1661: The First ‘Mixed-Race’ Milestone

1661: The “First” Mixed-Race Milestone

Steven F. Riley

It is a surprisingly common misconception among many that the year 1967 represents the first milestone for people of ‘mixed-race’ in the United States.  Without a doubt, 1967 is a significant milestone because it is the year that the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Loving v. Virginia case overturned the remaining anti-miscegenation laws in the 16 states that still had them. But we should look back—not a few years… nor a few decades—but a a few centuries, before 1967 to 1661, where the then colony of Maryland codified the first anti-miscegenation statue.  Such laws would be enacted throughout the United States up to and including Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924.  (After 1924, anti-miscegenation laws would either be upheld or overturned until 1967, when the remaining ones were all overturned.) If we expand our view to the entire Americas, our first milestone is the Spanish law of  October 19, 1514 which explicitly permitted intermarriage with Indians1, 500 years ago!

Although records of the very first union between Europeans, Native Peoples (Indians), and Africans is lost to us, it is clear by the laws enacted to allow, regulate, and restrict those unions, they had been occurring for decades prior to their enactment.  Such unions had been occurring too in the American colonies between Europeans and Indians, (and some African indentured servants) until around 1619—the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade—when African slaves came en masse and providing an even larger population in with to mix.  Finally, in 1661 the Maryland act condemned… 

…free-born English women who intermarry with Negro slaves: “whatsoever free-born woman shall intermarry with any slave, shall serve the master of such slave during the life of her husband; all the issues [children] of such free-born women, so married, shall be slaves as their fathers were.”2

1661 by no means represents the beginning of the societal condemnation of miscegenation in the American colonies, but it is the year in which the white male dominated society of the American colonies began transforming their fears into legislative actions.  Twenty-one years prior, a [white man,] Robert Sweat of Virginia was to “do penance in church according to the law of England, for getting a negro woman with child, and the woman to be soundly whipped.”3  Nine years later in 1649, another white man, Williams Watts, and a black female slaved named Mary (owned by Mr. Cornelius Lloyds) were…

“…ordered each of them to doe penance by standing in a white sheete with a white Rodd in their hands in the Chapell of Elizabeth River in the face of the congregation on the next sabbath day that the minister shall make penince service and the said Watts to pay the court charges.”4

During the early part of the transatlantic slave trade, the ratio of black women to white women in the colonies was estimated to be 9-to-1. Thus is not surprising that interracial relationships, if not condoned, were tolerated.  However, as the slave trade continued, the increasing number of offspring from the unions between white men and black women—and free black men and white women to a much smaller extent—created a social and moral conundrum for those who wished to enforce the boundaries between “superior” whites and “inferior” black slaves. 

One of the first mechanisms enacted to diminish the social and moral conundrum of the increased numbers of mulatto children was to reverse centuries of English law, which prior, transferred the condition (status) of the father to the child.  With this reversal, offspring  from the union of a white man and black female slave would be slaves at birth.  This new situation provided white slaveholders with access to both black female concubinage and a continuous supply of newborn slaves, which would continue despite increasing punitive anti-miscegenation laws, until the end of the Civil War, some nearly 250 years later.

While illegal unions between white men and black women may have frequently gone unpunished, the same cannot be said of unions between black men and white women. Common law forbade the enslavement of children born to white women, thus miscegenation between black men (free or enslaved) and white women would produce free-born mulatto offspring.  The apparent social confusion caused by legions of free mixed-race individuals and enslaved mixed-race individuals was deemed too dangerous for the emerging slaved-based economies of the tobacco, sugar and cotton producing slave owners.

Though it is quite appealing to remember 1967 as the Summer of Love, and the Lovings, there is the risk of reducing the history of ‘mixed-race’ America to the last 40 years instead of the entire 400-year span of (Columbian) American history.  So instead, remember one-six-six-one (1661).

1Laws Regulating Interracial Intimacy (1514-1987)