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Passing: How posing as white became a choice for many black Americans

Sunday, October 26, 2003

By Monica L. Haynes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The young unkempt woman still in her pajamas shuffled into her 8 a.m. college psychology class and sat down next to Barbara Douglass.

"I'm sure glad there are no niggers in this class 'cause I can smell them a mile away," the young woman declared.

Because of her fair skin, Barbara Douglass of Wilkinsburg often witnessed -- but never tolerated -- racism directed at other people. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

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"There must be something wrong with your nose," Douglass replied, "because one's sitting right next to you and you can't smell me." Although Barbara Douglass never told anyone she was white, people see her porcelain skin and her silky hair and assume she is.

But Douglass, who lives in Wilkinsburg, is a 53-year-old black woman. She could pass for white but she has never tried, she said.

"Growing up, I knew of people who did, and I was even instructed not to say, at that time, that they were colored. In order to get their jobs, they had to say they were white."

The new film "The Human Stain," based on a novel of the same name by Philip Roth, provides a glimpse into the world of blacks so fair they can live undetected among whites.

Thelma Marshall knows that routine.

During the 1950s and early '60s, she did what her mother before her had done. What her grandmother and aunts had done.

She passed for white.

"One time I told a woman I was black, colored in those days," Marshall recalled. "She said, 'You won't get the job unless you pass for white.' "

So that's what Marshall did.

"I passed for white on lots of jobs," she said. "I had to be white to get the jobs."

It's what many fair-skinned blacks did during those times.

Marshall's remarks are without shame or remorse. She felt she did what she had to do. Still, it is a prickly subject, and the 76-year-old woman does not want to offend so she asked that her real name not be used.

Passing for white offered not only opportunities, but also the opportunities white people received. During slavery, it could mean freedom. There are many documented instances of fair-skinned slaves who posed as white to escape. In modern times, it meant being able to vote in the South. It meant a job in the office rather than a job cleaning the office. It meant schools with the latest equipment and books, instead of dilapidated buildings and out-of-date texts. It often meant better housing. It meant being treated with respect, not disdain.

Barbara Douglass recalls the difference between going out with her white college friends vs. her black college friends.

"We went to a show, about six of us [black students]. The manager came and sat behind us. I asked him 'Why are you sitting behind us?' He said, 'I have to make sure you don't destroy anything.' "

Douglass said she told the manager that he had never sat behind her before.

His response was, "You never came with these people before."

Douglass, who the manager had assumed was white, encouraged her friends to leave the theater rather than be insulted.

The mind-set was "if you're white and you associate with African Americans, you're no good, either," said Douglass, who attended Clarion University during the late '60s and early '70s.

Dr. Edward J. Hale chose to follow the example of his parents, accomplished educators Harriet and William J. Hale. Edward Hale "adored and respected" his father. The proud son says, "He chose to remain black. He got to be a college president." (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

When she was a young child, her parents didn't emphasize racial differences.

"I just figured people came in different shades," she said.

But when the subject came up in her dance class, the 8-year-old Douglass approached her mother, who explained to her about race and racism.

"We are a child of God first. We are human beings first," Douglass remembered her mother saying.

In fifth grade, she learned that the United States is a melting pot, and she declared to her mother that she would be a melting pot.

Her mother decided it was the perfect definition, seeing as how her ancestors were Cherokee, black, Dutch, German and Irish.

Maybe all blacks would have defined themselves that way given the chance. Since black people first came to the New World in 1619, they've mingled and mixed with every race and ethnic group here.

It is not just the fair-skinned blacks who can lay claim to that melting pot definition. Those blacks who have the mark of Africa in their features and skin tone also have multicultural ancestry. They just can't pass.

Most blacks were never afforded the luxury of defining themselves. After the Civil War, Southern whites, not wanting this swirling of races to get out of hand and seeking to keep the white race as pure and powerful as possible, instituted a rule that anyone with "one drop" of black blood was black.

That spurred even more fair-skinned blacks to cross over and escape Jim Crow laws that kept blacks in the shackles of second-class citizenship.

Interestingly, many whites, if they traced their blood line or had their DNA tested, would find they have black ancestors.

In a 1999 piece for Slate, writer Brent Staples cites a 1940s study by Robert Stuckert, a sociologist and anthropologist from Ohio State University.

The study, titled "African Ancestry of the White American Population," indicates that during the 1940s, approximately 15,550 fair-skinned blacks per year crossed the color line. The study estimated that by 1950, about 21 percent or 28 million of the 135 million categorized as white had black ancestry within the past four generations.

Stuckert predicted that the numbers would grow in subsequent decades.

Marshall never thought to pass permanently, although she had family members who did.

Some fair-skinned blacks with "good hair" and keen features did not pass but did "the next best thing" by marrying others with fair skin. This was a way to keep kinky hair out of the family and light complexion in.

"For generations, my mother's side and my father's side married fair so they could get jobs," Marshall said. "My great-grandfather had a barbershop, and he passed for white, and he had only white customers in his shop."

But for many fair-skinned blacks, it was about more than getting jobs. There was a mind-set among some, especially the black middle class, that celebrated and sought to preserve their proximity to whiteness.

Some social organizations, fraternities and sororities admitted only fair-skinned blacks or those who could pass the "paper bag test," meaning they could be no darker than a brown paper bag.

To this day, Marshall, indoctrinated into such thinking as a child, would have preferred that her children marry white or at least very light-skinned people.

"All my children married black, much to my regret," she said. "I would have preferred they married white. ... It's still an advantage to be white."

State decides for you

Sometimes blacks used their fair complexion not for personal gain but to circumvent discriminatory practices. For example, in the 1940s, blacks who looked white helped integrate Lewis Place, a neighborhood in St. Louis, Mo.

Books about passing

1. "Passing" by Nella Larsen (F)
2. "Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man" by James Weldon Johnson (F)
3. "The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White" by Henry Wiencek (NF)
4. "The House Behind the Cedars" by Charles Waddell Chesnutt (F)
5. "Slaves in the Family" by Edward Ball (NF)
6. "Passing for White: Race, Religion and the Healy Family, 1820-1920" by James M. O'Toole (NF)
7. "Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class" by Lawrence Otis Graham. (NF)
8. "The Sweeter the Juice" by Shirlee Taylor Haizlip (NF)
9. "Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black" by Gregory Howard Williams (NF)
10. "Caucasia" by Danzy Senna (F)
F = Fiction; NF = Nonfiction -- Compiled by Monica Haynes


Like many cities during this time, Lewis Place had covenants that prevented blacks from buying homes in certain neighborhoods.

But in the '40s, fair-skinned blacks would purchase homes on Lewis Street and then transfer deeds to darker-skinned black people who had actually bought them.

Famed NAACP chief executive Walter White's light skin allowed him to investigate lynchings and race riots in the 1920s. White, who was raised in Atlanta, under Jim Crow, remained an NAACP officer until he died in 1955.

For nearly a century, just who was white or black depended upon what state that person was in. Between the 1890s and 1950s, the peak period for blacks passing as white, every state had its own racial designation, said Wendy Ann Gaudin, a history instructor at Xavier University in Louisiana.

Gaudin has interviewed mixed-race people in Louisiana who passed for white as part of study she conducted on that subject.

A person could be born white in one state and be designated black in another depending upon the racial laws in that state, said Gaudin, who also is a Ph.D. candidate at New York University.

During the antebellum period, enslaved black people were referred to as negroes. Then there were free people of color, who generally had mixed racial heritage and were born free to free parents. Free people of color could be brown with European features, light with African features and everything in between.

"They were not looked upon as so-called negroes and of course they weren't equated with white, either," Gaudin explained. "Society had a place for them."

They were generally in the building trade. The women were mostly domestics. Some were slave owners, others staunch abolitionists.

Louisiana's Creoles were known as free people of color, or Les Gens de Couleur Libres. Defined by their European, Native American and African ancestry, they enjoyed a preferred status no matter what their complexion.

"Creole is not a race. It is a blended ethnicity and a blended culture," Gaudin explained.

"They were accustomed to freedom as their condition, not to slavery," said Gaudin, who is a Creole. "In many cases they did not relate to African-Americans who were slaves."

However, after the "one drop" rule was instituted and Jim Crow became the law of the land in the South, things changed. Often, they would move and cut ties with family members, especially the ones who could not pass.

The law aimed at these "white Negroes," as they were sometimes called, actually forced more of the very racial mingling it sought to counter.

"Once these laws were [enacted], passing made more sense, and it became more necessary," Gaudin said.

Some who passed

In her 2002 memoir, "Just Lucky, I Guess," Broadway legend Carol Channing revealed that her father, George Channing, was a light-skinned black man who passed.

Wendell Freeland, a Squirrel Hill lawyer and civil rights activist, never considered passing as white, although he witnessed others passing to get into barred theaters or stores. "That was just casual passing," Freeland says. "I knew people who crossed over." (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

Channing said she grew up singing gospel songs with him and did not know this was anything out of the ordinary for white people.

When she was 16 and about to go off to college, her mother told her about her father.

"My mother announced to me I was part Negro," Channing writes. "I'm only telling you this because the Darwinian law shows that you could easily have a black baby."

A noted case of passing in recent history is that of Anatole Broyard, longtime literary critic for The New York Times.

Born black and raised in black neighborhoods in New Orleans and Brooklyn, he passed for white for decades because he did not want to be labeled as a Negro writer, he had said, but simply a writer. Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of the Afro-American history department at Harvard, chronicled Broyard's brilliant career and secret in a New Yorker essay that was included in his 1997 book, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man."

For years, Broyard sidestepped rumors of his ancestry and would credit his skin tone to a very distant relative who may have been black. Even in the waning days of his life, his body withered by cancer, he denied his wife's request to tell his children of their true heritage. They met Broyard's darker-skinned sister, Shirley, for the first time at his memorial service in 1990.

No identity crisis

Unlike Broyard, Shadyside's Dr. Edward J. Hale never sought the advantages of whiteness his complexion could have provided him.

He's a retired staff member of Western Pennsylvania Hospital, served as chief of medical services and acting director of professional services at

the Veterans Affairs Department Medical Center on Highland Drive, and he has taught at the University of Illinois, Howard University, the University of Pittsburgh and Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Hale, 80, said he followed the example of his father, William J. Hale, founding president of Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College, now known as Tennessee State University.

Hale had come from a family that had accomplished much by living as black people.

His goal was to do the same.

"I've always been fond of my dad, loved and adored and respected my father," Hale said. "He chose to remain black. He got to be a college president."

His mother, a graduate of Fisk University, headed up the business department at Tennessee State. She, too, was fair enough to pass, as were Hale's siblings.

His sister, who earned a master's in French from Columbia University, married a man who could not pass, Hale said.

"But they had a very positive marriage as black, and they lived happily," he added.

His brother "used to float back and forth between being white and being black," he said. "He did that for work."

Why didn't Hale?

"I chose black because I have a black identity. I grew up in an era where we pushed Negro as being capitalized," he said. "We had a heritage, and it was something important."

His parents emphasized being proud of who he was, excelling at something, making a contribution to society.

After getting his bachelor's degree at Tennessee State, he entered Meharry Medical College in Nashville, graduating third in his class in 1945. Two years later, he earned a master's in physiology from the University of Illinois.

"As a fair-skinned black, I could pass for white, but you couldn't get to be outstanding as a white because if you got to be too outstanding, people would look into your background," Hale said.

When he came to Pittsburgh in 1955 to serve as chief of medicine for the VA Hospital, he knew people would assume he was white.

They soon learned differently through his stand on issues and his friendships with other blacks.

Hale and several other black doctors formed the Gateway Medical Group, now called Gateway Medical Society. He was active in the National Medical Association and helped bring their convention to Pittsburgh.

"I had to make an identity for myself, to let people know who I was," Hale said.

Gaudin said it was easy for well-educated light-skinned people to take what is considered the high road by maintaining their black identity. Poor, uneducated folks with the same complexion faced a different reality.

"These were people who used their physical appearances because, in many cases, that's all they had," Gaudin said. "They weren't wealthy. In many cases, they felt this was their greatest, most valuable resource."

Unbreakable family ties

Attorney Wendell Freeland remembers a decade or so ago when he and his wife were reading in the newspaper about the fast rise of a young man who was white.

In the ensuing conversation, Freeland's wife noted that her husband was smarter and much more on the ball than the young man and should have reached the same career peak.

Freeland recalls his daughter saying to him, "You've got nothing to complain about; you could have [lived as] white."

Theoretically, yes. Freeland says he can fool even those black people who swear they can detect another black, no matter how fair.

Consciously, Freeland said he could no more pass than his brown-skinned brethren.

"I never thought about it," said the 78-year-old attorney. "My family ties were so great."

Freeland, who came to Pittsburgh in 1950, grew up in a segregated community in Baltimore.

"I learned by the time I went to Howard [University] that I looked different [from most black people]. I was not different."

As a college student, he encountered blacks from the British West Indies and other places who passed to go to the movies or to shop in places where blacks were not welcome.

"That was just casual passing," Freeland said. "I knew people who crossed over."

He remembers years ago that a high school friend was visiting Pittsburgh and looked him up. Freeland invited the friend to visit him at his office, which at that time was Jones, Smith and Freeland. But the friend did not want to come by until late evening.

"I was a Negro, and he was a Negro, and he was passing for white, and he didn't want to be seen with me," Freeland said. "That probably happens to many Negroes who pass, and I don't know how they can stand it."

Freeland, who lives in Squirrel Hill, has spent a lifetime utilizing his considerable talents for numerous social and civil rights causes.

He served as senior vice president of the National Urban League and was a member of the search committee that selected Vernon Jordan to lead that organization in the 1970s. He's been on any number of boards, including those of Westminster College, University of Pittsburgh and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and he had been chairman of the board of governors for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C.

As obvious as the European portion of his ancestry is, Freeland said it was never a source of great pride or interest to him.

"I'm more proud of my great-great-grandmother's manumission [emancipation] papers than any drop of white blood," he said.

"I have to tell you my complexion has certain advantages. I learn a lot about white people by being the only Negro in my group," Freeland said, "though I make it a general rule in certain places to announce that I'm black today because I don't want to hear any off-color stories.

"It doesn't bother me if somebody passed and had a life that was more successful and happy. I'm successful and happy, too."

Monica Haynes can be reached at or 412-263-1660.

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