Color Lines: Racial Passing in America

Posted in Arts, Audio, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Louisiana, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2016-01-17 03:03Z by Steven

Color Lines: Racial Passing in America

BackStory with the American History Guys (A program of the Virginia Foundation of the Humanities)
Charlottesville, Virginia

M. H. Kimball portrait of Isaac White and Rosina Downs, two New Orleans slave children, c. 1863. (Library of Congress).

On this episode of BackStory, the Guys will consider how and why Americans throughout the centuries have crossed the lines of racial identity, and find out what the history of passing has to say about race, identity, and privilege in America. We’ll look at stories of African-Americans who passed as white to escape slavery or Jim Crow and find out how the “one-drop rule” enabled one blonde-haired, blue-eyed American to live a double life without ever arousing suspicion. We’ll also explore the story of an African-American musician who pioneered a genre of exotic music with a bejeweled turban and an invented biography, and examine the hidden costs of crossing over.

Guests Include:


  • The Spark of Recognition
    • Historian Carol Wilson tells the story of a New Orleans slave named Sally Miller, who sued for her freedom after a German woman became convinced that Sally was really a long-lost German girl named Salomé Müller.
  • Double Image
    • Historian Martha Sandweiss explains how the one-drop rule enabled a blue-eyed, blonde-haired geologist named Clarence King to lead a second life as a Black Pullman porter, without ever drawing suspicion.
  • “Code-Switching”
    • Listener Johanna Lanner-Cusin, who identifies as black, talks about people’s assumptions about her race, not having experiences similar to darker African Americans, and “qualifying her blackness.”
  • Blood Brothers
    • Historian Annette Gordon-Reed illustrates the fluidity of race with the stories of two sons of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, one of whom passed into white society while the other lived his life as an African-American.
  • High Stakes
    • Sociologist Eva Garroutte tells the story of Sylvester Long, a multiracial man who rose to silent film stardom in the 1920s after adopting the persona of an “authentic” Native American—until it all came crashing down.
  • Passing In, Passing Out
    • Brian Balogh talks with historian Allyson Hobbs about an enormous but overlooked cost of racial passing: leaving one’s family, community, and heritage behind.
  • “Guess Your Ethnicity”
    • Listener Vasanth Subramanian wishes society allowed him to choose his identity. He talks in detail about the prejudices children of immigrants face.
  • Drawing the Line
    • The Guys explain how American slavery practices created racial boundaries, and, at the same time, complicated them.
  • Playing Indian
    • Producer Nina Earnest explores the boundary between passing and performance with the story of John Roland Redd, an African-American organist who donned a bejeweled turban and rewrote his life story to become “Godfather of Exotica” Korla Pandit.

CORRECTION: This show includes a story about Sylvester Long, a man of mixed descent who styled himself as a pure-blooded Native American named Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance. We refer to him as a movie star who published a famous autobiography. In fact, Long Lance published his autobiography first—the popularity of the book catapulted him into movie stardom.

Listen to the podcast (01:05:14) here. Download the podcast here.

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Faking Black identity: An American tradition

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-07-14 01:24Z by Steven

Faking Black identity: An American tradition

The New Pittsburgh Courier
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Robert Fikes Jr., Reference Librarian
San Diego State University, San Diego, California

The recent case of Rachel Dolezal, the White woman who reinvented herself as African American and headed the Spokane, Washington NAACP, is just the latest sensationalized instance of “passing.”  Though reports of Black and mixed-race individuals pretending to be White far outnumber reports of Whites masquerading as Black, curiously, this rare but persistent case has attracted considerable attention.

In the 1800s there were documented cases involving poor Whites kidnapped, declared mulatto, and sold into slavery. In the 1900s the typical scenario presented Whites as intimate partners of Blacks or Whites who lived among them and found it convenient to either manufacture Black ancestry or did nothing to rectify the misconception folks had that they were part Black. A well-researched example, detailed in the acclaimed biography Passing Strange in 2009 by Martha Sandweiss, is that of blue-eyed Clarence King who in the late 1800s was a renowned white scientist by day but by evening resumed his fake identity as James Todd, a Black Pullman porter who lived with his Black wife and their two biracial children in Brooklyn, New York.

More widely publicized was journalist John Howard Griffin who in the late 1950s managed to darken his skin sufficiently to pass as Black in order to report on the ordinary treatment of Blacks in the Deep South.  His experiences resulted in the both a bestselling book and movie of the same title:  John Howard Griffin “Black Like Me.”…

Read the entire article here.

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Driven by Love or Ambition, Slipping Across the Color Line Through the Ages

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-06-29 20:33Z by Steven

Driven by Love or Ambition, Slipping Across the Color Line Through the Ages

The New York Times

Rachel L. Swarns

Clarence King, a Yale-educated white man who worked as a geologist in the 1800s and dined at the White House, lived a secret life as James Todd, a black train porter with a wife and five children in Brooklyn.

The railroad carried him to the hot springs of Arkansas, the copper mines of Montana and the gold fields of the Pacific Northwest. Weary, lonesome and ailing, he sent letters of love and longing to his wife in New York City.

“I can see your dear face every night when I lay my head on the pillow,” he wrote. “I think of you and dream of you, and my first waking thought is of your dear face and your loving heart.”

Ada Todd saved those letters, symbols of devotion from her husband, James Todd, a fair-skinned black man from Baltimore who worked as a Pullman porter in the late 1800s, and spent weeks and sometimes months away from home.

His earnings allowed the family to move from a cramped, predominantly African-American section of Vinegar Hill in Brooklyn to a more residential street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, to a spacious 11-room house in Flushing, Queens. It was only when he was dying in 1901 that Ms. Todd finally began to piece together the truth: Her husband was not from Baltimore. He was not a Pullman porter. And he was not a black man…

…Yet 19th-century history is dotted with such cases. White men and women driven by love, ambition or other circumstances sometimes leapt across the racial chasm, defying state laws and social conventions designed to keep blacks and whites apart.

“We’ll never know how many people did it,” said Martha A. Sandweiss, a historian at Princeton University who documented Mr. King’s double life for the first time in her book “Passing Strange,” which was published in 2009.

“If they did it well,” she said, “they’re invisible.”

Clarence King did it well…

Read the entire article here.

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Love in black and white

Posted in Articles, Biography, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2013-03-13 05:45Z by Steven

Love in black and white

Princeton Alumni Weekly

Lawrence Otis Graham ’83

Martha Sandweiss examines racial passing in America

Clarence King, a celebrated explorer, geologist, and surveyor in 19th-century America, chose to set that identity aside — and live as a working-class black man during a time of harsh racial segregation in the United States. He did it for love.

King moved back and forth between two sides of the color line: as the very public white, Newport-born, Yale-educated cartographer and researcher of the American West, and at other times as the strangely private man pretending to be a black Pullman train porter and itinerant steelworker (using the alias “James Todd”) who married an African-American woman. Martha Sandweiss, who joined Princeton’s history department this semester, explores King’s double life in her book Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line, published by Penguin Press in February. 

“While racial passing was surely attempted by some light-skinned blacks who wanted to escape the economic disadvantages tied to black life at the time,” explains Sandweiss, “it was virtually unheard-of for whites to voluntarily choose to face social and economic discrimination and live as black people.” But after falling in love with a black nursemaid, Ada Copeland, in 1888, that is what Clarence King did for 13 years. His wife and their five children had no idea that he was, in fact, white, and that he was the famous Clarence King, until he confessed it on his deathbed in 1901…

Read the entire article here.

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Sandweiss unearths a compelling tale of secret racial identity

Posted in Articles, Biography, History, Identity Development/Psychology, New Media, Passing, United States on 2010-08-23 16:10Z by Steven

Sandweiss unearths a compelling tale of secret racial identity

News at Princeton
Princeton University

Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

For three decades, history professor Martha Sandweiss had wondered about a little-noticed detail in the life of Clarence King, a well-known figure in the history of the American West. King, a 19th-century geologist and author, was a leading surveyor who mapped the West after the Civil War.

Back in graduate school, Sandweiss had read a 500-page biography of King that devoted just five pages to a secret, 13-year relationship that King, who was white, had with a black woman.

“Thirteen years, five pages? It just didn’t seem right to me,” said Sandweiss, a historian of the American West who joined the Princeton faculty last year.

A few years ago, Sandweiss decided it was time to investigate. Poring through census documents that were available online, she was able to discover in a matter of minutes that King, who was blond and blue eyed, had been leading a double life as a white man passing as a black man.

“Once I uncovered that, I knew I had to try to unravel the story,” she said.

The result is “Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line,” published earlier this year by The Penguin Press…

…But the most amazing part of King’s story is that someone with fair hair and blue eyes was accepted as a black man. He managed it, Sandweiss said, because of the so-called “one-drop” laws passed in the South during Reconstruction, which declared that someone with one black great-grandparent was considered legally black.

“The laws were meant to make it very difficult to move from one racial category to the other,” Sandweiss said. “Ironically, they made it very possible to do that, because you could claim an ancestry — or more often hide an ancestry — that was invisible in the color of your skin.”…

Read the entire article here.

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American Lives: The ‘Strange’ Tale Of Clarence King

Posted in Articles, Audio, Biography, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2010-08-23 02:00Z by Steven

American Lives: The ‘Strange’ Tale Of Clarence King

National Public Radio

Steve Inskeep, Host
Morning Edition

U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Library

Ada Copeland, an African-American woman born in Georgia just months before that state seceded from the Union, moved to New York City in the mid-1880s. There, she met a man named James Todd. He was light-skinned, handsome, had a good job for an African-American man in that time — a Pullman porter.

They hit it off, and eventually married. They had five children and a house in Brooklyn. Their story would be unremarkable if not for one detail: Nothing James had told his future wife was true.

“James Todd was really not black, he was not a Pullman porter, and he was not even James Todd,” author Martha Sandweiss tells NPR’s Steve Inskeep. “He was in fact Clarence King, a very well-educated white explorer who was truly a famous man in late 19th century America.”…

…Sandweiss’ book, Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line, examines why King chose to live a double life — and how his experience reflects and represents how Americans, both past and present, have thought about race. In the aftermath of the Civil War, particularly, the U.S. had to recast some of the ways it thought about questions of race and identity…

Read and/or listen to the story here.

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