The Rate of Black-to-White “Passing”

Essays on the Color Line and the One-Drop Rule
by Frank W Sweet
September 9, 2004

I

n early twentieth-century South Carolina, at the height of the Jim Crow era when the one-drop rule was supposedly the law of the land, Louetta Chassereau, an orphaned infant of known, documented, but invisible African ancestry was placed in a White orphanage and adopted by a White family. As the little girl matured, her White adoptive family became influential in the White community. She married very well indeed, to a wealthy White man (F. Capers Bennett), in an upscale White church (Spring Street Methodist Church in Charleston). Throughout her marriage to Bennett, she voted in White primaries (Democrat), her children attended White schools and when they grew up, joined White churches (two became Episcopalians and two were Methodists). The godparents of her children were White (Mr. and Mrs. I. M. Fishburne), he being the president of the local Farmers & Merchants Bank. The problem came when Mr. Bennett died. His will left all to his beloved wife, Louetta. But his relatives contested the man’s will on the grounds that their long and fruitful marriage had been illegal all along, because Louetta had started life as a Black baby. In a terse opinion, Bennett v. Bennett,1940 South Carolina, (most of which is the above summary), South Carolina Supreme Court Justices Milledge L. Bonham, D. Gordon Baker, E. L. Fishburne, Taylor H. Stukes, and L. D. Lide ruled that over her lifetime, Louetta had become irrevocably White, and they dismissed the will contestation unanimously.1

* * * * *

This essay discusses the annual rate of Black-to-White endogamous-group switching by Americans in four topics. The first section, The Average Yearly Rate is Between 0.10 and 0.14 Percent, uses several independent methods to compute the rate of switching. It shows that all converge to the same narrow range of numbers. The Percentage Rate Has Remained Relatively Steady over the Years, demonstrates why we know that Black-to-White group switching has been steady and continuous over the centuries. Our DNA reveals that the current African admixture in White Americans was neither the result of a one-time event before intermarriage was outlawed in 1691, nor the result of intermarriage after Loving v. Virginia 1967 ruled anti-intermarriage laws unconstitutional. How Can so Many People Falsify Their Paper Trail and Cut all Family Ties, explains that, except for a brief period in U.S. history—the Jim Crow era—there has never been a need to deceive nor to cut family ties. For most of the past 300 years, endogamous-group switching was done openly, just as it is today. Finally, The Maroon Escape Hatch suggests how, even during Jim Crow, families could pass from Black to White through a two-step process that included an in-between stage.

The Average Yearly Rate is Between 0.10 and 0.14 Percent

Nowadays (as of the 2000 census), between 35,000 and 50,000 young adults every year, who previously were identified by their parents as Black, switch to identifying themselves publicly as White or Hispanic. The number has fallen and risen more or less in step with the intermarriage rate over the decades and it is higher today than during Jim Crow, when switching your endogamous group membership was considered criminal fraud.

There are several ways of measuring the annual rate of Black-to-White self-identity switching, but the most straightforward is simply to ask large numbers of people how they self-identify, repeat the question every few years, and then count how many changed their answer from Black to something else. The Departments of Labor and of Health and Human Services do precisely this (along with many other questions) in longitudinal studies meant to track lifelong earnings and health, respectively, of large numbers of Americans. For example, the Department of Labor’s NLS79 National Longitudinal Survey has interviewed 12,686 young men and women yearly since 1979 to measure their career progress. Each year they are asked the same hundred or so questions. Between 1979 (when they were 14 to 22 years old) and 1998, 1.87 percent of those who had originally answered “Black,” switched to answering the interviewer’s “race” question with either “White,” “I don’t know,” or “other.”2 This comes to 0.098 percent per year. Extrapolated to the Black census 2000 population of 36 million, this comes to about 35,000 individuals per year.3

Another approach is to start with the 0.7 percent African admixture found in the White U.S. population today.4 Assuming that the mixing has happened at an unvarying rate for three centuries (since 1704), to reach this number would have required the average yearly injection into the White community of the alleles from one person of one hundred percent African genetic admixture for every 43,000 living White Americans (.0023 percent).5 Of course, such a flow is unlikely to have happened at a steady rate. Switching between endogamous groups was easier at some times than at others. But you can adjust for historical variation after establishing the baseline.

In practice, real people of one hundred percent African genetic admixture could not possibly have been accepted as members of the White endogamous group and so an adjustment is needed for the fraction of African admixture in those Blacks who did re-identify as White. Most sources agree that families with more than 25 percent African admixture are seldom accepted as White in the United States (although they may be in the Caribbean).6 On the other hand, many Blacks have no detectable African ancestry at all.7 Hence, a reasonable estimate is that typical families who successfully switched from the Black endogamous group to the White group had about 12.5 percent of African admixture. This would put them in the median of the White portion of the scatter diagrams of the essay Afro-European Genetic Admixture in the United States. It would have taken eight such carriers to transport across the color line the allele equivalent of one person of 100 percent sub-Saharan ancestry. And so, to reach the current measured African admixture in White Americans would have required one such person per year switching self-identity for every 5,400 living White Americans.8

The next step is to convert this number of group-switching individuals into a fraction of the Black population. As of the 2000 census, the Black population was about 12.8 percent of the total U.S. population, but this has varied from a high of 19.27 percent in 1790 to a low of 9.65 percent in 1930. The weighted average since 1790 has been 13.51 percent. And so, the number of individuals we must account for represents a movement from the Black community to the White of some 0.1382 percent of the Black population (0.007 x 8) / (300 x .1351) per year. As of census 2000, this comes to about 50,000 individuals per year.9

Another approach would be to use the Philadelphia rate at which European-looking children are born into the Black community (one out of every 500) and extrapolate this to the national Black yearly cohort. [For details, see the topic “How Many White Children are Born Into Black Families?” in the Essay The Heredity of “Racial” Traits.] This yields about 72,000 individuals per year as of census 2000. Most of these, of course, might choose not to switch.

Finally, Joel Williamson suggests yet another approach. It is based on the assumption that women are less likely than men to cross the color line permanently.10 Approximately equal numbers of male and female infants are born. But from age 16, millions of African-American men disappear from the census but women do not. In 2000, this came to 2.77 million individuals. Where did they go? The assumption of this method is that they redefined themselves as White. This approach yields 0.1019 percent per year or about 37,000 individuals per year as of census 2000.

The Percentage Rate Has Remained Relatively Steady over the Years

The preceding section used several methods to compute the average yearly rate at which Black Americans became White by switching their “racial” identity. One method was to divide the African admixture presently observed in White Americans equally among the 300 years since the endogamous color line was invented. However, the Chesapeake Bay colonies had been in operation for nearly a century when intermarriage was first outlawed in 1691. There was much Afro-European intermarriage in British North America before the endogamous color line was invented. Perhaps there has been no Black-to-White gene flow ever since. Could the African admixture found in White Americans today merely be an echo of the intermarrying 17th century, rather than evidence of the continual, steady passing of biracials into White society in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries?

There are three reasons to think that the African admixture found in today’s White Americans is the result of an ongoing process and not the remnant of a one-time event. First, as mentioned in the preceding section, longitudinal studies show that the current rate of openly avowed Black-to-White identity-switching would suffice to yield the observed admixture had it always been going on. Second, if the White-to-Black gene flow that we know has been going on for 400 years (in the form of the children of interracial unions) had not been balanced by an equal Black-to-White flow, Afro-Americans would have vanished by genetic assimilation, as did the Afro-Spanish and Afro-Portuguese by 1700, the Afro-Mexicans by 1800, and the Afro-Argentines by 1900. The third argument comes from molecular anthropology itself. It comes from observing linkage disequilibrium (defined below).

Chromosomes come in pairs. You have two copies of chromosome #1, two copies of chromosome #2, two copies of #3, and so forth. One copy of each chromosome came from your mother’s egg cell; the other came from your father’s sperm cell. Focus on a single chromosome pair; say the pair of chromosomes #5. When your body wants to produce a gamete (a spermatozoon if you are male, an ovum if you are female) it must place a single copy of chromosome #5 into the gamete. Which copy does it choose?

Think about it. You have two copies of #5, but you must place only a single copy of #5 into the new gamete. Does your body pick one or the other at random (either the #5 copy from you father or the one from your mother)? Does your body simply make up a brand new #5 never seen before? Does it blend together the material from your two copies—both the #5 copy from your father plus the one from your mother—and mold a new #5 using only half of the resultant mixture (otherwise the new #5 would be way too big)?

In fact, the process lays your two #5 chromosomes side-by-side, like two strands of yarn. It then cuts them crosswise into matching pieces and swaps the pieces between strands. Imagine that the DNA strand from your father was red, say, and your mother’s strand was blue. The cut-and-swap process (called meiosis) with just two cuts would yield one strand that was blue-red-blue and another that was red-blue-red. Many cut-and-swaps later, each new patchwork #5 then goes into a different gamete. And so, the single #5 chromosome in each gamete winds up being a mix of material from your mother’s #5 and your father’s #5. Only thus can your child inherit your mother’s eyes and your father’s chin. The single #5 in the gamete is not a “blend” in the sense of being purple (the combination of blue and red). Instead, it resembles a barber pole with broad blue and red stripes. The width of the stripes is called “linkage disequilibrium.”

As explained in the essay Afro-European Genetic Admixture in the United States, markers throughout the genome can be used to distinguish African from European ancestry. A first-generation Afro-European biracial individual will have one purely African chromosome #5 (from one parent) and one purely European chromosome #5 (from the other). But the strands are cut and their pieces swapped in meiosis at each subsequent generation. So if you observe that an individual has barber-pole stripes of African and European DNA within the same strand, then he must be at least a second-generation biracial. Now the chance that, in the next generation, any given cut will just happen to hit the seam between two existing stripes is negligible. Consequently, the stripes of African and European DNA get narrower and narrower (linkage disequilibrium diminishes) with each passing generation. One can estimate how many generations have elapsed since any individual’s original Afro-European admixture took place, by the width of the stripes (by the degree of linkage disequilibrium).

A recent one-time wave of intermarriage (since the 1955-65 civil rights movement, say) would result in uniformly high linkage disequilibrium in admixed Americans. This is not observed. An ancient one-time wave of intermarriage (in the seventeenth century, say) would result in uniformly low linkage disequilibrium in admixed Americans. This is not observed either. An ongoing slow but steady Black-to-White genetic leakage across the color line for 400 years would result in a distinctive pattern of linkage disequilibrium distribution (stripes of every width occurring with equal frequency). This, in fact, is what is observed.11

How Can so Many People Falsify Their Paper Trail and Cut all Family Ties?

Some people are startled by what, to them, seems an extraordinarily high rate of White-to-Black endogamous-group switching over the past three centuries, a rate that is still going on. They ask:

You mentioned the phenomenon of “passing,” which you define as those who were identified as one race as children but another as adults, generally ‘black’ as a child and ‘white’ as an adult. One sees that this was relatively common in the past – but how common is this today, when we are more careful about civil records, tracking, driver’s licenses, etc.? Is this in fact a common, modern-day phenomenon? How difficult it must be for someone to cut all ties to family and literally walk away!12

First, a paper trail indicating “racial” identity was a transitory phenomenon in U.S. history, lasting only from about 1880 to about 1965.13 Most nineteenth-century births were not recorded on civil birth certificates, just with local churches. And since Alabama ended the practice in 1991, only five states (Connecticut, Hawaii, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas) put infant “race” on birth certificates today. Some states never did so, and most stopped doing so in the late 1960s.14 Similarly, neither driver’s licenses nor voter registration cards record “racial” identity in most jurisdictions today. This is precisely why “racial” profiling is so controversial. In Florida, for example, neither the state voter registration web site nor the Flagler County voter registration card has any entry for “race,” while the Alachua County card does. The few civil records today that capture one’s “race” (jobs, school matriculation, etc) are voluntary. You can check off or write in whatever you want and, with one exception, nobody questions it.15 If you look European and claim to be White, nobody cares.

The word “passing” is a misnomer to the extent that it is associated with deceit or pretense. As far as anyone can tell, most of the individuals who redefine themselves from Black to White or Hispanic make no secret of their partial African ancestry. They just do not feel that this trivial fact should stop them from adopting a “racial” self-identity that matches their appearance. There is no need to “cut all family ties and walk away.”

White Americans with openly acknowledged partial African ancestry abound in the entertainment industry. The official web sites of many entertainers claim mixed ancestry. As of July 1, 2003, URL addresses http://www.mixedfolks.com/africans.htm and http://www.multiracial.com/links/links-celebrities.html provide links to hundreds of such sites. Among these are blue-eyed blondes like Broadway star Carol Channing and Heather Locklear, star of the TV show Melrose Place.16 At the other extreme are brunettes like Jennifer Beals, star of the movie Flashdance (who has a Black father). Of in-between skin tone are Oscar-winning film and TV star Martin Sheen (an Afro-Cuban grandmother) and Emmy-winning vocalist Linda Ronstadt (an Afro-Mexican grandfather). Additionally, there are thousands of Hispanic entertainers, such as Geraldo Rivera, Jimmy Smits, Jennifer Lopez, or Mariah Carey, who proudly claim African as well as Spanish roots through their Latin American heritage.

That switching sides has risen in the past few decades makes it likely that many switchers are following the example of the millions of Puerto Ricans who have come to the mainland since 1950. Most Puerto Ricans have obvious African ancestry, but 90 percent check off “White” on the census form anyway.17 In fact, given that all methods of estimating the rate of Black-to-White identity-switching converge on the 0.10-to-0.14 percent per year figure derived from the observed African admixture in White Americans, legendary tales of “cutting all family ties” and deception more likely belong to the realm of fictional “passing” novels than to the reality of America’s notoriously mobile society. (Except perhaps during the Jim Crow period and, even then, apparently only Whites were deceived regarding ongoing family contact.) As Maria P.P. Root put it in “Resolving ‘Other’ Status: Identity Development of Biracial Individuals,” Women and Therapy 9 (1990): 202 , “It is not uncommon that many individuals emerge out of college years with a different resolution to their racial identity than when they graduated high school.”

The Maroon Escape Hatch

On the evening of January 18, 1958, a hundred members of the Ku Klux Klan gathered in Maxton, North Carolina for a rally. They had advertised that their planned marching, speechifying, and cross burning would terrorize and teach respect to the Lumbee Indians of Robeson County. Apparently, the locals were “forgetting their place.” One Lumbee woman had been dating a White man and a Lumbee family had moved into a White neighborhood. The Klan had already burned crosses at each of those two homes, and so the large rally was meant to drive the lesson home countywide.

The Klansmen began assembling at 8:00 P.M., shotguns in hand. The Grand Vizier strutted about in full regalia. A huge “KKK” banner was unfurled. A public address system with a microphone was set up. Newspaper reporters and photographers scurried for photo-ops. The Klansmen ignored the 500 Lumbee men who had gathered across the road, also carrying rifles and shotguns.
At a signal, the Lumbees fanned out across the highway, shouting war cries and shooting into the air. The Klansmen dropped their weapons, flags, robes and hoods, jumped into their cars, and raced away, leaving their paraphernalia strewn all about. They had not yet set fire to their cross. The state police arrived within minutes, escorted the fleeing Klansmen to safety and disarmed the Lumbees. Despite thousands of shots fired, no one had been hurt (except one news photographer who was nicked by a bullet). Only one person was arrested—a Klansman who was too drunk to stand.

The Lumbees then put on a show for the newspapers. They marched triumphantly around the field of battle, wrapped themselves in the KKK flag, hollered into the microphone, burned the cross, hanged the Grand Wizard in effigy, and a rousing good time was had by all. The next day, newspapers across the nation ran wild with the story. “The Klan had taken on too many Indians,” said Life magazine. “Look Who’s Biting the Dust! Palefaces,” wrote columnist Inez Robb. That the Indians had finally defeated the palefaces in Robeson County, North Carolina in January of 1958 was the most hilarious story of the week, nationwide.18

But wait. Are the Lumbees really American Indians? Although no one has published an admixture study of the Lumbees since the decoding of the human genome made admixture mapping reliable and consistent, an older study used blood proteins and craniofacial anthropometry methods (the latter is the method used today by forensic anthropologists when asked by the police to tell the “race” of a skeleton). That study found that the Lumbees were “about forty percent White, forty-seven percent Negro, and thirteen percent Indian.”19

The Lumbees have the right to call themselves whatever they wish, of course. They have worked hard to be seen as Native Americans, and some deny having African ancestry. The North Carolina legislature formally designated them “Lumbee Indians” in 1953 (the name is from a Robeson County river). The U.S. Congress officially designated them “Lumbee Indians of North Carolina” on June 7, 1956. And yet, according to the census, there were zero Amerinds in Robeson County in 1950 (although there were 30,000 “mulattos”). In the 1960 census, after the legislative fiats, Robeson county’s 30,000 “mulattos” vanished and 30,000 “Lumbee Indians” suddenly appeared. The mulatto “Croatans” had become the “Lumbee Indians.” The Lumbees’ self-reinvention has not yet been a complete success. The Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs refuses to recognize them as legitimate, in part, because of their very strong African admixture. Genetically, they are a typical U.S. maroon community.

Numerous communities, like the Lumbees, are scattered throughout the eastern United States. They are called triracial isolate groups (the anthropological term), maroon communities (the historical term), or mestizos (the sociological term).20 All such groups descend from Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans who escaped involuntary labor in colonial plantations and formed their own communities on the fringes of civilization. In 1946, William Gilbert published the first comprehensive survey of these groups in the Southeastern United States. According to him, these groups comprised, “at least 50,000 persons who were complex mixtures in varying degrees of white, Amerind, and Negro blood.”21 The major maroon communities that Gilbert studied were:

  • The Brass Ankles, Red Bones, Red Legs, Turks, and Marlboro Blues of South Carolina;
  • The Cajans (not the Acadians of Louisiana) and Creoles of Alabama and Mississippi;
  • The Croatans (called the “Lumbees” since 1953) of Robeson County North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia;
  • The Guineas, West Hill Indians, Cecil Indians, and Guinea Niggers of West Virginia and Maryland;
  • The Issues of Amherst and Rockingham Counties, Virginia;
  • The Jackson Whites of New York and New Jersey;
  • The Melungeons of the Southern Appalachians, centered on Hancock County Tennessee;
  • The Red Bones of Louisiana and Arkansas;
  • The Wesorts of southern Maryland.22

Today, the two largest maroon groups are the Seminoles of Florida (a corruption of the Spanish word cimarrones or “runaways”), who were not studied by Gilbert, and the Melungeons (the largest group to have self-identified as White over the centuries, rather than as Amerind).

Most of the above names were derogatory epithets given by Whites, not self-labels adopted by the maroon communities themselves. In 1960, a friend warned Brewton Berry that he was likely to be murdered on the spot if he called someone a “Melungeon” to their face.23 During the Jim Crow era, many members of these groups vehemently denied having even the slightest drop of “Black blood.” In fact, some were able to receive “White” civil documents and avoid their children’s assignment to Negro schools by their willingness to commit mayhem against any official who mistook them for Blacks.24 The maroon communities are potentially important to the study of people switching from Black to White across the color line because they may form an escape hatch similar to what Carl Degler observed in Brazil.

In 1971, Carl Degler coined the term “mulatto escape hatch” to describe how Brazil differed from U.S. customs. According to Degler, White Brazilians enjoy the privileges of Whiteness, including that of looking down with disdain upon Black Brazilians. According to Degler, this “colorism” resembles White American customs during the Jim Crow era. On the other hand, most White Brazilians have Black parents or grandparents and are proud to acknowledge their fractional African ancestry. This is different from White American customs during the Jim Crow era. The U.S. tradition of hypodescent made it unlikely for any non-Hispanic of known African ancestry to be socially welcomed as White during the Jim Crow era. In Latin America, in contrast, generational acculturation and assimilation took place via intermarriage. Medium-brown offspring of even dark parents were no longer “Black,” but were labeled with any of a half-dozen terms denoting class as much as skin tone. Their European-looking descendants, in turn, were accepted as White.25

A similar mechanism may have operated in the United States during the Jim Crow era through the maroon communities. Three points suggest this. First, these groups have unusually high fractions of African genetic admixture for White Americans. Second, inflow into the groups from those designated “free people of color” has been steady. Third, outflow to the White mainstream has also been steady.

That America’s maroon communities have unusually high fractions of African genetic admixture are evident in studies by Pollitzer, Jones and others. The Lumbees have about 47 percent African admixture.26 The Melungeons (who in the past self-identified as White) have about five percent African admixture.27 Inflow into these groups by free persons of color has been going on steadily since the mid-1700s.28 Outflow has also been steady. From 50,000 in 1946 as counted by Gilbert they had grown to at least 77,000 according Beale in 1957.29 Between 1943 and 1953 hundreds of thousands of these hill people from the Southern Appalachians fled poverty and isolation and migrated to northern industrial cities.30 The major economic change they have undergone is that they have been integrated into the mainstream economy. The major social change is that they have become thoroughly White (accepted as suitable marriage partners by Whites, but no longer by Blacks).31

And so it appears likely that, even during the Jim Crow period, when the rate of Black-to-White endogamous group switching was at an all-time low, significant numbers of Americans crossed the color-line barrier through the Melungeon and other maroon communities. Where it would have been dangerous or difficult to “pass” into the White endogamous group directly from the Black side of the color line, it could still be done by using a maroon community as a way-station or stopping point. In one generation, a Black family of strongly European appearance could join the Melungeons, Lumbees, Redbones, or one of the other maroon groups. Then, in a subsequent generation, the descendants of the same family could leave Appalachia and join the White endogamous group in the anonymous cities of the North.

* * * * *

This essay computed the annual rate of Black-to-White endogamous-group switching by Americans. It showed that the rate has been continuous over the past three centuries and not a one-time event. It explained that only during the Jim Crow was there ever a need to deceive or to cut family ties. Except during Jim Crow, and for most of America’s past, endogamous-group switching was done as openly as it is today. It suggested how, even during Jim Crow, families could pass from Black to White through a two-step process that included an in-between stage.

Click here for an animated cartoon version of this topic.


1. 195 S.C. 1.

2. The data can be downloaded from http://www.bls.gov/nls/nlsy79.htm.

3. 36,023,000 x .0187 / 19.

4. See the essay Afro-European Genetic Admixture in the United States.

5. 300 / 0.007 = 42,900.

6. See the essay The Heredity of “Racial” Traits.

7. E.J. Parra and others, “Ancestral Proportions and Admixture Dynamics in Geographically Defined African Americans Living in South Carolina,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 114 (2001): 18-29, Figure 1; Mark D. Shriver and others, “Skin Pigmentation, Biogeographical Ancestry, and Admixture Mapping,” Human Genetics 112 (2003): 387-99, Figure 3.

8. 300 / (8 x .007) = 5,400.

9. 36,023,000 x .001382 = 49,784.

10. Joel Williamson, New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States (New York: Free Press, 1980) 100-6, 119-20.

11. For details, see C.L. Pfaff and others, “Population Structure in Admixed Populations: Effect of Admixture Dynamics on the Pattern of Linkage Disequilibrium,” American Journal of Human Genetics 68 (2001): 198-207 or Heather E. Collins-Schramm and others, “Markers Informative for Ancestry Demonstrate Consistent Megabase-Length Linkage Disequilibrium in the African American Population,” Human Genetics 113 (2003): 211-9.

12. Barbara Yanez, “Taking a Closer Look at the ‘One Drop Rule’: An Interview with Frank Sweet,” Mulatto Nation Times, July 2004.

13. Antebellum American society attempted meticulously to keep track of who was slave and who was free, but this is quite something else again.

14. Major W. Cox, “Alabama Quietly Ends Race Certification Policy,” Montgomery Advertiser, May 1993. Interestingly, Puerto Rico’s birth certificate, like those of most Latin American cultures, records the skin tones of both parents (choosing from among the plethora of available designations). This is presumably for identification purposes. But it does not record the infant’s skin tone.

15. The exception, where you can still be prosecuted in America today for claiming to be of a “race” to which you do not “really” belong, is if you claim Blackness in order to reap affirmative action benefits. In such cases, your “true race” is determined by the testimony of local Black community leaders. Your appearance is irrelevant. If local Black community leaders disown you, you may be found guilty of criminal fraud.

16. For Channing, see her autobiography Carol Channing, Just Lucky I Guess: A Memoir of Sorts (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002). For Locklear, see Gerald M. Sider, Lumbee Indian Histories: Race, Ethnicity, and Indian Identity in the Southern United States (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University, 1993).

17. See the discussion in the essay The Heredity of “Racial” Traits.

18. Brewton Berry, Almost White (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 9-11.

19. William Pollitzer, “The Physical Anthropology and Genetics of Marginal People of the Southeastern United States,” American Anthropologist 74, no. 3 (1972): 723-30.

20. The term “triracial isolate” was coined in Calvin Beale, “American Triracial Isolates,” Eugenics Quarterly 4, no. 4 (1957): 187-96.

21. William Harlan Gilbert, Jr., “Memorandum Concerning the Characteristics of the Larger Mixed-Blood Racial Islands of the Eastern United States,” Social Forces 24, no. 4 (1946): 438-47, 438.

22. The tabulation is from Wayne Winkler, Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia, 1st ed. (Macon GA: Mercer University, 2004), 19.

23. Brewton Berry, Almost White (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 38.

24. Ibid., 30-49.

25. Carl N. Degler, Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1971). Incidentally, Degler’s concept of a “mulatto escape hatch” enabling gradual ethnic acculturation or assimilation over the course of generations is sometimes misunderstood. In 1988, reviewer Judy Beiber wrote that recent studies “lay bare the limitations of Degler’s ‘mulatto escape hatch’ [in that Brazilian] mulattos never truly gained white status regardless of social class.” See Judy Bieber, “Race, Resistance, and Regionalism: Perspectives from Brazil and Spanish America,” Latin American Research Review 32, no. 3 (1997): 152-168, 160. Of course Degler claimed no such thing. Degler’s point was that White Brazilians enjoy the privileges of whiteness, even those White Brazilians who happened to have Black or mixed parents or grandparents.

26. Wayne Winkler, Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia, 1st ed. (Macon GA: Mercer University, 2004), 232-41.

27. Kevin Jones, “DNA Study Results,” in Fourth Union: A Melungeon Gathering, ed. N. Brent Kennedy (Kingsport TN: Melungeon Heritage Association, 2000).

28. See, for instance Winthrop D. Jordan, “American Chiaroscuro: The Status and Definition of Mulattoes in the British Colonies,” in Slavery in the New World: A Reader in Comparative History, ed. Laura Foner and Eugene D. Genovese (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969), 189-201, 193-6; Larry Koger, Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860 (Jefferson NC: McFarland, 1985), 12-13; or James Hugo Johnston, Race Relations in Virginia & Miscegenation in the South, 1776-1860 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1970), 206-10.

29. Calvin Beale, “American Triracial Isolates,” Eugenics Quarterly 4, no. 4 (1957): 187-96, 187.

30. Wayne Winkler, Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia, 1st ed. (Macon GA: Mercer University, 2004), 153.

31. Additional accounts of the maroon communities are: Jim Callahan, Lest We Forget: The Melungeon Colony of Newman’s Ridge (Johnson City TN: Overmountain Press, 2000); N. Brent Kennedy, The Melungeons, The Resurrection of a Proud People: An Untold Story of Ethnic CLeansing in America (Macon: Mercer University, 1997); Bonnie Ball, The Melungeons: Notes on the Origin of a Race (Johnson City TN: Overmountain, 1992).

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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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3 Responses to “The Rate of Black-to-White “Passing””

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  3. Sedra Says:

    We touched on this renect episode of gentrification in my Human Relations class. The questions posed by the instructor for us to ponder were, How does this impact the Black Community’? What must businesses such as Ezell’s and Catfish Corner do to survive when the current neighborhood makeup is 83% European American? After some consideration, my answer is the same for both questions Change. With communities of African Americans existing in south Seattle, Federal Way, and Kent, activities and businesses with largely African American clientele must change to accommodate their original customer base, cater to a new customer base, or, ideally, do both. It also presents opportunities for those with an entrepreneurial spirit to launch businesses in those newly formed African American communities. With help from the various communication tools, staying connected as a community shouldn’t be an issue.Meanwhile, the CD simply returns to its roots; a community comprised of mostly European American (I am reminded that the area was largely Jewish before the mid-60s).