The Color Line Created African-American Ethnicity in the North

Essays on the Color Line and the One-Drop Rule
by Frank W Sweet
August 1, 2005


hen Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey extricated himself from slavery, he hoped to become a member of mainstream society, as had other former slaves before him.1 He changed his surname to “Douglass,” after a hero in Sir Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake. He reasoned that, “the basic characteristic of Scott’s Douglas is his unflinching fortitude in adversities brought about by the wrongful loss of his patrimony.”2

Strictly speaking, Douglass’s “patrimony” was the legacy of his slave overseer father, Aaron Anthony. Rejection by his father’s society is what Douglass meant by “wrongful loss.” His criticism of his father in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) was not directed at the man’s “race” nor at his “racism.” Instead, Douglass’s indictment of his father was about Anthony’s repudiating his own children by hiding behind a wicked law that, in contrast with the French and Spanish laws once enforced in the lower South, allowed him to disown his slave offspring.3

Douglass considered himself to be neither White nor Black, but both. His multiracial self-identity showed in his first autobiography. Introducing his father in Narrative, Douglass wrote, “My father was a white man.” In this text, his mother was a stranger whom he had never seen in daylight, he could not picture her face, and he was unmoved by news of her death.4 Not only did Douglass adopt a fictional Scottish hero’s name, he emphasized his (perhaps imagined) Scots descent through his father. When visiting Great Britain in 1845-47, Douglass extended his stay in Scotland. He immersed himself in Scottish music and ballads, which he played on the violin for the rest of his life. Having plunged into a Scottish ethnic identity, Douglass wrote to his (then) friend, William Lloyd Garrison, “If I should meet you now, amid the free hills of old Scotland, where the ancient ‘black Douglass’ [sic] once met his foes… you would see a great change in me!”5 Upon arriving in Nantucket, Douglass hoped to represent a blending of both endogamous groups, a man who was half-White and half-Black:

Young, ardent, and hopeful, I entered upon this new life in the full gush of unsuspecting enthusiasm. The cause was good, the men engaged in it were good, the means to attain its triumph, good…. For a time, I was made to forget that my skin was dark and my hair crisped.6

But acceptance by White society was out of reach for Douglass. He discovered that, in the North, there was no such thing as a man who was half-Black. White ships’ caulkers in New Bedford denied him a chance to work at his craft because in their eyes he was all Black.7 When he joined the Garrisonians on a boat to an abolitionist convention in Nantucket, and a squabble broke out because the White abolitionists demanded that the Black abolitionists take lesser accommodations, Douglass found himself classified as Black by his friends. Later in Nantucket, Douglass so impressed the Garrisonians with his public speaking that abolitionist Edmund Quincy exchanged reports with others that Douglass was an articulate public speaker, “for a nigger.”8 Repeatedly, Douglass tried to present himself as an intermediary between America’s two endogamous groups. But the Garrisonians made it clear that he was expected to present himself as nothing more than an intelligent “Negro.” He was told to talk only about the evils of slavery and ordered to stop talking about the endogamous color line. “Give us the facts [about being a slave]. We will take care of the [racial] philosophy.” They also ordered him to “leave a little plantation speech” in his accent.9 In their own words, they wanted to display a smart “nigger,” but not too smart.

Douglass’s cruelest discovery came after he broke with the Garrisonians and went out on his own. Abolitionist friends of both endogamous groups had warned him that there was nothing personal in how Garrison had used him. The public did not want an intermediary; they wanted an articulate Black. Douglass soon discovered that his friends were right. His newspaper, The North Star, failed to sell because it had no market; White Yankees wanted to read White publications and Black Yankees wanted to read Black ones. Indeed, Black political leaders resented Douglass’s distancing himself from Black ethno-political society. There was no room in Massachusetts for a man who straddled the color line.

Douglass dutifully reinvented himself. He applied himself to learning Black Yankee culture. “He began to build a closer relationship with… Negro leaders and with the Negro people themselves, to examine the whole range of Negro problems, and to pry into every facet of discrimination.”10 Eight months later, The North Star’s circulation was soaring and Black leader James McCune Smith wrote to Black activist Gerrit Smith:

You will be surprised to hear me say that only since his Editorial career has he seen to become a colored man! I have read his paper very carefully and find phrase after phrase develop itself as in one newly born among us.11

From that day on, Douglass never looked back. The public wanted him to be hyper-Black and so hyper-Black he became. His later autobiographies reveal the change.12 Narrative (1845) says that his “father was a white man,” My Bondage and My Freedom (1854) says that his father “was shrouded in mystery” and “nearly white,” and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1882-1892) says flatly, “of my father I know nothing.”13 Narrative says that his mother was a stranger whose death did not affect him, and Bondage and Freedom reports that he was “deeply attached to her,” Life and Times says that “her image is ineffably stamped upon my memory,” and describes her death with “great poignancy and sorrow.”14

And yet, although he donned a public persona of extreme Blackness, he continued to see himself as half White Scottish in his private life. When he eventually married Helen Pitts, a woman of the White endogamous group, even close friends were bothered by the mismatch between the public and private Douglasses.15 In a speech in 1886 Jacksonville, Florida, Douglass justified his intermarriage on the grounds of his own multiracial self-identity. According to James Weldon Johnson:

Douglass spoke, and moved a large audience of white and colored people by his supreme eloquence. … Douglass was speaking in the far South, but he spoke without fear or reservation. One statement in particular that he made, I now wonder if any Negro speaker today, under the same circumstances, would dare to make, and, if he did, what the public reaction would be; Douglass, in reply to the current criticisms regarding his second marriage, said, “In my first marriage I paid my compliments to my mother’s race; in my second marriage I paid my compliments to the race of my father.”16

* * * * *

The clash between how Douglass saw himself in 1838 and the public persona that he was forced to portray, was due to the presence of African-American ethnicity in the North.17 Free citizens of part-African ancestry in the South, especially in the lower South, lacked the sense of common tradition associated with ethnic self-identity. This essay traces the emergence of African-American ethnicity and the subsequent evolution of the color line in five topics: Origins of African-American Ethnicity explains how the imposition of a unique endogamous color line eventually led to the synthesis of a unique ethno-cultural community in the Jacksonian Northeast. African-American Ethnic Traits outlines the customs of the Black Yankee ethnic group to show that they gave birth to many of today’s Black traditions. The Integration versus Separatism Pendulum introduces a debate that has occupied Black political leaders since colonial times. The Color Line in the North contrasts the harsh enforcement of the intermarriage barrier in the free states with the more permeable systems of the lower South (as presented in the preceding three essays). The National Color Line’s Rise and Fall concludes this section on the endogamous color line by presenting two graphs. The first shows that which side of the endogamous color line you were on was most hotly contested in U.S. courts between 1840 and 1869. The second shows that the color line grew abruptly stronger during Reconstruction, was at its harshest during Jim Crow, and began to recover only around 1980.

Origins of African-American Ethnicity

Early in the nineteenth-century, the American North saw the emergence of invented ethnic self-identities that became political power groups: Germans, Irish, Jews, Hispanics (from Louisiana and Florida), and, of course, Black Yankees. Each ethnicity was synthetic in the sense that, while adopting symbols (traditions, language, rituals) associated with some land of origin, it absorbed diversity under a single label. Residents of what would become western Germany (Bavaria or Hesse-Kassel), for example, did not think of themselves as kin to Prussians until after they became a U.S. ethnicity.18

An incident in early nineteenth-century Buffalo, New York, exemplifies immigrants’ initial perception of separate identity, before the formation of a shared sense of common ethnicity. Some fifty families of German Jews came to Buffalo. They soon felt compelled to build their own synagogue, to avoid attending services with prior American Jews who had already been accepted as Americans. Before long, they had to split again into two congregations because of doctrinal differences between those from western and eastern Germany. Finally, the eastern congregation split in half due to liturgical disagreements between Prussians and Poles.19 Similarly, residents of county Cavan in Ireland looked down on Corkers as profligates, and those from Cork or County Claire used the term “meanCavanBastard” as a single word (rather like “damnYankee” in the U.S. South).

Despite such initial divisions, immigrants quickly learned that power in America comes to those who command bloc votes. Each ethnic label became an umbrella designation covering all who joined. Voting was not the only manifestation of group power. Parades, public rituals, even riots and gang wars pitted group against group. Ultimately however, the aggressive, in-your-face umbrella ethnicities of the period arose as a consequence of democracy and surged with the widening Jacksonian franchise. Ethnic groups were voting blocs.20

One would think that Black Yankees would have been initially more diverse than Europeans because Africa is larger and more populous than Europe. The geographic triangle bounded by Cape Town, Casablanca, and Cairo is a vast kaleidoscope of thousands of cultures, religions, and mutually unintelligible languages. Nevertheless, Northerners of the Black endogamous group were not exempt from the need to define themselves as an ethnic group. Like other ethnicities, Black Yankees in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati also conducted parades, processions, and festivals to, “strengthen and solidify the boundaries of class and ethnicity that buttressed and circumscribed American politics of self-interest.”21

Amid much pomp and parade, with carriaged processions of Revolutionary War veterans, members of benevolent and literary societies, and the committee on arrangements, entire communities made a public show of their “industry, integrity, [and] temperance.” Women and children joined the parades, waving flags from the windows of omnibuses. Along waterways like the Hudson and Susquehanna rivers, chartered steamboats brought ‘large delegations from different localities’ to common points of celebration like Geneva, New York, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In a resonant declaration of Pan-African unity, African-American communities made clear [their solidarity].22

In Cincinnati, a three-way fight for jobs, among Black Yankees, Irish, and Germans, led to an attempt to exile Black Yankees from the state.23 The struggle among Irish, German, and Black laborers for lucrative work on Cincinnati’s docks led to demonstrations, then parades, then riots. Previously, Cincinnati’s Black caste had provided the bulk of construction laborers, porters, vendors, shoeblacks, messengers, and domestic workers—steady work in an expanding economy. The growing political power of Irish and German immigrants struggling to distinguish themselves as White men too, manifested itself in the enforcement of the repressive Ohio Black Codes, laws that had long been on the books but ignored.24 The city expelled Black Yankee children from public schools and forbade the construction of Black private schools.

By the summer of 1829, Black Cincinnatians were avoiding going out in public. They stopped going to hotels, restaurants, theaters, or riding public transportation. They found that they were no longer welcome to attend White church services.25 Former Virginian John Malvin organized a petition drive calling for a repeal of the Black codes. In angry reaction, the city council gave each Black Cincinnatian thirty days to leave the state or post $500 surety bond (roughly $25,000 apiece, in today’s money). Desperate, Malvin negotiated a sixty-day extension from the city in order for the refugees to find new homes in exile. The city’s White zealots—led by not-yet-fully-White immigrant German and Irish laborers—responded to the extension on August 19, 1829 with a riot that burned down all of Cincinnati’s Black residential areas.26

The expulsion order and subsequent arson riot shocked Americans everywhere. It was even reported overseas. Compassion for the victims sparked collection drives for money, food, and clothing even among Southern slave-owners, and brought about the first meeting of the National Convention movement. Zephaniah Kingsley, one of Florida’s wealthiest slaveowners, a man who, seven years earlier had been appointed by President Monroe to Florida’s Legislative Council wrote that, “[racial tolerance] may be considered as a standard measure by which the comparative state of civilization… may be fairly estimated.” He opined that Ohio had stepped outside the limits of civilized society, “in its acts of oppression against its free colored inhabitants, by which their existence seems so far to have been threatened….”27

Looked at rationally, immigrant Irish and German resentment of Cincinnati‘s Black workers made little sense. From the viewpoint of strict self-interest, the most severe competition that each unskilled Irish worker faced in selling his labor was not from already-employed Black workers, but from the dozens of identically unskilled Irish laborers who had just stepped off the same boat.28 Returning to the experience of Frederick Douglass, the former slave had no more success at portraying himself as biracial in such an environment than an agnostic resident of Belfast would have in adopting a dual Catholic/Protestant persona today. Membership in an ethnicity in many ways resembled membership in a gang.29

African-American Ethnic Traits

The newly formed Black Yankee ethnicity of the early 1800s differed from today’s African-American ethnicity. Modern African-American ethnic traits come from a post-bellum blending of three cultural streams: the Black Yankee ethnicity of 1830, the slave traditions of the antebellum South, and the free Creole or Mulatto elite traditions of the lower South. Each of the three sources provided elements of the religious, linguistic, and folkloric traditions found in today’s African-American ethnicity.30

Black Yankee ethnicity was also not the same thing as membership in America’s Black endogamous group. The difference between Black Yankee ethnicity and Black endogamous group membership is that ethnicity is to some extent voluntary whereas which side of the color line you are on is usually involuntary. Mainstream America assigns to the Black side of the endogamous color line people of many different ethnicities whose only common trait is a dark-brown skin tone. These include West Indians, some East Indians (sometimes), recent African immigrants, and (until recently) African-looking Muslims and Hispanics. Finally, the endogamous color line was imposed in 1691 but the earliest evidence of Black Yankee ethnicity dates from the mid 1700s.

Although less wealthy than the Louisiana Creoles, the Black Yankees had developed a strong supportive culture that could withstand the buffeting of social upheaval. They were usually ostracized from mainstream society due to the endogamous color line. According to contemporary accounts, they responded with grace and dignity, making a virtue of their separation. It was not uncommon to see lines of quiet, well-behaved children following their parents to Sunday service with the gravitas and pietas of Roman elders. Their preachers taught that they were put on earth to be tested.31 Their lot was to serve as example to the white folks of how civilized Christians behave.

Most Black Yankees distinguished themselves from slaves—indeed many families had no history of slavery but descended from indentured servants. Nevertheless, many were active contributors to and activists in the abolition movement. This is in strong contrast to the biracial elite of the Gulf coast and Latin America, who owned slaves and defended slavery as a noble institution.32 The contrast was due to the lack of an independent Black ethnicity among Hispanic planters of part-African ancestry, and this lack was due, in turn, to the absence of an endogamous color line.

In some ways, Black Yankee culture (religion, language, music, dance, food, costume) was indistinguishable from that of White Yankees. For example, the boisterous interactive style of many African-American church services today would have been alien to them, since it originated in the slaveholding South. Daniel A. Payne was a Black Yankee, a career AME minister in Philadelphia. He was a sympathizer of the Underground Railroad, so its organizers asked him to preach to a group of newly escaped slaves. His diary reports:

After the sermon, they formed a ring, and with coats off sung, clapped their hands and stamped their feet in a most ridiculous and heathenish way. I requested that the pastor go and stop their dancing. At his request they stopped their dancing and clapping of hands, but remained singing and rocking their bodies to and fro.33

Although the endogamous color line was stricter in the antebellum North than in the antebellum South, it was less strict in 1850 and 1860 than in 1970 and 1980.34 The children of interracial marriages in the Northeast were usually census-reported as “Negroes” rather than as “Mulattoes.” This resembles today’s customs and contrasts with the more permeable color lines of the lower South. According to Joel Williamson, “In 1850 in the five states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, mulattoes actually outnumbered blacks by 24,000 to 22,000, while in the older-settled New England and Middle Atlantic states blacks outnumbered mulattoes by about three to one.”35

The Black Yankees set many of the patterns of modern African-American life. They developed the supportive church-centered social structure found in African-American communities today. Long before the South was segregated, they faced isolation and cyclical rejection by mainstream society. They were also the first to articulate the dilemma that continues to occupy Black thinkers to this day: integration versus separatism.

The Integration versus Separatism Pendulum

The ethnicity invented by Black Yankees oscillated between two poles, just as African-American ethnicity does today. It was “a cleavage within the community, similar… to one familiar today between aspects of Negro life started by and based on white insitutions and those that are indigenous or nativistic.”36 At one extreme, they coined the term African-American, invented a fantasy image of Africa as a civilized, Eden-like homeland, strove to emigrate to lands where Blacks still ruled, and demanded segregated churches for worship by their adults and segregated schools for the education of their children in order to preserve their cultural integrity. At the other extreme, they considered themselves true Americans, their families having lived in the United States since long before the first Irish and Germans arrived, demanded integrated schools where their children could learn American mainstream values, demanded full membership in the body politic, and rejected colonization overseas as unjust exile. Although at any given instant in time, at least some Black Yankees populated the entire ideological spectrum between these two extremes of separatism on the one hand and integration on the other, fashions changed over the years.37

From the Revolution to about 1826, Black Yankee ethnic self-image leaned towards separatism. They spoke longingly of returning to Africa. Yet, few emigrated although many had the opportunity. Instead, Africa became a fantasized Eden, spoken of in hushed tones the way European Jews would say “next year in Jerusalem.” They made up rituals and customs, which they attributed to the Dark Continent. They founded the traditional African-American churches. The African Society, founded in 1796, was the first known use of the term African to denote upper-class Black Yankees. Using his own money, Black Yankee ship’s captain Paul Cuffee of Boston personally conveyed 38 emigrants who wanted to return to Africa to Sierra Leone in 1815.38 Bostonian Prince Hall, who was born on September 12, 1748 in Barbados, organized the first chapter of African-American Masonry on March 6, 1775 and led the 1787 petition drive to open segregated schools in Boston, so that Black children could be taught by members of their own culture.39 After the Revolution, Peter J. Williams, Jr. and Samuel Cornish founded segregated schools for Black children in New York city.40 And shortly before the great Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic of 1793, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones both founded Black churches, the former the AME Church, the latter an African branch of the Episcopal Church. Allen and Jones both vowed that their churches, “would admit none to be enrolled members but descendants of the African race.”41

The Black Yankee ideological pendulum swung the other way around 1826. Black Yankees demanded full citizenship. Many Black Yankee families tried to enroll their children in mainstream schools.42 And Africa was no longer seen as a desirable homeland. According to one editor:

Our claims are on America, it is the land that gave us birth; it is the land of our nativity, we know no other country, it is a land in which our fathers have suffered and toiled; they have watered it with their tears, and fanned it with their sighs. Our relation with Africa is the same as the white man’s is with Europe. … We have passed through several generations in this country, and consequently we have become naturalized, our habits, our manners, our passions, our dispositions have become the same…. I might as well tell the white man about England… and call him a European, as for him to call us Africans.43

Ship’s captain Paul Cuffee had died in 1817, but his dream had been carried forward by the American Colonization Society. In part, AME founder Richard Allen and the other delegates were unhappy that the White-run ACS had taken over governing what would eventually become the Liberia colony, rather than let Blacks control it. But, also in part, migrating back to an imagined African homeland was no longer fashionable. Black emigrants were starting to emigrate to Canada and Haiti instead.

In September of 1830, Baltimore ice dealer Hezekiah Grice suggested to Philadelphia AME Church founder Richard Allen that he convene a national meeting of Black Yankee leaders. The first goal was to debate colonization. They decided against it. The second was to collect money for the 1200-2000 Black refugees who had been exiled from Cincinnati to Canada on short notice. The convention met annually for six years, debating all aspects of the integration versus separatism pendulum. The sixth and final National Black Convention was held in 1835, its activist civil-rights agenda taken over by self-help (temperance) advocates.44 Hezekiah Grice, the Baltimore ice dealer who had started it all, moved to Haiti in 1832 and was named director of Public Works for Port-au-Prince in 1834.45

Thirteen years later, Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) founded his newspaper, The North Star. Douglass handled the editorial end while Martin R. Delany (1812-1885) traveled throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky lecturing, reporting, and obtaining subscriptions for the newspaper.46 Although both men were uncompromising and eloquent in their support of America’s Blacks, they came to represent both ends of the integration-versus-separatism spectrum. Delany, who epitomized Black nationalism, advocated emigration and cultural integrity. Douglass continued to advocate integration, assimilation, and American patriotism.47

A particularly instructive episode in the ideological struggle between separatism and assimilation within the Black Yankee ethnic community appeared in the case Roberts v. City of Boston, 1849.48 Sixty-two years after Prince Hall had persuaded Boston’s city fathers to open segregated schools for Black children so that they could be taught their cultural heritage, the parents of Sarah C. Roberts sued the city for not allowing Sarah to attend a White school. The African-American community was split on the topic. Heated intra-group debates erupted over the desirability of segregated schools for Boston’s Black children.49

The Color Line in the North

The endogamous color line was enforced more strictly in the North than in the antebellum lower South (South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida). In 1800, Boston deported 240 violators of anti-intermarriage laws. The record says they were deported for intermarriage and for not having been born in Massachusetts. It is not clear if all 240 committed both crimes, or if some were convicted of one thing and some the other. Obviously, the latter charge could not be applied to Black Yankees. So, although it appears that at least some Black Yankees may have been prosecuted for intermarriage at this time, it is likely that the law was enforced only against Black immigrants.50

Massachusetts repealed its anti-intermarriage law in 1843 and marriages across the color line became more common, although they never approached the intermarriage rates of the lower South. The rate of Black/White intermarriage exceeded that of Irish/White intermarriage for a time. According to Oscar Handlin, Boston’s Irish out-marriage rate in the 1860s “was lower than that of any other group including the Negroes, 12 percent of whose marriages were with whites.”51 To put this in context, between 45 and 55 percent of Irish-Americans out-marry today. Yet as recently as 1920, Irish-American exogamy was at less than half that—20 percent.52 In other words, Irish-Americans in Boston quadrupled this index of acceptance over the very same period that social acceptance of the Black endogamous group in the same city fell to one-fourth of its prior value.

The puzzle is solved by noting that impoverished female Irish servants and housemaids comprised the bulk of the initial wave of Irish famine immigrants. Once employed in America, they sent money home so that their relatives could come over as well.53 But their lack of acceptance in White society limited their choices of marriage partners. Boston’s Black Yankee elite, in contrast to most Whites, preferentially hired Irish servant girls. According to one contemporary, “Negroes were avoided both as servants in the home or as instructors for the children, for it was felt that more gentility and culture would come from exposure to whites.”54 Proximity led to affection, then to love, and many of the Irish servant girls wound up marrying the sons of established Black craftsmen and shopkeepers.55 According to Wirth and Goldhammer, Black male/White female marriages were thirty times more common in mid-nineteenth-century Boston than White male/Black female marriages.56

Nevertheless, Massachusetts in the 1840-1860 period, with its demographic imbalance of marriageable but poor Irish females was an exception. Most of the North continued to abhor intermarriage. During De Tocqueville’s visit to the North, he wrote:

Race prejudice seems stronger in those states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists, and nowhere is it more intolerant than in those states where slavery was never known.57

Abraham Lincoln represented his constituency in Springfield, Illinois, on June 26, 1857. He repeated the following speech in a dozen later venues, and referred back to it for the rest of his life:

Judge Douglas is especially horrified at the thought of the mixing blood by the white and black races: agreed for once—a thousand times agreed. … On this point we fully agree with the Judge; and when he shall show that his policy is better adapted to prevent amalgamation than ours we shall drop ours, and adopt his. Let us see. In 1850 there were in the United States, 405,751, mulattoes. Very few of these are the offspring of whites and free blacks; nearly all have sprung from black slaves and white masters.58 A separation of the races is the only perfect preventive of amalgamation but as an immediate separation is impossible the next best thing is to keep them apart where they are not already together. If white and black people never get together in Kansas, they will never mix blood in Kansas. … I have said that the separation of the races is the only perfect preventive of amalgamation. I have no right to say all the members of the Republican party are in favor of this, nor to say that as a party they are in favor of it. There is nothing in their platform directly on the subject. But I can say a very large proportion of its members are for it, and that the chief plank in their platform—opposition to the spread of slavery—is most favorable to that separation.59

Like Lincoln, many Midwestern Abolitionists became peculiarly enraged at the possibility of intermarriage. In 1862 Ohio, abolitionist newspaperman Calvin Kingsley wrote:

Where is this social equality, the fruits of which appear in amalgamation, to be found but among the slaveholders of the South? In the North it is a strange and disgusting sight to see a white man with a colored wife. In the South it can be practically seen everywhere. As to political equality, it has nothing whatever to do with the question of emancipation.60

In 1863 Illinois, The Chicago Tribune said that Republican doctrine was to:

let the African race alone; neither marry or cohabit with them;… separate the whites from adulterous communication with them; and preserve the purity of Caucasian blood from African admixture.61

In 1863 Chicago and Columbus, editors responding to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation by saying that Republicans were “actively promoting miscegenation, the most dreaded form of equality.” They said this would destroy “the identity of both [races] and substitute in their stead human mongrels.”62 Even the Government-appointed American Freedman’s Inquiry Commission reported in 1864 that amalgamation between the races led to degeneration.63 In 1864, Democrat John McClernand of Illinois said, “We wanted no intermixture of white blood with theirs…”64 and Republicans answered that it was the Democratic slaveowners… who had long been guilty of trying “to bleach out the black race.”65 Congressman George W. Julian “recoiled in disgust” at the prospect of miscegenation, saying that in the North there were “no such intimate relations as there were in the South where slave mothers and slave masters are brought on to the level of social equality in its most loathsome forms.”66 In short, Midwesterners in general, Democrats, Republicans, Free-Soilers, Know-Nothings, Popular Sovereignty advocates, and Abolitionists alike fully agreed on only one thing—the importance of the endogamous color line.

What interests this study is not how much of the above was political rhetoric, aimed merely at discrediting the opposition. The point is that some scholars interpret the accusation that many slaveowners in the South openly intermarried as hyperbole. In fact, as shown in the prior three essays, the accusers were correct. More Southern slaveowners married interracially than Northern abolitionists ever did. This was especially true of the thousands of Creole, Hispanic, and West Indian slaveowners in the lower South who were themselves of partial African ancestry.

The National Color Line’s Rise and Fall

Each advance in transportation technology: canals, steamboats, railroads, hastened national integration. The venerable Civil War debate about the extent to which cultural difference between North and South exacerbated sectionalism may be answered by noting that it was not difference per se that caused friction, but the clash of cultures brought forcibly into contact by merchants, traders, and families seeking a better life by pulling up roots.67 Northern attitudes towards the endogamous color line affected and were affected by those of the upper South, and upper South attitudes similarly clashed with the odd “racial” systems of the lower South.

The aftermath of the Civil War dramatically accelerated the process of cultural osmosis. In the same way that Northern entrepreneurs (carpetbaggers) flooded the Reconstruction South seeking business opportunities, tens of thousands of Black Yankees left homes and careers and also migrated to the defeated South. They built the schools, printed the newspapers, and opened the businesses that taught the newly freed to flourish as Americans.68 Joel Williamson particularly distinguishes between Northern Black Yankees and Southern former slaves, especially among former Union soldiers:

The channels though which mulatto leadership moved from the North to the lower South are clearly visible. Many of the migrants, women as well as men, came as teachers sponsored by a dozen or so benevolent societies, arriving in the still turbulent wake of Union armies. Others came to organize relief for the refugees…. Still others… came south as religious missionaries… Some came south as business or professional people seeking opportunity on this… special black frontier. Finally, thousands came as soldiers [Black Yankees in regiments that served in the South], and when the war was over, many of [their] young men remained there or returned after a stay of some months in the North to complete their education.69

Culture clash made for bumpy times for some of the volunteers. Slave religious services were characterized by the ring-shout ceremony. In a ring-shout, as Daniel Payne had noticed,70 the outdoor congregation shuffles, dances, claps, and sings as they circle the preacher, loudly responding to his or her every utterance. Although the ring-shout is ostensibly Christian, the old Yoruba orixas Exu, Ogun, Xango, Oxossi often make an appearance by taking possession of a dancer, especially in the Sea Islands and in Louisiana bayous.71 Black Yankees, in contrast, were staid Methodist Episcopalians. Slave music had exceedingly simple melodies and harmony was unknown, but the music gloried in dazzling rhythmic syncopation. Black Yankee music was characterized by the subtle and changing harmonies of Anglican hymns and a steady British beat.72

Many AME ministers sent south insisted on an educated ministry, undercutting the authority of self-taught slave-born preachers, and demanded more sedate services than new freedmen were used to. “The old people were not anxious to see innovations introduced in religious worship,” one wrote home, telling how a Black Yankee preacher was mocked as a “Presbyterian” by his new flock.73 Nevertheless, the overall attitude of the Black Yankees reflected solidarity with their charges. New England Black Yankee teacher Virginia C. Greene wrote home, “I class myself with the freedmen. Though I have never known servitude they are in fact my people.”74 Some of the southbound migrants even married white southern Republicans during Congressional Reconstruction. Carrie Highgate, a Black Yankee schoolteacher from New York married White Mississippi state senator Albert T. Morgan.75

The culture clash led to an unusually large number of court cases held to resolve endogamous group membership. The volume of such cases indicates social uncertainty. At some places and times, color line criteria were clearly understood and stable enough to be passed on from one generation to the next as part of childhood socialization. During such periods and regions, people knew precisely what yardstick was used to measure endogamous group membership. With little element of uncertainty, relatively few occasions would arise when both of two contending parties would think that they could prevail in court. And so, few court cases would be litigated and even fewer appealed.

On the other hand, when society was in transition from one criterion to another, as in the late antebellum period, then rules were uncertain. Generation gaps appeared as those who had learned and internalized one set of rules in their youth were overtaken by a younger generation with a new outlook. Class gaps, gender gaps, and caste gaps might also open. Those of different social rank might apply different rules, men might differ from women, and Blacks might conceivably adopt or advocate a different yardstick than that used by Whites. Where people apply different rules to the same issue, each of two opposing parties can anticipate a favorable outcome. Where each side’s risk/benefit assessment justified fighting it out, court cases soared.

Number of Cases per Decade Nationwide
Number of Cases per Decade Nationwide

The figure at left, Number of Cases per Decade Nationwide, shows the number of appeals cases heard to resolve someone’s endogamous group membership. The volume of such cases peaked at thirty-six cases in the decade of the 1850s. The number of cases appealed then declined in stages (with two lesser peaks in the 1910s and the 1940s) until, by 1960, they numbered only five per decade. Since this study is limited to cases that were appealed, one might ask whether the measured rise and fall reflects the total number of cases or merely the number that were appealed. For example, does the abrupt drop from over 35 cases per decade in the 1850s to under 10 cases in the 1870s show an overall decline in color-line litigation, or just a drop in the fraction of cases that were appealed? The answer seems to be the former. Ariela Gross sampled both number of cases and number of appeals for the early-to-mid nineteenth century and found that the relative fraction of appealed cases did not change. Furthermore, most states did not add intermediate courts, nor limited the number of appeals to their highest courts until the twentieth century.76 In short, it seems apparent that the period 1840-1869 represented a peak of uncertainty regarding how the color line was defined. This was also the swiftest period of national integration, due to advances in transportation technology.

Black/White Intermarriage
Black/White Intermarriage

The figure at right, Black/White Intermarriage, shows the strength of the endogamous color line from 1850 to 2000.77 We cannot precisely measure intermarriage before 1850 because prior censuses recorded only households, not individuals. The most eye-catching feature of the graph is the plunge in intermarriage rate between 1860 and 1870, followed by a bottoming-out that lasted throughout the Jim Crow period, and began to recover around 1980. What happened in the 1860s, of course, was the Civil War, the ending of North American slavery, and the abrupt freeing of four million slaves. Others have noted the plunge in intermarriage. According to Joel Williamson, “… the drop in unions between Negroes and whites after 1860… remains dramatic and represents a fundamental change in the history of miscegenation in America.”78 That the period from just before 1850 to 1860 was the pre-1990 epitome of American intermarriage is surprising. To put things in perspective, black-white intermarriage of the time approximated Irish-American intermarriage of the time. Today, the former is a tiny fraction of the latter.79

* * * * *

This essay traced the emergence of African-American ethnicity and the subsequent evolution of the color line in five topics: It explained how the imposition of a unique endogamous color line eventually led to the synthesis of a unique ethno-cultural African-American community in the Jacksonian Northeast. It outlined the features of the Black Yankee ethnic group to show that its customs became an important source of many of today’s Black traditions. It introduced an integration-versus-separatism debate that has occupied Black political leaders since colonial times. It contrasted the harsh enforcement of the intermarriage barrier in the free states with its non-enforcement in the lower South. It presented graphs showing that endogamous group membership was most hotly contested in U.S. courts between 1840 and 1869, and that the color line grew abruptly stronger during Reconstruction, was at its harshest during Jim Crow, and began to recover only around 1980.

This was the last of eight essays that depicted the evolution of the U.S. endogamous color line, from its invention in the seventeenth-century Chesapeake, to its synthesis of a Black Yankee ethnicity in the Jacksonian Northeast. These essays showed the ways in which the U.S. endogamous color line is unique. They showed when, where, how, why, and by whom the color line was invented. They showed how the courts in the North and in the upper South strove to devise criteria that could be used to determine which side of the color line someone was on, and that these criteria were: physical appearance, blood fraction, and association.

More importantly, these essays showed that the lower South (South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, and Florida had very different color lines than did the upper South and the North. South Carolina had an extraordinarily permeable color line. Alabama and Louisiana had two mildly endogamous color lines separating three groups. And Florida lacked any endogamous color line at all. The North, on the other hand, evolved a color line similar to today’s: it was strict, it was based on hypodescent, and it supported a shared ethnic self-identity.

Most importantly of all, the preceding eight essays reveal that the very concept of “invisible blackness” had not even been argued in an appeals court anywhere in the United States as of 1830. The one-drop rule, in the sense of an utterly European-looking person being seen as a member of the Black endogamous group due to an un-measurable trace of distant Black ancestry, was still in the future. This is important because it lets us focus on the late antebellum period and thereafter in determining when, where, how, why, and by whom the one-drop rule was invented.

1 See, for example, the tale of Eston Hemings in the opening anecdote of the essay How the Law Decided if You Were Black or White: The Early 1800s.

2 As quoted in Peter Walker, Moral Choices: Memory, Desire, and Imagination in Nineteenth-Century American Abolition (Baton Rouge, 1978), 256.

3 Ibid., 254.

4 Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art (New York, 1998), 244.

5 As quoted in Walker (1978), 256.

6 As quoted in Hyde (1998), 243.

7 Walker (1978), 241.

8 As quoted in Walker (1978), 245.

9 Idem.

10 Philip Sheldon Foner, Frederick Douglass, a Biography (New York, 1964), 94.

11 Idem. Incidentally, Benjamin Quarles also perceives the sea-change in Douglass. He writes that, until this time, Douglass was “immature” or “incomplete” as a Negro. See Benjamin Quarles, “Abolition’s Different Drummer,” in The Antislavery Vanguard: New Essays on the Abolitionists, ed. Martin B. Duberman (Princeton, 1965), 130.

12 A history of Douglass’s often-altered autobiographies can be found in Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, ed. Benjamin Quarles (Cambridge MA, 1960), xiii-xvi.

13 As quoted in Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art (New York, 1998), 244-45.

14 As quoted in Peter Walker, Moral Choices: Memory, Desire, and Imagination in Nineteenth-Century American Abolition (Baton Rouge, 1978), 250-51.

15 See, for example, the exchange of letters between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony on Douglass’s 1884 marriage to Helen Pitts, as published in Geoffrey C. Ward, Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (New York, 1999), 178.

16 James Weldon Johnson, Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson (New York, 1973), 61.

17 Ethnicity: a term for describing a group of people with a common tradition and a sense of identity that functions as a subgroup within the larger society; membership is largely a matter of self-identification. Robert F. McNergney and Joanne M. Herbert, Foundations of Education: The Challenge of Professional Practice, 3rd ed. (Boston, 2001), 549.

18 The process is visible today in the Anglo-American-invented label “Hispanic,” which covers both Puerto Ricans and Chicanos, despite their having little in common. A useful introduction to ethnicity formation is Werner Sollors, The Invention of Ethnicity (New York, 1989), especially the introduction and the chapter by Kathleen Conzen.

19 David A. Gerber, The Making of an American Pluralism: Buffalo, New York, 1825-1860 (Urbana, 1989), 164.

20 Among important recent works on the formation of ethnicities during this period, in addition to Gerber (cited above) are: Elliott J. Gorn, “‘Good-Bye Boys, I Die a True American’: Homicide, Nativism, and Working-Class Culture in Antebellum New York City,” The Journal of American History, 74 (no. 2, September 1987), 388-410; Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (New York, 1985); Richard Briggs Stott, Workers in the Metropolis: Class, Ethnicity, and Youth in Antebellum New York City (Ithaca, N.Y., 1990); David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London, 1991); Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York, 1995); and Susan G. Davis, Parades and Power: Street Theatre in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1986).

21 Elizabeth Rauh Bethel, The Roots of African-American Identity (New York, 1997), 3.

22 Ibid., 6.

23 Ibid., 119-24.

24 Enacted in 1804 and 1807, the Ohio Black Codes were meant to stop Blacks from moving to Ohio. The most onerous of these was a law that required Blacks to pay a $500 bond signed by two White men within 20 days of arrival in order to remain in the state. See Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery: the Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (Chicago, 1961), 72.

25 Bethel(1997), 119-24.

26 Carter G. Woodson, “The Negroes of Cincinnati Prior to the Civil War,” The Journal of Negro History, 1 (no. 1, January 1916), 1-22.

27 Zephaniah Kingsley, Balancing Evils Judiciously: The Proslavery Writings of Zephaniah Kingsley, ed. Daniel W. Stowell (Gainesville, 2000), 77-78. Of course, slave-owning planter Kingsley was not impartial regarding either race relations or slavery. His slave-trading wife (she had her own plantations) was from Senegal, and so his children (who were also slave-owning planters) were of 40-50 percent sub-Saharan genetic admixture. By the turn of the twentieth century, most of their descendants had assimilated into upper-crust White Florida society.

28 David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London, 1991).

29 Herbert Asbury, The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld, 1st Paragon House ed. (New York, 1990).

30 See Joel Williamson, New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States (New York, 1980) for a summary of this threefold blending. For a more detailed account, see Joel Williamson, The Crucible of Race: Black/White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation (New York, 1984).

31 The chief Roman virtues. Elizabeth Rauh Bethel, The Roots of African-American Identity (New York, 1997).

32 Kingsley (2000).

33 Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History, 2nd ed. (New York, 1983), 130.

34 See Figure 1 under “Endogamy” in the essay Features of the Today’s Endogamous Color Line.

35 Joel Williamson, New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States (New York, 1980), 58.

36 The quotation, as well as an analysis of the two poles of ongoing Black Yankee self-image (as Africans who happen to be in America versus as Americans who happen to come from Africa) can be found in Adelaide M. Cromwell, The Other Brahmins: Boston‘s Black Upper Class, 1750-1950 (Fayetteville, 1994), 33.

37 For an account of the formation of the Black Yankee component of African-American ethnicity, see Scott Hancock, “The Elusive Boundaries of Blackness: Identity Formation in Antebellum Boston,” Journal of Negro History, 84 (no. 2, Spring 1999), 115-29.

38 Elizabeth Rauh Bethel, The Roots of African-American Identity (New York, 1997), 66-67.

39 A brief biography of Prince Hall can be found in Cromwell (1994), 31.

40 Bethel (1997), 66-67

41 Ibid., 70.

42 Helen Tunnicliff Catterall and James J. Hayden, Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and The Negro (New York, 1968), 5:4.

43 Freedom’s Journal, April 4, 1828.

44 Bethel (1997), 83-84, 116, 124, 127-38.

45 Ibid., 165.

46 The best biography of Delany is Victor Ullman, Martin R. Delany: The Beginnings of Black Nationalism (Boston,, 1971).

47 The best example of the hate/love relationship between these two Black activists is a letter from Delany to Douglass published in the North Star of July 10, 1852. For Douglass’s July 23, 1852, reply, see Victor Ullman, Martin R. Delany: The Beginnings of Black Nationalism (Boston,, 1971), 145.

48 59 Mass. 198.

49 See Douglas J. Ficker, “From Roberts to Plessy: Educational Segregation and the ‘Separate but Equal’ Doctrine,” Journal of Negro History, 84 (no. 4, Autumn 1999), 301-14; Cromwell (1994), 36; or Leonard W. Levy and Harlan B. Philips, “The Roberts Case: Source of the “Separate but Equal” Doctrine,” American Historical Review, 56 (no. 3, April 1951), 510-18.

50 Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery: the Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (Chicago, 1961), 16.

51 Oscar Handlin, Boston‘s Immigrants, 1790-1880, Rev. and enl. ed. (Cambridge MA, 1959), 177.

52 Patrick J. Blessing, “The Irish,” in Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, ed. Stephan Thernstrom and Oscar Handlin (Cambridge MA, 1980), 524-45, 541.

53 Handlin (1959), 61-63

54 Cromwell (1994), 57.

55 Ibid., 183.

56 Ibid., 271n40.

57 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (New York, 1966), 343. See also “A Permeable, Shifted Color Line” in the essay Barbadian South Carolina.

58 Although Lincoln apparently believed this, it is factually inaccurate. DNA admixture studies show that genetically speaking, African male with European female mixing has been nearly as common nationwide as the reverse. See “English-Speaking Alabama” in the essay Antebellum Louisiana and Alabama. Also see the account of the marriages of Boston‘s Black males with Irish females in the paragraphs immediately above. In general, Afro-European admixture is sexually asymmetrical towards African males in the Northeast but leans the other way (towards European males) in the lower South. (It is very asymmetrical towards European males in Latin America and in the British West Indies.) See, Bernardo Bertoni and others, “Admixture in Hispanics: Distribution of Ancestral Population Contributions in the Continental United States,” Human Biology, 75 (no. 1, 2003), 1-11; Maria Catira Bortolini and others, “African-Derived South American Populations: A History of Symmetrical and Asymmetrical Matings According to Sex Revealed by Bi- and Uni-parental Genetic Markers,” American Jornal of Human Biology, 11 (1999), 561-63; Ricardo M. Cerda-Flores and others, “Genetic Admixture in Three Mexican Mestizo Populations Based D1S80 and HLA-DQA1 Loci,” American Journal of Human Biology, 14 (2002), 257-63; Manfred Kayser and others, “Y Chromosome STR Haplotypes and the Genetic Structure of U.S. Populations of African, European and Hispanic Ancestry,” Genome Research, 13 (2003), 624-34; D. Andrew Merriwether and others, “Mitochondrial Versus Nuclear Admixture Estimates Demonstrate a Past History of Directional Mating,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 102 (1997), 153-59; or Clemencia Rodas, Nancy Gelvez, and Genoveva Keyeux, “Mitochondrial DNA Studies Show Asymmetrical Amerindian Admixture in Afro-Colombian and Mestizo Populations,” Human Biology, 75 (no. 1, 2003), 13-30. Also, see Paul Heinegg, Free African Americans of Maryland and Delaware from the Colonial Period to 1810 (Baltimore, 2000) for exhaustive genealogical research showing the same finding.

59 Illinois State Journal , June 29, 1857. Copies of this speech were advertised by the Journal for sale. It was copied and commented on widely throughout the state, at least two papers copying it in full (Decatur, Illinois State Chronicle , July 2; Clinton Central Transcript , July 9). Also see Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery: the Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (Chicago, 1961), 276-77.

60 As quoted in V. Jacque Voegeli, Free But Not Equal: The Midwest and the Negro During the Civil War (Chicago, 1967), 59-60.

61 Ibid., 87.

62 Ibid., 77.

63 Ibid., 181.

64 Ibid., 127.

65 Ibid., 179.

66 Ibid., 182.

67 See Kenneth M. Stampp, The Causes of the Civil War (New York, 1959) for a discussion of this point.

68 Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (New York, 1988), 286.

69 Joel Williamson, New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States (New York, 1980), 79-80.

70 See the quotation at note 33 in this essay.

71 An orixa (pronounced oh-ree-SHAH) is a supernatural being roughly combining the attributes of a god and a patron saint. Orixa worship originated with the Yoruba, but spread widely among the polyglot diverse cultures who were carried across the Atlantic by the slave trade. Similar pantheons of Orixas are worshipped today in Voudum (Haiti), Santeria (the Spanish Caribbean), Candomblé (Brazil), in the Sea Islands, and in Louisiana. See John Kelly Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800, 2nd ed. (New York, 1998), 242-43, 252-53.

72 The Fisk Jubilee Singers became world-famous post-bellum precisely by melding European harmonies with African syncopation. See Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History, 2nd ed. (New York, 1983), 130.

73 As quoted in Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (New York, 1988), 92.

74 As quoted ibid., 100.

75 Dorothy Sterling, ed. The Trouble They Seen: The Story of Reconstruction in the Words of African Americans (New York, 1994), 233.

76 Ariela J. Gross, “Litigating Whiteness: Trials of Racial Determination in the Nineteenth-Century South,” Yale Law Journal, 108 (no. 1, 1998), 109-88, 178.

77 For the methodology used in arriving at this figure, see Appendix A. Census Data Processing Methodology, specifically, the section titled “Black/White Intermarriage.”

78 This figure is repeated from Figure 1, in the topic “Endogamy” in the essay Features of Today’s Endogamous Color Line.

79 Joel Williamson, New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States (New York, 1980), 89; Caroline Bond Day and Earnest Albert Hooton, A Study of Some Negro-White Families in the United States (Cambridge MA, 1932); Herbert George Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 (New York, 1976a).

80 Thomas Sowell, Ethnic America: A History (New York, 1981), 112; Leonard Dinnerstein and David M. Reimers, Ethnic Americans: A History of Immigration, 4th ed. (New York, 1999) 178-83.

Frank W. Sweet is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), an analysis of the nearly 300 appealed cases that determined Americans’ “racial” identity over the centuries. It is the most thorough study of the legal history of this topic yet published. He was accepted to Ph.D. candidacy in history with a minor in molecular anthropology at the University of Florida in 2003 and has completed all but his dissertation defense. He earned an M.A. in History from American Military University in 2001. He is also the author of several state park historical booklets and published historical essays. He was a member of the editorial board of the magazine Interracial Voice, and is a regular lecturer and panelist at historical and genealogical conferences. To send email, click here.

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