Stanford historian re-examines practice of racial ‘passing’

Stanford historian re-examines practice of racial ‘passing’

Stanford News
The Humanities at Stanford

Nate Sloan, Doctoral Candidate in Musicology
Stanford University

In the margins of historical accounts and the dusty corners of family archives, Stanford history Professor Allyson Hobbs uncovers stories long kept hidden: those of African Americans who passed as white, from the late 18th century to the present.

Dr. Albert Johnston grew up in Chicago, attended the University of Chicago Medical School in the 1920s, and went on to become a radiologist in a small town in New Hampshire. He and his wife were black – a fact they initially hid so that Johnston could secure an internship – and for 20 years, they kept this secret from their neighbors, and even their children.

After the United States entered World War II, Johnston effectively “outed” himself by applying for the Navy. He was rejected because of his racial background, and word of his mixed-race roots spread. What motivated Johnston to sacrifice his social status and job security? Was it wartime patriotism, or something else: a desire to have the truth out in the open?

Questions like these have motivated the latest research project of Stanford history Professor Allyson Hobbs. The Johnstons’ story is one of the many instances of racial “passing” – the practice in which light-skinned African Americans chose to present themselves as white – that Hobbs profiles in her upcoming book, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing (Harvard University Press, 2014)…

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