Why Did Northerners Invent a One-Drop Rule?

Essays on the Color Line and the One-Drop Rule
by Frank W Sweet
December 1, 2005

I

n 1835, Henry Bright, his wife, and their 3-year-old adopted daughter Elizabeth moved from Mobile Alabama to Cambridge Massachusetts. The toddler’s biological mother had been one of the family’s house-servants in Mobile—a slave. The deceased woman had apparently been of mixed ancestry. Had she been freed before her death, she might have become a member of Mobile’s intermediate Colored group. Little Elizabeth could have been even lighter, of the appearance that Gulf Coast Americans considered White. The record does not show why the family moved to Massachusetts, but that Mrs. Bright had become an ardent abolitionist may have contributed to their relocation to a free state.1

Over the next two years, the Bright family learned that, to Massachusetts eyes, Elizabeth was on the Black side of the North’s single impermeable color line. Family friends of their own White endogamous group understood the Brights’ reasons for adopting the little girl, but court records invariably refer to her as non-White. Members of Massachusetts’s Black community, on the other hand, had no doubts regarding Elizabeth’s rightful place in society.

On September 17, 1837, when she was five years old, Elizabeth was kidnapped from her parents in Cambridge and taken to Boston by a Black couple. The Brights tracked down the kidnappers through an abolitionist friend. The kidnappers, named John and Sophia Robinson, claimed that they had merely rescued the child from the former slaveowners. Through the intermediary, the Brights pleaded for the return of their daughter. The Robinsons agreed to return Elizabeth to her parents if the Brights promised in writing not to sell her into slavery. The Brights wrote such a promise, but the child was not returned. The Brights then got the help of a “colored clergyman” named Snowden, who negotiated on their behalf. The Robinsons agreed to return Elizabeth if the Brights took out a $500 bond guaranteeing her freedom. The Brights took out such a bond, but the child was not returned. The Brights then enlisted several other abolitionists and Black leaders, who investigated and reported that Boston’s Black community was united in support of the Robinsons’ refusal to return the girl. But, they said that if the bond were increased to $1,000 (approximately $50,000 in today’s money), the child might be returned. The Brights increased the bond to $1,000, but the child was not returned.

Belatedly realizing that the Robinsons had no intention of returning their daughter, the Brights took the kidnappers to court in Commonwealth v. Robinson, 1837 Massachusetts. The Robinsons testified that (1) they did not know the child’s whereabouts and that (2) they would go to jail rather than return her to be raised by White people. How could a White family properly raise a Black child? Who would teach her African heritage? Who would even comb her hair, since White people do not know how to comb Black hair?2 The court was unimpressed and ordered the defendants to produce the child on pain of imprisonment. They agreed, and the Brights went to the house indicated to retrieve their daughter.

When the parents arrived at the agreed-upon transfer point, the terrified child ran into her mother’s arms. Then, in what is arguably one of the most bizarre but informative scenes in the history of U.S. race relations, “five or six colored people” burst into the house. Armed men, apparently Black, forcibly tore the screaming child from her mother’s arms and absconded with her again.

In the subsequent investigation, Black witnesses claimed to have no idea who the men were. When re-arrested on the kidnapping charge, the Robinsons denied any foreknowledge of the events. Unfortunately for the Robinsons, other Black witnesses swore that Boston’s Black community would unite and fight rather than allow a Black child to be raised by White people. This led the jury to conclude that a conspiracy existed. The Robinsons were convicted of kidnapping, “that the defendants seized and confined and imprisoned a certain female child with intent to cause her to be secretly confined in this state against her will.” They were sentenced to four months in the common jail.

The convicts immediately posted $2,000 bond ($100,000 in today’s money), apparently collected from the Black community, and remained free while they appealed. Their conviction was upheld and they were ordered to serve their four-month sentences. They then offered to return the child in return for immunity for everyone involved in the conspiracy. On October 22, 1838, over thirteen months after she was taken, Elizabeth Bright was returned to her parents. Commonwealth v. Robinson, 1837, was resolved in a deal that allowed all of the kidnappers to walk away.

* * * * *

The importance of Commonwealth v. Robinson, 1837 Massachusetts is that it shows coordinated action by a Black Yankee community to enforce something like a one-drop rule. Elizabeth Bright was not kidnapped because she was of one hundred percent African genetic admixture nor even because she was predominantly African—she was neither. She was kidnapped because Boston’s African-American ethnic group saw her as one of them, due solely to her having a trace of known African ancestry.3

As explained in another essay, the concept of invisible Blackness, the idea that you could be of European appearance but be ideologically Black in some way arose rather abruptly in the free states in the 1830s. The one-drop rule then spread slowly southwards and became the unwritten law of the land throughout the nation by the turn of the twentieth century. It became statutory in the 1910s and 1920s. This essay addresses two questions. Why was the one-drop rule invented in the free states and not in the South? Why was it invented in the 1830s and not before nor after?

This essay suggests a hypothesis in three topics. A Watershed Event in Three Threads explains that members of the White endogamous group suffered a wave of panic, fueled by sensationalist newspapers, that Blacks were secretly plotting to massacre Whites. African-American Ethnic Solidarity Benefited suggests that the one-drop rule was reinforced and encouraged by ethnic leaders seeking to strengthen group loyalties by strengthening group boundaries. Other Voices presents four objections to the hypothesis: The hypothesis suggests that Blacks and Whites cooperated in creating the one-drop rule. It denies that the one-drop rule increased slave assets held by planters. It ignores pre-1830 literature mentioning an indelible mark. It denies that Latin America has passing literature.

A Watershed Event in Three Threads

Between them, Gray v. Ohio and Williams v. School District marked the passing of an era. The two cases were only three years apart. What happened between 1831 and 1834 that led many members of mainstream northern society (the White endogamous group) to accept the concept that White-looking Black people could exist? The transition was pivotal to the history of the one-drop rule.

To see its import, look again at the key phrase, “White-looking Black people.” The phrase seems reasonable only because you are used to it. If someone said “tall-looking short people can exist” or “fat-looking thin people can exist,” you would laugh at the silliness. But you do not laugh at the notion of “White-looking Black people,” although a person from any other nation on earth would laugh. Why not? It is because at some point in America’s past, membership in the Black endogamous group switched from reflecting appearance and blood fraction (recall that Eston Hemings was fully accepted as White in 1830) to reflecting ideology. To see this, compare the three phrases above with comparable ideological phrases: “Christian-looking Jews” or “American-looking communists.” Suddenly, the phrase is not silly. The very earliest that anyone has been able to find this peculiar usage was shortly after 1831.

In those years, a wave of terror swept the nation, the fear that the Blacks were plotting to massacre all of the Whites. Three historical threads just happened to come together at this point in time: first, secret meetings of Black leaders; second, published calls for Black violence against Whites; third, a massacre of over 50 unarmed White women and children at the hands of U.S. Blacks. Together, the three threads created an atmosphere of suspicion and fear. Whites came to suspect that, among the Blacks who were secretly plotting to kill them, were some who looked just like their friends and neighbors. That is, some treacherous Blacks who looked White.

The first secret meeting of Black leaders was the one summoned by Richard Allen In September of 1830.4 Allen contacted other leaders and forty delegates from Brooklyn, Rochester, Wilmington, Baltimore, and Boston met in secret for five days at Bethel Church, Philadelphia, that very month. No member of the White endogamous group was allowed inside. Despite the attempt at secrecy, the White press reported that a clandestine meeting of Black leaders had been held. The reality of the meeting’s discussion would have been anticlimactic, had it been reported. As mentioned earlier, the agenda of the first meeting of what was to become the National Convention Movement actually focused upon two mundane topics. The first was support for Ohio refugees. The second was rejecting the American Colonization Society’s plan to exile free Blacks to Africa. But imagined White fears trumped prosaic Black reality and White Americans became uneasy with the secrecy of it all.5

The published calls for Black violence against Whites appeared in a book by Boston haberdasher David Walker, titled Appeal in Four Articles (Boston, 1829).6 According to Walker, members of the U.S. Black endogamous group were “the most degraded, wretched, and abject beings that ever lived since the world began…. Can our condition be any worse?” “They [Whites] are afraid to treat us worse, for they know well, the day they do it they are gone.” “They [Whites] think nothing of murdering us… therefore, if there is an attempt by us, kill or be killed.” Despite Walker’s mysterious death after his book’s publication (or perhaps because of it), it immediately went through three editions. Four states (Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana) ruled it seditious and demanded the author’s arrest. Northern White abolitionists were horrified. Antislavery publisher Benjamin Lundy wrote, “A more bold, daring, inflammatory publication, perhaps, never issued from the press of any country. I can do no less than set the broadest seal of condemnation on it.” Even William Lloyd Garrison deplored it as “most injudicious,” although he also said that it held “many valuable truths and seasonable warnings.”7 Valuable truths, however were not what some Americans sought. Walker’s book raised the question in White minds of just what those secret Black meetings were all about.

The massacre of over 50 unarmed Whites at the hands of Blacks was led by Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia, on the night of August 21, 1831.8 Reports of the event spread terror among White people across the country. That it was an insurrection employing bloody violence against their tormentors, by people who were kept in chains by equally bloody violence, seemed to escape White readers. That it was an unprovoked attack by Blacks against defenseless White women and children was clear to the same White readers. To many fearful Whites, Nat Turner’s rebellion answered the question about what the secret meetings were about. Blacks, many Whites feared, were plotting another large-scale extermination of Whites, like the one that had taken place in El Cibao, Santo Domingo, in February of 1805 at the hands of Haitian Emperor Dessalines.9

It is hard to overstate the significance of the nationwide terror that followed the Nat Turner incident. White women and children had been slaughtered in the horrifying way: slashed and stabbed with knives, beheaded with axes, shot with crude guns. The victims included non-slaveowners as well as slaveowners, kind owners as well as cruel ones, women and children as well as men.10 The victims had only one thing in common—they were White. As Joel Williamson put it, “The message of the slave insurrection was that when blacks rebelled, all Whites died.”11

And so the three threads came together in late 1831: secret meetings called by Black leaders, meetings that were closed to non-Blacks, public calls for organized Black-on-White violence, and the reality of a massacre in Virginia. It was a tiny step for White mainstream society to suspect that “they” might be secretly among “us.” Again, the mental image resonates with “Christian-looking Jews” or “American-looking communists,” not with short-looking tall people or thin-looking fat people.

Black leaders tried to repair the damage that their closed-meeting policy had inadvertently caused. Although Richard Allen died before the second annual National Black Convention in 1831, his successor, Lewis Cook took the Convention podium to publicly deplore slave violence, saying that, “the free people of color have lived peaceably and quietly… and have never been the cause of any insurrectionary or tumultuous movements.”12

Threats of White violence led organizers to move the third annual (1832) National Convention from Philadelphia’s Benezet Hall to the First African Church.13 Still trying to quench the blaze, Lewis Cook opened the Convention’s doors to the public for the first time and explicitly invited “our white brethren” to attend as observers. White newspapers sent reporters, and some printed reassuring accounts, but it was too little too late.

Anti-Black feeling among Whites continued to deteriorate. Race riots and repressive legislation swept the North.14 Over the next two decades, waves of legislation disfranchised Blacks throughout free states and slave states alike. New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania quickly disfranchised their Black citizens.15 Tennessee disfranchised its Black citizens in 1834 and North Carolina did the same in 1835.16

Disfranchisement via an early version of the one-drop rule was apparent in the case of Hobbs v. Fogg, 1837 Pennsylvania.17 On October 13, 1835, a resident landowner in Luzerne County named William Fogg tried to vote in the Pennsylvania general election. He was turned away on the grounds that he descended from Negroes, and so was not entitled to vote. Fogg sued the election board for damages and won. He won because the judge found that: (1) Free Black and biracial Pennsylvanians had voted since the Revolution. (2) The statute in effect explicitly gave the vote to all freemen, without mentioning color or “race.” And (3) the record of the legislative debates surrounding the statute,18 revealed that the legislators had considered limiting the franchise only to Whites but had explicitly voted to make the law color-blind.

The board of electors appealed, and Fogg’s victory was overturned. In July of 1837, Justice C. J. Gibson of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Western District, Sunbury, said that allowing non-Whites to vote would violate a 1795 precedent (that Blacks could not vote), which he had heard about from his father. Justice Gibson could find no record of the case, but since his father’s “remembrance of the decision is perfect and entitled to full confidence,” the unrecorded precedent stood. The judge explained that Pennsylvania’s explicitly color-blind constitution was actually intended to forbid Black voting. The letter of the law said “every freeman [emphasis Gibson’s] of the age of twenty-one years, having resided in the state [ditto] two years before the election, and having within that time paid a state or county tax, shall enjoy the rights of an elector.” Judge Gibson explained that the spirit of the law was that: (1) Negroes, by definition cannot “reside in the state” and (2) Negroes, by definition cannot be “freemen.” He further explained that that the legislature’s explicitly voting forty years ago to strike the word “White” preceding “freeman” in the law meant that they considered the term redundant.

The point of this case is not to highlight Justice Gibson’s disregard of both precedent and statute. As shown in the essays on the antebellum lower South, judges everywhere often followed their own consciences.19 And, in fact, in that very year of 1837, the Pennsylvania legislature clarified the situation by decreeing that no person of African descent would ever again be allowed to vote in Pennsylvania.20 The point is that, until William Fogg admitted under oath in court that he descended from Negroes, the court records made no mention of the fact. The record does not state that the man looked more European than African, but one cannot help reaching this conclusion, given that he was compelled to admit African ancestry only under oath. Hence, Hobbs v. Fogg, 1837 Pennsylvania, may be the earliest documentary evidence of a decision in favor of something like a one-drop rule in a U.S. court of law.

The 1830s wave of terror and anti-Black reaction not only disfranchised Blacks, but racially segregated Northern public schools.21 Public school segregation in the North at this time is exemplified by the case of Crandall v. State, 1834 Connecticut. An 1833 Connecticut statute forbade the teaching of Blacks from out of state. The reason, according to the act’s preamble, was:

Whereas, attempts have been made to establish literary institutions in this state, for the instruction of coloured persons belonging to other states and countries, which would tend to the great increase of the coloured population of the state, and thereby to the injury of the people….22

Prudence Crandall ran a boarding house. Among her guests were Black students from out of state. Since these students attended a Connecticut school, Ms. Crandall was charged and convicted of violating the new law. The Supreme Court of Error of Connecticut, Windham (four justices presiding) overturned her conviction on the grounds that she was not operating a school, but a boarding house, and boarding houses were not illegal. Nevertheless, it is interesting that Connecticut evidently enforced its law against teaching Blacks, even to the extent of initially convicting a boarding-house owner who merely provided accommodations for out-of-state students. The school itself was shut down.23 As contrast, consider that the harsh-seeming South Carolina statute of 1740, criminalizing the teaching of slaves and free Blacks to read and write, was apparently ignored. The very following year, 1741, saw the founding in Charleston of South Carolina’s first school for slaves and free Blacks.24

During the 1830s, legislatures also imposed oppressive anti-Black laws well beyond disfranchisement and school segregation. In 1832, Virginia legislature responded to the Nat Turner incident by passing a series of laws placing free Blacks under the same rules and regulations as slaves. Instead of paying fines for minor infractions, for instance, free Blacks would thenceforth be publicly whipped.25 Virginia also began strictly to enforce a previously ignored 1806 law that exiled former slaves from the state.26 No longer could the manumitted establish themselves as free Virginians.27 This, incidentally, is why Eston Hemings and his family were forced to leave Charlottesville and move to Chillicothe, Ohio.28 Religious freedom was also curtailed. South Carolina imposed such harsh restrictions upon Black worship services that the AME church was driven out of the state.29

The anti-Black wave of reaction of the 1830s was not limited to lawful oppression. According to Leon F. Litwack, “Between 1832 and 1849, Philadelphia mobs set off five major anti-Negro riots. In July, 1834, a white mob stormed though the Negro section, clubbed and stoned its victims, destroyed homes, churches, and meeting halls, forced hundreds to leave the city, and left many others homeless.”30 In 1835 New Hampshire, a mob harnessed a hundred yoke of oxen and dragged into a swamp a building used as a school for Black children. In 1837 Illinois, abolitionist publisher Elijah P. Lovejoy was killed by a mob while defending his printing press.31

Tens of thousands of American Blacks fled the United States. Within those two decades of the 1830s and 1840s, about twenty percent of the free members of America’s Black endogamous group escaped to other countries. Thirteen thousand of them (like Hezekiah Grice32) went to Haiti. Sixty thousand went to Canada.33

In short, starting around 1830, terror produced reaction, which produced ostracism, which then produced otherness and fear in a vicious spiral. This study suggests that terror in the minds of mainstream America (the White endogamous group) is what led to the invention of the frightening notion of “White-looking Blacks.” In other words, the 1830s wave of terror is what gave rise to One-Drop rule, which as explained in another essay, first arose in this very time period.

African-American Ethnic Solidarity Benefited

The terror of the 1830s eventually passed and life resumed its course. Had the notion of invisible Blackness arisen only within mainstream (White) popular culture, it might have faded out, along with the fears of massive uprisings and Black-on-White massacres. But by coincidence these were also the decades when Black Yankees invented African-American ethnicity.34 And the idea that you could be a member of the African-American ethnic group, despite your European appearance, paralleled similar attitudes among German-Americans and Irish-Americans.

Ultimately, as suggested by Nathan Glazer in his essay “Universalization of Ethnicity” (1975), the growth of invented ethnicities was a reaction to the industrial revolution’s urbanization, new occupations, mass education, and mass media.35 The point is that U.S. ethnicities were and are distinguished by meticulously patrolled borders, rather than by significant difference in content.36 And so, whatever made the border of African-American ethnicity more ideological and less substantive was likely to be adopted and incorporated in that particular ethnic canon.

Three pieces of evidence suggest that the notion of invisible Blackness was embraced by Blacks from its beginning because it benefited the invention of African-American ethnicity. First, separatist Afrocentrist Martin Delaney and integrationist patriot Frederick Douglass both supported a one-drop rule as enhancing African-American ethnic solidarity, even though they disagreed on nearly everything else. According to Judith Stein, in 1848, Frederick Douglass faced the challenge of mobilizing a Black Yankee (early African-American ethnic) community “who evidently did not identify with the slaves.” He tried to create unity and purpose among them to fight slavery and to become abolitionists. He did this, according to Stein, “by asserting their oneness” with the slaves. “We are one people,” Frederick Douglass affirmed, “one in general complexion, one in a common degradation, one in popular estimation.”37

Second, court cases, like Commonwealth v. Robinson, 1837 Massachusetts, which opened this essay, show Black Yankees adopting tactics (kidnapping an apparently European-looking five-year-old) which are intelligible only in the context of an internalized notion of invisible Blackness. Third, as pointed out earlier, members of the African-American ethnic group, not Whites, wrote the first American passing novels and plays.38

Other Voices

As mentioned in another essay, that the one-drop rule first arose in the free states in the 1830s will remain undisputed until someone uncovers an example of the notion of invisible Blackness anywhere before 1830 or in the South during the 1830s. Until then, the question is “why?” What gave rise to such a world-unique and counter-rational concept? The hypothesis presented above is that the one-drop rule arose in White society as a consequence of a nationwide wave of terror after secret meetings of Black leaders, calls for Black-on-White violence, and the Nat Turner incident. It also suggests that it arose in African-American society because leaders of the newly invented African-American ethnicity embraced it in the interests of it fostering solidarity, as evidenced by political rhetoric, passing novels, and court cases.

Four objections are sometimes raised against this hypothesis. It suggests that Blacks and Whites cooperated in creating the one-drop rule. It denies that the one-drop rule had anything to do with increasing the number of slave assets held by planters. It ignores pre-1830 literature mentioning an indelible mark. Finally, it denies that Latin America has passing literature.

It suggests that U.S. Blacks and Whites cooperated in creating the one-drop rule. Not deliberately, of course. It is simply that, among Whites, the notion of ideological or invisible Blackness was a fear-driven response to the terror of the 1830s. And it just so happened that, at roughly the same time, the same concept became useful to African-American political leaders in enhancing ethnic unity. This is objected to because the historiography of “race” in the United States has traditionally been the historiography of slavery. Ulrich Phillips argued that slavery civilized the savages and so benefited them in the long term. He claimed that kindly masters sheltered slave families, protected pregnant and nursing mothers, and discouraged sales that split families.39 Responding to Phillips, historians of U.S. race relations over the past century have developed two alternate interpretations of how slaves and their society reacted to their plight.

The first interpretation suggests that, because the underpinnings of African culture were destroyed during slavery, American slaves lost family values and were infantilized. E. Franklin Frazier argued that slavery cut Blacks off from their cultural heritage.40 It deprived fathers of authority and responsibility, led to matrifocal single-parent families, and resulted in a people with chronic lack of individual impulse control. This resulted in Black inability to overcome poverty, even in regions where post-slavery institutionalized racism was weak. Kenneth Stampp detailed the horrors of human beings without rights being treated like livestock.41 He agreed with Frazier that slavery had led to matrifocal families and that frequent family separations led to social pathology. Stampp asserted that slavery’s destruction of the Black family led to parental indifference and sexual promiscuity. Daniel Moynihan and Stanley M. Elkins dramatized the impact of slavery on the Black family by comparing the experience to Nazi concentration camps, leading to victimization, infantilism, and destruction of culture.42

The opposite interpretation suggests that slavery was opposed and contested by the slaves who, far from being passive victims, preserved a syncretic culture that enabled family values to survive and flourish. Herbert Gutman and Jacqueline Jones reacted against Frazier, Stampp, Moynihan, and Elkins. Gutman asserted that, far from being passive victims, Black families resisted heroically.43 Gutman and Jones claimed that, throughout the south, most slaves lived in two-parent households. They affirmed that Black families remained vigorous and preserved traditional African values despite slavery which, according to Gutman, was an oppressive circumstance similar to the exploitation of immigrant wage laborers. Eugene Genovese agreed with Gutman and Jones that slave families created “a world of their own” built on “life-affirming” African religion.44 But he also acknowledged that, despite resistance, slave owners were firmly in command. He showed that slave tales of emasculated but brutal Black males, fatherless children, and wrecked families rested on irrefutable evidence.

This study does not examine these contending interpretations. They are mentioned only to note that both agree on one crucial point. Virtually every scholar of the history of the U.S. “race” notion (which is almost always interpreted as the history of slavery) agrees that antebellum Blacks and Whites were at odds. Conflict is the basic explanatory paradigm. Blacks resisted what Whites imposed, as Whites overcame Black resistance. As Barbara Fields puts it, “[Black] People no more fasten the stigma of race upon themselves than cattle sear the brand into their own flesh.”45 This essay’s hypothesis, in contrast, is that in the free states of the 1830s, Black Yankees were very proud indeed of their newly invented African-American ethnicity, and were thereby inadvertently complicit with White mainstream society in inventing and spreading the one-drop rule.

It denies that the one-drop rule had anything to do with increasing the number of slave assets held by planters. As mentioned earlier, many scholars assert, without evidence, that the one-drop rule was invented by slaveowners to increase their assets.46

Children born of slaves and slave owners represented a blurring of the distinction between slave and free, between property and property owner. To deal with this problem, these children almost always were treated as black. Thus arose the “one drop” rule, which held that having a single black ancestor made a person black.47The [one-drop] rule also, conveniently, served to increase the number of slaves and exempted white landowners (particularly slaveholders) from the legal obligation of passing on an inheritance and other benefits of paternity to their multiracial offspring.48While whites publicly denounced miscegenation, white men practiced it with regularity by raping their female slaves (Blassingame 1972). The children of these unions, in accordance with the one-drop rule, were considered black and, therefore, assets for the slave master (Davis 1991). It was this economic incentive, grounded in white supremacist logic, that validated the one-drop rule as the definition of blackness in the plantation dominated South.49

This study, in contrast, presents evidence that the one-drop rule first appeared in the free states in the 1830s and in the South about a decade later. And it flatly states that no evidence yet uncovered connects it to slavery in any way.

It ignores pre-1830 literature mentioning an indelible mark. Admittedly, the first use of the term “one drop” in reference to African ancestry that this study has been able uncover predates 1830 by two years. A report of the Connecticut Colonization Society published the following paragraph in 1828:

In every part of the United States there is a broad and impassible [sic] line of demarcation between every man who has one drop of African blood [emphasis mine] in his veins, and every other class in the community. The habits, the feelings, all the prejudices of society—prejudices which neither refinement, nor argument, nor education, nor religion can itself subdue—mark the people of colour, whether bond or free, as the subjects of a degradation inevitable and incurable. The African in this country belongs by birth to the lowest station in society; and from that station he can never rise, be his talent, his enterprise, his virtues what they may.50

This quotation seems to imply that the idea of invisible or ideologically based membership in the Black endogamous group predates the watershed events in the early 1830s along the Ohio River Valley, and may spring from late 1820s New England instead. But a closer reading of the Colonization Society report shows that this is not the case. The report suggests that the reason why “prejudices of society” are so tenacious is because of “the mark that nature has placed upon the Negro.” The context from which the above phrase was taken says that every man who has one drop of African blood in his veins is marked by some trace of African appearance. No matter how diluted the African blood may be, a residue of visible evidence will always remain, generation after generation. The folkloric belief in a physical mark or stigma that remains visible despite infinite dilution of Negro blood is not the subject of this study.51

It denies that Latin America has passing literature. An objection voiced by scholars of Latin America is that passing literature, which this study claims is unique to the United States because Latin American societies lack a one-drop rule, is in fact popular in Latin American fiction. For example, the 1948 Mexican film “Angelitos Negros” is a remake of Fannie Hurst’s passing novel Imitation of Life. Let us inspect this claim more closely.

Recall that, as “passing” is defined above, pretense is an essential element because it goes to the heart of the one-drop rule—the belief that a European-looking person of negligible African ancestry who denies being a member of the Black endogamous group is somehow deceiving society. The element of pretense, of passing as White while “really being” Black may seem a subtlety that is hard to detect.

Fannie Hurst’s novel Imitation of Life has been filmed at least three times. It was filmed twice in the United States, in 1934 with Claudette Colbert and again in 1959 with Lana Turner. It was also filmed once in 1948 Mexico. The 1948 Mexican version more closely reflects pre-one-drop attitudes that were common to the lower South (as explained in another essay), to Europe (as mentioned above), and to the North before 1829. The U.S. versions of the film, in contrast, reflect the one-drop rule, which appeared in the North after 1830.

The film, “Angelitos Negros,” was directed by Joselito Rodriguez, starring Pedro Infante, Emilia Guiu, and Rita Montañer. The plot centers on a woman (Guiu), who does not know that she is actually the daughter of the maid (Montañer), who is visibly of part-African ancestry, and the wealthy European-looking landowner. Born blonde, she is brought up as the patron’s daughter and never told the truth. Infante plays a famous (typically swarthy, Hispanic-looking) singer who marries her. The crisis comes when their daughter is born with African features. She blames him and rejects the child. He raises the child on his own with the help of an Afro-Cuban female friend. In the end, the mother learns the truth of her own ancestry and the family is reconciled. According to Afro-Mexican director and scriptwriter Rodriguez, whose own daughter plays the child, the plot is based on the Fannie Hurst novel Imitation of Life.

Comparing Angelitos Negros with either U.S. version of Imitation of Life reveals why “passing” novels are unintelligible outside of the United States. In the American version of the story, the crisis comes when the “Sarah Jane” character faces a society (including her mother) who insist that she is “really Black.” Her desperate attempts to re-define herself as White (she looks completely European, after all), drives her apart from her friends and family. The movie sees her as denying her “true heritage.” After her mother’s death she apparently comes to understand that she must be true to her “race,” and abandon her life as a White woman to live among Blacks. This, in the United States, is presumably a happier ending than “living a lie,” as one character puts it.

In the Mexican version, no such issue ever arises. No one in the film is “really Black” or “really White.” They are all Mexicans of varying degrees of genetic admixture. The crisis comes when a predominantly European-looking couple has a predominantly African-looking child. As explained earlier, something like this happens about once out of every eight thousand births in Spain and with slightly higher frequency in Mexico.52 The plot plays out as a crisis of social status, not one of personal identity. The movie’s theme, of course, is the colorism in Mexican society that makes a dark-complexioned child less welcome than a blonde, blue-eyed child. But no character ever questions his or her personal identity. They are all Mexicans. Everyone in the story knows and accepts that they are all of mixed heritage.

* * * * *

This essay suggested a hypothesis for the origin of the one-drop rule in the 1830s free states. It proposed that members of the White endogamous group suffered a nationwide wave of terror that Blacks were secretly plotting to massacre Whites. At the same time, the one-drop rule was reinforced and encouraged by African-American ethnic leaders seeking to strengthen group loyalties. The essay also presented four objections to the hypothesis.


1 Helen Tunnicliff Catterall and James J. Hayden, Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and The Negro (New York: Octagon Books, 1968), 4:501-5; Thatch. Cr. Cas. 488.

2 Among the reasons given in court for the kidnapping of Elizabeth Bright Catterall (1968), 4:501-5, 503.

3 For an analysis of this phenomenon today, see Bartholet, “Where do Black Children Belong?: The Politics of Race Matching in Adoption,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 139, no. 5 (1991): 1163-1256.

4 See the topic “The Integration versus Separatism Pendulum” in the essay The Color Line Created African-American Ethnicity in the North.

5 There are many excellent accounts of the rise and fall of the National Convention Movement. One that focuses on the exclusion of White observers (to say nothing White delegates) and consequent fear and suspicion among members of the White endogamous group is Elizabeth Rauh Bethel, The Roots of African-American Identity (New York: St. Martin’s, 1997), 83-4, 116, 124, 127-38.

6 The impact of Walker’s book on White fears is described in Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery: the Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1961), 232-5.

7 As quoted in Litwack (1961), 234-5.

8 The impact of Nat Turner’s rebellion on White fears is described in Ira Berlin, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (New York: New Free Press, 1974), 188-9.

9 C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, 2d , rev. ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 370.

10 Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts, 6th ed. (New York: International Publishers, 1993), 298-300.

11 Joel Williamson, The Crucible of Race: Black/White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation (New York: Oxford University, 1984), 15.

12 He apparently forgot about Denmark Vesey. The quotation is from Elizabeth Rauh Bethel, The Roots of African-American Identity (New York: St. Martin’s, 1997), 135.

13 Bethel (1997), 135.

14 Stephen B. Oates, Our fiery trial : Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, and the Civil War era (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979). For a detailed account of the anti-Black riots in Philadelphia in the decade after the Nat Turner, see Emma Jones Lapansky, “‘Since They Got Those Separate Churches’: Afro-Americans and Racism in Jacksonian Philadelphia,” American Quarterly 31, no. 1 (1980): 54-78. For a summary, see Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery: the Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1961), 75-92.

15 Litwack, (1961), 75-92.

16 Ira Berlin, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (New York: New Free Press, 1974), 190-92.

17 6 Watts 553.

18 Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, chapter II, section 6.

19 See the essays: Barbadian South Carolina: A Class-Based Color Line, Antebellum Louisiana and Alabama: Two Color Lines, Three Endogamous Groups, and Spanish Florida: No Endogamous Color Line.

20 The legislature had recently received a strong “Pennsylvania Dutch” contingent. This ethnic group, formerly known as Germans, had been considered non-White until they managed to be accepted into American mainstream society. Their acceptance was accomplished, in part, by the time-honored technique of displaying public contempt for Blacks. See Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York: Routledge, 1995), 76-77.

21 Ibid., 113-52.

22 10 Conn. 339.

23 Lerone Bennett Jr., Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, 6th rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 1993), 457.

24 Frank J. Klingberg, An Appraisal of the Negro in Colonial South Carolina (Philadelphia: Porcupine, 1975), 69-70.

25 Joshua D. Rothman, Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families Across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2003), 210.

26 Va. Ch. 69, sec. 10, p. 97. See Rothman (2003), 43, 256n88.

27 Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1997), 15.

28 See the opening anecdote of the essay How the Law Decided if You Were Black or White: The Early 1800s.

29 Williamson (1984), 17.

30 Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery: the Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1961), 100-1.

31 Lerone Bennett Jr., Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, 6th rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 1993), 458.

32 The former ice dealer who persuaded Richard Allen to hold the first Convention. See the topic “The Integration versus Separatism Pendulum” in the essay The Color Line Created African-American Ethnicity in the North.

33 Elizabeth Rauh Bethel, The Roots of African-American Identity (New York: St. Martin’s, 1997), 145.

34 See the essay The Color Line Created African-American Ethnicity in the North.

35 Werner Sollors, Theories of Ethnicity: A Classical Reader (Washington Square NY: New York University, 1996), xvi.

36 This is the consensus expressed by Gans, Glazer, Moynihan, Parsons, and Barth. For a useful survey, see Sollors (1996), xvi=xxi.

37 Judith Stein, “Defining the Race 1890-1930,” in The Invention of Ethnicity, ed. Werner Sollors (New York: Oxford University, 1989), 77-104, 77.

38 See the topic “Literature and Drama” in the essay The Invention of the One-Drop Rule in the 1830s North.

39 Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, American Negro Slavery (New York: D. Appleton, 1918).

40 Edward Franklin Frazier, The Negro Family in the United States, Rev. and abridged ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1966).

41 Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution (New York: Vintage/ Random House, 1953).

42 Daniel Moynihan “The Negro Family in America” (1965); Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life, 3d , rev. ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959).

43 Herbert George Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976); Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black women, Work, and the Family From Slavery to the Present (New York: Basic Books, 1985).

44 Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Vintage, 1976).

45 Barbara Fields, “Of Rogues and Geldings,” American Historical Review 108, no. 5 (2003): 1397-405, 1401; also, see Hickman’s remark, “[Whites] fashioned [the one-drop rule] out of racism, malice, greed, lust, and ignorance….,” supra note 30 under the topic “Many Scholars Believe the One-Drop Rule is Stronger Than Ever” in the essay Features of The One-Drop Rule.

46 See the historians listed in note 14 of the essay How the Law Decided if You Were Black or White: The Early 1800s.

47 Steve Olson, Mapping Human History: Discovering the Past Through Our Genes (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), 60.

48 G. Reginald Daniel, More than Black?: Multiracial Identity and the New Racial Order (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2002), x.

49 David L. Brunsma and Kerry Ann Rockquemore, “What Does ‘Black’ Mean? Exploring the Epistemological Stranglehold of Racial Categorization,” Critical Sociology 28, no. 1/2 (2002): 101-121, 106-7.

50 African Repository, 4 (June 1928):118 as quoted in George M. Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914 (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), 17.

51 See the discussion of this folkloric belief under the topic “Definition” in the essay Features of The One-Drop Rule.

52 See the topic “How Many Black Children are Born into White Families?” in the essay The Heredity of “Racial” Traits.

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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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