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Posts Tagged ‘Davis Knight’

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.

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A few days ago, the post “Life and Death of Davis Knight,” received a visit and comment from Deborah Jiang Stein. Noting that she has her own blog, I decided to check it out. I so liked what I read that I added her to the Renegade South blogroll.

I want especially to encourage those interested in multiracial issues to visit Deborah’s site (she also posts regularly on the Huffington Post). You’ll find her essays variously funny and sad, lighthearted and thought-provoking–a wonderful combination of irreverent thoughts and nurturing insights from a woman fully engaged with life.

Visit Musings for Mutts at  http://www.muttslikeme.wordpress.com

See also: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/deborah-jiang-stein

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By Vikki Bynum

In 1998, I published an article on Davis Knight’s miscegenation trial in The Journal of Southern History (Vol. LXIV, No. 2, May 1998). Subsequently, I included his story in my book The Free State of Jones (2001). Davis, the great-grandson of Newt and Serena Knight, was also the great-grandson of Rachel Knight, a former slave of Newt’s grandfather. Because of his slave ancestor, Davis was convicted in 1948 for having crossed the color line when he married Junie Lee Spradley, a white woman.

The case is significant because the Mississippi State Supreme Court remanded Davis’s case in 1949 on grounds that the lower court did not prove that Davis had 1/8th or more African ancestry. Legally, regardless of custom, the “one drop rule” did not determine one’s racial identity. Davis thus avoided going to prison for having married across the color line (a crime in several states until 1967). For the rest of his life, he lived as a white man.

It turned out, however, that the rest of Davis’s life would be quite short, as was the marriage that he suffered to defend in court. Some years ago, Ken Welch of Soso, MS, provided me copies of Davis’s divorce and death records. They show that in 1954, five years after his Supreme Court victory, Davis sued Junie Lee for divorce on grounds she had abandoned their home in 1951. The couple had no children, and Davis claimed that Junie Lee had given birth to another man’s child during their separation. The marriage was officially dissolved on July 20, 1954.

Soon after, Davis moved to Channelview, Texas (near Houston), where in 1959 he would lose his life in a fishing accident. Before that tragic day, Davis married for a second time, to Evelyn (Evie) Wilburn, and worked as a painter’s helper for Olin Mathieson Chemical Corporation. When I interviewed Ethel Knight (author of Echo of the Black Horn) in 1992, she told me that Davis had abandoned Junie Lee for a rich, white, older woman who lived in Texas. If Davis’s divorce testimony is to be believed, however, it was Junie Lee who left him. And while his new wife, Evie, was fourteen years older than him, and white, I have found no evidence that she was rich. Evie had been twice divorced, and had two sons, Joel G. Hill, age 31, and James W. McDonald, 24, who were closer in age than she to her new husband.

On the morning Davis Knight died, he had just embarked on a fishing trip at the Sheldon Reservoir with his stepson, Joel. According to Joel, he first waded and floated out to a small island where the two men intended to fish. Davis followed, carrying his fishing rod and wearing a life preserver. As he entered into deeper water, the preserver slipped upward and he was momentarily submerged, causing him to panic and thrash about. Several fisherman came to his aid, but by then Davis had been under the water for 3 to 5 minutes and could not be revived. An autopsy ruled his death an accidental drowning.

Davis’s Texas death certificate described him as a 34-year-old white man. Although the Mississippi Supreme Court had granted him the same status, the “one drop rule” of race meant that most people who knew his roots would never accept him as white. So, like many kinfolk before him, Davis escaped the dangers and degradation of being labeled a “black” man by leaving the state. For him, that escape proved all too brief.

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