The Perils of Passing: The McCarys of Omaha

The Perils of Passing: The McCarys of Omaha

Nebraska History
Volume 71, Number 2 (Summer 1990)
pages 64-70

Willard B. Gatewood, Jr. (1931-2011), Former Chancellor and Emeritus Alumni Distinguished Professor of History (1931-2011)
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

This article presents various aspects of light-skinned black people “passing” for whites by examining the 1919 case of Francis Patrick Dwyer’s suit to annul his marriage to Clara McCary Dwyer after becoming suspicious that their new baby boy had Negro blood. While Dwyer was correct, he failed to win his suit, and his wife was able to divorce him and receive child support in 1923.

A strikingly handsome young woman and her three-year-old son, both fairhaired and blue-eyed, were the star attractions in a sensational court case in Omaha, Nebraska, in the summer of 1919. Her name was Clara McCary Dwyer, whose husband, Francis Patrick Dwyer, had filed suit to have their marriage annulled on the grounds that she had “negro blood in her veins.”· Until 1913 Nebraska law prohibited marriage between whites and persons possessing one-fourth or more Negro blood. In that year the legislature changed the law to ban marriages between white persons and those having “one-eighth or more negro, Japanese or Chinese blood.”

The courtroom drama, which occurred during the Red summer of 1919 when twenty-five race riots occurred in the United States, epitomized the prevailing white attitudes toward race and color. Throughout the spring and summer of that year, the denunciation of blacks as criminals, especially rapists, by the press and trade unions in Omaha undoubtedly had heightened racial tension in the city that ultimately erupted in a riot there late in September 1919. A complicating factor in the Dwyer case was that it involved the phenomenon of “passing,” a process by which fair-complexioned people of Negro ancestry “crossed over the color line” into the white world.

Several forms of “passing” existed among blacks in the United States. One was temporary or convenience passing by which fair-complexioned Negroes occasionally crossed the color line in order to secure decent hotel, travel, and restaurant accommodations or to attend the theater without having to sit in the Jim Crow balcony. Another form was known as “professional passing,” where by a person passed for white in order to hold jobs open only to whites but continued to maintain “a Negro social life.” The third form was passing permanently for white, which involved blotting out the past and severing all contacts with the black community. Among other risks was that of exposure. Because of the secretive nature of permanent passing, it is impossible to ascertain how many black Americans actually passed. Estimates ranged from a few hundred to many thousands annually.

Francis Dwyer, a clerk in a jewelry and leather goods store owned by his brother-in-law, assumed his wife was white until the birth of their son in 1916, when the attending physician, for reasons that are unclear, raised the possibility of Negro ancestry. Once Dwyer became suspicious of his wife’s racial heritage, he apparently refused to live with her and their son. He joined the army in 1917 and upon being mustered out of military service, decided to end the marriage legally on the grounds that he had been deceived by his wife. Because he was Catholic and had been married in the Catholic church, he insisted upon an annulment rather than a divorce…

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