Landmark ’49 Film About Family Passing for White Recalled

Posted in Articles, Biography, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2013-12-19 18:06Z by Steven

Landmark ’49 Film About Family Passing for White Recalled

The Los Angeles Times

Margaret Lillard
The Associated Press

KEENE, N.H. — For 12 years, Dr. Albert Johnston and his wife had a secret–a secret they kept from friends, neighbors, even their children.

But in 1941, their secret came out–each was part black. The fair-skinned Johnstons had raised four children and built a life in Keene and Gorham, N.H., while passing as white.

The whole world knew their story 8 years later when it was presented, lightly fictionalized, in “Lost Boundaries,” in which Mel Ferrer (“El Greco,” “War and Peace“) made his film debut.

The doctor is now dead, but his family and members of the movie’s cast and crew reunited in Keene last week with a screening and small reception to celebrate a revolutionary film and friendships that withstood a revelation that was, in its time, shocking.

“That was the point of the story, the fact that something positive happened, that there wasn’t any problem as a result of it,” Albert Johnston Jr. recalled.

Albert Johnston, a Chicago native, and his blue-eyed wife, Thyra Baumann, born in New Orleans, had no thought of “passing” after their 1924 marriage when he was a premed student at the University of Chicago. But things changed when he tried to find work as an intern. Hospitals that accepted black interns were full, and others would not accept him because he was part black…

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Thyra Johnston, 91, Symbol Of Racial Distinctions, Dies

Posted in Articles, Biography, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2013-12-19 09:50Z by Steven

Thyra Johnston, 91, Symbol Of Racial Distinctions, Dies

The New York Times

Robert McG. Thomas, Jr. (1939-2000)

Thyra Johnston, a blue-eyed fair-skinned New Hampshire homemaker who became a symbol of the silliness of racial distinctions when she and her husband announced that they were black, died on Nov. 22 at her home in Honolulu. She was 91.

She was the real-life heroine of “Lost Boundaries,” a movie that stunned the nation in 1949.

It is doubtful that Norman Rockwell could have dreamed up a family that better epitomized the small-town Depression-era American ideal than Albert and Thyra Johnston and their four children.

Dr. Johnston, who was born in Chicago, graduated with honors from the University of Chicago Medical School and studied radiology at Harvard. He was such a respected figure that in the 10 years that he practiced in Gorham, N.H., he headed the school board, was a selectman, was president of the county medical society and became chairman of the local Republican Party.

Mrs. Johnston, who was born in New Orleans, grew up in Boston and married her husband when he was a medical student, and was at once a model homemaker and mother and a civic and social leader whose well-appointed home in exclusive Prospect Hill was the scene of the annual Christmas social of the Congregational Church.

But Mrs. Johnston, described by her son Albert Jr. as looking as Irish as any of her neighbors, had a secret. In a society of such perverse attitudes that black “blood” was simultaneously scorned and regarded as so powerful that the tiniest trace was considered the defining racial characteristic, she was born one-eighth black, enough to qualify her as “Negro” on her birth certificate…

Read the entire obituary here.

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Stanford historian re-examines practice of racial ‘passing’

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2013-12-19 09:36Z by Steven

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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