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the black hemings
Descendants of Jefferson and Hemings at Monticello Organization family reunion May 1999.
Mixed Race America
The race of Sally Hemings's and Thomas Jefferson's son, Eston Hemings, was indisputably "black" while he was a slave at Monticello. Years later, living in Ohio in 1850 as a free man, Eston was described by a census taker as "mulatto." A decade later, Eston and his wife had moved to Wisconsin where a census taker listed them as "white." What was the "truth" of Eston Hemings's race? To answer the question is to take a journey through America's mixed-race past.

Defining Race · "Forbidden Love" · "Passing" for White

Defining Race
The One Drop Rulearrow

"The nation's answer to the question, 'Who is black?' has long been that a black is any person with any known African black ancestry," sociologist F. James Davis explains. The "one drop rule," as it has been referred to, came out of America's early experience with race-mixing during slavery and afterward in the Jim Crow south. No other nation in the world defines race in quite this same way, Davis argues. It grew out of our historic experience with slavery, was perpetuated as pseudo-science, and remains with us so long as we need to withhold full social status and privilege from blacks.

Census 2000:  Check All Races That Applyarrow

In 1790, the first population census enumerators were asked to classify free residents as white or "other." Slaves were counted separately. By 1860, the census requested that residents be classified as white, black, or mulatto. By 1990, there would be more than a dozen more racial categories on the census. But, in an increasingly multi-racial America, identifying oneself by just one category has been difficult. In 1997, the federal government issued "Directive 15" which redefined race once again. After much debate and controversy, the 2000 census, will be the first in which to allow citizens to identify themselves by more than one racial classification. The politics of race have combined with the politics of the census count to make the 2000 census one of the most watched and argued over ever.

The Illogic of American Racial Categoriesarrow

"Race, while it has some relationship to biology, is not mainly a biological matter," professor Paul R. Spickard writes. "Race is primarily a sociopolitical construct. . . Not only is race different from what many people have believed it to be, but people of mixed race are not what many have assumed them to be." This may seem self-evident to modern readers, but Americans have been deeply confused about race for much of their history, using terms like "Octoroon," "Mulatto," and "Colored," defining and re-defining "scientific" racial categories, in an attempt to maintain lines that otherwise were too blurry to see. The "Illogic of American Racial Categories" is a definitive summary and analysis of centuries of national confusion about race.

Forbidden Love
Early Interracial Couples, Communitiesarrow

Largely unnoticed, some Americans in pre-Civil War America refused to accept the popular racial ideology of white supremacy and the danger of racial mixing, historian Gary Nash reveals. "These people formed families, raised mixed-race children, and strove for a decent place in their communities. . . They made their ideas, values and racial openness plain in the way they conducted their lives." In this excerpt, Nash offers portraits of mixed-race couples and communities in the 1830's, 1840s, and 1850s which challenge us to look with fresh eyes at our racial past.
Loving v. Virginia (1967)arrow

This Supreme Court decision found Virginia's anti-miscegenation laws to be in violation of the 14th amendment. In 1958, Virginia residents Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving married in Washington D.C. then returned to Virginia to live together. Mildred was African American and Richard was white. Shortly thereafter, they were charged with violating Virginia's law against interracial marriage and were sentenced to one year in jail. The sentence was suspended, provided that they move out of Virginia and not return for at least 25 years. From their new home in Washington D.C. they struggled to appeal their case, which was eventually brought before the Supreme Court.

Secret Daughterarrow

Growing up, FRONTLINE producer June Cross lived two very different lives. During the school year, she lived in Atlantic City with her black family as an adopted child. On summer vacations, she lived in Los Angeles as part of a white show business family with Norma, her biological mother, and stepfather Larry Storch, an actor famous in the 1960s TV series "F Troop." Norma had left June's father-African-American vaudeville performer Jimmy Cross-and had given June away when she became "too dark to pass for white." This site features profiles of famous Americans with bi-racial family pasts, readings on mixed-race identity, and personal stories shared by viewers in the "discussion" area.

The Legacy of Passingarrow

In her 1994 memoir entitled The Sweeter the Juice, Haizlip addresses the issue of race in American society by chronicling her own family ancestry, which encompassed African, European and Native American roots. In this American Heritage article, Haizlip writes about all the responses and letters she received from people across America concerning her book. In particular, she focuses on the concept of "passing" - that is, the becoming of one race to the exclusion of another. Haizlip tells the stories of her readers, --what passing means for them, and how one establishes cultural identity.
Tragedy of the Mulatto (1908)arrow

Ray Stannard Baker, who sometimes wrote under the pseudonym David Grayson, is known for his muckraking journalism, and for his biography of Woodrow Wilson, which won the Pulitzer Prize. The "Tragedy of the Mulatto" discusses the problems that mulattos faced in the early part of this century in terms of defining their identity and running up against society's conflicting, and often cruel, views on miscegenation.
Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912)arrow

James Weldon Johnson opens his "Autobiography" dramatically: "I know that in writing the following pages I am divulging the great secret of my life, the secret which for some years I have guarded far more carefully than any of my earthly possessions; and it is a curious study to me to analyze the motives which prompt me to do it. Though he portrayed himself as a white man with a fatal drop of negro blood, Johnson was black. The book, published anonymously, was a hoax intended to expose the nation's continuing confusion about the nature and meaning of race.

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