Why Did One-Drop Become Nationwide Tradition?

Essays on the Color Line and the One-Drop Rule
by Frank W Sweet
January 1, 2006


n 1910, the Rock Lick district of Buchanan County, Virginia, comprised little more than unpainted log cabins perched on steep hillsides about fifty miles north of Bristol, in the heart of the Cumberland Plateau. The first railroad spur into the county had been built two years earlier, and coal was replacing timber as the area’s major product, just as timber had replaced sheep herding in the region after the Civil War. The Looney and Spencer clans of Rock Lick had been on friendly terms.

George Looney (35 years old) presided over a household consisting of his 39-year-old wife Patti, seven children ranging from newborn to 17 years of age, and his unmarried older brother, 44-year old Henderson Looney. The Looney clan had been in the area for generations, and many county residents were George Looney’s distant kinfolk, including the local schoolmaster.1

The Spencer families were newcomers. Jordan Spencer and his wife Alafair had immigrated from Kentucky just before the turn of the century, bringing their two sons: George and Jack.2 By 1910, 30-year-old George Spencer had established his own household with his 30-year-old wife Arminda, three daughters and two sons, including seven-year-old Melvin, who attended the local school run by Looney’s third cousin.3 George Spencer’s little brother, Jack, had also set up housekeeping, even though he was still in his late teens. Jack had just moved into a tiny cabin with his 15-year-old bride, Nancy.4

We shall probably never know why young, independent, married Jack Spencer killed middle-aged, dependent, bachelor Henderson Looney. Jack was never tried for murder, and he and Nancy continued to live in Rock Lick for decades thereafter.5 Their son Dan was born in 1926.6 Perhaps the killing of Henderson Looney was ruled to be an accident, or it might have been self-defense. In any event, the law did not prosecute Jack. This drove an enraged George Looney to take his frustrated revenge out on Jack’s seven-year-old nephew, Melvin.

Looney traveled to Johnson County, Kentucky, whence Jordan Spencer had emigrated, and obtained affidavits from three men in their eighties, who claimed to remember Jordan Spencer’s father (little Melvin’s great-grandfather) as a red-headed man who might possibly have been rumored to have some Negro ancestry.7 Armed with the three affidavits, Looney returned to Rock Lick and persuaded his schoolteacher cousin, Joseph McClanahan, to expel the third-grader from school without notifying his parents. They were denied opportunity to appeal the ruling that Melvin (and, presumably, the entire Spencer clan) was secretly Black.

Melvin’s parents were unable to make any headway with the school. And so, in Spencer v. Looney, 1914 Virginia, they sued George Looney for slander and demanded $10,000 in damages.8 Looney claimed the slander defense of truth.

At trial, the three old men from Kentucky waffled and wavered and avoided making any firm statement regarding the long-deceased Spencer’s bloodline. When questioned by Looney’s attorney, “Did you ever hear it reported that he had negro blood about him?” one of them replied “I might have heard it, and I might not.”9 Even the man hired by Looney as an expert in sniffing out “Negro blood” declared himself unable to do so and, when pressed, proceeded to identify several unrelated courtroom bystanders as secretly Black. By all three of the traditional rules—by appearance, by blood fraction, and by association—little Melvin was White. But the jury ruled the child to be Black anyway and found for defendant Looney.

The decision was overturned on the Spencers’ appeal and the lawsuit was sent back for re-trial, but there is no record that it ever again came before a court. It is uncertain whether Melvin went back to the school in Rock Lick, but he did learn to read and write. Melvin was White in the eyes of Rock Lick’s census takers before these events, and he continued to be recorded as census-White for the rest of his life. By the 1930 census, he was 26 years old, literate, and had set up housekeeping with his 21-year-old wife, Calla.10

* * * * *

As explained in the essay “Jim Crow Triumph of the One-Drop Rule,” the one-drop rule triumphed and became accepted nationwide in the first three decades of the twentieth century. This essay addresses the question, “Why did one-drop triumph at this time and not before nor after?”

It suggests a hypothesis in six topics. The One-Drop Rule Punished Entire Families, not Just Individuals shows that, although the court cases dealt with individuals, entire families were actually punished. The One-Drop Rule was Known to be Irrational presents evidence that one-drop trials were not searches for either factual accuracy or for moral justice. The One-Drop Rule was Wielded Against Whites, not Against Blacks shows that the victims were White. To be sure, some victims may actually have had recent African ancestry, as do one-third of White Americans. But if this made them Black, then it means that one-third of all White Americans were also Black and the question remains—why pick these out? Why Did it Happen surveys the literature for the causes of the Jim Crow wave of terror itself. The One-Drop Rule Kept White Families in Line presents this study’s hypothesis that one-drop was an instance of a well-studied phenomenon of group dynamics involving ideological self-preservation. Other Voices offers an alternative explanation.

The One-Drop Rule Punished Entire Families, not Just Individuals

Despite contemporary rhetoric to the contrary, being ruled Black was a form of judicial punishment. The overt side of the question in early twentieth-century one-drop cases was “To which side of the U.S. endogamous color should you be assigned?” But the question also had a covert aspect. The question was asked in the context of a land where, for at least two centuries, being relegated to the Black side of the endogamous color line meant loss of status, civil rights, and economic opportunity. And so, the covert aspect of the same question was “Should you be forcibly deprived of your social status, civil rights, and economic opportunity?”

Furthermore, the question had an explicit side and an implicit side. Explicitly, court rulings were only about the individuals before the bench. Implicitly, the consequences of being ruled Black were unbounded. Since Americans consider membership in the Black endogamous group to be hereditary, banishment to the Black side of the endogamous color line affected entire families—the victims’ children and grandchildren, presumably for all eternity to come. Such old-testament-like eternal hereditary punishment is unique in the annals of American jurisprudence.

The One-Drop Rule was Known to be Irrational

The point of relating Spencer v. Looney is to exemplify, as is also evident in the cases of the essay “Jim Crow Triumph of the One-Drop Rule,” that the one-drop rule was so arbitrary that it was often employed to satisfy personal self-interest. It will not do to say that the judges, juries and attorneys involved in one-drop cases sought the truth to the best of their ability. There is little evidence that they sought objective truth. First, there was no objective truth to be sought. Second, they knew that there was no objective truth to be sought. Instead, many if not most one-drop cases were simply contests of arbitrary power.

There is little evidence that they sought objective truth. If such decisions had been based upon factual reality—a search for truth—then testimony and judicial reasoning would have focused on the tangible, as in other decades. In the three centuries of British North American history that preceded the explosion in one-drop cases around 1900, courts had routinely tried to answer the question (both its explicit and implicit sides) by seeking facts in external reality. In Flores v. State, 1910 Texas, a court considered whether “hair was not kinky or nappy.”11 In Bartelle v. United States, 1908 Oklahoma, a court considered whether a person “had brown skin.”12 In Daniel v. Guy, 1861 Arkansas, a judge ruled that, “No one, who is familiar with the peculiar formation of the negro foot, can doubt, but that an inspection of that member would ordinarily afford some indication of the race.”13 In Rhinelander v. Rhinelander, 1927 New York, an attorney instructed a young wife to remove her clothing so that the all-male jury could inspect the precise color of her nipples.14 In Estate of Monks, 1941 California, a manicurist testified that, “the palms of her hands and her fingernails showed Negro blood in her.”15 Peculiar and misguided as some of these efforts may appear to modern eyes, the courts clearly sought to uncover tangible reality.

But in the three decades from 1900 to 1930, the question was more often addressed by rumor, innuendo, and hearsay. In Tucker v. Blease, 1914 South Carolina, the judge acquiesced to mob rule with the words, “The greatest good to the largest number.”16 In Ferrall v. Ferrall, 1910 North Carolina, the plaintiff argued for nonsensical recursion.17 In Eubank v. Boughton, 1900 Virginia and in Oberly v. School Board, 1918 Louisiana, state supreme courts ruled that the judicial system was powerless to intervene.18 In the other nine cases involving children (including the one that opens this essay), no evidence was ever introduced about the individuals under scrutiny—it was solely hearsay about absent, usually deceased, ancestors.

There was no objective truth to be sought. When twentieth-century Americans redefined the color line as intangible or metaphysical, they abandoned any hope of assessing endogamous group membership rationally. North Americans, like all New World peoples are a genetic mix of the three great colonial demographic streams—Europe, Africa, and Native America. To be sure, North Americans are not as homogeneously admixed as, say, Argentineans because they have managed to preserve an endogamous enclave of distinctively part-African appearance, but they are admixed nonetheless. The search for White-looking Americans with invisible Black ancestry was doomed from the start because the objective reality is that the term, “White-looking Americans with invisible Black ancestry,” fits all, most, or many White Americans, depending on how “White” and “Black” are defined. In the light of paleoanthropology, all members of the U.S. White endogamous group have distant African ancestry because the human species emerged in Africa and colonized the globe starting about 60 millennia ago. In the light of Mediterranean prehistory, most White Americans descend from peoples who migrated back and forth across the Mediterranean to repopulate Europe when the glaciers receded 15 millennia ago. In the light of admixture mapping, one-third of White Americans have measurable recent African ancestry within the past five centuries—the equivalent of one ancestor of one hundred percent African admixture within the past 115 years.19 When it comes down to external reality, the one-drop cases were not analogous to seeking a needle in a haystack; they were seeking hay in a haystack while pretending that the stack contained something other than hay.

They well knew that there was no objective truth to be sought. A correspondent to the 1854 Richmond Enquirer wrote: “[If a one-drop rule were adopted], I doubt not, if many who are reputed to be white, and are in fact so, do not in a very short time find themselves instead of being elevated, reduced by the judgment of a court of competent jurisdiction, to the level of a free negro.”20 George Tillman orated in 1895, “If the law is made as it now stands respectable families in Aiken, Barnwell, Colleton, and Orangeburg will be denied the right to intermarry among people with whom they are now associated and identified.”21 Charles Chesnutt wrote, “As you have all the features of a white man, you would, at least in South Carolina, have simply to assume the place and exercise the privileges of a white man.”22 Justice Clark of the Supreme Court of North Carolina wrote:

If indeed, the plaintiff had discovered any minute strain of colored origin after the youth of his wife has been worn away for his pleasure and in his service, justice and generosity dictated that he keep to himself that of which the public was unaware… The plaintiff, if possessed of any sentiment of manhood, would have shielded his wife and children by removing to another locality or to a State where the fact, if known, would not be deemed a stigma.23

They knew. Independent approaches converge on 0.10 to 0.14 percent as the annual rate at which European-looking children born into the Black side of the U.S. endogamous color line have switched to the White side of the line in adulthood for the past three centuries.24 Given the 9.7 million African-Americans recorded by the 1910 census, this means that 97,000-to-130,000 Black Americans became White in that decade. Even if the actual number during the Jim Crow wave of terror were less than one-tenth of this long-term average (9,000 individuals per decade, say), it would still mean that at least one thousand people successfully became White during this decade for every single “racial-determination” court case that was appealed. That this rate of color line permeability passed unnoticed by America’s elite is untenable, given public statements like those quoted in the preceding paragraph.

The one-drop rule was irrational in the early twentieth century and its enforcers knew that it was irrational. One historian refers to this phenomenon as a wave of insanity—paranoia—that mysteriously swept over the South in those years.25 The oddity is that the one-drop is still irrational today and yet, as demonstrated earlier, it is still advocated by many American scholars today who also well know that it is irrational.26

The One-Drop Rule was Wielded Against Whites, not Against Blacks

An even greater oddity in the study of U.S. “race” relations is that many if not most American scholars see the triumph of the one-drop rule in the early twentieth century as an aspect of White-on-Black oppression. As demonstrated earlier, the consensus among today’s scholars is that the one-drop rule was somehow an example of “racism” (Whites mistreating Blacks).27 The one-drop rule is usually depicted as exemplifying White society’s intolerance towards Americans of the Black endogamous group during the Jim Crow wave of terror. The accepted wisdom seems to be that the victims of the one-drop rule, like the victims of other Jim Crow intolerance, were members of the U.S. Black endogamous group and that the perpetrators were members of mainstream society—the U.S. White endogamous group. There is no question that the perpetrators were society’s White elite; the one-drop rule was enforced by judicial means, after all. But why do most American scholars portray its victims as Black? Even Joel Williamson, who of all American scholars of the “race” notion may most clearly see the one-drop rule phenomenon as an example of mass paranoia, refers to its victims as “mulattoes who looked white.”28 The only definition of “mulatto” that could make sense out of Williamson’s phrase is as reference to voluntary membership in an ethnic community. But, as demonstrated above, the victims of the one-drop cases definitely did not voluntarily consider themselves “mulattoes.”

Why do most American scholars portray the one-drop rule victims as Black? It cannot be because they looked even slightly African in appearance (dark skin tone, tightly-curled hair, etc.). The whole point of the one-drop court trials was to determine the endogamous group membership of people who looked utterly European. Had a victim of one of these irrational trials been of sub-Saharan phenotype, there would have been no trial. Indeed, the record of every one-drop trial stresses that the victims looked White.

Why do most American scholars portray the one-drop rule victims as Black? It cannot be because the victims self-identified as being of African-American ethnicity. Virtually all U.S. scholars claim that the one-drop rule is an example of U.S. “racism” (Whites mistreating Blacks). And yet, scholars who are (reluctantly) willing to express their own definition of who is Black, when pressed, usually use a voluntary ethnicity formulation such as “self-identity” or “racial identity.”29 But the victims of the one-drop trials vehemently denied any such self-identity. That their endogamous group membership was to be assigned involuntarily by a court was the whole point of the trials.

Why do most American scholars portray America’s one-drop rule victims as Black? It cannot be because the victims had recent (albeit invisible) ancestry traceable to the U.S. Black endogamous group. In none of the court cases was any credible evidence presented of this. In most of the cases (in all of the school segregation cases), it was never even alleged. Furthermore, even if traceable ancestry had been alleged (which it was not) and proven (which it was not), it would have applied equally to one-third of America’s Whites. Indeed, given that most of the cases were held in the South, it would have applied to an even greater fraction of the White witnesses, jurors, and judges in those very cases.

Why do most American scholars portray America’s one-drop rule victims as Black? It cannot be because physical anthropology supports the idea of intangible “race.” Even those few remaining anthropologists today who disagree with the American Anthropological Association’s disavowing of the entire concept of “race” in 199830 also reject the one-drop notion of invisible Blackness.31 Indeed, as early as 1911, anthropologists led by Franz Boas32 had begun to doubt that any connection existed between physical appearance and cultural traits. For that matter, no scientist since Napoleonic times has ever embraced the notion of “racial membership” as something undetectable by definition.33

The fact is that, by any rational criterion, the one-drop rule victims were as thoroughly members of the U.S. White endogamous group as were any other Euro-Americans then or now. They looked European. They associated only with others on the White side of the endogamous U.S. color line. They were not shown (or, in many cases even alleged) to have recent Black ancestry. And they vehemently insisted that they were White. What conceivable rationale in the scholarly American mind today can portray them as somehow intangibly Black?

Why do so many American scholars today either believe that the one-drop rule is universally enforced or advocate that it should be enforced, or both? Why do most American scholars insist in the face of objective reality that the victims of the one-drop rule were Black? This essay does not attempt to answer these two questions. Such an effort would take us into epistemology and the psychopathology of master narratives, an area that is at best peripheral to the history of the one-drop rule.34

The two questions are presented here only to make a point. Neither of the two beliefs has any place in a search for the causes of the one-drop rule’s triumph. Both must be shed. The counterfactual notion that the elite Whites who enforced the one-drop rule were motivated by a search for truth or justice, and the bizarre notion that their victims were somehow intangibly Black, both must be discarded if there is to be any hope of identifying the causes of the phenomenon.

Why Did it Happen?

In its most succinct form, the puzzle that the past presents to us is this: Why did American society banish many White families to Blackness? More precisely, why did U.S. courts in the first three decades of the twentieth century knowingly persecute entire families by banishing them from the White side of the endogamous color line to the Black side of the endogamous color line, thereby presumably depriving them and their descendants forever of status, civil rights, and economic opportunity.

The known facts are five: (1) the victims were banished from the White side of the U.S. endogamous color line to the Black side, (2) the victims were thereby punished by loss of rights and status, (3) the victims were entire families and their descendants, (4) the punishment was not the result of a rational search for factual justice, and (5) the persecution began around the turn of the twentieth century. One non-fact must be discarded as a distraction—that the victims really were members of the Black endogamous group in some metaphysical or intangible sense. To be sure, some victims may actually have had recent African ancestry, as do one-third of White Americans. But if this made them Black, then it means that one-third of all White Americans were also Black and the question remains—why pick these out?

The first component of the answer lies in the phenomenon’s timing. It occurred as the Jim Crow wave of terror was rising to its peak. It might have occurred earlier, but it did not. One-drop statutes had been debated in 1854 Virginia and in 1895 South Carolina but had been defeated. Although Americans had toyed with a one-drop rule for decades, and it had been invoked in a few court cases in the 1890s, it did not triumph and become a nationwide tradition until the Jim Crow wave of terror and oppression was underway. And so, the first step of the answer is that the one-drop rule must have had some connection with Jim Crowism. Given the timing of events, in fact, one may suspect that the Jim Crow event somehow caused the triumph of the one-drop rule.

That the Jim Crow wave of terror and oppression somehow caused the triumph of the one-drop rule opens a second question, “What triggered the Jim Crow wave of terror and oppression?” To set the context, it may be useful to skim five national trends that coincided in this period. Jim Crow might have been triggered, or at least worsened, by some combination of the five: industrialization, consumerism, state activism, progressivism, and imperialism. Each trend could be traced at least back to the early nineteenth century. And each advanced throughout the nineteenth century with periods of stasis punctuated by surges of change. But between 1880 and 1920, all five trends overlapped. Their combined impact was significant.

Industrialization. The relocation and growth of factories sprang from improved technologies for exploiting and distributing energy. Anthracite packed more power into a smaller package than water or animal muscle. Improved seaports allowed energy-efficient propeller ships to replace paddle-wheelers. Railroads covered the nation. Macadamized roads allowed internal combustion engines to reach every corner. Greatly improved coal distribution allowed factories to relocate from millstreams to be nearer their vendors, customers, and workers. Electric power generation and distribution accelerated the trend to an even higher level. Factory relocation led to dense urbanization. Cities’ expansion and the use of telephones accelerated business cycles and fueled unprecedented production of goods. Rising wealth attracted immigrants, whose men displaced wage-earning women, and whose wives and children added ethnic conflict to the stresses already besetting a nation that was changing faster than many people could adapt. The depression of 1893-1897 was caused by overproduction. Food and manufactured goods were both produced faster than they could be consumed. Society responded in three ways: consumerism, state activism, and imperialism.35

Consumerism. By competing among themselves for sales to the public, producers and merchants created a consumer culture. Mail order houses exploited communications and transportation technology, selling and shipping goods to the most remote communities. Urban department stores anticipated the modern mall in attracting browsers with restaurants, activities, and entertainment in the expectation that some would stop and shop. Advertising became an art form, developing product loyalty by persuading buyers that the particular brand advertised was the secret to upper middle-class status. Entertainment became more hectic as fickle vaudeville, with a different program of ten-minute acts each week, replaced the traditional minstrel shows whose traveling troupes could not incorporate novelty quickly enough.36

State Activism. Rising prosperity came with worsening inequality. Wealth concentration and income maldistribution both rose steadily during the period. Even as the increasingly well-off middle class established popular standards for style and consumption, the number of those without access to the nation’s industrial bounty grew. The poor become steadily poorer and more populous. Urban labor conditions became unhealthful or dangerous, as even the children of immigrant families came to be exploited. Meanwhile, farming became more capital-intensive due to competitive need for advanced machinery, and so farmers were ever more vulnerable to losing everything during commodity price declines. As social stresses mounted and civil society seemed unable to fix itself, the state came to be seen as morally responsible for the welfare of the masses—a notion that would have puzzled antebellum politicians. Minor political parties with narrow reformist agenda proliferated and the major parties reacted by co-opting selected programs. Despite legislative efforts to ameliorate inequality and exploitation, the courts seemed to be in the thrall of corporations and the socio-economic elite. Laws meant to protect the powerless were interpreted so as to enhance the powerful. The 1875 federal civil rights act, which was meant to end “racial” discrimination, was first interpreted by courts as supporting corporations rather than individuals, and then ruled unconstitutional altogether. The Sherman anti-trust act, which was meant to break up monopolistic trusts and combinations, was interpreted by courts as outlawing organized labor action, while “trusts and combinations” simply renamed themselves “holding companies.” The Fifteenth Amendment forbade states from restricting voting rights on account of “race,” and so Jim Crow regulations throughout the South disfranchised Blacks using an assortment of discriminatory excuses. Despite a half-century of activism, only four states allowed White women to vote by 1900, and female suffrage by undeniable right seemed as remote as ever.37

Progressivism. The obvious need for social reform, coupled with the political system’s apparent inability to respond effectively, sparked a national voluntary movement known as Progressivism. The Progressive movement is analytically challenging for two reasons. On the one hand, its advocates agreed that it was the duty of all good Americans to roll up their sleeves and pitch in, in order to right wrongs, end injustices, reform society, end political and business corruption, and forge a new melting pot nation comprising every suitable race, creed, and color. On the other, they disagreed sharply about the details. Were the desperately poor the victims of cruel exploitation or of their own ignorance? Should social workers correct inequity by providing a welfare “safety-net,” or by teaching their clients how to become good Americans? Was business corrupting politics or vice-versa? Could Italians and Greeks ever become White? What about Jews? For that matter, if any ethnic group could be embraced by America’s expanding blanket of acceptance merely by adopting middle-class Protestantism and abandoning foreign ways, then what was to stop Blacks from become White? Progressives differed in the solutions that they advocated. More importantly, they differed in how they defined the problems to be solved. Self-labeled Progressives spanned the entire ideological spectrum, from nonjudgmental settlement houses and ethnic self-help societies at one end, to eugenicists and Klansmen at the other. WTCU suffragettes, fundamentalists, Populist Farmers, currency reformers, and public health activists fought for their aims somewhere in-between.

Imperialism. Apparently inspired by Ranke, the American Historical Association in the 1890s established the academic policy that loyalty to the nation should thenceforth define history teaching. In the same decade, the nation’s most famous historian, F.J. Turner, taught that repeated settlement of new frontiers had made Americans into a uniquely adventurous, optimistic, and democratic race, but that the frontier was now closed; that Americans needed a new frontier if democracy were to survive. This suggestion coincided with Mahan’s influential book on the importance of sea power, and so America belatedly joined the European scramble to acquire colonies. Americans became inspired by the vision: that the White Man’s Burden was to occupy lands inhabited by their little brown brothers, and lift them out of the dust of ignorance into the light of Protestantism. Americans soon learned that there were not enough little brown brothers to go around, and so the nation fought a short, one-sided, splendid little war against a geriatric Spain to acquire some brown brothers of their own. They then fought a long, ugly war of mutually escalating atrocities to crush a Philippine Insurrection by brown folks who preferred to uplift themselves without help. By then, America had become such an important world power that it could not avoid involvement in the First World War.38

Ultimately, what drove all five changes was technology. The first half of the nineteenth century saw the culmination of the Enlightenment in a flood of scientific discoveries, ranging from the germ theory of disease to natural selection. The second half of the century saw this science turned into an avalanche of technology whose effects, direct and indirect, transformed the nation.

The plight of African-Americans epitomized the brutal inconsistency of the Gilded Age. Despite three centuries since colonization, America’s odd endogamous color line had preserved two genetically separate populations. Other slaveowning countries had either absorbed their small African populations by genetic assimilation within a few generations (Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Mexico), or had quickly developed a unimodal genetic admixture distribution in lands where Africans had been a demographic majority (Morocco, Brazil, Puerto Rico).39 Inspired by B.T. Washington’s vision that successful Blacks who earned middle-class financial status would inevitably be granted social acceptance, thousands of Black professionals and entrepreneurs staked their careers and their lives on the New South. Thousands were then tortured to death in public rituals by a society whose vision of the problem to be solved was the precise opposite—that successful Blacks did not know their place. Driven out by Jim Crow and attracted by northern industrialists who wanted leverage against unions, Blacks began the Great Migration. This demographic mass movement from the rural South to the urban North created a Harlem Renaissance of music, art, and literature. It also spawned an endemic criminal caste among urban Blacks who, although used as pawns in management-versus-labor games, never received any real opportunity to work in factories.40

By 1920, America’s fundamental paradox had taken its current shape. The nation’s near-unlimited willingness to embrace immigrants, its reward of unmatched class mobility for those who have been accepted into the mainstream, coupled with the strange permanency of an endogamous color line that would permanently ostracize from the fruits of society an enclave comprising Americans of mainly African appearance.41 The causes of Jim Crow have been discussed by numerous scholars.42 It is not discussed here except to add two minor points that some scholars may have missed. First, it was a nationwide phenomenon, not a Southern one. Second, it may have been one of a cycle of plunges in “race” relations.

The Jim Crow event was a nationwide phenomenon, not a Southern one. Some scholars focus exclusively on the South to explain the Jim Crow event.43 But this may be because they focus on the terrorizing and disfranchisement of African Americans, which were phenomena limited to the South. But if you step back and look only at the strength of the endogamous color line, the strictness with which it was enforced, you can get a broader picture. As mentioned earlier, socially coerced endogamy is ostracism that excludes the enclave group from the greater society. The following graph, “Intermarriage, North and South,” plots the intermarriage rate at each census decade in two series: the black line tracks Black/White intermarriage in the former slave states. The grey line tracks intermarriage in those states of the Northeast and the Midwest that did not have slavery in 1861.

Intermarriage, North and South
Intermarriage, North and South44

The chart shows that antebellum intermarriage was higher in the South than in the North. This is not surprising, given the color line’s permeability in the lower South and its split nature along the Gulf coast. The chart shows that intermarriage had plunged to a negligible level in the South by 1880 and had virtually vanished in the South by 1900, reflecting the beginning of the Jim Crow period. But it also shows that intermarriage in the North fell by about one-third between 1869 and 1880. To be sure, the confidence-interval error-bars are large here, reflecting the small sample size available in these census years, but the trend is unmistakable. Black families were increasingly segregated from the mainstream during the Jim Crow era, in the North well as the South.

The Jim Crow event may have been one of a cycle of plunges in “race” relations. This is pure speculation, but it may be worth investigating. Judging by contemporary documents, race-relations plunged in 1730s, the first generation after the endogamous color line was invented.45 And, judging by contemporary documents, race-relations plunged again in the 1830s, consequent to the Nat Turner incident.46 And, judging by intermarriage statistics, race-relations plunged again in the 1920s.47 No evidence suggests that comparable plunges took place during the intervening years. Like economic cycles, each specific plunge can be explained by antecedent events, and yet our recognizing their once-a-century cyclical nature may yield broader insight.

The One-Drop Rule Kept White Families in Line

In any case, whatever the causes of the Jim Crow wave of terror and oppression, the timing linkage between Jim Crow and the triumph of the one-drop rule is unmistakable. After discarding the two popular but demonstrably counterfactual notions—that the elites who enforced one-drop sought truth or justice, and that their victims were somehow intangibly Black48—this study suggests that the one-drop rule emerged in order to keep otherwise compassionate White American families in line.

The triumph of the one-drop rule was a manifestation of the Jim Crow mentality of oppression and terror preserving itself from erosion. It is the same ideological self-preservation phenomenon that led lynch mobs to threaten “nigger-lovers” with the noose. It is the same ideological self-preservation phenomenon leads packs of school bullies to ostracize any child who defends their victims. In the behavioral field of group dynamics, it is a well-known phenomenon that, when one group bullies another, members of the first group who refuse to participate in the bullying are exiled to the victimized group. According to Napier, “any member who does not adhere will be seen as a threat… and efforts will be made to induce him or her to return to the group procedures.”49 In order to be allowed to remain within the oppressing group, members must accept group norms.50 Although minor exclusions may involve being left out of certain activities, the most severe punishment is that of “forced exile.” This is a form of social death because the excluded person is cut off from the support, care and spiritual life of the… community.51

Ordinary folks are just not cruel enough to maintain such an oppressive system without coercion. Families make friends with other families. Businessmen make deals with other businessmen. Laborers organize with other laborers. And young people fall in love with other young people. Left to their own devices, ordinary people would have woven at least a partly colorblind network of such family alliances. If this had been allowed to happen, Jim Crow would have collapsed within a generation or two, just as prior waves of “racial” hatred had collapsed in 1765 and 1865.

And so, the purpose of the one-drop rule—the idea that a White family could be consigned to the Black side of the endogamous color line—was to keep otherwise compassionate Whites in line.52 The court cases described in the essay “Jim Crow Triumph of the One-Drop Rule” reveal the pattern. When a family’s “racial” identity was to be decided, parades of prosecution witnesses testified, one by one, that a grandmother was once seen eating a meal with a Black tradesman, that an uncle was once seen shaking hands with a Black businessman, that a teenaged boy once schemed a silly prank with a Black youngster, that a great-aunt married a colored man. In every post-1900 appellate court case that this study has uncovered where a family’s “racial” identity was resolved on the basis of the one-drop rule, the family in question was as genetically white as millions of other White Americans. They had simply made the terrible mistake of befriending Blacks at a family-to-family level.

“Who cares?” you ask, “surely judges and juries did not think that you can inherit African genes by eating, shaking hands, scheming a prank, or by a non-ancestral relative’s actions.” But the record makes it clear that the one-drop rule was never about biological ancestry.53 It was always about family friendships and family alliances. Any White family who got too close to a Black family risked expulsion from the White endogamous group, along with their progeny, for all generations to come—a horrific fate, back then. If White families had been allowed to befriend Black families, the whole system of Jim Crow terror would have collapsed much sooner than it did. This does not suggest that some nefarious conspiracy plotted this solution to the problem of preserving Jim Crow. It is simply a routine and well-studied manifestation of group ideological self-preservation.

Far from being victimized by the phenomenon, African-American leaders were indifferent to one-drop laws and opposed to children of Blacks switching to adopt a White self-identity in adulthood. As mentioned earlier, Black leadership saw one-drop legislation as a White-on-White squabble.54 And Black educators saw endogamous-group-switching as morally reprehensible because it weakened ethnic solidarity.55 It appears that the White public knew that the purpose of the one-drop rule was to keep Whites from defending Blacks. At the same time, its purpose within the Black community was to define the borders of ethnic membership.

Other Voices

An alternative hypothesis to explain the triumph of the one-drop rule is that the Jim Crow wave of terror triggered the first great migration of the descendants of enslaved African-Americans to the northern industrial cities. The unskilled labor force in Southern agriculture comprised mainly Blacks. The northwards migration of Blacks reduced the availability of unskilled labor in the south and threatened agri-businesses (the plantations). Planters responded to the lack of labor by encouraging judges and legislators to shift the color line palewards, thereby increasing the size of the Black endogamous group and trapping numbers of poor Whites on the Black side of the endogamous color line.56 This explanation is buttressed by the lack of commercial plantations in the Cumberland Plateau and the concurrent resistance to one-drop enforcement in that same region of the country.57

Others have questioned four points: whether one-drop enforcers were indifferent to biological ancestry, whether Blacks suffered as much as Whites from such enforcement, whether it was scientifically supported, and whether the enforcers deliberately conspired.58

This study concludes that enforcers were indifferent to biological ancestry because in the decade of peak enforcement, between 97,000 and 130,000 Americans redefined themselves as White (despite having at least one Black parent). But only a few dozen cases were prosecuted and appealed. Even if only one out of every hundred cases was appealed, this still means that the authorities selectively prosecuted only one such situation out of every several thousand. Their statements on record show that they knew they were prosecuting only a tiny chosen fraction of such cases. Admittedly, their public rhetoric was meant to arouse support by goading the public into hysteria (or “paranoia,” as Joel Williamson puts it) over biological ancestry. But leaders’ public rhetoric does not always match their actual agenda. This may have been such a case. The ignorant public was obsessed with biological ancestry. But the educated elite knew that White Southerners were actually mixed.

That Blacks suffered far more than Whites at the hand of Jim Crow is a given. Nothing here should give any other impression. Jim Crow (and its associated lynchings) was the inhumane oppression of a pariah caste (Blacks) by a ruling caste (Whites). Nevertheless, the cause-and-effect relationship between the hyper-enforcement of the endogamous color line during Jim Crow and the exiling of selected White families to Blackness is bidirectional. Such exile was a horrific fate only because Blacks were cruelly persecuted. Had this not been so, exile would have been a useless deterrent. Conclusion: the Jim Crow terror caused one-drop enforcement because it is what made the threat of exiling White families to Blackness viable. On the other hand, the Jim Crow terror would have ended sooner had compassionate White families not been cowed into submission by threat of exile. So in this sense, one-drop enforcement prolonged the Jim Crow terror.

Whether one-drop enforcement was scientifically supported is hard to say. The heyday of scientific racialism had already ended by 1890. Peer-reviewed anthropological journal articles during the Progressive era focused on the cultural (learned) determinants of group (class, caste, ethnicity, race) formation and denied biological determinism. One can trace the transition in George W. Stocking, Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology (New York, 1968). Indeed, today’s grotesque mismatch between what scientists tell each other and what popularizers tell the public began with Franz Boas, The Mind of Primitive Man (New York, 1911) and the New York Times reviewer who said that the book was “the desperate attempt of a Jew to pass himself off as white.” One wonders whether the 1910’s faddish surge in public enthusiasm for bio-race was not in fact a cognitive dissonance reaction to the start of science’s denial of the notion. Nevertheless, one cannot marshal evidence either way.

Finally, it is safe to say that White elites deliberately conspired to create and enforce the Jim Crow terror. One-drop enforcement exiling White families to Blackness was also consciously planned. But a historical work must also take a distant view that explains why such one-drop enforcement was concocted at that particular moment in history, and not earlier or later. Although society’s elites choose policies to further their ends, there are vaster currents in human affairs that determine what those ends are, and what means are available at any specific moment. Hence, this essay pegs one-drop enforcement to the Jim Crow terror and leave it to others (Williamson, Kennedy, Van Woodward, Berlin) to explain the Jim Crow terror.

* * * * *

This essay suggested a hypothesis for the triumph of the one-drop rule in the first three decades of twentieth century. It showed that, although the court cases dealt with individuals, entire families were actually punished. It presented evidence that one-drop trials were not searches for either factual accuracy or for moral justice. It explained that the victims of the one-drop rule were White. To be sure, some victims may actually have had recent African ancestry, as do one-third of White Americans. But if this made them Black, then it means that one-third of all White Americans were also Black and the question remains—why pick these out? It outlined the causes of the Jim Crow wave of terror itself. It presented the hypothesis that one-drop was an instance of well-studied phenomenon of group dynamics involving ideological self-preservation. It also offered one alternative explanation.

In short, this essay hypothesizes that the one-drop rule triumphed because it kept otherwise compassionate White American families in line during the Jim Crow wave of terror. The phenomenon was nothing more than a manifestation of the ideological self-preservation of the Jim Crow mentality itself. This hypothesis will be disproved if evidence can be found that significant numbers of White families who defended or befriended Blacks being victimized by Jim Crow, were not challenged to prove their Whiteness.

1 1910 census for Rock Lick magisterial district, Buchanan County, Virginia, 166A.

2 Ibid., 168A.

3 Ibid., 165B.

4 Idem.

5 1920 census for Rock Lick magisterial district, Buchanan County, Virginia, 12B.

6 1930 census for Knox, Buchanan County, Virginia, 19A.

7 Daniel J. Sharfstein, “The Secret History of Race in the United States,” Yale Law Journal, 112 (no. 6, 2003), 1473-509, 1475.

8 116 Va. 767. Also, see Sharfstein (2003) for an excellent account of this case. Sharfstein differs from the above account only in interpretive slant. Sharfstein uses Spencer v. Looney to show that the one-drop rule (and “race” itself) was often contested before it became codified into statute in the wave of state laws that started in 1910. The above account, in contrast, shows that the one-drop rule was sometimes used for personal motives precisely because it could not be defended against.

9 Sharfstein (2003), 1485.

10 1930 census for District 12, Rock Lick, Buchanan County, Virginia, 3B.

11 60 Tex. Crim. 25.

12 2 Okla. Crim. 84.

13 23 Ark. 50.

14 245 N.Y. 510.

15 48 Cal. App. 2d 603.

16 97 S.C. 303.

17 153 N.C. 174.

18 98 Va. 499; 142 La. 788.

19 See under the topic “Admixture Scatter Diagrams” in the essay, Afro-European Genetic Admixture in the United States.

20 See under the topic “Virginia Rejects the One-Drop Rule” in the essay, The Antebellum South Rejects the One-Drop Rule.

21 See under the topic “South Carolina” in the essay, The One-Drop Rule Arrives in the Postbellum Lower South.

22 See under the topic “A Permeable, Shifted Color Line” in the essay, Barbadian South Carolina: A Class-Based Color Line.

23 See Ferrall v. Ferrall, 1910 North Carolina under the topic “Terminology Changed” in the essay, Jim Crow Triumph of the One-Drop Rule.

24 See the essay, The Rate of Black-to-White “Passing.”

25 Joel Williamson, The Crucible of Race: Black/White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation (New York, 1984), 464-65, 467-68.

26 See under the topic “Many Scholars Believe the One-Drop Rule is Stronger Than Ever” in the essay, Features of Today’s One-Drop Rule.

27 See under the topics “Other Evidence Confirms the One-Drop Rule’s Popularity,” “Many Scholars Believe the One-Drop Rule is Stronger Than Ever,” and “The Scholarly Consensus is Unpersuasive” in the essay, Features of Today’s One-Drop Rule.

28 Williamson (1984), 465.

29 Personal experience of the present author in querying historians of “race relations” by email.

30 See the Association’s “Statement on ‘Race’” at URL.

31 Nova: George W. Gill, Does Race Exist?: An Proponent’s Perspective(2000).

32 Franz Boas, The Mind of Primitive Man (New York, 1911).

33 For a historical survey of anthropological views of “race,” see George W. Stocking, Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology (New York,, 1968), 42-68.

34 Indeed, merely asking the questions with some tenacity has resulted in the present author being accused of “conservatism” and “racism” by history professors.

35 See Alfred Dupont Chandler, The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge MA, 1977); William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York, 1991); Alan Trachtenberg and Eric Foner, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age, 1st ed. (New York, 1982).

36 See Roy Rosenzweig, Eight Hours for What we Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1870-1920, 1st pbk. ed. (Cambridge UK, 1985).

37 See Herbert George Gutman, Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America: Essays in American Working-Class and Social History, 1st ed. (New York, 1976b); Ruth Birgitta Anderson Bordin, Woman and Temperance: The Quest for Power and Liberty, 1873-1900 (Philadelphia, 1981); Lawrence Goodwyn, Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America (New York, 1976); Nell Irvin Painter, Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919, 1st ed. (New York, 1987).

38 See Walter LaFeber, The New Empire: An Interpretation of American expansion, 1860-1898 (Ithaca, 1963); Emily S. Rosenberg and Eric Foner, Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890-1945, 1st ed. (New York, 1982).

39 See under the topic “Admixture Scatter Diagrams” in the essay, Afro-European Genetic Admixture in the United States.

40 See Alan Dawley, Struggles for Justice: Social Responsibility and the Liberal State (Cambridge MA, 1991); Roger Lane, Roots of Violence in Black Philadelphia, 1860-1900 (Cambridge MA, 1986); Kenneth L. Kusmer, A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870-1930 (Urbana, 1976).

41 See Gary Gerstle, American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, 2001).

42 Three whom I have found to be especially perceptive are: C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, 3d rev. ed. (New York, 1974); George M. Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914 (New York, 1981a); and Stetson Kennedy, Jim Crow Guide: The Way it Was (Boca Raton FL, 1990).

43 But for exceptions, who view it with nationwide scope, see Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901 (Cambridge MA, 2001); Michael Perman, Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908 (Chapel Hill, 2001); and the first-hand account, William Archibald Dunning, Essays on the Civil War and Reconstruction, and Related Topics (New York, 1904).

44 For the derivation of this chart, see under the topic “Intermarriage, North and South” in Appendix A. Census Data Processing Methodology.

45 See under the topic, “It was a ‘Divide and Conquer’ Tactic” in the essay, Why Did Virginia’s Rulers Invent a Color Line?, especially Governor Gooch’s letter to the Lords of Trade and Plantations.

46 See under the topic “A Watershed Event in Three Threads” in the essay, Why Did Northerners Invent a One-Drop Rule?, especially the accounts of the riots in the Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati.

47 See the figure “Intermarriage, North and South,” immediately above, or the figure “Black/White Intermarriage” under topic “Endogamy” in the essay, Features of the Endogamous Color Line.

48 To be sure, some victims may actually have had recent African ancestry, as do one-third of White Americans. But if this made them Black, then it means that one-third of all White Americans were also Black and the question remains—why pick these out?

49 Rodney Napier and Matti K. Gershenfeld, Groups: Theory and Experience, 7th ed. (Boston, 2004).

50 Susan Opotow, “Moral Exclusion and Injustice: An Introduction,” Journal of Social Issues, 46 (no. 1, 1990), 1-20.

51 Mircea Eliade and Charles J. Adams, eds. The Encyclopedia of Religion (New York, 1987);

52 To be sure, some victims may actually have had recent African ancestry, as do one-third of White Americans. But if this made them Black, then it means that one-third of all White Americans were also Black and the question remains—why pick these out?

53 See the immediately preceding note.

54 See the 1895 South Carolina Constitutional Convention described under topic “African-American Complicity” in the essay, Jim Crow Triumph of the One-Drop Rule.

55 See the discussion of “passing” and “passing novels” in the same place.

56 This hypothesis was proposed to the OneDropRule discussion group in October, 2004, by John M. Hartley at URL http://groups.yahoo.com/group/OneDropRule/message/7823.

57 See the testimony by the old men from Kentucky in Spencer v. Looney, 1914 Virginia (116 Va. 767), the anecdote that opens this essay.

58 Arguments proposed by George Winkel on June 29, 2005, at URL http://backintyme.com/ODR/viewtopic.php?p=2435.

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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