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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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I think of historians as investigative journalists of the past. I especially feel that way when I write an essay or book based on court records. My first book, Unruly Women, was such a work, and so is the essay “Disordered Communities: Freed People, Poor Whites, and ‘Mixed Blood’ Families in Post-Civil War North Carolina,” a chapter in my upcoming collection of essays, The Long Shadow of the Civil War.

Studying court records from a different century is the ultimate revival of “cold cases.”  “Disordered Communities” investigates the years following the Civil War known as Reconstruction and recovers the experiences of ordinary black and white citizens, men, women, and children, who struggled to survive this dark period of history.

The era of Reconstruction, 1865-1875, was both exhilarating and horrific for Southern Unionists, particularly those of African American descent. This essay traces the rise of the first Ku Klux Klan in 1868 by studying some of the South’s best preserved court records, those of Orange County, North Carolina. In Orange and surrounding counties,  the Klan effectively restored the power of slaveholders and wreaked havoc on the lives of former slaves and Unionists.

Women, some of whom resisted the Klan alongside their husbands, appear prominently in this chapter. Many simply struggled to make a life for themselves in a war-ravaged, violent society. There is Pattie Ruffin, newly freed from slavery, who was coerced by a prominent white politician into withholding the name of the white father of her unborn child from court officials. There is Ann Bowers Boothe, a widow who lost her farm to a white family after they claimed she had African American “blood,” and therefore could not inherit property from her white husband.  Many, many more cold cases are brought to life in this chapter, and they speak to communities throughout the South that witnessed similar post-Civil War struggles over power. And, always, the stories are about real people fighting, sometimes literally, for their lives.

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