not, I did not hear.” Anthony Trollope and Fred D’Aguiar, The West Indies and the Spanish Main (New York, 1999), 151-52.
26 Beckles (1990).
27 See Peter H. Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina From 1670 Through the Stono Rebellion, 1st ed. (New York, 1974) for an account of this decision.
28 William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay 1776-1854 (New York, 1990), 215-52.
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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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