Sunday, July 17, 2005

The Rate of Black-to-White “Passing” Part II

The Maroon Escape Hatch

On the evening of January 18, 1958, a hundred members of the Ku Klux Klan gathered in Maxton, North Carolina for a rally. They had advertised that their planned marching, speechifying, and cross burning would terrorize and teach respect to the Lumbee Indians of Robeson County. Apparently, the locals were “forgetting their place.” One Lumbee woman had been dating a White man and a Lumbee family had moved into a White neighborhood. The Klan had already burned crosses at each of those two homes, and so the large rally was meant to drive the lesson home countywide.

The Klansmen began assembling at 8:00 P.M., shotguns in hand. The Grand Vizier strutted about in full regalia. A huge “KKK” banner was unfurled. A public address system with a microphone was set up. Newspaper reporters and photographers scurried for photo-ops. The Klansmen ignored the 500 Lumbee men who had gathered across the road, also carrying rifles and shotguns. At a signal, the Lumbees fanned out across the highway, shouting war cries and shooting into the air. The Klansmen dropped their weapons, flags, robes and hoods, jumped into their cars, and raced away, leaving their paraphernalia strewn all about. They had not yet set fire to their cross. The state police arrived within minutes, escorted the fleeing Klansmen to safety and disarmed the Lumbees. Despite thousands of shots fired, no one had been hurt (except one news photographer who was nicked by a bullet). Only one person was arrested—a Klansman who was too drunk to stand.

The Lumbees then put on a show for the newspapers. They marched triumphantly around the field of battle, wrapped themselves in the KKK flag, hollered into the microphone, burned the cross, hanged the Grand Wizard in effigy, and a rousing good time was had by all. The next day, newspapers across the nation ran wild with the story. “The Klan had taken on too many Indians,” said Life magazine. “Look Who’s Biting the Dust! Palefaces,” wrote columnist Inez Robb. That the Indians had finally defeated the palefaces in Robeson County, North Carolina in January of 1958 was the most hilarious story of the week, nationwide.18

But wait. Are the Lumbees really American Indians? Although no one has published an admixture study of the Lumbees since the decoding of the human genome made admixture mapping reliable and consistent, an older study used blood proteins and craniofacial anthropometry methods (the latter is the method used today by forensic anthropologists when asked by the police to tell the “race” of a skeleton). That study found that the Lumbees were “about forty percent White, forty-seven percent Negro, and thirteen percent Indian.”19

The Lumbees have the right to call themselves whatever they wish, of course. They have worked hard to be seen as Native Americans, and some deny having African ancestry. The North Carolina legislature formally designated them “Lumbee Indians” in 1953 (the name is from a Robeson County river). The U.S. Congress officially designated them “Lumbee Indians of North Carolina” on June 7, 1956. And yet, according to the census, there were zero Amerinds in Robeson County in 1950 (although there were 30,000 “mulattos”). In the 1960 census, after the legislative fiats, Robeson county’s 30,000 “mulattos” vanished and 30,000 “Lumbee Indians” suddenly appeared. The mulatto “Croatans” had become the “Lumbee Indians.” The Lumbees’ self-reinvention has not yet been a complete success. The Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs refuses to recognize them as legitimate, in part, because of their very strong African admixture. Genetically, they are a typical U.S. maroon community.

Numerous communities, like the Lumbees, are scattered throughout the eastern United States. They are called triracial isolate groups (the anthropological term), maroon communities (the historical term), or mestizos (the sociological term).20 All such groups descend from Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans who escaped involuntary labor in colonial plantations and formed their own communities on the fringes of civilization. In 1946, William Gilbert published the first comprehensive survey of these groups in the Southeastern United States. According to him, these groups comprised, “at least 50,000 persons who were complex mixtures in varying degrees of white, Amerind, and Negro blood.”21 The major maroon communities that Gilbert studied were:

  • The Brass Ankles, Red Bones, Red Legs, Turks, and Marlboro Blues of South Carolina;
  • The Cajans (not the Acadians of Louisiana) and Creoles of Alabama and Mississippi;
  • The Croatans (called the “Lumbees” since 1953) of Robeson County North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia;
  • The Guineas, West Hill Indians, Cecil Indians, and Guinea Niggers of West Virginia and Maryland;
  • The Issues of Amherst and Rockingham Counties, Virginia;
  • The Jackson Whites of New York and New Jersey;
  • The Melungeons of theSouthern Appalachians, centered on Hancock County Tennessee;
  • The Red Bones of Louisiana and Arkansas;
  • The Wesorts of southern Maryland.22

Today, the two largest maroon groups are the Seminoles of Florida (a corruption of the Spanish word cimarrones or “runaways”), who were not studied by Gilbert, and the Melungeons (the largest group to have self-identified as White over the centuries, rather than as Amerind).

Most of the above names were derogatory epithets given by Whites, not self-labels adopted by the maroon communities themselves. In 1960, a friend warned Brewton Berry that he was likely to be murdered on the spot if he called someone a “Melungeon” to their face.23 During the Jim Crow era, many members of these groups vehemently denied having even the slightest drop of “Black blood.” In fact, some were able to receive “White” civil documents and avoid their children’s assignment to Negro schools by their willingness to commit mayhem against any official who mistook them for Blacks.24 The maroon communities are potentially important to the study of people switching from Black to White across the color line because they may form an escape hatch similar to what Carl Degler observed in Brazil.

In 1971, Carl Degler coined the term “mulatto escape hatch” to describe how Brazil differed from U.S. customs. According to Degler, White Brazilians enjoy the privileges of Whiteness, including that of looking down with disdain upon Black Brazilians. According to Degler, this “colorism” resembles White American customs during the Jim Crow era. On the other hand, most White Brazilians have Black parents or grandparents and are proud to acknowledge their fractional African ancestry. This is different from White American customs during the Jim Crow era. The U.S. tradition of hypodescent made it unlikely for any non-Hispanic of known African ancestry to be socially welcomed as White during the Jim Crow era. In Latin America, in contrast, generational acculturation and assimilation took place via intermarriage. Medium-brown offspring of even dark parents were no longer “Black,” but were labeled with any of a half-dozen terms denoting class as much as skin tone. Their European-looking descendants, in turn, were accepted as White.25

A similar mechanism may have operated in the United States during the Jim Crow era through the maroon communities. Three points suggest this. First, these groups have unusually high fractions of African genetic admixture for White Americans. Second, inflow into the groups from those designated “free people of color” has been steady. Third, outflow to the White mainstream has also been steady.

That America’s maroon communities have unusually high fractions of African genetic admixture are evident in studies by Pollitzer, Jones and others. The Lumbees have about 47 percent African admixture.26 The Melungeons (who in the past self-identified as White) have about five percent African admixture.27 Inflow into these groups by free persons of color has been going on steadily since the mid-1700s.28 Outflow has also been steady. From 50,000 in 1946 as counted by Gilbert they had grown to at least 77,000 according Beale in 1957.29 Between 1943 and 1953 hundreds of thousands of these hill people from the Southern Appalachians fled poverty and isolation and migrated to northern industrial cities.30 The major economic change they have undergone is that they have been integrated into the mainstream economy. The major social change is that they have become thoroughly White (accepted as suitable marriage partners by Whites, but no longer by Blacks).31

And so it appears likely that, even during the Jim Crow period, when the rate of Black-to-White endogamous group switching was at an all-time low, significant numbers of Americans crossed the color-line barrier through the Melungeon and other maroon communities. Where it would have been dangerous or difficult to “pass” into the White endogamous group directly from the Black side of the color line, it could still be done by using a maroon community as a way-station or stopping point. In one generation, a Black family of strongly European appearance could join the Melungeons, Lumbees, Redbones, or one of the other maroon groups. Then, in a subsequent generation, the descendants of the same family could leave Appalachia and join the White endogamous group in the anonymous cities of the North.

* * * * *

This essay computed the annual rate of Black-to-White endogamous-group switching by Americans. It showed that the rate has been continuous over the past three centuries and not a one-time event. It explained that only during the Jim Crow was there ever a need to deceive or to cut family ties. Except during Jim Crow, and for most of America’s past, endogamous-group switching was done as openly as it is today. It suggested how, even during Jim Crow, families could pass from Black to White through a two-step process that included an in-between stage.

Visit OneDropRule, a discussion group on the history of U.S. racialism (the “race” notion) sponsored by Backintyme Publishing.

1. 195 S.C. 1.

2. The data can be downloaded from

3. 36,023,000 x .0187 / 19.

4. See the essay Afro-European Genetic Admixture in the United States.

5. 300 / 0.007 = 42,900.

6. See the essay The Heredity of “Racial” Traits.

7. E.J. Parra and others, “Ancestral Proportions and Admixture Dynamics in Geographically Defined African Americans Living in South Carolina,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 114 (2001): 18-29, Figure 1; Mark D. Shriver and others, “Skin Pigmentation, Biogeographical Ancestry, and Admixture Mapping,” Human Genetics 112 (2003): 387-99, Figure 3.

8. 300 / (8 x .007) = 5,400.

9. 36,023,000 x .001382 = 49,784.

10. Joel Williamson, New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States (New York: Free Press, 1980) 100-6, 119-20.

11. For details, see C.L. Pfaff and others, “Population Structure in Admixed Populations: Effect of Admixture Dynamics on the Pattern of Linkage Disequilibrium,” American Journal of Human Genetics 68 (2001): 198-207 or Heather E. Collins-Schramm and others, “Markers Informative for Ancestry Demonstrate Consistent Megabase-Length Linkage Disequilibrium in the African American Population,” Human Genetics 113 (2003): 211-9.

12. Barbara Yanez, “Taking a Closer Look at the ‘One Drop Rule’: An Interview with Frank Sweet,” Mulatto Nation Times, July 2004.

13. Antebellum American society attempted meticulously to keep track of who was slave and who was free, but this is quite something else again.

14. Major W. Cox, “Alabama Quietly Ends Race Certification Policy,” Montgomery Advertiser, May 1993. Interestingly, Puerto Rico’s birth certificate, like those of most Latin American cultures, records the skin tones of both parents (choosing from among the plethora of available designations). This is presumably for identification purposes. But it does not record the infant’s skin tone.

15. The exception, where you can still be prosecuted in America today for claiming to be of a “race” to which you do not “really” belong, is if you claim Blackness in order to reap affirmative action benefits. In such cases, your “true race” is determined by the testimony of local Black community leaders. Your appearance is irrelevant. If local Black community leaders disown you, you may be found guilty of criminal fraud.

16. For Channing, see her autobiography Carol Channing, Just Lucky I Guess: A Memoir of Sorts (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002). For Locklear, see Gerald M. Sider, Lumbee Indian Histories: Race, Ethnicity, and Indian Identity in the Southern United States (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University, 1993).

17. See the discussion in the essay The Heredity of “Racial” Traits.

18. Brewton Berry, Almost White (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 9-11.

19. William Pollitzer, “The Physical Anthropology and Genetics of Marginal People of the Southeastern United States,” American Anthropologist 74, no. 3 (1972): 723-30.

20. The term “triracial isolate” was coined in Calvin Beale, “American Triracial Isolates,” Eugenics Quarterly 4, no. 4 (1957): 187-96.

21. William Harlan Gilbert, Jr., “Memorandum Concerning the Characteristics of the Larger Mixed-Blood Racial Islands of the Eastern United States,” Social Forces 24, no. 4 (1946): 438-47, 438.

22. The tabulation is from Wayne Winkler, Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia, 1st ed. (Macon GA: Mercer University, 2004), 19.

23. Brewton Berry, Almost White (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 38.

24. Ibid., 30-49.

25. Carl N. Degler, Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1971). Incidentally, Degler’s concept of a “mulatto escape hatch” enabling gradual ethnic acculturation or assimilation over the course of generations is sometimes misunderstood. In 1988, reviewer Judy Beiber wrote that recent studies “lay bare the limitations of Degler’s ‘mulatto escape hatch’ [in that Brazilian] mulattos never truly gained white status regardless of social class.” See Judy Bieber, “Race, Resistance, and Regionalism: Perspectives from Brazil and Spanish America,” Latin American Research Review 32, no. 3 (1997): 152-168, 160. Of course Degler claimed no such thing. Degler’s point was that White Brazilians enjoy the privileges of whiteness, even those White Brazilians who happened to have Black or mixed parents or grandparents.

26. Wayne Winkler, Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia, 1st ed. (Macon GA: Mercer University, 2004), 232-41.

27. Kevin Jones, “DNA Study Results,” in Fourth Union: A Melungeon Gathering, ed. N. Brent Kennedy (Kingsport TN: Melungeon Heritage Association, 2000).

28. See, for instance Winthrop D. Jordan, “American Chiaroscuro: The Status and Definition of Mulattoes in the British Colonies,” in Slavery in the New World: A Reader in Comparative History, ed. Laura Foner and Eugene D. Genovese (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969), 189-201, 193-6; Larry Koger, Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860 (Jefferson NC: McFarland, 1985), 12-13; or James Hugo Johnston, Race Relations in Virginia & Miscegenation in the South, 1776-1860 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1970), 206-10.

29. Calvin Beale, “American Triracial Isolates,” Eugenics Quarterly 4, no. 4 (1957): 187-96, 187.

30. Wayne Winkler, Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia, 1st ed. (Macon GA: Mercer University, 2004), 153.

31. Additional accounts of the maroon communities are: Jim Callahan, Lest We Forget: The Melungeon Colony of Newman’s Ridge (Johnson City TN: Overmountain Press, 2000); N. Brent Kennedy, The Melungeons, The Resurrection of a Proud People: An Untold Story of Ethnic CLeansing in America (Macon: Mercer University, 1997); Bonnie Ball, The Melungeons: Notes on the Origin of a Race (Johnson City TN: Overmountain, 1992).

1 comment:

sky said...

the real truth about the lumbees of roberson and adjoining counties of eastern north carolina is finally coming to light after all these years,and thank god for this happening. you see in 1885 a democrat mcmillan proposed an american indian identity for north carolinas biggest maroon mulatto community.this was originally a way for the mulattoes to be accepted into a then post civil war american society,this led the people who became the lumbees to further separate from their african origins and roots and caused many to verbally and violently deny any african ancestry,this eventually became an awful problem for those indentifying as american-indians as they did not have a clue as to what true or real american indians were actually about,not to mention the hardship placed upon their offsprings to indentify with something not of their own origins,this being a burdensome cross to bear.i for one can now say we are all passed those hard times and can rejoice in our unique bi-racial heritages of black & white, for DNA studies have confirmed this,we are not tri-racial isolates,but bi-racial people of very interesting backgrounds of colonial english/african heritage,and this is just grand. please read of paul heinegg & virginia african american studies that pin points our 1700's migration from tidewater colonial virginia to roberson,county,nc and areas. as well, please see the huxford lumbee DNA project showing us to actually being african/caucasian of many multiple varying degrees.also see lumbee wikipedia. all this can help to set our children straight on our true heritages,and this should be good enough nowadays for us to be accepted as modern comptempory americans. i thank the researchers in all this,let us raise our standards from with-in and take true pride in our great uniqueness.