Race on Trial: Passing and the Van Houten Case in Boston

Posted in History, Media Archive, Papers/Presentations, Passing, Social Science, United States on 2010-09-01 22:14Z by Steven

Race on Trial: Passing and the Van Houten Case in Boston

Paper presented at the annual meeting of the 94th Annual Convention
Association for the Study of African American Life and History
Hilton Cincinnati, Netherland Plaza
Cincinnati, Ohio

Zebulon V. Miletsky, Assistant Professor of Africana Studies
Stony Brook University, State University of New York

In 1894 Anna Van Houten sued Asa P. Morse in a controversial “breach of promise” case in Boston after he withdrew his proposal of marriage upon the discovery of her black ancestry. Morse contended it was a promise that he was not bound to keep because Van Houten was passing for white and had misrepresented herself by concealing her true identity. The case caused quite a stir in the delicate social and racial hierarchy of Boston and was watched very closely by the press who fed the public’s appetite for every detail of the scandal. While many in the public sympathized with Morse for having been deceived, the court concluded that the concealment of her race was not a factor and a breach of promise had indeed been committed. As a result, Van Houten won her original case as well as a sizable settlement. However, the verdict caused a public outcry. The case was successfully appealed and eventually overturned using a legal argument that claimed race constituted valid grounds for a breach of promise.

This paper examines the Van Houten case and what it reveals about Northern anxieties over passing and interracial marriage in the late nineteenth century in cities like Boston. The court’s acceptance of Morse’s appeal is problematic in that interracial marriages or engagements required a legal remedy to prevent them even though they were not prohibited by the state. The case also provides a unique glimpse into the public’s beliefs about the physical nature of race at the very moment when those views were beginning to shift from a scientific understanding to one that is more socially constructed. Finally, this case sheds light on the phenomenon of passing which gave way to a new legal construction of race that allowed for different kinds of evidence, such as photographs and witness testimony to prove the racial identity of an individual.

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