A Brief History of the Color Line By Frank W. Sweet

A Brief History of the Color Line
By Frank W. Sweet


(Originally published in “Interracial Voice”)

Most of us unwittingly suffer from a fallacy which historians call “presentism.” We assume that folks in other places or other times shared our beliefs. We imagine that America’s odd racial attitude is global. We suppose that the “race” notion has persisted for thousands of years. In fact, North America is unique and the very concept of “race” was invented around 1676. How did Americans manage to paint ourselves into such a strange corner?

To illuminate the past, scholars define “the race notion” as the existence of a color line — an endogamous, impermeable social boundary. Endogamous means that folks do not marry across the line. Whether this is enforced by law (as in most of the United States before the Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia, 1967) or by social pressure from family and peers (as in all of the United States today) is irrelevant; the Black community is endogamous. Impermeable means you cannot switch sides. You are expected to die on the side of the color line where you were born. Again, whether fair-complexioned Americans of part-African descent are dissuaded from re-labeling ourselves White by law or by social pressure is unimportant; Americans seldom change caste.

Three features of the U.S. color line are historically important: how strong it has been, where it has been located along the complexion spectrum, and whether there was one line or two. This article sketches the history of these features. It uses the past to shed light on the present. It concludes by plugging the author’s books. Fair warning: it advocates no ethical or political position regarding the “race” notion; it is purely informative. So if you seek solutions, stop reading now. But if you are curious how we got into this predicament, read on.

How Strong Was The Color Line?

Consider endogamy. Today, about 60 percent of U.S. Hispanics marry non-Hispanics. The exogamy rate (the opposite of endogamy) of Native Americans is 54 percent. Irish-, German-, and Polish-American exogamy is at 50 percent. About 45 percent of Italian- and Japanese-Americans out-marry, and 40 per cent of Jews marry Christians. In contrast, African-American exogamy is a tiny 3.5 percent as of the 1990 census, and even this negligible rate is a recent historical maximum. From 1880 through 1970, Black exogamy languished below one percent.

Or consider impermeability. Today, the number of U.S. citizens born into Jewish, Hispanic, Native American, Irish-, German-, Polish-, Italian-, or Japanese-American families who switch to census-reporting themselves as vanilla non-ethnic adults also ranges from 40 to 60 percent. But only 2.1 percent of Black Americans switch to labeling themselves White in adulthood.

These numbers come from easily available census data. For references, see this article’s last paragraph. What’s more, since the census is constitutionally mandated, similar numbers are available from 1790 and state-collected data go back even further.

Looking into the past, we find that endogamy and permeability moved in precise lockstep over the years. They rose and fell together because they quantify the same social phenomenon — the strength of the color line. They measure how fiercely Americans believe in our odd “race” notion.

The first surprise is that the color line was weaker before the Civil War. Intermarriage was higher, and fair-complexioned biracials were knowingly accepted as White at a higher rate than ever again. (Census numbers apply to free U.S. citizens of part-African descent — about 400,000 in 1860 — and not to slaves because slave marriages were illegal. But then, slavery per se is ancient and tangential to the modern “race” notion.)

The second surprise is that the color line was nonexistent before 1670, it peaked in the 1720s, fell to a minimum in the 1790s, rose again to near-Jim Crow level in the 1820s, fell to a minimum around the Civil War, rose to its most extreme manifestation in the 1920s, and recently fell to a 1990 minimum. In other words, since its invention, the “race” notion has waxed and waned regularly in a hundred-year cycle.

Tracking the strength of the color line is not mere ivory-towerism. Other race-inspired phenomena like genocide, lynching, and Black/White ratios of segregation, crime, income, education, even intelligence precisely follow the rise and fall of color line endogamy and impermeability. For example, the Black/White ratio of wealth in 1666 Virginia — before the color line was deliberately invented — was closer to parity than today’s national figure.

Social historians study the color line as well as its consequences for two reasons. First, with a little instruction anyone can measure it from publicly available census data. Second, it avoids the focus-blurring plaint that, “cruelty, injustice, oppression, and hatred have always been endemic,” by answering, “true but irrelevant; we are concerned only with damage caused by the race notion.” For example, as defined above (endogamy, impermeability), the Muslim world and Latin America lack color lines. Indeed, dozens of nations in both hemispheres imported millions of African slaves. All but one totally absorbed their former slaves by intermarriage soon after freeing them. Yet no one would claim that those places are Eden today.

Today, “race” enthusiasts of every shade and party demand a government-enforced label in order to detect incidents of bigotry. One may examine their logic under the historical lamp that it is precisely by teaching our children to recognize and shun the Other that we bequeath such incidents into each new generation.

Where Was The Color Line Along The Complexion Spectrum?

The one-drop rule is not global. It is unique to North America. For example, England’s highest social level welcomed Afro-European intermarriage as late as 1761. King George III’s wife of more than 50 years, Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, whom he wed that year, was openly biracial, a dark-complexioned noblewoman descended from Margarita de Castro y Sousa, of the Afro-European branch of the Portuguese Royal House. Her biracial features are clear in contemporary portraits, the most famous being the one by Sir Allan Ramsay. Queen Victoria was her granddaughter. Two centuries later, during Queen Elizabeth II’s 1953 coronation, the Royal Household referred to the present queen’s African bloodline in a white paper it published defending her position as head of the Commonwealth. Every knowledgeable Briton knows of the present Queen’s African ancestry. Yet none considers her (or her ancestors Queen Victoria or Queen Charlotte, for that matter) to be “Black.”

For that matter, every Spaniard and Portuguese alive today carries eight-to-ten percent African genes from the approximately 100,000 sub-Saharan slaves who were imported between 1490 and 1590, and who were promptly assimilated into the Iberian melting pot. Yet most upper-class Latins consider themselves lily white nonetheless. In short, outside North America, even in countries that have a form of “race” notion, you are what you appear to be.

The one-drop rule is not old. It was not invented to support slavery. It spread across the United States after 1880. Slavery was 30 years dead when Southerners learned it from Yankees.

For example, antebellum South Carolina had a sharp color line. Passing and miscegenation were serious social transgressions. But the color line was shifted far to the dark end of the complexion spectrum. You were accepted as legally White in every way if you were reasonably pale and had “good hair,” no matter your parents’ appearance. Indeed, it was the upper-crust Brown Fellowship Society of Charleston who, in the 1760s, invented the grocery-bag rule of today’s Black elite (to be admitted, the skin of your forearm must be lighter than Kraft paper). As of 1830, 474 South Carolina biracials owned 2,794 slaves, about one South Carolina slave in a hundred. These legally White but genetically mixed slaveowners fought to preserve their way of life. Some were Confederate officers in the Civil War. Their sons and nephews served in the ranks.

One of history’s ironies happened in 1895, when South Carolina’s post-Reconstruction Constitutional Convention adopted the Jim Crow one-drop rule. Then, a hundred wealthy families were ripped apart by being re-labeled Black overnight when the color line shifted. Amid tears, knowing they would never see each other again, light complexioned former slaveowners passed into the White world. Their darker brothers, sisters, and cousins merged into today’s African-American community. One does not know whether to weep at their calamity or consider it just retribution. Either way, one suspects that opponents of a “multiracial” census “race” today may fear another family-destroying color line shift (but in the opposite direction).

Was There One Line or Two?

The United States is unique among former British or French colonies in having just one color line. Like the Spanish and Portuguese, British and French colonies were unable to periodically repopulate their European slaves as often as they could acquire new Africans. But neither France nor England had Iberia’s tradition of assimilation. So planters were encouraged to marry slave women, expand the growing biracial population, and select their own children as yeomen. They thus created the three-caste societies common to most colonial empires — White rulers, Coloured or biracial yeomen, and Black peasants.

For example, contrast the single U.S. color line with the two lines of apartheid South Africa. There, everyone had to carry identification papers indicating “race” as officially determined by the local Race Classification Board. Although the bureaucracy was cumbersome and inconsistent, it enabled change. Different members of a family were often classified differently and some people changed more than once. South Africans often requested reclassification and could appeal local decisions to the national Population Registration Board, thence to the Supreme Court. Like U.S. draft boards of the 1970s, South Africa’s local Race Classification Boards reflected local public opinion and often found it helpful to cooperate with those wanting to upgrade from Negro to Coloured or from Coloured to White. For example, school principals of White schools could keep up enrollments (and funding) by getting some Coloured children reclassified as White. But if they pushed too hard, they risked having the whole school reclassified as Coloured.

Antebellum Louisiana also had three “races” separated by two lines. A typical colonial system had emerged in Louisiana by 1780: a few White Europeans, a large majority of biracial Creoles, and a population of Black former slaves. It superficially resembled Haiti or Jamaica. Like South Africa a century later, but in contrast to the West Indies, Louisiana’s castes were relatively permeable. As Black descendants of former slaves ascended the economic ladder they were accepted into the Creole community. Similarly, impoverished planters fleeing the bloody chaos of Haiti’s 1791-1806 revolution descended into Louisiana’s middle caste. Within their own group, the Creoles developed a social system resembling that of pre-Reformation Europe: a social hierarchy based on religion, breeding, and wealth, with little significance given to shades of skin color among themselves. Many were powerful slave owners whose customs forbade intermarriage with free Blacks (former slaves). They founded the earliest “blue-vein” societies for Afro-Europeans of preponderantly European appearance.

The wealth, social standing, education, and unique history of the Creole community set it apart from other Americans of part-African descent. They identified more with European than with American customs. Most spoke only French and many enrolled their children in private academies in Brussels or Paris. As aristocrats, they were acutely self-conscious of a military tradition dating back to when they had helped Andrew Jackson win the 1814 Battle of New Orleans. As of 1830, 967 of them owned 4,382 slaves, about one Louisiana slave in twenty-five.

Incoming Americans gradually eroded Louisiana’s three-caste society after the U.S. acquisition in 1803. Before the Civil War, English-speaking slaveowners passed laws labeling dark-complexioned Creoles as “free blacks.” After the war, Reconstruction governments enforced those laws against desperate Creole resistance. The second color line, the Creole-Black boundary, gradually shifted towards paleness. By Jim Crow times, the two color lines had merged and Louisiana adopted the now-national one-drop rule. In short, the Louisiana Creoles tried to regain their old political power after Reconstruction’s collapse. They failed. And yet, to this day a handful of the older ones, especially in the bayous, still call themselves “gens de couleur libre” (free people of color) and resent being called either White or Black.

Again, we must not lose sight that biracial Creole planters were as ruthless in exploiting their slaves as any biracial Spanish or Portuguese grandee. Whether you think their culture’s destruction just or tragic, merely knowing about it makes it easier to understand opponents of a “multiracial” census category who fear the creation of another federally sponsored “race.” After all, very dark Louisianans suffered under two oppressors, not one.

Readers interested in the history of the U.S. “race” notion may wish to acquire some of the author’s booklets on the subject. These titles contain far more detail than the brief sketches above. More importantly, they contain hundreds of well-referenced footnotes and each offers a bibliography of scholarly, peer-reviewed sources. The booklets are available online at www.backintyme.com/books2.htm or from Amazon.com. They are also sold at numerous historical site and museum gift shops in Florida, or can be borrowed from many libraries (the Miami Dade Public Library has multiple copies).

Biographical Data

Frank W. Sweet is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He recently retired from a lifelong career in electrical engineering as a computer scientist. He has earned a master’s in Civil War studies at American Military University in Manassas, Virginia and is now working on his doctorate. A well-known nineteenth century living history interpreter, he is the author of numerous booklets currently sold at museum and state park gift shops throughout Florida. His two areas of interest and expertise are (1) military tactics of the Civil War and (2) antebellum race relations. He lives with his wife (also a re-enactor) in Palm Coast, Florida. Their web site is at www.backintyme.com.

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