Passing for white: ancestors who jumped the colour line

It’s that time in the university academic calendar where my schedule has been hijacked by a mountain of postgraduate and undergraduate marking and assessments. So my posts will be a bit sparse over the coming weeks.

However, in the meantime, I do have one intriguing find to share.

“Passing for white”. Now there’s a phrase that tends to hang suspended in space if ever there was one. The fact is, there are African-Americans who did so for a variety of reasons – and continue to do so today. There were more than a few instances of ‘passing’ on my maternal side of the family.

I grew up hearing the tale of how, in the depths of the 1930s depression, my maternal Turner grandfather ‘passed’ in order to get work and provide for his family. As any child, I took this as a simple family anecdote, one amongst a number of tales told during family gatherings during the holidays. It was only as an adult that I understood the significance of that act and what the potential repercussions could have been had my grandfather been rumbled.  I began to wonder if my grandfather had ever been tempted to make those forays into a white identity permanent…and asked myself what I would have done.

In researching the African-American Turners of Charles County, Maryland, some interesting facts have come to light. Death records between 1850 and 1870 cite a number of Charles County, MD Turners as having ‘very light’ or ‘white’ complexions. However, these records are for the Turners I traced who declared themselves as mulattoes during their lifetime. There were a number of their kin who moved from Charles County, MD and passed for white, their descendants entering into the white race. With respect to their descendants, who most likely have no idea they are descended from African-Americans, I won’t be posting specific family individuals I’ve found from the Turner clan who left their black roots behind.

There are other Turner lines I suspect followed in their footsteps and also ‘passed’. However, due to the popular nature of their names, it’s difficult to know if I’m looking at records for the same individual or different people born roughly in the same year bearing the same name as one another. What is interesting, for me, is the fact that my Turner antecedents had a complexion cited as ‘white’ who were born as early as 1825. That would suggest mixed race relationships had occurred for generations beforehand. This has presented an interesting genealogy hurdle to be overcome. Finding the names of fathers for many of the Charles County, MD Turners born before 1850 has been next to impossible. The reason for this is more than likely because the fathers of these mulattoes with such light complexions were white.

On my maternal grandmother’s side of the family, the Harlings, the same pattern emerges. A small number of Harlings caused all manner of confusion for doctors issuing death certificates. I’ve found three death certificates which first stated the deceased was ‘white’, which was crossed out and substituted with ‘black’. One individual went from ‘white’ to ‘black’ back to ‘white’ and then ‘black’ on the same death certificate. Like the Turners, many of my direct Harling antecedents had a complexion noted as ‘very light’ or ‘white’ as far back as the 1830s. Again, suggesting relations had existed between Harling slave women and white men for a number of generations. Unlike the my Turner ancestors, a number of the children born of these unions were openly acknowledged by their fathers (but more on this in a future post).

Like the Turners, a small number of Edgefield County-born Harlings jumped the colour line after the end of slavery and passed for white. However, unlike Charles County, MD Turners, documenting this amongst the Harlings has been fairly easy and straightforward. The Harlings seemed to prefer using distinctive names which has made tracing this family’s descendants far easier than tracing the Turners.

Again, staying with my maternal ancestors, my Josey great-grandmother’s extended family had a number of family members who permanently passed for white at the end of the Civil War. Like the Turners and Harlings, my Josey ancestors in Rich Square, North Carolina , could also pass for white from the 1820s onwards.

I’ve deliberated over publishing this post for quite a few months. “Passing” still remains a prickly subject. However, it did happen and shouldn’t be ignored. I decided to publish it, in the end, as it presents another set of genealogical challenges for Americans with roots in the ante-bellum Southern states. And I use the word ‘American’, without any ethnic qualifier, deliberately. An African-American tracing his or her family might come across individuals who seem to drop off the radar in terms of the official records. If that person comes from a long line of mulattoes, one reason you might have to consider is that person ‘passed’. So instead of seeking someone who is black in the official records, take a punt and look for someone with the same, or similar, name born around the same year. Of course it helps if they have a somewhat distinctive name. Or, if you’re white, and the trail runs cold for a specific ancestor, it just might be because the individual you’re researching was a mulatto who decided to ‘pass’. This won’t always be the case – but it is a possibility, no matter how remote.

22 thoughts on “Passing for white: ancestors who jumped the colour line

  1. I have run across “passing” in my research more than once, and I never know how to broach the subject. Some people have been excited and intrigued, while one was disappointed because she had been told that she was Native American, not African-American, in heritage. There are also angry deniers. It’s a sensitive topic. I think you have done a nice job.

    1. HI Kate

      Thank you for your comment. As I mentioned, I really struggled over whether I should publish this post. So you’re kind feedback on how I handled it was nice to receive. Just to show how contentious an issue this still is, I have Haitian and Jamaican friends here in England who follow this blog. My journey has inspired them to research their own families. This blog post caused some heated discussions with each of them calling my ancestors who passed for white ‘race traitors’. Naturally, it was something that I took umbrage over. I’m a great believer of ‘until you walk in other person’s shoes, you shouldn’t judge’. And this was reaction I receive from British peole of colour. 🙂

  2. I came across your blog when looking for “Register of Colored Persons Cohabiting Together…” — was especially interested in your posts about mixed race families – specifically about passing. My family is tri-racial – African American, Native American and Irish. Lots I can say about this subject but will confine comments to the research aspect of the subject.

    When researching records one can’t overlook the fact that mixed-race black folks weren’t the only ones who “passed.” My grandfather, Charles Meehan, was Irish (parents from Co. Tipperary and Co. Fermanagh) but was raised in Canada. He and Grandmother (black) married in Canada in 1875. In all Canadian censuses and in the 1885 Nebraska State census he is listed as “white.” But interracial marriage was illegal in Nebraska (until 1967!) and “punishment” for such a “crime” wasn’t light – in 1910 and 1930 he’s listed in the census as white, but in 1900 he’s black and then mulatto in 1920. Did he “pass for Black” or did the census taker just assume that because his wife was black then he was (Charles’ parents are listed as Irish in all years) – hard to tell. Racial designations in census documents can help narrow our research but can also cause us to discard valuable records about OUR families. The problem of tracing NA families in census documents (not Five Civilized Tribes) can be worse – let’s just say “free colored persons” covers a lot of territory.

    This sensitive subject still has such power! I’m glad you posted this and think you handled it well. We can’t solve the world’s various prejudices but this certainly highlights a research problem many family genealogists/historians face. Thank you!

    1. Hi Catherine

      Thank you for your comment – and for sharing a bit about your family history. i have to put my hand on my heart and say the idea of passing the other way (white to black) has never occurred to me. But it does answer a question I’ve been wrestling with. I’ve been researching a tangent family group on the Roane side of the family. in 1870, the head of household’s wife is cited as being white while he’s cited as mulatto and his children cited as mulatto. In 1880, they are all mulatto. In 1910, she’s once again cited as being white with everyone else in the household cited as mulatto.. And then, in 1930, they’re all back to being mulatto. I just assumed that she might have had a very light complexion that caused some confusion. it never occurred to me that she could, in all actuality, have been white. I know the penalties for mixed marriages were quite harsh.

      So your story now has me thinking and re-appraising things. It’s certainly something specific to look into when I visit my family in the States this year and do some family sleuthing in Virginia.

  3. I recently learned that a some of my 3rd Great Grandfathers siblings were mulatto and passed for white after emancipation. Thing is, I can only identify one of the mulatto siblings by name . The others are unknown as of now. The one sister that I can identify was listed in the 1870 Census as a single mulatto woman with three children who were mulatto as well. That is the last census they appeared in. My guess is that they moved away from Tazewell, VA and changed their names.

  4. Thank you for your comment, Terry. I’ve long suspected that Virginia, in particular, was fairly hostile to very light skinned people of colour. This requires more research on my part. However, it does look like if you could pass for white in Virginia you were deemed a threat. Surprising (to me, anyway) states like Louisianna and South Carolina seemed far more relaxed about such things. I’d love to know why different former slave states would have different tolerance levels for light skinned people of colour. You would think all of these states would have the same social policy..

    1. I must honestly agree with you when you say that South Carolina was a fairly liberal state, when it came to light individuals. Being a descendant of varies mulatto/near white lineages, and being a South Carolina native, this has been a huge observance in my research. I have never been conclusive as to why, however. It’s always intrigues me. Perhaps the inhabitants in South Carolina and Louisiana were impacted more, by the Spanish and French ideology, being that they are both “Port” states, closer to Spanish and French territory (Lousiana actually being a French territory at one point), than Virginia was. These actions within the past must be recognized, though, for it is a simple of who we are as people. I feel as though this subject may be sensitive, because so many want to refuse the fact, they are quite “White”. My grandmother, for instance, was of mixed race. On one occasion, their white grandmother came and took them to an aunt’s house. Upon their arrival, their grandmother was welcomed in, however they told her to leave my grandmother and her siblings “the darkies”(thats what they called them, even though they are all relatively your complexition), on the porch. It caused my grandmother and her family to limit the connectivity to their white lineage. This entire occurence in history is just fascinating. Thanks for writing about it.

  5. Hi thanks for your well written article. I think we need to remind ourselves that most of our ancestors who did this did not look like us. They were not light skinned they were white they looked white. They looked like Cindy Crawford , Ava Gardner and Johny Depp. We walk around so called “whites”everday here in North Carolina who swear they are white but they have African hair, wide noses and large behinds. Their skin however is dusky , high highyellow or white. Let’s deal with the reality of the members of our race who live in the shadows.

    1. Hi Nora. Thank you for your comment. That’s what’s so intriguing about my maternal grandfather. For all intent and purposes he was white. Anyone who didn’t know him who met him never thought twice about that. He, his mother and his sisters had every opportunity to live as whites. They didn’t. Even my mum, his daughter, had to explain her ethnicity to people. They may not have chatted about family history much in the presence of younger generations but they were a quietly proud people who knew who and what they were. They just got on with the business of living and raising families.

  6. Dear author, this word “passing” may be a bit harsh. it sounds like someone is cheating by presenting someone he is not. If some one has very light skin, almost pinkish, light straight hair, with greyish or greenish eyes grew up in a commnuity of “white” folks who later went to another place and people treat hom as white he was not passing, he was “white”. maybe the word assimilated or became “white” would describe such individuals in our modern context. “Passing” should never be used to described their descendants. Another thing ‘why” should one use attitudes that came with the oppressive “JIM CROW” culture to define who is black or not or who is passing or not. One should bury Jim Crow forever.

    1. Hi Sonny

      I absolutely agree with your sentiment. It really shouldn’t matter in the age we live in. Sadly, it still does. The ‘one drop rule’ is subtly acknowledged, especially in the US.

      I debated at length over posting this post. In the end it historical perspective won out. I stuck with the term “passing”, as pejorative as it is, because this was how this was referred to. As an act, a person who did ‘pass’ could face some fairly awful consequences if s/he was discovered. Basically, you stood to loose everything.

      We are our past – both personal family histories and wider social contexts. We stand on the shoulders of all that has gone before, both positive and negative events. The only way we’ll progress as a species is by openly and honestly recognizing and acknowledging where society fell short of human ideals in the past, discussing it and ensuring such events and practices are never repeated.

      As a species we should be able to look past race and culture – celebrating these aspects of who we are as a species instead of using them to divide.

  7. There’s a lot more “passing” going around than people might suspect, especially in the U.S. My parents and I recently did genetic testing through 23andme, and discovered that my mom, who is blonde and blue eyed, is also 1.5% black. As recently as five generations ago, someone in her family made the decision to pass as white, and that has been our assumption ever since. There have always been a few places where the trail ran cold for her family history as you said in your post. Now that genetic testing is relatively cheap and widely available, a lot of people are going to have to let go of their assumptions about their own race, which will hopefully help them let go of their assumptions about everyone else’s.

  8. This is great! As for the term “passing,” I believe it’s used now, and ok to use, in my view, because it explains a very specific view of a very specific segment of American thinking circa slavery – now. I don’t pass for white, but I pass for a lot of other cultures. Many people look at me and don’t know what my background is. My children pass for white, as do my brother’s. Meaning? They all look white. One of my nephews passes for Asian. He’s biracial: Asian and black. Not many will look at him and think , “Oh, I think he’s black.” My other nephew and niece look Asian and won’t pass for white, but also are biracial: Asian and white. All the white members of my family with Native American in them pass for white. All of the black members of my family with Native American in them look black. I’m a blender, and I like it that way.

    1. Thank you for the comment.

      I’d go one further and say that race doesn’t matter one whit. Unfortunately, that isn’t the world we live in.

      America was – and still is – a very racially discriminatory country. Whether it’s spoken about or not, the “one drop rule”is still largely adhered to.

      Putting that to one side, I’d suggest considering what I’ve written in a wider context. That was the world that existed. We can’t put a modern context over it . It would be like going back to Europe in the Middle Ages and trying to explain to them that the word was round and not flat. Or that the earth revolves around the sun – and not the other way around.

    2. I Don’t Agree With That. I Am Black, My Daughter’s Father Was White And She Has His Skin Tone And Red Hair. But She Is Also Part Of Me. A Not Remotely White African American. She Is Not All Him.

      1. What is it you don’t agree with?

        Not forgetting we can’t superimpose our modern beliefs to a bygone age. You have to see the context from the prism of that much older viewpoint.

      2. I Did Not Agree With Anybody That Looks White Is White. It May Be A Modern Thinking But It Seems Like It Completely Cuts The Other Parents Genes Out Of The Picture.

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