Mary Church Terrell

How, When, Why, and Where Black Becomes White - Undated

Mary Church Terrell
December 31, 1969
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Written by Mary Church Terrell 1615 S St., N.W. Washington, D.C.

How, When, Why and Where Black Becomes White.

“It’s just as easy as falling off a log.” This is what our friend tells us, when he wishes to show that very little effort is required to bring a certain thing to pass. But falling off a log is really a difficult feat, compared with the ease with which colored people in this country are sometimes transformed into white.

At first blush it would seem that a camel with a hump could literally pass through a cambric needle’s eye easier than an individual, tainted with even a drop of the fatal African tincture could palm himself off as a bona fide white man or women in the United States. And yet, colored people are doing this very thing in droves every year. It requires neither voluminous knowledge nor great profundity to comprehend why some colored people are tempted to pursue such a questionable course.

Let us take a colored man, for example, who is fairly well educated and is ambitious to make his way in the world. There are comparatively few trades open to colored people. These are generally overcrowded, which means poor pay. The officials of some labor organizations have never lain awake nights devising ways and means of adding negro workmen to their ranks, even when jobs were much more plentiful than they are to day. Our colored friend determines to be honorable. Several times he has been virtually employed, but he has stated frankly that he is colored. Then his services were quietedly but quickly dispensed with. For a long time he knocks first at one door and then at another, which he finds can be opened only by a white man’s hand. He becomes discouraged. “What a curse it is to be a Negro in this country,” he mutters. Suddenly he looks into his little mirror. He has done that before, perhaps. He has always been identified with the struggling race, but he has a fair skin and straight hair. Something asserts itself. There are those who say that it is his white blood. “What’s the use of trying to row against the tide,” he says. “Nobody but a superman can accomplish the impossible, and I am not a superman.” There is a bitterness in his tone, as he soliloquizes, and discouragement is written on his face. He quickly reaches a decision. He has thought of it before. He has always put it behind him, however, as a last resort, too contemptible and cowardly to be considered seriously. But he is out of work now and he has been in that condition for a long time. Inability to get a good position has become chronic.

The long lingering look in the mirror occurred, let us say, Tuesday evening at eight o’clock. On Wednesday morning at precisely the same hour he is a white man. Made so by virtue of last night’s decision and nature’s gift.

“Impossible”, says one. “That is only a dream or a fairy tale.” But what is done almost every day is not impossible. “Where does he go?” asks another? If the man happens to have a family in the city, and the city is large, he stays right there in many instances. How does he do it? Among other things he ceases to frequent his old resorts. He changes his lodging house, and betakes himself to the portion of the city diametrically opposite to the one in which he formerly lived. His old friends see him no more; that is, they dont if he can help it. When he sees them approaching he makes it convenient to cross to the other side of the street. He isolates himself completely.

He scrapes up acquaintance with some white people, who do not suspect that he has the fatal drop. Finally, he gets a job which pays him well, and which it would be impossible for him either to have or to hold if his employer knew the truth.

Nonsense, you say. If an employer secures the services of a competent man he is not going to stand in his own light by casting him adrift, simply because he is slightly connected with the Negro race. But the facts are against such a supposition. If the employer discovers by hook or crook, that he has employed a colored man by mistake, in 99 cases out of 100 he will discharge him immediately. There are undoubtedly exceptions to this rule, though I, myself, have never heard of one.

I am personally acquainted with three colored women, two of them young and one middle-aged, who are competent and beautiful, and who were discharged from excellent positions simply because the employer discovered that they were “Non-Aryans.”

It must be said to the credit of the women just mentioned that they did not secure their positions under false pretences. They might have deserved their fate if they had. No one of the them labelled herself “colored”, to be sure, when she went to seek the place. Self preservation is still the first law of nature. Each went on her own merits and secured a fine position for the same reason that a white girl would have obtained one, and adopted the same methods that a white girl would use under similar circumstances. Each one was eminently successful in her special work, according to the testimony of the employer.

Curiously enough, two secured positions in department stores in the city in which they were living at the time. In the mean time each one lived with her family, and associated with her colored friends, though the latter did not make themselves especially conspicuous at the respective stores. The middle-aged woman was at the head of the cloak department in a large store in New York city. She held this responsible position for a long time before the awful secret leaked out. When it percolated to her employer, however, she was promptly discharged. The woman is as beautiful as a picture and looks like a Madonna.

One of the young women went first to New York to win her spurs. Armed with a most complimentary recommendation from the large store which employed her in New York, she came to her home in Washington to seek a position here. The proprietor of the Washington establishment was only too glad to secure the services of so competent a young women, and she, too, was placed in the cloak department. She was suddenly discharged one day.

At her request I went to intercede with the proprietor in her behalf, who happened, by the way, to be a Hebrew. It seemed unreasonable and cruel that a Hebrew should discharge any one simply on account of race. He was perfectly honest and frank about the matter. He admitted without hesitation that she was one of the best saleswomen in the store. He regretted deeply that he had been obliged to discharge her.

“But, are you not master in your own store?” I ventured to suggest. “There was no other course to pursue,” he insisted. “For a long time,” said her, “the salesgirls complained, because I had placed a colored girl in the store. I denied that she was colored. They brought me indisputable proofs of the fact. ‘Well, if you dont care to work in the store with Miss Jones,’ said I, ‘you may leave’. After that they told my customers about it. Delegation after delegation of white women came down to protest against my employing a colored saleswoman in the store. They threatened to boycott me, and made things so hot for me that I was forced to dismiss Miss Jones in self defence. Now if my business were in New York, I should keep her anyhow.”

But I thought of the fate of the colored forewoman who had been discharged in the New York department store.

The last of the three cases which came under my observation was similar to the first two. A young colored woman in Washington, who did not show a trace of her African ancestry, was made forewoman in a fashionable tailor establishment for ladies. Her employed discharged her also when he learned that the fatal drop was coursing through her veins somewhere.

It is conceivable that no one of these colored women would have received their “walking papers” if the employed had been unable to fill their places. It is difficult to find a trade, however, in which the workmen are so few that a place can not be filled. These cases will show why some colored people are tempted to be white.

Even though there is absolutely certainty that the chances of success are greater for a colored person who foreswears his race than for the same individual if he remains loyal to it, the vast majority do not yield to the temptation of passing for white. No better proof of this fact could be cited than the case of the young woman with whom I am personally acquainted. She is the daughter of one of the most courageous and prominent colored men whom this country has produced. Though she is not very fair, she could easily pass for white, if she chose to do so. She has a exquisite complexion modelled after the Spanish or French. Her hair and eyes are as black as midnight. She has a superb musical education.

She married a young physician who can also pass for white. They went to an eastern city, where the doctor has a large and growing practice. He suddenly decided that he would shake off the body of the dusky death, so to speak, and cast his lot with the dominant race. When he revealed his plans to his wife, she told him that she would rather live on a small income, if necessary, than have a large one if she were obliged to forsake her family and friends.

The husband could not be shaken from his purpose, and his wife could not be persuaded to turn her back on her family, so they separated. She went South and he remained in the eastern city. When I used to see this accomplished young woman, as I often did, and her little daughter who was as fair as a snowdrop and as pretty as a peach, I could not help wondering how the husband and father could have summoned the strength and courage to bid them good bye.

It is very amusing to see some of the sons and daughters of Ham, after the metamorphosis has become un fait accompli. To some of us who have grown up with them, it is disgusting perhaps, even though we know why they have felt obliged to turn such a racial somersault. “Do you see that man over there?” said one of my friends with whom I happened to be on a street car one day. “Well, that lady sitting beside him is his wife. She is white, but he is colored.”

“Are you sure he is colored?” said I, doubting Thomas like.

“I ought to be,” he answered, “he and I played together as children. We once occupied the same room in the Grand Union Hotel in New York. All of a sudden he decided to be white. He cut himself loose from all his colored friends, acquired white ones and now he is completely over on the other side.” Just then the eyes of the two men met, and they bowed pleasantly to each other.

“That man is an exception,” said my friend. “When the average colored person passes for white, he cuts all his former colored friends dead, for fear of arousing the suspicion of the white ones, I presume.”

The man who related the incident told me that at least 100 of his own relatives from South Carolina had moved East, North and West and “gone over on the other side,” as he expressed it.

There is both a humorous and a pathetic side of this metamorphosis of black into white. Several years ago a colored grandmother went to a large city in the Southwest to visit her son who had married a white woman. The grandmother was very fair even in her old age. One day one of her grandsons, who were being prepared for college, came to her in great distress of mind.

“See here, grandma,” said he, “what do you think?” Jack wont consent to go to Harvard. I wouldn’t give a rap to go anywhere else.”

“Where does Jack want to go?” asked the grandmother.

“Jack wants to go to the University of Virginia. He says he wants to go where colored people cant come.”

The feeling of the grandmother who kept a colored boarding house at that time can better be imagined than described.

A colored man who had achieved considerable success dealing in real estate in an eastern city, and who found it more convenient and lucrative to pass over the dead line, was once confronted with the accusation that a dark drop of blood lurked somewhere in his anatomy. He was very indignant, of course. His very life depended upon proving the charge was false. He quickly took the train for New York. When he returned, he bore with him a paper signed by a clergyman, who certified that the colored woman who reared him was his nurse, and not his mother, as had generally been supposed. Unfortunately, however, there happened to live in the same city a woman who had been present at the birth of the prosperous colored real estate dealer. She did not molest him and he went on his metamorphosed way rejoicing. Such instances might be multiplied almost indefinitely.

On account of the “Jim Crow” car laws, the impossibility of securing accommodations at the hotels, and because of other hardships, many fair colored people leave the South every year and move North, where they lose their identity completely. Years ago during slavery, white masters who loved their colored children too dearly to shackle their limbs and dwarf their minds, introduced this fashion of making black white by sending them North or to Europe to be educated as white. Colored people do not deserve the credit for originating this scheme. They learn lessons quickly, however, and are famous for applying them.

It might not create great surprise to learn that it is possible for colored people “who do not look their part” to palm themselves off as white on a northern community. It would astound some, however, to hear that the feat is sometimes performed in the South, where the whites are supposed to have a patent on detecting “the men and brother,” no matter how he may rival the lily in fairness. I heard a very amusing story not long ago, which shows the ease with which the transformation is wrought even in the South.

An exposition was in progress in a certain city below Mason and Dixon’s line. A man, who is colored, but who is fair enough to be mistaken for something else, went to see his sister. She was very enthusiastic about an East Indian with an unpronounceable name, who had astounded the natives by his wonderful feats. The most exclusive lady in that most exclusive white social circle had invited him to her home, where he transported the guests with wonder and joy by his adroitness and marvelous skill.

“Herbert,” said the man’s sister to whom I have just referred, “I want you to meet this clever East Indian so much. Come with me and let me introduce you to him. He is at leisure just about this time.”

They wended their way to his office. “Mr. So-and-So,” said the man’s sister, “let me present my brother, Herbert Rutledge, to you.”

The eyes of the two men met in instant recognition. “Hello, Bert,” said the great East Indian, reaching out his hand, “why we haven’t seen each other for years.”

This case is all the more remarkable, because the East Indian had been born and brought up as colored in that very southern city, and his relatives were still living there. He visited them almost every night after dark, but he grew so bold about it that his friends warned him to exercise more caution and discretion.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable cases in the history of American jurisprudence was caused by this vexed race problem. A well-to-do young white man of French extraction fell desperately in love with a beautiful young colored girl in Tennessee. In spite of the threats and entreaties of his family and friends he married her. He was obliged to take her out of his own State to Arkansaw, where there was no penalty attached to the intermarriage of the races. When the young couple returned home a probable sentence to the penetentiary of seven years stared both in the face.

Without going into full details of this case, it was proved in a court of law that the young colored woman was white. She had been reared all her life by a mulatto aunt with very curly hair. She had attended a college exclusively for colored youth. But, as I have already said, the courts decided that she was white, and white she was for many years in the same city in which she was reared as a colored girl and where she could not possibly walk down town without meeting some of the colored friends with whom she had associated in her youth. She herself attended the public schools for colored children, but her children, who were rather swarthy, want to the white schools.

The “Jim Crow” law as applied to the street cars of New Orleans had been in operation just 15 days when the city criminal court decided it was unconstitutional in that it “compelled conductors to determine which passengers were white and which colored, and this is not in their province or power.”

This very difficulty of distinguishing between white and colored people has caused several railroad companies to part with considerable cash. In one southern state, a few years ago, a wealthy white woman with a rich olive complexion was forced to take a seat in the “Jim Crow” car because the conductor told her he knew she was colored and he was hard to fool. Her husband sued the railroad company for $50,000, but compromised on $20,000.

In Kentucky, a white man was forcibly ejected from a coach set aside for people of his own race and placed in a “Jim Crow” car. The railroad company paid him $10,000 for making such a terrible blunder.

That the courts consider it a disgrace and a misfortune to be colored is shown by the large amounts cheerfully awarded in order to heal the wounded feelings of white people who have been mistaken for colored. A colored man, who is much fairer than the average Caucasian, was once forced out of a “Jim Crow” car, where he was conversing people, in which the conductor insisted he belonged. When he sued the railroad company for this insult one cent was considered sufficient to heal the wounded feelings of a colored man who had been falsely accused of being white.

I have often tried to imagine what must be the feeling of the colored grub during the chrysalis stage, before it develops into a butterfly, which the world shall henceforth call white. If he has a family or dear friends, how long does it take to make up his mind to forsake them the rest of his natural life? The inducements to do so much weigh powerfully with him indeed! The mental process through which such a decision is reached would be interesting to a psychologist, I am sure.

I shall not attempt to discuss how the character of the colored man or woman who pursues such a course is affected. An incident related by one of my friends may throw some light on the subject. Her grandfather, who was a white man, was forced against his will into the confederate army. All of his children were colored, though they showed no trace of belonging to their mother’s race. She was very fair herself.

When he entered the army, this white father took his eldest son with him. The father was killed. After the war the son continued to play the role of the white man which he had assumed when he entered the army with his father. He married into one of the most aristocratic families of a certain southern state. In spite of 40 years of exile from his colored mother’s family, the desire to see his only living brother and his sister’s family, the desire to see his only living brother and his sister’s children became so great that he journeyed East to gratify it.

“The door bell rang one day,” said my friend, “and the maid told me that an old gentleman who refused to give his name wanted to see me on important business. The moment I laid eyes on the stranger,” said she, “I noticed a striking resemblance to my Uncle Spencer, who lived here for years, you know.

“Is this Sarah’s child?” asked the stranger, rising and holding out his hand to me/ ‘Yes’, said I. ‘Well, I am your Uncle John. Surely your mother has told you about me.’

After we reviewed the history of the various members of the family,” said my friend, “he wanted to see my children. ‘Whatever you do, dont tell them who I am,’ said he. He refused flatly to see my husband, for fear he might betray him in some way. ‘My husband is a gentleman,” said I, ‘and he would not harm you if he could.” When he had seen my boy Julius, he lamented deeply that such a fine looking lad should be brought up as colored under the existing conditions of things in this country. ‘All my children do not look like Julius,’ said I. ‘Three of them are darker than he is. Surely you would not advise me to rear half of my children as colored and the other half white.’

“As I looked at this old man,” said she, “I could not help noticing the difference between my handsome, courageous, manly Uncle Spencer, who is just as fair as Uncle John, but who has never deserted his family, and this newly-found uncle who has lived a falsehood nearly all his life. His manner was nervous. He seemed uncertain of himself. About his eyes there was a hunted, haunted, fearsome look, which is said to be characteristic of men who have served a term in the penetentiary. As I noted these points of difference, if I had ever been tempted to rear any of my children as white, I should have been delivered from that temptation immediately.

The more one investigates the matter the more certain does one become that many whom the world accepts as white are in reality colored, according to established standards in this country. A colored man whose career we all admire likes to say : “The blood of the Negro is so powerful that if a man has only one drop of it and 99 drops of pure Anglo-Saxon, he is called a Negro just the same.”

“If I were white,” said a young woman of my acquaintance, “and despised colored people as the average white American seems to despise them, I should be perfectly miserable, I know. I should constantly tormented by fear that some day I might discover a trace of Negro blood in my veins. I have always sympathized deeply with that young woman who committed suicide in a southern hotel because in settling her estate, the lawyer made the startling discovery that her grandmother had been a slave.”

A colored man who has traveled extensively, and who has made a special study of the subject, related some incidents in my hearing not long ago which border on the sensational. According to him, and he offered proofs to verify his assertions, colored men who are supposed to be white have occupied and are to day occupying some of the highest offices and most desirable positions in the gift of the nation and the states.

I myself could give the names of at least 40 families whom I have known as colored, with some of whom I have been intimately associated, who have crossed the Rubicon of prejudice and are now their way rejoicing “on the other side.”

Mary Church Terrell.