Defining racial identity in the United States has always been a fraught enterprise, involving shifting intersections of law, custom, class, ancestry and choice. Physical appearance and money have mattered, but so have family history and community attitudes — and not always in the ways we might suspect.
Two intriguing new books — Daniel J. Sharfstein’s The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White and Julie Winch’s The Clamorgans: One Family's History of Race in America — underline the fluidity of racial categories over nearly three centuries of American history. And, thanks to legal records and other archival evidence, they offer illuminating detail about precisely how — and often why — individuals circumvented or manipulated these categories.
The destabilization of racial identity begins with a fact: Sexual relationships between blacks and whites, both romantic and coercive, have existed since the earliest days of slavery. Edward Ball’s National Book Award-winning 1998 volume, Slaves in the Family, recounted his search for descendants of slaves owned by his family of South Carolina planters — and his discovery that some of them were his cousins. A decade later, Annette Gordon-Reed imaginatively reconstructed the lives of the mixed-race Hemings family and their ties to Thomas Jefferson in her 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.
As Jefferson did with the Hemings children, planters sometimes emancipated their slave progeny. After a generation or two, intermarriage between light-skinned blacks and whites produced children who could pass for white, and, in racist, segregated America, had strong economic and social motives for doing so. Three of the Hemingses now believed by historians to have been fathered by Jefferson with Sally Hemings assumed white identities; only Madison Hemings) remained in the black community.
American popular culture has long embraced the "one-drop rule," stipulating that anyone with any African ancestry, discernible or not, was black. This view, for example, prompts a tragic plot twist in Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel Show Boat and its Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein musical adaptation. (Nor is the concept just a historical oddity: Actress Halle Berry recently cited the one-drop rule in a custody battle over her daughter.)
In practice, though, as Sharfstein notes, the legal demarcation between white and black has varied among states and over time. In most Southern states through the beginning of the 20th century, one black great-grandparent made someone legally black; other states, such as Virginia, required a black grandparent (though since the relevant ancestor could well have been the product of racial mixing, any standard remained murky and difficult to enforce).
But where racial divisions seemed murkiest, racial ideology could harden. In Louisiana, where “it was famously difficult to distinguish one race from the other at a glance,” Sharfstein observes, whites believed all the more fiercely in racial supremacy. “The porous nature of the color line,” he writes, “required eternal vigilance.”
Sharfstein’s achievement in The Invisible Line is to show, in meticulous detail, how three American families, representing different time periods, social strata and geographic communities, nevertheless made the transition from black to white. For the Gibsons, originally free people of color in colonial Virginia, a move to South Carolina and the acquisition of land erased their racial identity. By the time of the Civil War, they were white Southern aristocrats, proudly serving in the Confederate Army and opposing Reconstruction. Their African origins weren’t even a memory — just a slur that family members publicly dismissed and privately fretted over.
Sharfstein, an associate professor at Vanderbilt Law School, argues that it could be advantageous not just for biracial families to define themselves as white, but for their communities as well. He illustrates this point with the Spencers. Though Jordan Spencer, the child of an interracial relationship, was dark-skinned, his tight-knit 19th-century Appalachian Kentucky community nevertheless preferred to integrate him as a neighbor by regarding him as white.
Finally, there were the Walls, whose white ancestor, Stephen Wall, was a North Carolina planter. He freed his three biracial offspring, sent them to Ohio to be educated, and willed them his considerable wealth. His descendants, most notably O.S.B. Wall, became abolitionists, Reconstruction leaders and civil-rights activists. But despite a proud African-American legacy, later generations of light-skinned Walls, confronting segregation, began assuming white identities, even at the cost of downward mobility and social isolation.
At times, they also faced legal setbacks: In 1909, the District of Columbia courts rejected Isabel Wall’s right to attend a whites-only school, despite her fair skin and considerable white ancestry. But George Spencer, Jordan Spencer’s grandson, had better luck in the Virginia Supreme Court with a slander suit he brought against a former friend who had called his family “God damned Negros.” The 1914 ruling in his favor (and others like it) helped make the South “safe” for Jim Crow, Sharfstein argues counterintuitively, because it shored up the security of established “white” families with questionable pasts. Confident in their identities, they could, like the Gibsons, cast their lot with the racial status quo.
Winch’s The Clamorgans lacks the conceptual thrills of The Invisible Line. But it is a similarly impressive feat of archival reconstruction. Winch, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, focuses on a single mixed-race family that spent centuries litigating land claims in a case she compares to Jarndyce v. Jarndyce from Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.
Her narrative is, at its heart, “a story about inheritance.” The pursuit of the 18th-century real-estate fortune amassed by the unscrupulous French merchant-adventurer Jacques Clamorgan entailed owning up to the other side of the family tree: Clamorgan’s multiple African-American mistresses and their illegitimate offspring. Over the years, the family “straddled the shifting racial fault line” and “made and remade their identities,” Winch writes — more evidence of the hazy construction of race in America.
Jacques Clamorgan was a larger-than-life scoundrel – a constantly overextended schemer whom Winch wryly describes as “too big to fail.” Over the years, the courts were never really able to unravel his descendants’ land claims, and Winch’s readers may not make much sense of them, either. But there is wonderful social and cultural history packed between the arcana of the land disputes, including the tale of an elite St. Louis bathing establishment known as Clamorgans, where Edward, Prince of Wales, paid a pseudonymous visit in 1860.
But the most compelling story in the book — an early-20th-century melodrama fit for the stage – involves the birth of an unexpectedly dark-skinned child to a Clamorgan descendant and her equally light-skinned spouse. With other Clamorgans living and working in white enclaves in the St. Louis area passing as white, that birth had explosive consequences. One white husband, at the behest of his appalled father, sought an annulment, and two Clamorgan daughters were re-assigned to black schools.
But some white neighbors remained supportive of the family — a reminder of the flexibility of communal standards. And any jury in the annulment case would have faced the daunting task of reaching a “determination of the degree of ‘negro blood’… based on appearance.” Instead, the annulment suit was abandoned, and one branch of the Clamorgan family fled their native St. Louis for Los Angeles. There, Winch reports, they changed their name to “Morgan,” and “began the process of reclaiming their identity as white people.”