Racial Passing and the Rhinelander Case

Posted in Articles, Law, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-10-29 19:50Z by Steven

Racial Passing and the Rhinelander Case

English 365: The “Great” American Novel: 1900-1965: Prof. VZ
College of Charleston, Charleston, South Carolina

Brooke Fortune

Alice Jones with her parents

On page 101 of Passing, Irene references the widely publicized case of Rhinelander vs. Rhinelander (“What if Bellew should divorce Clare? Could he? There was the Rhinelander case”). Occurring in the 1920’s, the Rhinelander Case remains one of the most well-known controversies surrounding racial passing, and would have been well within the memories of the novel’s initial audience. Ensuing information for this post is sourced from here and here.

In 1924, Leonard Rhinelander, a member of one of New York’s wealthiest and prominent families, married Alice Beatrice Jones, a multiracial chambermaid. Alice had been brought up against a predominantly white background, attending white churches and socializing with primarily white people—a fact that led the Jones’s non-white neighbors to denounce the family as trying to pass. Due to Rhinelander’s social status, curiosity amassed around the figure of his new wife, and it was eventually revealed and published that Jones’s father was black. Under pressure from his father, Leonard Rhinelander then sought to have his marriage annulled on the grounds that Jones had hidden her racial identity, passing herself off as a white woman…

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