'A Chosen Exile': Black People Passing In White America

Oct 7, 2014
Originally published on July 28, 2016 11:47 pm

Several years ago, Stanford historian Allyson Hobbs was talking with a favorite aunt, who was also the family storyteller. Hobbs learned that she had a distant cousin whom she'd never met nor heard of.

Which is exactly the way the cousin wanted it.

Hobbs' cousin had been living as white, far away in California, since she'd graduated from high school. This was at the insistence of her mother.

"She was black, but she looked white," Hobbs said. "And her mother decided it was in her best interest to move far away from Chicago, to Los Angeles, and to assume the life of a white woman."

"Her mother really felt that this was the very best thing she could do for her daughter," Hobbs continued. "She felt this was a way to offer opportunities to her daughter that she wouldn't have living as a black woman on the South Side of Chicago."

In California, the young woman passed as white. She married a white man, and they had children who never knew they had black blood. Then, one day, years later, her phone rang.

It was the woman's mother with distressing news: Her father was dying, and she needed to return home immediately to tell him goodbye.

The cousin replied, "I can't. I'm a white woman now."

She missed her father's funeral, and never saw her mother or siblings again.

Hobbs was haunted by the story, and constantly went back to it in her mind. It made her realize that all the tales she'd heard about passing over the years involved the gains that people expected for leaving their black identity behind. But through her research, she came to understand there was another, critical part of the experience:

"To write a history of passing is to write a history of loss."

'Who Are Your People?'

Loss of self. Loss of family. Loss of community. Loss of the ability to answer honestly the question black people have been asking each other since before Emancipation: "Who are your people?"

"The family jokes, the oral history every family has, and repeats and passes down," Hobbs muses, "those things are lost to people who pass." She figured if she had a passing story in her family, there must be many other families who did, too.

Hobbs began writing about passing for her doctoral dissertation, and was encouraged to turn it into a book. The dissertation became A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in America. It's a history of passing told through the lens of personal stories.

Once Hobbs began researching, the stories came thick and fast. There was New Yorker Theophilus McKee, who'd chosen to live as a white man for all of his adult life. That's until he stepped forward to claim a huge inheritance as the only colored descendant of Negro Civil War veteran Col. John McKee. His claim and the court fight with his biracial siblings made national news.

There's the story of Harry S. Murphy, who was assigned as a ROTC cadet to the University of Mississippi by a commander who assumed Murphy was white. "For a year, Harry had a ball at Ole Miss," Hobbs laughs. "He ran track, dated white girls and was known as a terrific dancer." Years later, the university fought to keep James Meredith from registering as its first black student, Harry Murphy gleefully broke the news: "Ole Miss was fighting a battle they had no idea they'd lost years ago."

Then there's the sad tale of Elsie Roxborough, a beauty from a distinguished Detroit family who became the first black girl to live in a dorm at the University of Michigan. She tried acting in California, then moved to New York to live as a white woman. When her disapproving father refused to support her, Roxborough — then known as Mona Manet — committed suicide. Her grieving and equally pale sister passed as a white woman to claim the body, so Roxborough's secret wouldn't be given away. Her death certificate declared she was white.

A Bend Back Toward Community?

Hobbs says one of the things she learned as she delved deeper into her research was that passing was not a solitary act. It required other people who were willing to keep your secret, and a community that was willing to let you go and look the other way, even when it hurt.

In 1952, Jet magazine published an article predicting that passing was on the wane, at least for solvent black folks. "Most economically-sound Negroes who could 'pass' prefer being high-class Negroes to low-class whites," it opined.

Jet had jumped the gun a bit: Passing did not become passé for many more years. It's mostly viewed as a practice that belongs to a more sharply segmented racial past. The rise of a more diverse America, and a growing multicultural movement that insists on people's right to recognize all of their ethnicity, has helped racial passing pass into history.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The act of passing is a little understood part of our nation's troubled history with race. From the days of slavery to the civil rights movement and beyond, some lighter skinned African-Americans escaped the often brutal realities of racism by creating new lives as white people. Now, Stanford historian Allison Hobbs explores their stories in a new book titled "A Chosen Exile: A History Of Racial Passing In American Life." Karen Grigsby Bates, of NPR's code switch team, has this report.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Perhaps the most enduring image of passing came from the 1934 movie "Imitation Of Life." In it, a young light-skinned girl, Peola Johnson, yearns to escape the stigma of race, even if it means abandoning her family.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IMITATION OF LIFE")

FREDI WASHINGTON: (As Peola Johnson) I'm not black. I'm not black. I won't be black.

GRIGSBY BATES: When Peola grows up, she runs away from the Negro college she was attending to live life in a new city, as a white woman. She has a job that would've been closed to her if she'd acknowledged her colored blood. Her heartbroken mother dies soon after. Historian Allison Hobbs says too much of the story of passing is focused on what was gained - new jobs, new freedoms - rather than what was left behind.

ALLISON HOBBS: I started to realize that writing this history of passing is really writing a history of loss.

GRIGSBY BATES: So Hobbs devoted 10 years of research to this part of the story. We're in Hobbs' office at Stanford University, where the walls are hung with pictures of black Americans throughout history. She's flipping through a huge notebook stuffed with stories of fair-skinned black people who passed as white. But the true inspiration for Hobbs' book came from her own family's history. Several years ago, a favorite aunt told her about a distance, very fair cousin, whose mother forced her to leave her hometown in the 1930s and move to Los Angeles to live as a white woman.

HOBBS: Her mother really felt that this was the very best thing that she could do for her daughter. She felt that this was a way of offering her daughter opportunities and a new life that she wouldn't be able to have if she lived as a black woman on the south side of Chicago.

GRIGSBY BATES: So the cousin moved to California, passed, married a white man and raised children who knew nothing of their black heritage. About a decade later, her phone rang. The woman's father was dying and her mother wanted her to return home to see him one last time.

HOBBS: Our cousin says I can't come home. I can't go back. I'm a white woman now. And there's just no turning back.

GRIGSBY BATES: The cousin missed her father's funeral and never saw her mother, or her siblings, again. Hobbs was haunted by this story of gaining whiteness while losing family.

HOBBS: And it made me think about all of the families that likely have a story like this.

GRIGSBY BATES: Her research found many - people like Elsie Roxborough from a distinguished black Detroit family, who left to live as white in New York - something noted in the local black press - and Harry S. Murphy who had attended the University of Mississippi in 1945 for an entire year as a cadet in a military program because a commanding officer assumed Murphy was white.

HOBBS: In 1962, when James Meredith was integrating Ole Miss, Harry S. Murphy said that Ole Miss was fighting a battle that they had no idea that they had lost years ago.

GRIGSBY BATES: There were people who passed for work and returned to their black lives in their private hours, their employers none the wiser. And others who left everyone and everything they knew forever. But some African-Americans who passed reversed themselves later, like the Johnstons, a prosperous family in New Hampshire that, after 10 years of living as white, grew tired of the lie and publicly declared themselves Negro in 1949. Hobbs says the Johnstons became a national story.

HOBBS: This is after World War II. And this is a moment when there's a sense that perhaps integration is on the horizon. So a lot of the newspapers that covered this story were looking at the Johnstons as being kind of emblems of the integrationist era.

GRIGSBY BATES: True integration wouldn't occur for decades. The civil rights movement removed de jure segregation that was often the catalyst for many people's decision to pass. Later, black pride would make the practice de classe. And the continuing evolution of multiculturalism in America would seem to make passing irrelevant.

HOBBS: I'm sure it still exists because, certainly, there are still benefits that accrued to being white. But I think that it's important to kind of locate the practice of passing within the particular political and economic and social conditions of the time period.

GRIGSBY BATES: Hobbs' hopes her book helps people understand that most black people who passed during this painful period didn't want to be white. They just wanted to be free. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.