Use of the term “colored”

The use of the term “colored” was coined by mixed-race people (Ottley 1968:95).  In the eighteenth century this population and their descendants created their own caste system, which was marked by color and class. In one case in South Carolina, mixed-race people formed the Brown Fellowship Society, an exclusive mulatto organization that I will discuss in more detail in Chapter 2.  Mixed descendants of French and Spanish settlers in New Orleans also distinguished themselves by adopting the terms gens de couleur or people of color.  This term carried with it all the connotations of higher case associated with nonblackness and mixed ancestry.  In the first half of the nineteenth century, “colored” also became the term of polite usage among free Negroes of the North.

Objections to the term “colored” were duly noted in the African American press. In the September 24, 1831, edition of The Liberator, an editorial declared that “the term ‘colored’ is not a good one.  Whenever used, it recalls to mind the offensive distinction of color.”  T. Thomas Fortune, a leading journalist in the first quarter twentieth century, also declared that the word was a vague misnomer and had “neither geographical nor political significance, as applied to race” (a quoted in Barry and Blassingame 1982:391). Nevertheless, many people, especially middle- and upper-class African Americans, used the term “colored” (Isaacs 1964:70).  The need for a name that was self-defined and descriptive remained.

Obiagele Lake, Blue Veins and Kinky Hair: Naming and Color Consciousness in African America (Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003), 11.