Mississippi

Racial identity and the law: miscegenation and the “one drop rule”

The Long Shadow of the Civil War, by Victoria Bynum

The “one drop rule” of race refers to the belief that a mere drop of African ancestry makes one “black”—no matter how “white” one’s appearance. This pseudoscientific concept, still commonly believed throughout the United States and among people of various ethnic and racial backgrounds, reinforces the idea that a white person who has even one African ancestor somehow is “passing” for white.  However, legal cases that involved race during an era in which being classified as a “Negro” severely circumscribed one’s civil rights reveal that questions about racial identity were anything but black and white. 

Historically, one of the many paradoxes of Southern race-based society was the co-existence of  the “one drop rule” alongside contradictory legal definitions of whiteness. In Mississippi and North Carolina, for example, a person with less than one-eighth African ancestry was legally defined as white. The legal criteria for determining one’s race sometimes—but certainly not always—prevailed over the one drop rule in cases involving the marital rights of mixed-race people.

For example, in 1949, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed and remanded Davis Knight’s 1948 conviction* for miscegenation (marrying across the color line) on grounds that the prosecution had failed to prove that Knight had at least one-eighth African ancestry. Challenged by Knight’s aggressive defense lawyer, Quitman Ross, the High Court agreed that the “one drop rule” could not be the determinant of a citizen’s legal status. Davis Knight was deemed legally white and therefore legally married.

Davis Knight’s courtroom victory proved that the disjuncture between social custom and state law might favorably impact a person’s fate. Conversely, in an 1888-1892 North Carolina case, Hopkins, et al, vs Boothe, et al,* Ann Bowers Boothe was deprived of her late husband’s property based on hearsay evidence that she was the daughter of a white woman and a former slave.  Even though her alleged father’s nickname, “Red,” indicated his own mixed-race background, and even though the one-eighth law was discussed, Ann’s degree of African ancestry (if indeed, she had any) did not determine the outcome of the case. Rather, the one drop rule prevailed.

An 1877 North Carolina divorce case, Long vs. Long,* reveals the grip of racialist thinking on judges who presided over the South’s transition from race-based slavery to race-based segregation. In a case seemingly not about interracial mixing at all, a white man, James C. Long, sued his white wife Teresa for divorce on grounds she had been pregnant by another man at the time of their marriage. Denied a divorce by the lower court, Long appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court and was again denied.

Justice William Blount Rodman, however, issued a lengthy dissent from the bench. Although Teresa Long had given birth to a white child, Justice Rodman raised the possibility that an adulterous woman such as she might have been carrying a black man’s child. Citing “scientific” evidence that makes our head swim today, Justice Rodman claimed that “physiologists tell us” that once a white woman has given birth to a mixed-race child, her blood “has been tainted by mingling with that of her first child, and she is incapable of bearing children that will not show mixture of African blood in appearance or character” (italics mine). The courts, argued Rodman, must therefore allow divorce in cases where the bride was already pregnant, or “man has lost the common right lawfully to continue his pure race.”

Such was the imputed power of one drop of African blood! Did this highly-educated Supreme Court judge truly believe that an interracial pregnancy had the power to “taint” the blood stream of a white woman? Given the racial theories of his time, he most likely did.  But Justice Rodman took the “one drop rule” a step further than most by arguing in essence that a white woman who crossed the color line risked turning herself “black,” since the “mingling” of her blood with that of her mixed-race child during pregnancy destroyed her “racial purity.” One wonders if Rodman would have required such a woman, then, to identify herself as “black,” or else face accusations that she was “passing” for white. 

Vikki Bynum

*I discuss the above court cases in The Long Shadow of the Civil War.

22 replies »

  1. Hi Vikki,

    Your story of Judge William Blount Rodman’s lone descent regarding the ‘Long vs Long’ divorce case is truly mind boggling!!!! Well, at least no one can accuse His Honor of not being creative. Quite an original thinker, actually. I love these stories. Enjoy sharing them whenever the opportunity presents itself. And trust me that I do try to make this happen with frequency.

  2. Continued from above posting. About Davis Knight and his legal issues regarding miscegenation. This story is so compelling. A veteran of World War 11 subjected to the one drop rule. I love to share the Davis Knight story this one to my much younger neighbors and or friends of my bi-racial son, Jamie who is now 45. In his entire life, Jamie has never experienced any kind of discrimination. For starters, Jamie looks white but loves to let others know about his bi-racial heritage. So far so good. Everyone seems to think this is cool!

    Vikki, I feel that your research work is vitally important, least we forget our past and or pretend it never existed. And you are a compelling story teller. This is important. So many important subjects are well researched but alas, are not well told. And it’s in the telling that gets the necessary public attention. BTW, there is a book on my shelf titled ‘Whiteness of a Different Color. European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race.’ By Matthew Frye Jacobson. 1998. One court case that he cites has to do with a black man living in GA, who in 1923, was accused of miscegenation. Found quilty, he was later acquitted on appeal because the woman was Sicillian, thus her kind of whiteness didn’t count. Go figure.

    • Thanks for your comments, Vikky; I’m glad you enjoy these stories as much as I do. We really can learn a lot about our present attitudes and assumptions about race by studying the “logic” of legal, ostensibly intellectual, ideas from the past. In regard to your son, Jamie, he is one of millions of whites who have a multiracial background. Of course, many white people have no idea that they have one or many more African ancestors. DNA testing is changing that, however.

      Because governments create systems of “race,” (when in fact there is only one human race) to institute order and to prioritize privilege and power, people are encouraged to believe in the special qualities of “blood.” In the United States, of course, racial categorization was used to justify slavery. For that to work, African “blood” had to overshadow all other to justify the enslavement of people who had far more European than African heritage. The same was true of segregation.

      Vikki

  3. Vikki:

    I enjoyed your recent presentation at the Laurel/Jones County Libriary. And I know you enjoyed your time in Jones County.

    As you note, the Supreme Court of Mississippi reversed and remanded Davis Knight’s conviction of miscegenation back to the Circuit Court of Jones County. He was never re-tried on those charges, probably because the Supreme Court’s opinion in the case indicated that the State’s case was weak.

    It was my privilege to know Davis Knight’s attorney, Quitman Ross, for a short time during my practice of law, and I have read his brief to the Supreme Court in the Davis Knight case. It was a masterful work for its time.

    In the summer months Mr. Ross could be seen about town wearing a white linen suit, a skimmer straw hat and either a red camellia or a red rose bud pinned to his lapel.

    What is remarkable about this part of our history is that Junie Spradley was not indicted at the same time as Davis Knight. If Davis was guilty , Junie was too.

    Frank McKenzie

    • Frank,

      I had no idea you attended my presentation! Did we speak afterward without my realizing who you were? If so, I wish you had introduced yourself.

      I too have long been impressed with Quitman Ross’s defense of Davis Knight. The way that he prodded several of the prosecution’s witnesses into showing their adherence to the “one drop rule” before coming back, on appeal, with Mississippi’s one-eighth standard for determining racial identity was masterful. That, combined with your description of his physical appearance, makes him perfect material for a novel or movie,

      Yes, it’s interesting that Junie Spradley was not also charged with miscegenation. It would appear that whoever filed those charges was interested mainly in punishing Davis for daring to identify himself as white. I read in one account that Junie claimed not to know that Davis had that “drop” of African heritage. There is evidence to suggest that was not true, but in the short run perhaps it let the court off the hook in regard to charging her too.

      Vikki

  4. Vikki:

    My wife and I were in Laurel sitting on the first row to your left. I asked you the question about the Confederate “In Kind” tax which devastated the families of many Confederate soldiers and probably enriched many of the tax collectors. I seem to recall an account that Newt Knight’s Company ambushed and executed one of those tax collectors.

    You were so overwhelmed by well-wishers and folks buying your book and wanting an autograph, I did not get to speak to you.

    You are probably related to my wife as she is from the Collins and Bynum families of Jones County which you have covered in your works.

    I love your books and hope you will continue your research and publications.

    I know there is a novel there but John Grisham will have to write it!

    Frank McKenzie

    • Frank,

      Oh, yes, I remember you and your wife very well! Your question about tax-in-kind laws was perfect for the discussion raised about whether people actually starved during the Civil War. Well, so I did meet you in a sense! I’m curious about which branch of the Collins-Bynum line your wife is from.

      Thanks again for coming to the talk, and also for your kind words about my books. I feel honored to have a judge in my corner!

  5. Vikki,

    So Judge Frank McKenzie was a member of your audience. Neat! And interestingly, Judge McKenzie actually knew Davis Knight’s attorney. The amazing story and it’s cast of characters continues to grow. His Honor’s physical discription of Quitman Ross’s reminds me of the delightful movie, ‘Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?’ Love those ‘Soggy Bottom Boys’. I have a question. Actually lots of them, but will limit to just one for now. Does anyone know more about Davis Knight and his wife once he was vindicated? Did their marriage stay in tact? Known Children? No doubt, I’ve overlooked some fine points. I hate it when this happens..alas, story of my life.

    • Hi Vikky,

      To learn more about Davis Knight after the trial, read the post that is linked in the article. He and Junie divorced not long after the trial. He charged that she had left him and was seeing another man. They had no children together. Davis drowned tragically in Houston a few years later while fishing.

      Vikki

  6. Vikki:

    Here is my wife’s Collins-Bynum line as best we know it:

    Elijah Jonathan Collins had two wives, Penelope McClendon and Margarette Smith. He had a total of 22 children from his marriages.

    One of his children was Stacy Collins who was Jasper Collins Father.

    Jasper Collins married Gatsey Powell and they had a child Peggy.

    Peggy married Benjamin Bynum and they had a child named Gustavus Adolphus Bynum.

    He married Dicey Herrington and their child Arizona Bynum was my wife’s Grand-Mother.

    Arizona married Andrew Collins but I don’t know his lineage.

    Hope this helps you.

    • Frank,

      Thanks for sending this–your wife’s line certainly places her in the midst of the history of the Free State of Jones!

      A few of the kinship relations you list, however, don’t correspond to genealogies published by other family members. JoAnn Odom Wingate, for example, is descended from Gustavus Adolphus Bynum’s brother, Prentice (a member of the Knight band who later joined the Union Army in New Orleans). In her history, “A Gathering of Bynums,” which she co-wrote with her husband, Wayne, JoAnn agrees that the brothers’ parents were Benjamin Bynum and Peggy (Margaret) Collins Bynum. However, she identifies Peggy’s father as Stacy Collins Sr., meaning that Jasper Collins was Peggy’s brother, not her father. This agrees with the Collins family history written by Vinson Allen Collins, son of Warren J. Collins, Jasper’s brother. It also agrees with all the records that I myself have studied.

      Another history of the Bynum family, Ruby Bynum Sanders’s “The Bynum and Herrington Connections,” contains information on “Nan Arizona Bynum.” Sanders agrees that Arizona married Andrew Jackson Collins, and she lists his parents (not Stacy Collins Sr.’s) as Elijah Jonathan Collins and Margaret Smith Collins. I have not independently researched this branch of the family, however, and can’t vouch for the accuracy of these statements.

      It is my understanding that no one has yet been able to document the parentage of Stacy Collins Sr.

      thanks again,
      Vikki

  7. The under-acknowledged LEGAL HISTORY OF THE COLOR LINE: THE RISE AND TRIUMPH OF THE ONE-DROP RULE by Frank W. Sweet is full of stories about the inconsistency of both legal definitions of “white” and social practice. What some scholars call “performing whiteness” was often more important in establishing one’s whiteness in a community than any “drops” of the feared “Negro blood.” He concludes that the “one drop rule” was created to keep the white population in line and punish anyone who got too cozy with the blacks.

    Daniel J. Sharfstein’s far more publicized THE INVISIBLE LINE: THREE AMERICAN FAMILIES AND THE SECRET JOURNEY FROM BLACK TO WHITE shows that is was really quite easy for mixed-race people of predominately white ancestry to claim white status. That’s probably why there is so much propaganda a la “Imitation of Life” trying to persuade Americans that the line can’t or shouldn’t be crossed. He also concluded that a more lenient definition of whiteness IN PRACTICE (as opposed the official stand of white racial purity) actually provided a measure of security to whites who knew that the caste system couldn’t survive if state governments were actually foolish enough to try to push every “tar-brushed” white into the “Negro race.”

    The first time I noticed that the “one drop rule” was a game dependent on self-policing and a gentlemen’s agreement of silence was long before the multiracial movement started. I met Hispanics (including Mexicans) and Arabs who looked almost as “dark mulatto as Barack Obama – yet they referred to themselves as “white” and the U.S. government directed institutions to call them that. I met Italians who said they were constantly taken for “black.” If the “one drop rule” is true, I thought, shouldn’t these people be in jail for obviously “defiling” the “pure white race”? That’s when I first realized that the “one drop” rule” was all a big con game.

  8. I agree, A.D.; Frank Sweet’s book is under-acknowledged.

    In regard to the game of “self-policing,” and the “gentlemen’s agreement of silence,” both played their part in the Davis Knight trial. “Performance of whiteness” was one of the criteria used to determine race, as were institutional affiliations and neighborhoods.

    Thanks for your insightful comments,
    Vikki

  9. Hi Vikki,

    And thank you, A. D. Powell. I appreciate learning about Frank Sweet’s and Daniel J Sharfstein’s books which both center on the subject of mixed race families. I also enjoyed your commentary regarding your own experiences with the issue of who is or is not Black. Interesting indeed. When I was in high school, the science textbooks claimed three races. That was it! Just three. However, one of my science teachers, Mr. Frankston, stated that this simply was not true. He further admonished us to not believe everything we read, including the Bible. You tell a good story, Ms. Powell.

  10. Vikki, I have enjoyed reading your posts for the past few months, and this one is amazing for the insight it provides into the confusion surrounding race and racial divisions. I am sure you are opening some minds out there with your writing, so keep digging it up and putting it out there.
    Thanks.

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