Stories of racial passing, from the pages of Nella Larsen to Detroit’s upper class

Posted in Articles, Audio, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2022-03-31 22:52Z by Steven

Stories of racial passing, from the pages of Nella Larsen to Detroit’s upper class

Michigan Radio

“Still’s Underground Rail Road Records,” 1886  /Boston African American National Historic Site

To escape slavery in Georgia, light-skinned Ellen Craft and her dark-skinned husband William posed, respectively, as a white gentleman traveling with his enslaved manservant in 1848.

Elsie Roxborough was born in 1914 in Detroit to one of Michigan’s most prominent Black families. When she died in New York City in 1949, her death certificate listed her race as white. She had lived there as a white woman for over a decade, working for a time as a model while aspiring to acclaim as a playwright.

“She almost immediately goes to New York City after graduation from the University of Michigan,” said Ken Coleman, a journalist who has researched the Roxborough family. Elsie Roxborough “at least professionally changed her name to Pat Rico at one point, and then ultimately, Mona Manet, and her brown, brownish-black hair becomes Lucille Ball auburn.”

Roxborough represents one of the few documented historical instances from Michigan of a Black person choosing to live nearly full-time as a member of white society. This phenomenon, known as racial passing, has received renewed popular attention through recent artistic works like Rebecca Hall’s film adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing and Britt Bennett’s novel The Vanishing Half

Listen to the story (00:19:36) here.

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Stateside Podcast: “Passing:” The Story of Elsie Roxborough

Posted in Audio, Biography, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2022-03-30 13:51Z by Steven

Stateside Podcast: “Passing:” The Story of Elsie Roxborough

Michigan Radio

University Of Michigan Alumni Association/Bentley Historical Library

Writer and reporter Ken Coleman tells the story of Detroiter Elsie Roxborough, who was born into a wealthy, Black family in Detroit. But when she died in 1939, her death certificate listed her as white.

In 1914, Elsie Roxborough was born into a wealthy, Black family in Detroit. But when she died in 1939, her death certificate listed her as white. Her life was rich, curious and at times, troubled, all while attempting a sort of high-wire-act of living multiple lives, between cities and names and races. Today, we talk about her life, death, and everything in between.

Listen to the story (00:19:36) here. Download the story here.

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Rebecca Hall Says ‘Passing’ Liberated Her Family – Contenders New York

Posted in Articles, Arts, Autobiography, Biography, Interviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Videos, Women on 2021-12-06 00:57Z by Steven

Rebecca Hall Says ‘Passing’ Liberated Her Family – Contenders New York

Deadline Hollywood

Fred Topel

(L-R) André Holland, Ruth Negga, Rebecca Hall and moderator Dominic Patten talk “Passing
Michael Loccisano/For Deadline

Rebecca Hall said Saturday that her mother [Maria Ewing] told her Hall’s directorial debut, Passing, liberated her family, as Hall’s grandfather was a Black man who decided to pass for White in Detroit.

Hall and stars Ruth Negga and André Holland spoke during the panel for the Netflix drama at Deadline’s Contenders Film: New York awards-season showcase.

“She called me up in tears when she first saw it and she just said, ‘You’ve liberated us,’” Hall said. “I grew up observing my mother and thinking about the psychological impact of being brought up in an environment where you weren’t allowed to talk about something. To me, she always looked like a Black woman. I was saying to her, ‘Tell me about this. What are we? Tell me the story.’ She didn’t know. It’s not that she wouldn’t. She couldn’t. She was respecting her father’s wishes.”…

Read the entire article and watch the video discussion here.

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He passed as a white student at U-M — but was actually college’s first black enrollee

Posted in Articles, Arts, Biography, Campus Life, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2019-10-24 15:03Z by Steven

He passed as a white student at U-M — but was actually college’s first black enrollee

Detroit Free Press

Micah Walker

Tylonn J. Sawyer, 42 of Detroit, works on the mural he's been painting inside the University of Michigan, Modern Languages Building on campus in Ann Arbor on Saturday, October 19, 2019. The mural titled "First Man: Samuel Codes Watson (Acrylic)" is dedicated to the first African-American to attend the University of Michigan, Samuel Codes Watson. In 1853, Samuel Codes Watson was the first African American student admitted to the Michigan.
Tylonn J. Sawyer, 42 of Detroit, works on the mural he’s been painting inside the University of Michigan, Modern Languages Building on campus in Ann Arbor on Saturday, October 19, 2019. The mural titled “First Man: Samuel Codes Watson (Acrylic)” is dedicated to the first African-American to attend the University of Michigan, Samuel Codes Watson. In 1853, Samuel Codes Watson was the first African American student admitted to the [University of] Michigan. (Photo: Eric Seals, Eric Seals/Detroit Free Press)

In 1853, Samuel Codes Watson became the first black student admitted to the University of Michigan at a time where higher education for African Americans was nearly impossible.

Studying to become a doctor, Watson would go on to receive his M.D. from Cleveland Medical College in 1857, being one of the first black people to do so. He later became Detroit’s first elected African-American city official and the city’s richest property owner by 1867.

Now, Tylonn Sawyer is bringing more awareness to Watson’s story through a work of art.

The Detroit artist is working with two U-M students on a mural to honor Watson. He’s spent the last two weekends painting inside U-M’s Modern Language Building. The mural was to be completed Saturday.

The project is part of Sawyer’s residency at the Institute for the Humanities, which will include his exhibition, “White History Month Vol. 1,” and a series of student engagement opportunities…

…”I was trying to find something not too heavy-handed, but something that could fit the theme (of the exhibit) and then it dawned on me, I wanted to know who was the first black person to attend the school,” he said.

However, since Watson was of mixed race, he passed as white during his two years at U-M. Fortunately for Sawyer, that fact made the doctor more compelling to paint for “White History.”

“That fascinates me that there was a black person who had white privilege and was cognizant of his ethnicity,” he said. “When you really think about it, he kinda wasn’t a black person when he was there. That’s such a juxtaposition for me.”…

Read the entire article here.

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Detroit Housewife Kills White Husband

Posted in Articles, Law, Media Archive, United States on 2018-03-19 03:07Z by Steven

Detroit Housewife Kills White Husband

page 20

A 29-year-old Detroit Negro housewife stabbed her white husband to death because he nagged her about not having his dinner ready. Mrs. Dorothy Homic told police she took a paring knife from her husband, Frank, 38, and stabbed him in the chest after he threatened her. She was arraigned on a first degree murder charge before Recorders Judge Paul E. Krause.

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In Love and Struggle: The Revolutionary Lives of James and Grace Lee Boggs

Posted in Asian Diaspora, Biography, Books, Media Archive, Monographs, Politics/Public Policy, United States on 2016-06-03 02:24Z by Steven

In Love and Struggle: The Revolutionary Lives of James and Grace Lee Boggs

University of North Carolina Press
May 2016
Approx. 432 pages
6.125 x 9.25, bibl., index
Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8078-3520-3

Stephen M. Ward, Associate Professor of Afroamerican and African Studies
University of Michigan

James Boggs (1919-1993) and Grace Lee Boggs (1915-2015) were two largely unsung but critically important figures in the black freedom struggle. James Boggs was the son of an Alabama sharecropper who came to Detroit during the Great Migration, becoming an automobile worker and a union leader. Grace Lee was a Chinese American scholar who studied Hegel, worked with Caribbean political theorist C. L. R. James, and moved to Detroit to work toward a new American revolution. As husband and wife, the couple was influential in the early stages of what would become the Black Power movement, laying the intellectual foundation for labor and urban struggles during one of the most active social movement periods in modern U.S. history.

Stephen Ward details both the personal and the political dimensions of the Boggses’ lives, highlighting the vital contributions these two figures made to black activist thinking. At once a dual biography of two crucial figures and a vivid portrait of Detroit as a center of activism, Ward’s book restores the Boggses, and the intellectual strain of black radicalism they shaped, to their rightful place in postwar American history.

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Grace Lee Boggs, Human Rights Advocate for 7 Decades, Dies at 100

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Biography, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2015-10-09 15:29Z by Steven

Grace Lee Boggs, Human Rights Advocate for 7 Decades, Dies at 100

The New York Times

Robert D. McFadden

Ms. Boggs and her husband, James. Credit LeeLee Films, Inc.

Grace Lee Boggs, one of the nation’s oldest human rights activists, who waged a war of inspiration for civil rights, labor, feminism, the environment and other causes for seven decades with an unflagging faith that revolutionary justice was just around the corner, died on Monday at her home in Detroit. She was 100.

Her death was confirmed by Alice Jennings, her friend and legal trustee.

Born to Chinese immigrants, Ms. Boggs was an author and philosopher who planted gardens on vacant lots, founded community organizations and political movements, marched against racism, lectured widely on human rights and wrote books on her evolving vision of a revolution in America.

Her odyssey took her from the streets of Chicago as a tenant organizer in the 1940s to arcane academic debates about the nature of communism, from the confrontational tactics of Malcolm X and the Black Power movement to the nonviolent strategies of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and finally to her own manifesto for change — based not on political and economic upheavals but on community organizing and resurgent moral values…

…In 1953, she moved to Detroit and married James Boggs, a black autoworker, writer and radical activist. The city, with its large black population, racial inequalities and auto industry in its postwar heyday, seemed poised for changes, and the couple focused on African-Americans, women and young people as vanguards of a social movement…

Read the entire obituary here.

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Don’t put race in a box

Posted in Articles, Census/Demographics, Latino Studies, Media Archive, United States on 2015-01-13 20:10Z by Steven

Don’t put race in a box

The Eastern Echo
Ypsilanti, Michigan

C.A. Joseph Peters

One ought to talk about race like one talks about their mother’s age: very rarely and very discreetly. Given the Census Bureau’s outdated categories, I say it’s time for one of those rare and discreet conversations.

In January 2013, Haya El Nasser of USA Today reported that “many [Hispanics] feel boxed in by the current race categories . . . 95 percent of those who selected ‘some other race’ are Hispanic.” Last July, Fox News Latino reported that Detroit’s Mexico town not only withstood the brunt of Detroit’s most recent downturns but was spearheading Detroit’s economic recovery. But Detroit’s growing Hispanic community gets whitewashed by the Census.

By attempting to define race with neat little boxes, the Census Bureau is forcing an increasing number of Americans to check “other,” doing a disservice to Detroit’s growing Hispanic community and to Dearborn’s already sizable Middle Eastern community. In 2010, the Census categorized Dearborn, a city where one third of the residents speak Arabic, as over 89 percent white. But with a term nebulous enough to include everyone from Morocco to Murmansk and from Riyadh to Reykjavik, it should be no great surprise that the Census categorizes Dearborn as whiter than Montana. Race is difficult enough without the government trying to define it too…

Read the entire article here.

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In Living Colors

Posted in Articles, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2013-04-02 04:08Z by Steven

In Living Colors

B.L.A.C. Detroit: Black Life, Arts and Culture Magazine
February 2011

Jared A. Ball, Associate Professor of Communication Studies
Morgan State University, Baltimore, Maryland

[Listen to the interview with Jared Ball and Lori Robinson on WDET in Detroit on 2011-02-01 here.]

A Black man with a White mother examines the concept of multiracial identity—past, present and future

What are you?

I have been asked this question for so long, some might think I should be over it. I’m not.

Not because I mind answering it. In fact, I often enjoy the reactions my answers get. “You ever read James Forman’s “The Making of Black Revolutionaries?” I at times reply. “Well, my autobiography would be called “The Making of a Black, African, Pan-Africanist, Nationalist, Communist, Revolutionary, Son of a Jew.” Or I might simply say, “I’m from the Punchdummiesinthemouth people.”

At age 39, I’m not over the question because of the arrogance and derision that commonly accompanies it. There is often a sense of entitlement, even obligation, to have my identity made known. How dare I not be easily classifiable by onlookers? In the United States, everyone is expected to fit neatly into a racial box—which influences your economic, professional and educational opportunities, for better or worse.

In 2011, the color line W. E. B. Du Bois spoke of, rather than dissipating, has evolved into a multiplicity of color lines. Though these lines are intertwining and merging with increasing frequency, they remain firm boundaries determining the lived experiences of millions of people.

Freman Hendrix was raised in segregated Inkster by his Black father and White mother—the only White person in their community. “Walking down the street is where you get your identity,” says the 60-year-old former chair of the Detroit Charter Commission. “We don’t have signs on us telling [people] who we are. It’s how other people react to you that tells you who you are.

“It’s naïve for kids to assume a multiracial identity,” he says.

Nineteen-year-old Karima Ullah couldn’t disagree more.

Ullah, of Oak Park, is the daughter of a Bengali mother and a father who has one White parent and one Black parent. For her, being multiracial means being beyond categorization. She rejects entirely the notion of having to choose one racial identity over another. “Be who you are,” she says. “Be a person.”…

…We may be experiencing a generational shift in the self-identification of children born to parents of different races. After all, it was only one decade ago that Americans had the option to choose more than one racial category when filling out a Census Bureau form. For the record, I checked the African-American box in 2000 and 2010…

Jared Sexton, 36, is the director of the African American Studies Program at the University of California, Irvine. His mom is Irish American and his dad is African American. “Why do those who can want to identify as other than Black? Because this nation remains fundamentally anti-Black and continues to associate Blackness with an absence of humanity,” he says.

On the West Coast, people have attempted to refuse to allow Sexton to identify as Black. On more than one occasion, he’s heard, “No, you can’t be.” People have also guessed that he is Latino or Filipino. On the East Coast—he was raised in Rochester, N.Y.—people frequently assume he is Puerto Rican…

…“We have a right to identify as we choose,” says Sexton. He chooses to self-identify as Black because he thinks multiracial identity contributes to a denial of White supremacy and anti-Black sentiments…

…Says Hendrix, Black-White identity is different from other mixed-race identities. Sexton agrees, attributing this difference to the lingering negative connotations of Blackness…

Detroit native writer and filmmaker dream hampton rejects the concepts of a post-racial America and the tendency to self-identify as biracial or multi-racial.

“My mother is White. My father and stepfather, who both raised me, are Black,” she says. “I have never been mistaken for White.” She wants no part of what she calls the “anything-but-Black multi-racial movement.”

Says hampton, “The Census should simply have a ‘not Black’ box” so that those seeking an out from the perception of Black as “code for criminal and poor” can simply take it. She acknowledges that her acceptance of the “one drop” rule, or what scholars refer to as the practice of hypodescent—the adoption of the identity of the subordinate race—is “retro.” But it is this nation’s continued abuse of African Americans that compels her to do so…

Read the entire article here.
Also see, “Multi-Racial Detroiters: Here’s how some local folks with parents of different races self-identify“.

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Founding Families: Power and Authority of Mixed French and Native Lineages In Eighteenth Century Detroit

Posted in Anthropology, Canada, Dissertations, Health/Medicine/Genetics, History, Media Archive, Native Americans/First Nation, United States on 2011-10-18 00:29Z by Steven

Founding Families: Power and Authority of Mixed French and Native Lineages In Eighteenth Century Detroit

Yale University
May 2011
365 pages
Publication Number: AAT 3467517
ISBN: 9781124807232

Karen L. Marrero

A Dissertation Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School of Yale University in Candidacy for the Degree of Doctor of Philosphy

This dissertation highlights French and Native contributions to Detroit’s development in the eighteenth century as one of the busiest and most politically and economically pivotal locations in the continental interior. The focus of this study are the “métis family networks,” a group of tightly interrelated mixed-blood kinship conglomerates of French and Native individuals. Members of these networks hailed predominantly from the Great Lakes, Montreal and the Laurentian Valley, but their commercial activities took them to Boston, New York, Louisiana, Hudson’s Bay, and in some cases, England, France, and Holland. They capitalized on their role as imperial representatives and emissaries to amass considerable prestige and personal fortune, becoming “coureurs de ville” or “runners of the city.” Their activities in this regard at Detroit made it a bustling thoroughfare, through which resources flowed east and west. By the mid-eighteenth century, they had become so powerful, incoming British traders and imperial officials courted their favor and influence among Native nations. As a topic of study in the history of early North American Native-European relations, Detroit has until recently been ignored. This is due to a historiographical divide between U.S. and Canadian renditions of colonial America which have artificially parsed out geographies according to nineteenth century concepts of nation that did not exist in the eighteenth century.

For this reason, this dissertation begins by examining how renditions of Detroit’s past written in the nineteenth century sacrificed nuanced depictions of French and Native early history to fit Detroit into a prevailing national story, marginalizing the significant contributions of these two groups. This author utilizes Anglo-Canadian, French- Canadian, American, and Native historiographies to reassemble what has been artificially separated since the nineteenth century. The reader is then introduced to themes, concepts, and pivotal seventeenth and eighteenth century imperial policy decisions that were the backdrop for the development of the métis family networks, including the roles of women and mothers in French and Native worlds, imperial attitudes to race and gender, and metaphors of kinship. One chapter is a microhistory of these family networks, tracing their travels, activities, and kinship ties across the continent and, at times, the Atlantic Ocean to show their geographic, political, and economic range. The story also concentrates on the extensive role of women in the transformation of members of the networks into the bourgeois coureurs de ville who would control the fur trade in the pays d’en haut by mid century. These women were married to, born of, or siblings of men who were similarly highly mobile due to their participation in the trade with Native groups. The trade also exposed French women to alternative gendered arrangements and notions of domesticity in Native communities. French women mimicked the manners of Iroquoian and Algonquian women, who moved their homes and families to seasonal hunting and in reaction to agricultural demands. Combined with the rapidly increasing ability of merchants in New France to control policy-making due to the state’s dependency on their business activities, the women of the networks had unprecedented opportunities to participate at every level. The dissertations ends when the winds of change from rebellious American colonists meeting in the first continental congress in the east threatened British hegemony and caused British imperial agents to lean more heavily on Great Lakes Native groups for support. This is also the year the Quebec Act was passed, which constituted, among other things, a concession by the British, fifteen years after the Conquest, to some aspects of the culture of métis populations. It was in 1774 that the troubled marriage of one Native woman and one French man came under the scrutiny of British imperial agents at all levels, from the local commandant at Detroit to Thomas Gage, Commander-in-Chief of British troops in North America and governor of Massachusetts. Such attention to one marriage and one family is rare in the administrative records of imperial powers, but this was no ordinary marriage. Because it involved members of an extremely powerful métis network, resolving the domestic disputes of one married couple held the potential for the resolution of the larger domestic dispute brewing between the British and their colonists.


  • CHAPTER 1 – Writing the Chenail Ecarte: Hidden Histories and Half-Told Truths of Detroit
  • CHAPTER 2 – Creating the Place Between: Euro and Native Notions of Domesticity in Early Detroit
  • CHAPTER 3 – War, Slavery, Baptism and the Launching of the Métis Family Networks at Detroit
  • CHAPTER 4 – “Tho’ Not To Run After the Indians”: The Indigeneity of Women of the Métis Family Networks
  • CHAPTER 5 – Bastards and Bastions: Domestic Disorder and the Changing Status of the Métis Family Networks

Purchase the dissertation here.

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