Passing in Boston: The Story of the Healy Family

Posted in History, Media Archive, Passing, Religion, United States, Videos on 2016-09-01 01:15Z by Steven

Passing in Boston: The Story of the Healy Family


Boston College history professor, James O’Toole discusses his newest book Passing for White: Race, Religion, and the Healy Family, 1820-1920, which documents the extraordinary life of the Healy brothers of Boston.

In the mid-1800’s, the Healy brothers of Boston, James, Patrick, and Sherwood, looked like the picture of Catholic success. James was bishop of Portland, Maine; Patrick, president of Georgetown University; and Sherwood, chief supervisor of the building of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. The Healy’s were not typical members of the Boston Catholic elite, but the children of a multiracial slave couple from Georgia.

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Posted in Articles, Biography, Campus Life, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2016-06-17 00:49Z by Steven


The Sacramento Daily Record-Union
Friday, 1897-09-24
page 6, columns 1-4
Source: Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.


She Kept the Secret of Her Birth for Years From Her Roommate.

This is the story of Anita Hemming of Vassar, ’97. In all the news of the past week there has been nothing more dramatic than the story of this woman and the sudden revelation of the secret she had kept so well, says the New York “World.” The public was told that one of the most beautiful, the most brilliant, and the most charming graduates of this year’s class at Vassar was a negro girl. The public was intensely interested, but to no one did the revelation come with such over whelming surprise as to the classmates with whom Miss Hemming had been so closely associated for four years. In no mind, until very recently, had there been the slightest suspicion of the truth.

The story of Miss Hemming’s college life and of the influences and characteristics that made her what she is will be told here. There is interest in it, as well as a moral lesson. There is inspiration, too, in the splendid triumph of this young woman who came into life so heavily handicapped for the career she has achieved. These are the things that she has done. How she has accomplished them and the manner in which she has surmounted all obstacles will be told in detail later on.

In 1888 she was graduated from the Prince Grammar School, Boston, at the head of her class.

In 1890 she completed, with the highest honors, the full course of the Girls’ English High School in Boston.

Subsequently she attended Dwight L. Moody’s School, at Northfield, Mass., and there prepared for the entrance examination of Vassar, astonishing her teachers and associates by her brilliant work.

In 1893 she entered Vassar, from which she has this year been graduated with high honors.

During her four years at college she was a prominent and brilliant figure in the life of the great institution. She became a leader among the girls, a member of the most exclusive college societies, a guest in the best Poughkeepsie families, and the idol of a large following of enthusiastic freshmen. She was lovingly called “the beautiful brunette.” It was supposed that she had Spanish or possibly Indian blood in her veins. No one dreamed that in a little, modest Boston home there lived an honest mulatto who was the father and a prepossessing mulatto woman who was her mother. Both of these were light in color, with the mixed blood of their race, regular features and a clear olive complexion which many a white woman would give much to possess.

To these parents Anita was born twenty-five years ago. Her father was a clever and industrious man. He worked hard, and almost from the beginning he was able to give his family the advantages offered by the average white husband and father of the middle class. Anita had a happy childhood. She was sent to school, where she associated with the white children of her age. At this time there was no effort made by her parents to conceal the negro strain in her blood. It was probably the unconscious shrinking away from her of some playmate that first taught the colored child her own aloofness and showed her that she must make much of life’s journey alone. The thought did not discourage the ambitious little girl, who quietly laid out the plan of life which she has so consistently followed. In her wish for an education she had her father’s affectionate support and aid. She entered the Prince Grammar School in Boston, where she is still remembered as one of its brightest pupils. At the end of two years, during which she easily distanced all of her associates, she graduated at the head of her class. This honor secured her entrance to the Girls’ English High School, for four years she gained new laurels and wore them modestly.

Just at this time she met the woman who has probably had most Influence in the young girl’s life. The woman was a philanthropist. She had broad sympathies and keen observation. She met Anita at Trinity Church, Boston, where the girl had been a communicant since childhood. The clear-headed and sympathetic woman of the world be came deeply Interested in the beautiful colored girl who was making such a steady, brave, up-hill fight against environment and tradition. She suggested college, and in the contemplation of this vista, of delight Anita almost forgot her peculiar relations to the world of ideas, achievements, and white skins. She entered Moody’s preparatory school at Northfield, and it is at this point that her career may be said to have really begun. She was at this time a girl of twenty, with a beautiful face, a splendid intellect, and a habit of retrospection. Her parents mingled wholly with their colored friends, and her home life had brought her into contact with the people of her own race. The line between her and the life she wished to lead seemed very sharply drawn. There was nothing about her, however, to suggest her negro blood. Her skin was a clear olive, her eyes soft and dark, and her hair straight as an Indian’s, her figure and carriage perfect. She looked like a Spanish or Italian girl.

At Northfield Miss Hemming first had the experience of associating intimately with girls not of her own race. Her roommate there, however, was a Miss Bessie Baker, a mulatto like her self. Miss Baker has since become the wife of W. H. Lewis, a well known negro citizen of Boston, who was known in his college days as Harvard’s great center rush. Miss Hemming was bridesmaid at the wedding, which occurred last autumn. She is now the guest of Mrs. Lewis in the latter’s home on Columbus Avenue, Boston.

During the year at Northfield the two colored girls were closely associated with the social as well as the educational life at Mr. Moody’s school. Strangers looking at either of them had no suspicion of the presence of a strain of negro blood. Their classmates seemed to have forgotten it. The happy life there and the temporary absence of the cloud that had hung over her may have aided Miss Hemming in her resolve to enter Vassar without the great handicap which she had carried so long. She determined to conceal the fact of her negro origin. This implied no false statements. She had merely to let it be assumed that she was as the others were.

Miss Hemming entered Vassar. No one asked her whether she was negro or New Englander, Indian or Spanish. She was young, brilliant and beautiful. That was enough. She had passed an excellent entrance examination. She had met the necessary requirements as to “good moral character.” She promptly and quietly took her place at the head of her classes, friends flocked around her, professors praised her, she was initiated into the mysteries of secret societies and midnight “fudge” parties. Her college career had begun.

For almost a year she kept her secret well. Then she suddenly disclosed it. Perhaps it weighed upon her mind, and she told it to obtain relief. Perhaps the disclosure was accidental. No one knows. But the girl chose her confidant wisely. She told her story to a member of the faculty–one of the most popular professors in the college. This woman’s attitude toward her brilliant pupil may be assumed from the fact that she subsequently visited Anita at her Boston home during the holidays. The Hemming’s were humble people, and they made no effort to conceal the fact from the college professor who was their guest. Their friends and associates were colored people. There was no pretense of being white.

With the exception of this friend Miss Hemming entertained no guests from Vassar in her Boston home. The professor, like Anita, kept the secret well. Anita’s roommate was a beautiful and popular student, whose family held a high social position. Not even this girl suspected the truth for years. When she did Anita’s first great trouble came. Miss Hemming’s progress through Vassar was a triumphal one. She had a beautiful voice, hence she joined the glee club. She was also taken into the choir and became a leader in the musical set of the college. She joined the choral club. As the months passed she was made a member of other college associations. Among these were the Contemporary Club, the ’97 Federal Debating Society, a Greek club, and the Marshall Club. But these were not all her triumphs.

There are dances and festival days at Vassar. in which Harvard, Yale and Princeton men are allowed to participate. In large numbers these young men bowed at Anita’s shrine. It was a their bows with an agonized fear. She sobriquet by which she became renowned–“the beautiful brunette.”

It was her roommate who finally caused the temporary downfall of this striking figure from its fine college eminence. In some manner this girl had discovered that Anita was of negro parentage. She immediately changed her room and discontinued the acquaintanceship. It was the first blow in the colored girl’s college course–and it was a bitter one. Anita awaited further blows with an agonized fear. She knew that the story would spread like wildfire through the college, and she felt that the upbuilding of the structure she had raised was but a waste of time. To what end was all her work and study, if the friends she loved turned from her and the college she loved closed its doors to her. No one knows what the girl suffered, for she never told”. She kept to herself, withdrew from her associates, and became absorbed in her work. But they would not have it so. For some reason the roommate, too, kept the secret. A few rumors started, but were immediately scoffed down. As the weeks passed, and her friends still rallied around her. Anita breathed again. She had had a narrow and a most dramatic escape.

During the last year of her college career Miss Hemming held one of the most prominent positions in the institution. It was admitted that she would graduate among the first. Without effort she held her supremacy as student and leader in the college set. She had never been a solitary or a “dig“–two unpopular types at college. During her last year it was natural that she should cling fondly to the friends she had made and the social environment of which she knew she could never be sure again. She was a fascinating woman and professors and students and strangers alike fell under these charms she exercised during these last months. In the midst of all this the revelation came.

Once more the little rumors began to circulate–this time more loudly and persistently than ever before. The girls began to eye her curiously, wondering ly. She knew that they were commenting, discussing. There was bitterness beyond words in this to the proud, sensitive woman. To her these girls had become to seem like sisters. To them she was merely a creature to be discussed as a problem, a phenomenon. In grief and humiliation she went to a member of the college faculty and in plain words told her story. There was nothing more for her to do but await the result.

A faculty council followed. Some of the professors had surmised the truth. Every one knew it now. President Taylor himself advised that at so late a day no official action should be taken to prevent the girl from graduating with her classmates. And so Miss Hemming’s fate was decided. But she had worked harder than two-thirds of her class and was graciously permitted, as a favor, to take equal rank with the members of that class.

Miss Hemming carried off the honors of commencement day. In the circumstances it was not as happy an occasion as her splendid record deserved, but she made the best of it.

Having graduated she went at once to Boston. Within a month her story was given to the whole world. It will be a pleasant surprise to her, perhaps, to discover how much broader the point of view is, sometimes, outside of college walls. She has secured a position in the catalogue department of the Boston Public Library, and here she has begun her post-college career. She has already won the interest of wise men and women broad enough to appreciate her struggle with a “problem” larger than she is, and to glory in the way she has solved it.

In the many conversations with her since her story has been made public Miss Hemming has attempted no defense of her position other than to say no one asked her while she was in college if she were white or colored. She takes the ground that she was not under moral obligations to announce her origin. She says she entered college as any student would enter, purely on her merits and ability to pay the tuition demanded. Since she has become so conspicuous she has had much difficulty in avoiding persons who wish to see and talk with her. She has been asked by at least a dozen publications to write her impressions of college life, and she has had generous offers for manuscript from many large newspapers. Her work in the catalogue department of the Boston Public Library occupies her from “8 o’clock in the morning until 5 in the afternoon.”

During her office hours nobody is permitted to see her, and when her work is finished she goes to the home of J. H. Lewis, a colored tailor, with whose wife, as before mentioned, she is living during the absence of her family at College City. In contrast to her college career, her life is a lonely one. She denies herself to all callers, except her most intimate friends.

Miss Hemming’s own home is at No. 9 Sussex Street. She has two brothers and a sister. One of her brothers–Frederic–was graduated from the Institute of Technology–last spring as a chemist. He is a dark and handsome youth, much like his sister in appearance. He visited her at Vassar on several occasions during her life there. The other children are still very young, but will be given educational advantages equal to those of their brilliant sister and brother.

Miss Hemming’s parents, as has been said, are both light in color. The father is five feet six inches tall, has gray eyes, good features, and wears side whiskers cut after the English fashion. His eyebrows are heavy and arching, and his hair straight. Mrs. Hemming, though darker than her husband, is a fine-looking woman. Her straight black hair is lightly streaked with gray. Both parents are quiet, refined and exceedingly ambitious in behalf of their children. In speaking of his beautiful daughter last week Mr. Hemming admitted that she had gone to Vassar as a white girl and had remained there as such.

“As long as she conducted herself in a manner becoming a lady,” he said, “she did not think it necessary to proclaim the fact that her parents were mulattoes. She was always a quiet, studious girl, and from the time she first went to school books were her chief pleasure. She did not care to associate with other children. She preferred to spend her time reading her favorite authors.”

“Vassar was her ideal college. From the time she decided to go to college there was never any doubt in her mind as to the institution she preferred. Vassar it was, first, last and always.” Miss Hemming’s hostess, Mrs. Lewis, also valiantly upholds the young woman’s attitude in college. A mulatto herself, and a woman who has experienced much that Miss Hemming has had to suffer, she can appreciate, perhaps, better than any one else, the point of view of her much-discussed friend.

“Miss Hemming,” said Mrs. Lewis, “has not reflected an atom of discredit on Vassar or upon any other pupil. She is good and true and refined. She is a gentlewoman by nature and education. Because her face did not tell her secret should she have gone about placarded ‘I am colored?'”

“At first, I know, she thought of telling her associates at Vassar what she was. She was told by an excellent authority that it was not necessary for her to do this. So she kept her own counsel, and in doing so she did wisely. She could ornament any society. She proved this at Vassar, and I have faith enough in her to believe that she will prove it in the future as well as she has done in the past. Her record at Vassar is in fact the best answer that can be given to all the questions asked about her since her story has been made public. She was admired and loved there, and put forward in all things. No one could know Miss Hemming well and not love her.”

That all Vassar has not turned from Miss Hemming was shown last week by the visit of several Vassar girls, who called on her at her home and bore her off to the hotel to dine. The revelations concerning her negro blood and the notoriety to which she has been subjected did not count with these loyal friends against the charm of the woman and the bonds of college life.

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…there are whole blocks and rows of houses with ‘every tenement occupied by families the head of each of which is, the one black and the other white!’

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2016-05-22 21:29Z by Steven

Marriage and cohabitation have become so common in New York and Boston as scarcely to attract attention, except as the astounding fact occasionally breaks upon one, that there are whole blocks and rows of houses with ‘every tenement occupied by families the head of each of which is, the one black and the other white!’

Amalgamation, North and South,” Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 24, Number 3619 (November 3, 1862). (Source: California Digital Newspaper Collection,

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Any new kid I met—black, white, or ­whatever—had just one question for me: “What are you?” Always.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2015-11-04 04:08Z by Steven

In school, there were rules. You stuck with the kids from your neighborhood. In the instances when we were forced to interact with Eastie kids, especially the black kids, it was confusing for everybody—I know I’m supposed to hate you but I have to pick you for my kickball team. So then we would be friends for that brief period of time, but it was a distant, temporary friendship. I was aware that I couldn’t get too close to them. I figured if I were friends with a black kid, it would confirm to everyone that I was really black. I was managing an already teetering identity in Southie, and I couldn’t afford it. Besides, they didn’t want to be friends with me either. They saw me as a race traitor, a white wannabe, a defector.

Any new kid I met—black, white, or ­whatever—had just one question for me: “What are you?” Always. I learned quickly that my mother’s answer didn’t work. “I’m Irish” was met with skepticism, laughter, or confusion: “And what else?” Even adults would give me a fake smile, and I knew they didn’t believe me. Black kids would say, “Oh, you think you’re white, bitch?” Spanish kids just spoke Spanish to me—“¿Cómo se llama?”—and when I stood there in silence, they called me “puta,” sucked their teeth, and walked away.

Jennifer J. Roberts, “One of Us,” Boston Magazine, November 2014.

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BU community urged to increase open, uncomfortable conversation

Posted in Articles, Campus Life, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science, United States on 2015-11-04 02:23Z by Steven

BU community urged to increase open, uncomfortable conversation

The Daily Free Press
The independent student newspaper at Boston University
ISSN 1094-7337

Joe Becker

Keynote speaker and comedian W. Kamau Bell speaks about his mixed race children during “Let’s Talk About It,” a dialogue about race, identity and social action, on Monday night. PHOTO BY BRITTANY CHANG/DAILY FREE PRESS CONTRIBUTOR

Boston University College of Arts and Sciences Student Programs and Leadership hosted the “Let’s Talk About It: Race, Power and Privilege” talk Monday evening, featuring a keynote and question-and-answer session with socio-political comedian W. Kamau Bell. The dialogue touched on the social fabric on campus and around the country.

More than 100 attendees, comprised of mostly students and faculty, gathered in the Metcalf Hall of the George Sherman Union. Sitting at round tables, attendees, assisted by a minimum of one student facilitator, engaged in intimate conversations with each other throughout the event.

Bell elicited humor from often-uncomfortable social issues in his talk. He spoke of his interracial marriage with a white woman and the difficulties of talking about race and racism with his two mixed-race daughters.

“Remember the first time you saw an iPad? That’s how people react to mixed-race children,” he said during the event. “It’s not that big of a deal. You can tell kids anything. The construct of race is real, and racism is definitely real.”…

Read the entire article here.

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Naming this era of racial contradictions

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, United States on 2015-07-31 20:16Z by Steven

Naming this era of racial contradictions

The Boston Globe

Farah Stockman

We’re entering a new era of race relations in America — a crazy, conflicting, potentially explosive era yet to be named.

Maybe it’s an era of white insecurity about racial identity as the country moves toward a nonwhite majority. Dylann Roof, who murdered nine black people in a church, and Rachel Dolezal, who declared herself black on national television, could be two sides of that coin.

Or maybe it’s an era of increasing black confidence. What’s unprecedented about the spate of black people who’ve died in police custody is not the deaths themselves — those are sadly not new — but rather the fact that they’re being covered prominently on national news.

There’s something else notable about our conversations on race today: the disconnect between where we are in 2015 and where we thought we’d be. The half-finished project of racial equality in the United States leaves us with a parade of endless contradictions.

We overwhelmingly support the idea of integration. Yet, 75 percent of white people don’t have a single black friend, and 66 percent of black people don’t have a white one.

In a city like Boston, poor kids tend to go to poor schools, and wealthy kids to affluent schools.

We elected a black president. Yet we still incarcerate blacks at nearly six times the rate of whites. We’ve had not one but two black secretaries of state. Yet, a study shows that women with “black-sounding” names — like Lakisha and Aisha — still have a hard time getting hired as secretaries.

Read the entire article here.

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One of Us

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, United States on 2014-10-29 01:17Z by Steven

One of Us

Boston Magazine
November 2014 (published 2014-10-28)

Jennifer J. Roberts

Portrait of the author by Jason Grow

I was a typical Southie kid, one of six, born to a single mother, raised in a triple-decker, surrounded by Whitey Bulger’s violence and fierce Irish pride. There was only one thing that kept me on the outside: Despite my mother’s claims to the contrary, we were black.

When I was six years old, I was bused to school at John Winthrop Elementary on the Dorchester/Roxbury line. The school was in a mostly black neighborhood, about 3 miles from the South Boston neighborhood where I lived, but even then I understood it as enemy territory.

My mother had made that clear: She was ­aggressive about her stance against busing, and “those blacks.” By which she didn’t mean us. I was the youngest of six kids, and the darkest, but if you asked my mother, she’d tell you we were Irish. Virginia Roberts was a proud supporter of Jim Kelly and Billy Bulger, hugged them flamboyantly at every St. Paddy’s Day Parade. They would give her a kiss on the cheek. I would cringe. Tall, thin, and attractive, she wore a shamrock brooch on her housecoat. Her kinky hair was usually covered by a kerchief or a wig. Her skin, like mine, was a warm beige in the winter and a deep red-brown in the summer. But we were Irish, she insisted, and nothing else.

Sitting in a neighbor’s kitchen, racial slurs would buzz around like hungry mosquitoes waiting to suck my blood out and leave me cold. Inevitably one would land on my mother. “Why can’t they just stay in their neighborhood? No offense, Ginny,” waving a cigarette at my mother. “You know we don’t mean you!” My mother would swat away their words with indifference; of course they didn’t mean her! She’d scoff right along with them.

When I was a child, the origin of our shared skin tone and hair texture was a mystery. Out on the street, though, kids had theories: “I heard your grandmother was raped by a black man,” they’d say to me, or, “I heard your mother was found on a doorstep and your grandmother took her in.” What was clear to me, even as a little girl, was that my mother wanted no part of our shared racial heritage. The bubble of denial she created for herself was solid Teflon. Everything rolled right off of her and onto me. At home, I was Irish. On the street, I was something different: “jigaboo,” “nigger,” “Oreo,” “Jenny the spook.” These names were spoken to me almost as if they were endearments, nicknames. Nearly everyone in Southie had a nickname.

I was from Southie; I was one of them. I was their black girl…

Read the entire article here.

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Bewildered in Boston

Posted in Articles, Biography, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2013-04-05 16:59Z by Steven

Bewildered in Boston


Joshua Glenn, Co-Founder & Editor-in-Chief

Fanny Howe isn’t part of the local literary canon. But her seven novels about interracial love and utopian dreaming offer a rich social history of Boston in the 1960s and ’70s.

[This essay first appeared in The Boston Globe’s IDEAS section, on March 7, 2004.]

Fanny Howe isn’t wild about her hometown. “Boston is a parochial and paranoid city,” the 63-year-old poet and novelist charges in the introduction to The Wedding Dress (University of California), a new collection of her literary essays. “It doesn’t admit its own defects, and it belittles its own children as a result.”

Between 1968 and 1987 the Cambridge-born Howe lectured at Tufts, MIT, and other local institutions while publishing 19 books of poetry and fiction, including a series of seven semi-autobiographical novels obsessively chronicling not just particular Boston neighborhoods but the social, economic, and political tensions that plagued the city in the racially charged ’60s and ’70s. Yet it wasn’t until the University of California at San Diego offered her tenure in ’87 that Howe began to be recognized as one of the country’s least compromising yet most readable experimentalist writers. Since then, she has won the National Poetry Foundation Award, the Pushcart Prize for fiction, and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, among other prestigious awards.

Still, she’s never been celebrated as part of Boston’s literary pantheon. “This city is tougher on its own—that’s a sign of its provincialism,” says Howe’s old friend Bill Corbett, an influential local poet and writer-in-residence at MIT. “Fanny had to leave town in order to find her audience.”

But Howe says Boston’s reluctance to recognize her work was the least of her worries. In The Wedding Dress, she recounts her experiences as a well-born Brahmin turned community activist, a white woman married to a person of color, and a mother of three mixed-race children during the city’s violent busing crisis—and recalls feeling that she’d never be the same again. “[The late anti-busing activist] Louise Day Hicks and the vociferous Boston Irish were like the dogs and hoses in the South…,” she writes. “Some worldview was inexorably shifting in me.”

Her daughter Danzy Senna, whose bestselling 1998 novel Caucasia drew upon her own memories of growing up in Boston in the early ’70s, says Howe “had an epiphany: As the mother of nonwhite children, she was no longer comfortable in the blind spot of the white world. She became a race traitor and a keen analyst of whiteness, in all its complacency and complicity.” As Howe herself writes in The Wedding Dress, she often feels “that my skin is white but my soul is not, and that I am in camouflage.”…

..It was an era of assassinations and race riots, and Boston’s black neighborhoods, where the newlyweds spent their time, sometimes became war zones. (“My white face felt like something I had foolishly chosen to wear to the wrong place,” recalls Henny, protagonist of Indivisible, the last of Howe’s memoiristic novels, of her travels “from Connolly’s to Bob the Chef to Joyce Chen’s and the Heath Street projects.”) Still, Howe and Senna bought a crumbling Victorian on Robeson Street in Jamaica Plain, and quixotically tried to establish their own racially neutral utopia. Senna went to work for Beacon Press, while Howe lectured at Tufts, got involved in neighborhood politics, and filled the house with “Carl’s family and Jamaican, Irish, and African friends of friends,” as she puts it.

The couple had three children—daughters Ann Lucien and Danzy, and son Maceo—in four years. Danzy looked white, but Howe encouraged all three children to think of themselves as black, and enrolled them in Roxbury public schools and the late Elma Lewis’s arts programs. (The white mother in Senna’s Caucasia tells her mixed-race daughter, “It doesn’t matter what your color is or where you’re born into, you know? It matters who you choose to call your own.”)

But as Howe admits, “Boston was a poor choice of a place to live” for a mixed-race family. “Many times people stopped me with my children, to ask, ‘Are they yours?’ with an expression of disgust and disbelief on their faces.” In a 1985 poem titled “Robeson Street,” she’d recall: “This stage was really hell — the fracas of an el/to downtown Boston, back out again,/with white boys banging the lids of garbage cans,/calling racial zingers into our artificial lights.”…

Read the entire article here.

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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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City of Amalgamation: Race, Marriage, Class and Color in Boston, 1890-1930

Posted in Dissertations, History, Law, Media Archive, Passing, Social Science, United States on 2010-09-01 21:42Z by Steven

City of Amalgamation: Race, Marriage, Class and Color in Boston, 1890-1930

University of Massachusetts, Amherst
September 2008
223 pages
Paper AAI3337029

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

Submitted to the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the Graduate School of the University of Massachusetts Amherst in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

This dissertation examines the evolution of early race relations in Boston during a period which saw the extinguishing of the progressive abolitionist racial flame and the triumph of Jim Crow in Boston. I argue that this historical moment was a window in which Boston stood at a racial crossroads. The decision to follow the path of disfranchisement of African Americans and racial polarization paved the way for the race relations in Boston we know and recognize today. Documenting the high number of blacks and whites who married in Boston during these years in the face of virulent anti-miscegenation efforts and the context of the intense political fight to keep interracial marriage legal, the dissertation explores the black response to this assault on the dignity and lives of African Americans. At the same time it documents the dilemma that the issue of intermarriage represented for black Bostonians and their leaders. African Americans in Boston cautiously endorsed, but did not actively participate in the Boston N.A.A.C.P.’s campaign against the resurgence of anti-miscegenation laws in the early part of the twentieth century. The lack of direct and substantial participation in this campaign is indicative of the skepticism with which many viewed the largely white organization.

Boston, with its substantial Irish population, had a pattern of Irish, and other immigrant women, taking Negro grooms–perhaps because of the proximity within which they often worked and their differing notions about the taboo of race mixing. Boston was, for example, one of the most tolerant large cities in America with regard to interracial unions by 1900. In the period between 1900 and 1904, about 14 out of every 100 Negro grooms took white wives. Furthermore, black and white Bostonians cooperated politically to ensure that intermarriage remained legal throughout the nation.

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgements
  • Abstract
  • Preface
  • Introdution
  • 1. A Sojourn in the City of Amalgamation: Race, Marriage and Freedom in Boston
  • 2. Interracial Paradise?: Boston and the Profressive Racial Impulse
  • 3. Proving Ground: Boston’s Black Leadership and the Dilemma of Intermarriage
  • 4. Breach of Promise: Passing and the Van Houten Case in Boston
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliograpy


This dissertation examines the history of mixed race in Boston since 1890. As such, various mixed race “phenomena” are investigated including, but not limited to, interracial marriage, community and settlement patterns, the politics of intermarriage, love and sex across the color line, and racial paranoia surrounding the issue of miscegenation. It also investigates the disastrous implications the one-drop rule has had for virtually every important institution in American life: love, family and kinship patterns, marriage, sex, filial ties, legal and jurisdictional matters, education, community migration and settlement patterns. Furthermore, it tracks the evolution of the assumption of race as a biological reality to its present day manifestation as a socially constructed phenomenon. Finally, it outlines the ways in which the one-drop rule, originally intended to deny the rights of African Americans, came (somewhat ironically) to galvanize the black community.

The Introduction to this study serves as a brief review of the literature on the history of the one-drop rule in America. It is this measure of blackness, which has made racial mixing, miscegenation, and therefore, mixed race identity in the United States, problematic in ways that it did not in other post-slave societies. This literature illuminates the ways in which the one-drop rule came to govern America’s unique binary racial system, beginning with its incarnation as a widespread and complicated system of laws during slavery that decreed slave status was inherited through the mother (also known as hypodescent) to the anti-miscegenation laws that sprang up after the Civil War making it illegal in this country for people of different races to marry one another. A secondary aim of the introduction will be to briefly discuss nineteenth century pseudoscientific theories of race and the mythology of “blood theory”.

Chapter one, A Sojourn in the City of Amalgamation, documents the relatively high number of blacks and whites who married in Boston during these years and the fight to keep interracial marriage legal. The politics of interracial marriage with a particular emphasis on the abolitionist legacy in Boston, beginning with the struggle to lift the ban on intermarriage in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1843, is the origin from which this study germinates. It was in this radical environment that progressives, radicals and other heirs to the abolitionist legacy formulated a counter-philosophy that attempted to transgress America’s greatest fiction—the notion of the “one-drop” rule. In this way, cities like Boston became havens for interracial marriages and love across the color line, in general.

Chapter two, Interracial Paradise, examines the somewhat idyllic ways in which Boston was portrayed by anti-amalgamationists and southern apologists to the lost cause of the Civil War. It discusses important neighborhoods such as the South End, which was the stage upon which much of this drama took place and was the heart of Boston’s black community after it moved out of the confines of Beacon Hill. African Americans in Boston cautiously endorsed, but did not actively participate in, the campaign against the resurgence of anti-miscegenation laws in the early part of the 20th century. This lack of direct and substantial black participation in this campaign is significant. It is indicative of the dilemma that the issue of intermarriage represented for black Bostonians and their leaders.

Chapter three, Proving Ground, examines the political struggle over the issue of interracial marriage and the dilemma it posed for the Boston branch of the N.A.A.C.P., as well as the national organization, when Congress attempted to pass a national ban on intermarriage in 1915. The N.A.A.C.P. and its Boston branch constituted the principal opposition to the ban. This chapter examines the political struggle over the issue of interracial marriage and the dilemma it posed for leading organizations such as the N.A.A.C.P., not only in Boston but across the nation. That same year, the Boston chapter held several mass meetings to protest the pending anti-miscegenation legislation in Congress. The Boston branch was especially challenged when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts attempted to pass a statewide ban in 1927 in response to the Jack Johnson interracial marriage controversy. I will examine the steps that were taken not only by the Boston N.A.A.C.P. to organize black Bostonians to defeat the bill, but the involvement of William Monroe Trotter’s National Equal Rights League and the dilemma the intermarriage caused for black leadership in general.

Chapter four, Breach of Promise, takes a look at a case of passing which was the Van Houten case in Boston. The case caused quite a stir in the delicate balance of social and racial hierarchy in Boston as well as a reversal of fortune in the courts. The case was watched very closely by the press who fed the public’s appetite for every detail of the story, much like the drama that filled the pages of the romance novels on passing such as Nella Larsen’s Quicksand. Like the protagonist of that story, Anna Van Houten was cursed by her racial betrayal and in the end despised for her deception. Her case was an important turning point in the adjudication of interracial marriage since it necessitated a legal remedy against intermarriage in a state where it was supposedly legal.


Race and racial identity are perhaps the single most important social markers of identification in American life and culture. They serve as automatic registers of information about a person—their history, their background, their politics, and even, perhaps, their socioeconomic status—and yet for all the things we ask it to do for us, race falls incredibly wide of the mark. Race cannot, for example, tell us, who we’re going to become in the future, or what we can accomplish, or for that matter who we are. Social scientists, anthropologists, and biological scientists all tell us that race is not real—that there is no biological basis for race in human physiology—and yet, we live and operate on a day-to-day basis as though it were. What is the impact of this enduring paradox—America’s greatest fiction, one that we have lived and propagated now for more than four centuries?

As we have seen in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, whiteness became highly sought after as the preferred status of choice that conferred all the benefits of racial privilege—and until the 1950s, naturalized citizenship. However, it should be mentioned that whiteness as a concept is far more significant for what it is not, then for what it is—namely, not black. Therefore, although America differs in its racial formulas of determining who is white and who is not, the main reason for the invention of whiteness, escape from the racial curse of blackness, remains intact in many Latin American and Caribbean countries. Gilberto Freyre’s notion of Brazil as an interracial democracy that is different from a racist United States is a good example of this phenomenon. Their odyssey over the highly contested and often controversial terrain of race and national identity has been a long and difficult journey. Burdened by a dual legacy of colonialism and foreign occupation, many of these republics, with the exception of perhaps Cuba, Haiti and anglophone West Indian countries, have suffered from a seeming inability to use blackness as a collective national organizing principle. Several of these countries have vacillated between ideologies that are based on white supremacy and reinforced by a legacy of historical amnesia. Scholars of race in Latin America have characterized this as an outright state of denial, for some, of their true racial make-up.

It is this unique binary racial system then, which has made racial mixing, miscegenation and a mixed race identity in the United States problematic in ways that it did not in other post-slave societies. It has had disastrous implications for virtually every important institution in American life: family and kinship patterns, marriage, filial ties, legal and jurisdictional matters, education, love, community migration and settlement. Race in the United States, for example, creates the odd and strange phenomenon that a white woman is able to give birth to a black child, but a black woman can never, under any circumstances, give birth to a white child. This was the basis for a widespread and complicated system of laws during slavery that decreed that slave status was passed on by the mother and miscegenation laws that sprang up after the Civil War making it illegal in this country for people of different races to marry one another. Moreover, racial classification in America has created an entire mythology that we still unflinchingly believe is based on the archaic and unsound biological concept of blood theory. It is still commonplace to hear someone characterize a mixed person, for example, as having “mixed-blood” and subscribe to the mythical concept of the one-drop-rule, also known as hypo-descent, meaning that racially mixed persons are assigned the status of the subordinate group in their ancestry.

In the United States, blood theory and pseudo-scientific theories of race reached their pinnacle in the late-nineteenth century with scientists engaged in a constant effort to prove that the Negro was a member of “a separate and permanently inferior species,” and, “not simply a savage or semi-civilized member of the same species.”  The basic assumption was that race was a biological phenomenon and an essential one at that.

It has become common practice of late in scholarship dealing with race and racial identity to point to the phenomenon of race as a socially constructed fallacy that has no basis in biological or scientific fact. Increasingly, terms such as construction, invention, and idea have replaced the once dominant scientific and empirical terminology used to describe race, a phenomenon that had, and still has, profound implications for the stratification of society. However, as eager as anthropologists are to proclaim the premature death of race, it is imperative to acknowledge the powerful and important social role that race still plays in our daily lives, cultures, and lived experiences, not to mention the endless sea of ink that has been spilled over the nature and image of the Negro. The theorem posed by W. I. Thomas in the year 1928, seems applicable here. It states, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” Perhaps one of the biggest limitations of these modern approaches is a marked tendency to critique ideas about race by challenging the validity of the concept of race itself. Because the discipline of anthropology has effectively moved to a “color blind” position, one which increasingly views society through the lens of ethnicity rather than race, it has confused the issue by distorting the role that race plays in society. By denying the importance of race and the way in which racial categories are formulated in the first place, it has among other things, opened itself up to a racial discourse that allows conservatives to advance the false ideal of a color-blind society…

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