On Borrowed Ground-Mixedblood Life

Mulattoes and Color Consciousness in the United States

Free Mulattoes and slaves of Charleston, South Carolina in organized in 1791. The free mulatto elite had the most tools to court such an attitude from white aristocrats. The source of these tools lay in the development of Charleston’s free African-American community. Free African Americans had grown mainly from selective manumissions, interracial sexual relations in which the mother was white, and immigration. Those slaves whom masters manumitted were typically past their usefulness or in special favor with the master. Masters commonly manumitted their mulatto children and mistresses in their last will and testament. Immigrants from Santo-Domingo in the 1790s were also a source of Charleston’s free African-American population. In each case most African Americans who gained freedom were mulatto. Thus, while the slave population of Charleston’s district was less than one-quarter mulatto, Charleston’s free African-American community developed and maintained a mulatto majority (73% in 1860) and were even known in the city as free people of color.7 Lighter skin color served as a noticeable difference between most free African Americans and their slave counterparts, a difference white Charlestonians recognized and free mulattoes exploited. In addition, the mulattoes from Santo-Domingo and those who gained freedom because of blood or sexual relationship with an ex-master tended to be educated and have some skill with which to make a living. Many also inherited money or property from an ex-master. Thus, not only did free mulattoes have light skin color to differentiate themselves from Charleston slaves, they also had money and/or property.
Mulatto elites most clearly employed the symbols of freedom through establishment of exclusive societies. Free mulattoes established the Brown Fellowship Society, the first of its kind, in 1790. It later became the most exclusive of many mulatto benevolent societies in Charleston. It accepted only elite (wealthy and respected) mulattoes into its ranks, excluding blacks, slaves, and the poor. The society worked hard to Page 7improve the lives of its members. It operated as a credit union for its constituents, pooled money to buy expensive property in the city, and educated the society’s children.8 The members of the society made a conscious effort to push themselves away from what they considered to he the lesser elements of Charleston’s African- American community, and they did so to raise themselves up in their own eyes and in the eyes of white aristocrats — for with white respect came privilege and safety. These mulatto elites took full advantage of their lighter skin color and affluence to gain this respect.
With the Brown Fellowship society free African Americans began to borrow the social ground which distinguished them from Charleston slaves. But these rich mulattoes did not create space for themselves alone. Other free African Americans and slaves who worked out, giving the appearance of freedom, gained space as well.
Free black elites followed the lead of free mulatto elites, establishing their own space on borrowed ground — space which mulatto elites had made available. Free blacks reacted quickly to the formation of the Brown Fellowship Society, forming the Free Dark Men of Color in 1791.9 The society served a similar purpose for the free dark elite as the Brown Fellowship Society did for the mulatto elite. It gave free black men an organized social outlet, allowing them to embrace their darkness. It gave them an identity, just as the Brown society gave to mulattoes. These dark men were defining themselves as different from both slaves and free mulattoes. The dark elite lacked the numbers and thus the resources to form a status group comparable to that of the mulatto elite, but in the face of both white and mulatto discrimination, free black elites had little choice but to close ranks and defend their portion of borrowed ground.
Page 8Both the mulatto and black elite defined themselves in opposition to slaves, the single largest social group in Charleston. This slavery was much different from the slavery of cotton, rice and indigo plantations of rural South Carolina. Urban slavery provided much more mobility and many more work opportunities than rural slavery. Many slaves worked as skilled or semiskilled artisans, as did free African Americans. Often these artisans had as much independence and autonomy as their free African-American counterparts. A full 15 percent of the slave population lived away from their masters. These slaves hired themselves out in the city and only saw their masters once a week to collect their earnings. They had the opportunity to live away from the eye of whites and develop their own social groups with other slaves and free African Americans.1O Another group of slaves served free African-American family members and lived as de facto free. Thus, Charleston slaves were far from being a homogeneous social group. Both slaves who worked out and those owned by free African-American family members helped to blur the line between slave and free in Charleston. It was precisely this blurring that required free African-American elites to use class and color as well as status to create their social space.
Poor free African Americans and slaves had regular contact, further obscuring social distinctions between the two. These African Americans, slave and free, went to the same churches, which “served as educational forums, involved slaves [and free African Americans] in leadership roles and provided the basis for a modest organizational life.”11 Slaves and free African Americans married amongst themselves and across the lines of social status, color and sometimes class. Slaves and free blacks also met at the race tracks, drank and gambled together.
In addition, slaves and free blacks faced similar discrimination form whites. Night patrols harassed both groups, and neither slaves nor free Page 9African Americans could stay at white hotels, go to white restaurants or to the theater.12 The push of white oppression economically and socially limited most free blacks and slaves who worked out. Thus, pieces of each African-American status group merged to create a new social group.
Ironically, the blurring of the lower levels of the free African-American community with privileged slaves gave free African-American elites the opportunity to establish a distinctive place in Charleston society. White aristocrats recognized and protected free African-American elite social space as a buffer between whites and slaves who passed for lower class free African Americans.

Since the sixteenth century, miscegenation between people of African and European descent has created a population of mixed-race people in all parts of the Diaspora. In the United States, this population was produced in three ways—the European rape of African women, legal marriages, and consensual sexual relations outside of marriage. The European rape of African women, which began on slave ships and continued on the plantations, resulted in a lighter-skinned mulatto class that served as a buffer between African and European Americans. Because of their estrangement from the African American community, this mixed-race group caused a significant rift in cultural and political solidarity in North America as well as in other parts of the African Diaspora. During the slave era, mulattoes were often given their freedom, which afforded them economic and educational opportunities over their darker kin (Isaacs 1964:68; Keith and Herring 1991:760–778). This was especially so in Charleston, South Carolina, and New Orleans, Louisiana, where prosperous mulattoes sustained endogamous social and political communities.

Attention to these disparities within the African American caste system are important to better understand the way in which class was intricately tied to color. Moreover, the legacy of mulatto economic advantage was passed down to successive generations along with attendant cultural mannerisms and ideological beliefs. Where the literature does address divisions between mulattoes and other people of African descent, some scholars suggest that at the turn of the twentieth century, they ceased to exist. This claim requires further investigation and is taken up here and in succeeding chapters.

While miscegenation between European American women and African men was not unusual, the majority of mixed partners consisted of European men and African women. Many of these men were upper class who took advantage of slave women or who courted mulatto women. In some parts of the South, even with anti-miscegenation laws in place, mulatto women had open consensual affairs with European American men. Women among the gens de couleur of New Orleans, Louisiana, are most notable in this regard. In many cases, female slaves were forced into prostitution or concubinage by their masters, but open consensual relations were the order of the day. Not only did European men find these women exceptionally attractive, but the women fashioned themselves as superior to darker skinned people of African descent. The practice of miscegenation in Louisiana was so common that it developed into an institution known as placage.

In New Orleans, interracial affairs were institutionalized in “quadroon balls.” These were regular and public affairs in which wealthy European American men formally courted prospective mulatto mistresses. When the man had made his choice, he met the woman and her mother to offer an arrangement, a placage, in which he agreed to maintain the woman in a certain style and provide for any children who might be born of the union (Williamson 1980:23). If the mother accepted the offer, the suitor established his consort in a home of her own. Often these women established their own businesses that outlasted their relationships with their European paramours. These liaisons were common between well-to-do men and quadroon women; however, such unions were initiated by men of all classes and nationalities. Foreign-born men from England, France, and Italy often courted quadroon women (Everett 1952: 234–235).

Some of these common-law marriages were short lived, others lasted until the death of one of the partners. The commonality of these unions is indicated in the following article in The Washington Bee:

NEW ORLEANS, LA., SET. [SIC] 14, 1909.“She’s my wife. We have lived together 38 years. The law can not [sic] estrange us.” Thus spoke Joseph Lawrence, a white farmer, in the second criminal court, while he was awaiting trial on the charge of marrying a colored woman. Through the arrest of Lawrence and his colored wife the police discovered a hard situation. All around Lee Station the white farmers and fishermen and other classes have intermarried with colored people and reared large families, regardless of the law against such. A number of arrests have been made, but it has been impossible to convict one for the reason that the white parties all went on the stand and swore they were colored. Just what the Prosecuting Attorney can do remains to be seen.

—The Picayune, New Orleans, La. (as quoted in The Washington Bee Oct. 23, 1909 Volume XXX:21.)

Mixed-race marriage had long been prohibited in New Orleans, but it occurred frequently enough that another bill was introduced into the legislature in February 1857 to outlaw marriages between people of European descent and anyone with “a taint of African blood.”

Although Louisiana was noted for its interracial liaisons, it was not anomalous: European men in all areas of the South were known for seeking out women from among the gens de couleur who were mulattoes, octoroons or quadroons, people who were one-half, one-eighth, or one-fourth African, respectively.

The American folk song “The Yellow Rose of Texas” is but one testimony to the desire for mixed-race women. The version of this song that most baby boomers were compelled to learn in grade school is devoid of its original reference to a mulatto slave woman, Emily Morgan (Horton 1993:137, Turner 1976), because through the decades the lyrics have been changed.

The song was inspired by Morgan, who unwittingly played a decisive role in the defeat of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna y Perer de Lebron at San Jacinto. According to Turner (1976), Morgan was a slave owned by Colonel James Morgan, who bought her in New York and transported her to Texas in 1835. There she was captured by General Santa Anna, whom she served as a concubine. According to ethnologist William Bollaert, Sam Houston succeeded in a surprise attack in the battle of San Jacinto against Santa Anna, who was amorously engaged with Morgan. While Morgan may have led to the demise of Santa Anna’s troops, she was also an inspiration for “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” which has become integral to American folk music.

According to Turner (1976:49) the song was “composed and arranged expressly for Charles H. Brown by J. K….Through the years the identity of the initialed composer or arranger has remained a mystery” (see original lyrics in Appendix E). Throughout the ensuing decades, writers have changed the lyrics, and after the 1858 and 1906 versions (see Appendices F and G), the term “darky” disappeared altogether, thus obliterating the metaphor of the yellow “rose.” While lyrics can easily be changed, the historical accounts, and, indeed, the progeny of mixed unions cannot obscure the genetic record. Despite theories that promulgated the inferiority of African women, it was not unusual for European American men to engage in conjugal relations with these same women.

It is not surprising that the reactions of the wives to their husbands’ affairs with African women were not benign. This was especially true if the women were mixed race. European American women were known to assault quadroon mistresses, heap scorn upon their husbands, and, in exceptional cases, sue for divorce. Because divorce was rarely countenanced in this era, European American wives had to endure their husbands’ insults. In one case, however, where the husband brought his mistress to live under the same roof as his wife, she was granted a divorce (Everett 1952:236). An accounting of the varied responses by European American wives is best summarized by Gayarré:

The household peace was destroyed; there were secret tears, placid resignation, or open strife and deserved reproaches in the Caucasian homes. Sometimes there was an apparent ignorance of what it was better not to know; sometimes it was tolerated with indifference, or easy good nature, as an unavoidable evil, or as a temporary aberration in which the affections were not engaged. In such an incessant struggle the quadroons watched with mischievous keenness their more fortunate rivals whose rights of possession were guaranteed by the fist of church and state, and it is related that they systematically pursued a course of disparagement and slander toward them, and triumphantly exulted whenever any well founded censure could be bastened on any married white woman. (Gayarré 1879, as quoted in Everett 1952:236)

Unmarried European American men also kept mixed-race mistresses, often to the dismay of the latter’s male relatives. But so intent were these women on engaging in these affairs that they would do anything, even sue their objecting fathers for slander (Everett 1952:237) to maintain these liaisons that not only increased their status, but that of their children as well. In some cases, what began as affairs ended in marriage.

Less frequently, European American women had sexual relationships with men of mixed or African descent—a practice that was much less tolerated than affairs between European men and African women. When they did occur, women were often given light jail sentences (usually six months). If the man was a slave, he might be given a whiplashing. If he was free, he might be imprisoned (Blassingame 1973:19). In African male and European female relationships, the more “respectable” the woman, the more European American society resisted these unions. In actuality, male slaves had sexual relations more often with European indentured servants  1 than with upper-class women.

Even though interracial unions were against the law during the slave era, there were a considerable number, especially in Maryland, Virginia, and Louisiana. The children of these unions in Virginia and in some other states were bound out by church wardens until the age of thirty. The servant woman guilty of having a mulatto child was sold for five years as a punishment (Reuter 1918:158).

The relative frequency of miscegenation in Louisiana was due primarily to a more relaxed racial atmosphere in antebellum New Orleans. This is not to suggest that slavery was benign in this region, or that mixed-race people were not discriminated against. The relatively lax environment did not obviate clear boundaries between Africans and Europeans. Schools, jails, hospitals, and other institutions were legally segregated. In addition, Africans could not vote and rape was a crime only when committed by an African. In spite of these realities, free people of African descent, most of whom were mixed race, were given more legal and social rights under French and Spanish rule than was the case in other colonies (Hirsch and Logsdon 1992:24). Free African Americans in New Orleans could carry guns, establish conjugal relations with slaves, and openly fraternize with Europeans in cafes and other public places.  2

While laws were in place to keep people of African descent “in their place,” free Africans regularly danced, gambled, drank, and copulated with whites (Blassingame 1973:9). This more tolerant attitude toward Africans in New Orleans led slaves to be more insolent than their cohorts in others parts of the United States.

The degree of miscegenation is reflected in the numbers of free African Americans in Louisiana compared to other states (Hirsch and Logsdon 1992:209, n 15). In 1860 there were 18,647 free African Americans in Louisiana, compared to 114 in Arkansas and 753 in Mississippi. Across the country, by 1860 488,000 Africans were free. Acts of manumission were granted as a result of military participation and faithful service. In some instances, slaves were able to buy their own freedom. These cases notwithstanding, the majority of freed Africans consisted of the progeny of European men and African women. Even though mulattoes were prevalent in Louisiana, they were ubiquitous throughout the United States.

In 1850 there were approximately 3,639,000 people of African descent in the United States. Out of this population, 406,000 were “visibly mulatto. Free mulattoes numbered 159,000, slave mulattoes 247,000” (Williamson 1980:24). Free mulattoes in the lower South were more numerous and prosperous than those in the upper South. While the majority of mulattoes in the lower South were slaves, many of the free and well-to-do mulattoes themselves owned slaves. As indicated in Table 2.1, after slavery the number of mulattoes in the United States increased.

The fact that the earliest slave laws in 1662 dealt with the disposition of mulatto children indicates that racial intermixture had occurred frequently and early in U.S. history. This was the case in northern as well as southern slave and non-slave states. In 1677 a European woman was indicted for having sexual relations with a slave (Turner 1911:29). In 1700 in Philadelphia, punishment for the rape of European American women by African men was death. By 1705, the punishment was reduced to whipping or branding—a code that was reserved only for African men. These punishments notwithstanding, racial mixture was frequent enough to provide impetus for a 1725 law that prohibited miscegenation. Despite sanctions against this practice, it was frequent enough in Pennsylvania that a settlement in Sussex County bore the name of “Mulatto Hall” (Turner 1911:29). By the time William Penn was ceded the colony in 1681, twenty percent of the African population was mulatto. Mulattoes were present in all areas of the United States in the early colonial period; however, their

Table 2.1 Increase in Mulatto Population

numbers in urban areas far exceeded those in rural areas. This was probably due to the fact that free African Americans tended in reside in larger cities. Urban mulattoes were more prominent in southern states, but as shown in Table 2.2, their preponderance was notable in northern cities as well.Mulattoes often viewed themselves as more physically attractive based on their lighter skin, straighter hair, and sometimes European facial features. In some cases, European Americans felt that mulattoes were more mentally fit than other people of African descent and considered light-skinned men to be better leaders of African Americans’ social and political pursuits. Mulattoes fancied themselves as superior to other people of African descent and fashioned themselves as “leaders of the race.”

A number of European Americans thought that mixed-bloods were more intelligent than other people of African descent, but they did not think them equal, in any sense, to people of European extraction. Even though light-skinned people enjoyed social and economic advantages, European Americans defined racial categories in Black and White terms and discriminated against “light” and “dark” African Americans, giving preference to lighter-skinned people when it was to European American advantage. Nevertheless, mulattoes strove to emulate European Americans in appearance and social and political manners. The goal of many people in this category was to create a third caste system that would repudiate the bipolar racial categories that defined racial demography in the United States.

Color prejudice within the African American community was pervasive. Schisms were evident at every level—from the selection of friends to the formation of religious and social affiliations. These divisions were rife throughout the country, but were most notable in Louisiana and South Carolina. The mulatto population in Charleston, South Carolina, during the latter half of the eighteenth century was small in relative and absolute numbers (see Tables 2.3 and 2.4), but made its presence felt based on its economic power within the African community.

In antebellum North America and during Reconstruction, several mulattoes formed exclusive social organizations that, while sometimes charitable to poorer Africans, were adamant in their commitment to the maintenance of the color line within the African community. This was especially the case in South Carolina. At the suggestion of Reverend Thomas Frost, a European American rector of the St. Philip’s Protestant Episcopal Church, James Mitchell with four other mulatto men formed the Brown Fellowship Society (BFS) on November 1, 1790, in Charleston, South Carolina. The BFS admitted “only brown men of good character who paid an admission fee of fifty dollars” (Frazier 1957:77). “Good character” meant light skin color and economic success. The Fellowship’s motto was “Charity and Benevolence” and had among its goals to provide aid to widows and orphans or “our fellow creatures.” The benevolence of this organization was mostly targeted to its own members and their families, which was in keeping with their racially segregated philosophy.

Table 2.2   Percentage of Mulattoes in Total African American Populations in Selected Cities
Table 2.3   Racial Demographics in Charleston, South Carolina: 1790

BFS members (see Appendix H) included tailors, carpenters, shoemakers, draymen, and butchers. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries these occupations were considered prestigious for anyone with African ancestry and were absolutely so compared to the lot of African slaves. Indeed, many of Charleston’s mulatto class owned slaves themselves and were also wealthy in real estate property.

Given the longevity of the BFS, the positions of prominence that most of its members held, and the degree of their isolation from the rest of the African community in Charleston, it is surprising that more information on this group is not readily available in any single source.  3

Most BFS members made their living from practicing a trade, but many were also heavily involved in the political development of South Carolina. For example, Robert Carlos DeLarge, born a slave on 15 March 1842,  4 was an agent for the Freedmen’s Bureau and was integral to the formation of the Republican Party in South Carolina. He participated in the writing of that state’s constitution

Table 2.4 South Carolina Africans and Mulattoes: 1850

and was a vocal and active member of South Carolina’s legislature (Christopher 1976:98). These accomplishments notwithstanding, his electoral victories were marked by fraud and resulted in his being unseated from his post in the House of Representatives in 1873.While serving as a Congressman, his allegiance to all people of African descent was equivocal: in one breath he espoused equality for everyone in “my race,” yet in 1865 he signed a petition that attempted to disenfranchise “ignorant” people of both races (Foner 1996:61). Delarge was also one of the many BFS members who owned slaves. Even though some mulattoes fought for equal rights for all people, others were interested in the welfare of African Americans only insofar as their own positions of wealth and prestige were not jeopardized. This observation is contrary to the way in which other scholars (see, for example, Harris 1981:290) depict the Brown Fellowship Society, and other color-conscious mulattoes.

Although members of the Society were wealthy and had adopted the social norms of European American society, they were not totally accepted by the latter. This marginalization, indeed, may have provided the impetus for the formation of the organization. While members were insular in their business associations, attitudes, norms, and marriage practices, at the same time, they provided certain opportunities for the less fortunate.

In 1803 Brown Fellowship Society members established the Minor’s Moralist Society (which lasted until 1847), which provided for poor people of African descent. Thomas Bonneau also set up a school (1803–1829) for people of African descent who were not members of the society. Even with their penchant for upholding racial boundaries, other mulattoes who were sympathetic to the cause assisted slaves in purchasing their freedom—this was, of course, before 1820, when a law was passed forbidding the freeing of any slaves. While some members of the BFS established institutions to assist slaves and other poor people of African descent, the majority was bent on focusing their largess among themselves. According to Wikramanayake (1973:88–89):

Distinctions of color and caste penetrated deeply into free black society, fissuring the group. The chasm separating the free black upper class from the lower orders, moreover, presented an almost insurmountable obstacle to the building of an organic community. With no real middle class to bridge the gap, the free black elite could barely touch the lower classes through organized acts of charity. Nor was its effort wholehearted. The upper-class free black did not wholly identify himself with the entire free black group. His whole way of life was a close approximation of that of the dominant white society toward which he aspired.

A small sector of well-to-do dark-skinned African Americans resented the detachment that mulattoes displayed. Consequently, in 1843, Thomas Small, started the Society of Free Dark Men (SFDM) (later called The Humane Brotherhood) for more prosperous free Africans and mulattoes. Even though the SFDM was less strict in terms of its color-coded membership, Small and other members of this group also owned slaves. Nevertheless, the SFDM established the Eurphrat Society that was open to all people of African descent. The purpose of this Society was to “alleviat[e] the couch of pain, and helping a Brother when distressed” (as quoted in Harris 1981:296). Like the BFS, the Society of Free Dark Men established schools for their members’ children (Powers 1994:50), had its own burial ground, and attended church separately from the majority of lighter-skinned African Americans. Similarly, it also served as a mutual aid society and supported family members in times of sickness and death. Even though the Society of Free Dark Men scorned the practices of the BFS, they were insular and endogamous like their nemesis. They owned land and tended to sell parcels of land only to members of their group and married within their class. Some also owned slaves.

Even in the face of these race and class divisions, some scholars (for example, Robert Harris 1981) argue that Charleston did not have a three-tiered racial hierarchy that characterized other states and the Caribbean. I suggest that even though Charleston’s European American community did not make sharp distinctions between mulatto and African, mulattoes did. South Carolina’s mulattoes in general, and in the Brown Fellowship Society in particular, married within their own class and color lines, they had their own burial plots, established their own schools, and worshipped in their own churches (when they did not worship with European Americans). In general, they thought of themselves as superior to darker African Americans and stayed to themselves. While some of their benevolent activities benefited Africans of all stripes, several scholars note that they regarded darker Africans with disdain. Their economic status alone created a substantial chasm between the mulatto elite and their darker kin.

Members of the Brown Fellowship Society were well off in relative and absolute terms compared with other African Americans of the period. Most members were involved in politics and real estate investment and acquired large sums of money from these enterprises. As discussed in Fitchett (1940:86), out of the 353 free Africans who owned land in 1859, only nine persons paid taxes on real estate valued over $10,000. According to Frazier (1966:149), 258 “free persons of color … were paying taxes on real estate valued at a million dollars and 389 slaves.” Slave owners were prominent among BFS members.

This is important to emphasize because some scholars (see, for example, Harris 1981:300; Wikramanayake 1973:40; and Woodson 1924) suggest that these individuals held slaves in order to allow them a greater measure of freedom than they otherwise would have enjoyed. At face value, this proposal seems attractive, if for no other reason than to assuage the sensibilities of African Americans and others who might find it difficult to come to terms with internal oppression.

But these sentiments cannot erase the fact that slaves owned by people of African descent were slaves. If it had been in the interest of their owners to allow them greater measures of liberation, a better solution would have been to set them free. It is important to note that there were free Africans and mulattoes who bought their relatives only for the purposes of freeing them from the control of their European American owners, and not for the purpose of economic gain. This notwithstanding, other Africans and mulattoes purchased slaves in order to augment their economic wealth. These slaves were considered and used as property, just as they were under European American ownership.

Slaveholding was practiced by African American men and women, the latter being more frequently emancipated. In 1850 free mulattoes consisted of 48.7 percent of the free population, yet “comprised 83.1 percent of the Afro-American slaveholders in South Carolina” (Koger 1985:29). In other states as well—in addition to other parts of the African Diaspora—slaveholding by people of African descent was not uncommon. In Mississippi, Virginia, and Louisiana slaveholding was more widespread, but people of African descent in all of the southern states owned slaves (Berlin 1979:273–279; Wilson 1912:483–494; Jackson 1968:205–229).

Harris (1981:290) suggests that a “careful analysis of the Brown Fellowship Society…raised enough doubt to question whether color consciousness was the prime variable in social relations among Charleston’s free Afro-Americans.” He goes on to imply that slaves owned by African Americans were not treated as property, but the historical record tells a different story. This record includes family wills that expose the nature of African American slave ownership:

I give and bequeath unto my Son Emanual forever my Negro boy slave named Joe. I also give and bequeath unto Said Son for life my Negro boy slave named Tom and immediately after the death of my said Son, should the said Negro boy have conducted himself toward my Said Son as a faithful servant, then I direct that he be emancipated, but should he not have conducted himself then I give the said Negro boy to such person as my said Son nominate and appoint in his last will and writing. (As quoted in Fitchett 1940:146 from Record of Wills, Vol. 36, Book C, 1818–1826, p. 1125)

Likewise Thomas S. Bonneau, a wealthy BFS member and a schoolteacher, stipulated in his last will and testament that his slaves, Scipio, Fanny, and Mary, should be sold to a Kentucky slave trader if they were obstreperous and noncompliant to his wife’s demands (Koger 1985:98):

I desire that soon after my decease instruction shall be given to have all my stock and other things appertaining to my plantation in the country together with the plantation itself sold and the money arising from the same shall go to defray all expenses, taxes & provided however the said plantation cannot be sold at a fair price and it can be worked by the hands now there viz. Scipio, Abram and Peggy so as to pay expenses taxes and so forth in such case the same shall not be sold but retained for the benefit of the family if at all event, the Negroes on said plantation whose names are above mentioned be disposed of there shall be an exception If Scipio whom it is my wish shall be trained together with my slaves in town viz.: Fanny and Mary to be subservient to the wishes of my beloved wife Jennet Bonneau and children. (Vol. 39, Book C, 1826–1834, p. 905)

Bonneau, a BFS member from 1813 through 1831, clearly did not purchase slaves out of benevolence, but profited from the labor of several slaves on his properties in St. Thomas and St. Dennis Parishes. Between 1822 and 1830 alone he purchased slaves valued at $4,120, a very large sum of money for the time. During this same time period, he sold two slaves for $620. On April 23 he purchased a Negro girl named Betsey for $230. Later, after becoming displeased with the slave girl, he sold Betsey to Joseph Dereef (also a BFS member), a free man of color, for $270. Mr. Bonneau not only discharged his troublesome slave within two weeks of the date of purchase but made a profit of $40 (Koger 1985:98).

Richard Dereef, another prominent BSF member, was respected by European American aristocracy based on his support for Democratic agendas (Democrats being the far right group in the nineteenth century). Dereef was a man of considerable wealth, which included Dereef’s Wharf, which he sold to the South Carolina Railroad in 1871.

through the generations. The fact that slaves were handed down like so many heads of cattle is testimony to their lot as chattel.Mulatto slave ownership, in general, existed in South Carolina from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century. Tables 2.5 and 2.6 indicate the numbers of African American slaves and slave owners.

Other areas had considerably fewer slave owners of African descent, but they were present throughout the state. People of African descent also separated families and sold their slaves to European Americans. These chattels performed various tasks, including rice, cotton, and tobacco cultivation, which added to the

Table 2.5 Number of Slaves Held by Free Black Slave Owners and Slave-Holding Heads of Family in Charleston, South Carolina, 1790–1860
Table 2.6 Numbers of Free Black Slaveowners and Slave-Holding Heads of Family in Charleston, South Carolina

economic wealth and prestige of their owners. Clearly these written testimonies call into serious question the claim that African American slave owners held their human property for benevolent reasons. Even though the social status of African slaves and freed people of African descent differed greatly, European Americans made sure that freed people did not enjoy the privileges exclusive to the dominant society.In fact, many European Americans resented the fact that “free Negroes” could move about without badges or certificates. In order to curtail the numbers of free African Americans, the dominant society set in motion legal prohibitions that would galvanize their safety and their hegemonic position. In 1794 a law was passed forbidding free Africans from entering South Carolina. This law was expanded in 1800 to prohibit the influx of slaves from other states.

In 1820 the general assembly prohibited any further emancipation of slaves without approval of the legislature. Because some slave masters tried to circumvent this rule and free certain slaves for “good behavior,” the legislature strengthened its ruling in 1841, closing any loopholes. As a result owners could free their slaves only under extreme circumstances, as for example, a slave betraying plans of an insurrection. But even this often was not enough to emancipate a slave (Jones, N. 1990:71).

Even though more mulattoes enjoyed nominal freedom compared to other African Americans, European Americans of all economic classes went to great lengths to keep the distinctions clear between “White” and “Black.” The legislature placed restrictions on Africans’ movement in and out of the state. Africans also had to account for any prolonged period of absence outside of Charleston. In 1822 (the same year as the Denmark Vesey conspiracy) a bill was introduced into the legislature to expunge free Africans who had entered South Carolina in the past five years. The impetus for this and other restrictions was fear of economic competition from hired slaves and free Africans. In addition to the threat of skilled competition, the Denmark Vesey conspiracy, the Stono Rebellion, and other uprisings around the country instilled fear in the hearts of most European Americans who sought to galvanize the slave system (Powers 1994:62–63; Wood 1974.). Toward these ends, they enacted numerous laws in efforts to control the movements of free people of African descent, mixed race or otherwise. A free African was

tried for crime[s] before the same kind of court as that provided for the trial of slaves; he was subject to the same kind of penalties—corporal punishment—with the possible addition of a fine; his testimony could not be accepted in court against a white person, though a slave was a competent witness against a free [N]egro; [but] he had full right to acquire, hold and transfer property; he might and did often own slaves. (Henry 1914:180)

Even though these laws applied to all free Africans, the most affluent were able to solicit the support of sectors of the European American elite. During the Civil War, members of the Brown Fellowship Society made clear their commitment to the dominant class when they petitioned the governor, extolling the white blood running through their veins and assuring him that they would sacrifice their lives in defense of South Carolina. Evidently, these exhortations were effective, especially because a number of free people of African descent wholeheartedly supported the institution of slavery.

European Americans naturally supported the right of freed people to own slaves because this practice galvanized racism and gave freed people a stake in perpetuating the institution of slavery. Ironically, even though freed mulattoes cast their identities with people of European descent, they were not really free. In addition to the proscriptions noted above, every free person with any measure of African heritage was obliged to secure a European American guardian who could vouch for the good character of his charge. Figure 2.3 is a replica of a guardianship petition for Jehu Jones, a prominent BFS member who made the bulk of his wealth as a hotelier. Even though guardianship laws were not strictly enforced, their purpose was to keep intact and to make obvious the ranking within the racial hierarchy and to reiterate the inferiority of the African presence. In effect, the guardian was to freed men (women are not discussed in the literature in this regard) what the master was to the slave.

While divisions between mulattoes and Europeans persisted, BFS members went through great pains to endear themselves to their oppressors. In efforts to stay within the good graces of the European Americans, the Society made it clear in their bylaws that they were not a political group intent on addressing any of the overarching problems faced by people of African descent. The bylaws stated, in part, that:

All debates on controverted points of divinity or matters of the nation, governments, states or churches, shall be excluded from the conversation of this Society, and whoever shall presume to persist in such debate or argument, after admonition and objection be made by the chief officer, they shall be fined in a sum at the discretion of the Society. (Brown Fellowship Society Rules and Regulations, (Rule XVIII) p. 12)

At the time, there was a law on the Charleston books that not more than seven “Negroes” could assemble in public at one time. Because of the Society’s ultraconservative agenda, European American authorities praised them and exempted them from this law. The self-imposed injunction to be apolitical was exercised on at least one other historical occasion which unequivocally marks mulatto allegiance to European Americans and their commitment to mulatto ascendency.

In 1822 Denmark Vesey, a freed African-born person, planned one of the largest slave revolts in the history of North America. Vesey had convinced more than nine thousand slaves that armed insurrection was their only hope for freedom. William Paul, a Vesey recruit, attempted to convince Peter Desverneys, a mulatto slave, to join their ranks. Because Desverneys’ master was unavailable at the time, he reported Vesey’s plans to William Penceel, a member of the Brown Fellowship Society (Atlantic Monthly 1861). Penceel encouraged Desverneys to report the incident to his master, J. C. Prioleau, which he did. As would be expected, as word spread, free mulattoes and European Americans became alarmed and moved to dismantle Vesey’s plans.

The conspiracy was soon unraveled and Vesey and several of his men were executed. In return for his dutiful service, Desverneys was granted his freedom and given a pension of $50 per year for the rest of his life. Once Desverneys was manumitted, he bought slaves himself. Clearly, this was not an example of benevolence because he later sold the son of Alfred and Lavinia Sanders, two of his slave servants.

William Penceel’s reward was $1000 and exemption from paying the “free Negro” capitation tax that all other free African and mulatto persons were bound to pay (Fitchett 1940:147; Koger 1985:176). Pinceel’s actions were also condoned by other BFS members who made no motions to expel him from the group. “While many within the slave community viewed [him] as an enemy and a traitor, he remained a respected and honorable man to the mulatto elite and the white citizens of Charleston City … [who] perceived him as a safe Negro” (Koger 1985:180). That slaves and free African Americans across the country gave away plans of slave insurrectionists was not unusual. That individuals who acted to support the racist status quo were rewarded for these transgressions is instructive insofar as contemporary behaviors bring the same consequences. Ironically, while free mulattoes and Africans sought to protect the interests of the dominant class, they remained subject to the whims of the European American power structure, just as slaves were (Wood 1974).

In spite of this, the Brown Fellowship Society and other mulattoes in South Carolina looked upon darker-skinned people with disdain—a phenomenon that existed throughout the African Diaspora. The Brown Fellowship Society was joined by another antebellum organization, the Friendly Moralist Society. Like its predecessor, Moralist Society potential members were recommended by incumbents and were subject to a vote by the entire organization. Not only were race and color essential qualifications, but applicants were also scrutinized for their moral character and class affiliation. Membership guidelines stipulated that a prospective member must be a bona fide free brown man, over the age of eighteen, of moral character, and of good standing in the community.

“Should it be charged and proven that any member is not a bona fide free brown man, he shall immediately be expelled; and each of his recommenders shall be fined two dollars” (Rules and Regulations of the Friendly Moralist Society, Charleston, 1848). They even refused membership to mulattoes who associated with darker-skinned African Americans (Johnson and Roark 1982:248–249). African Americans were also excluded on the basis of occupation and unmixed heritage.

Brown Fellowship Society members consisted of more elite and older men than did members of the Friendly Moralists. Most members in the Brown Fellowship Society were propertied and lived in a more exclusive part of town. By contrast, the majority of Moralists did not own real estate and lived in an area of Charleston known as the Neck (see Curry 1981:63). These differences notwithstanding, the groups were coterminous in their racial philosophies and ideals. Moreover, as members of the Friendly Moralists rose in economic stature, they became members of the Brown Fellowship Society.

While a number of “mixed-blood” societies were short lived, the Brown Fellowship society lasted for more than a century. E. Horace Fitchett’s (1940:145) treatment of this group indicates that there were still vestiges of the organization in the 1940s but that it soon died out; however, during my visit to Charleston in May 2001, I learned that the Society still exists although they are not as color conscious as they once were.

In 1890 the society changed its name to the Century Fellowship Society. In the early twentieth century wives and other relatives formed the Daughters of the Century Fellowship Society, the women’s auxiliary arm of the Brown Fellowship Society. In keeping with the times, the Daughters did not have as its agenda the struggle for women’s rights, but rather the advancement of the men’s accomplishments. The objective of this branch was to erect “a hall to the memory of the men who won a page in the social history of the eighteenth century” (The Holloway Scrapbook).

Other actors involved in similar institutions included Charles Wilder, state representative from Richland, and president of the Friendly Union Society founded in 1852, and Henry Cardozo, senator from Kershaw, a member of the Bonneau Society. Still other light-skinned people found ways of distancing themselves from the rest of African America.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, people of mixed descent continued to form exclusive groups. While many of these organizations did not include a color requirement as part of their written charter, it was implicit that membership in these groups was open only to people of lighter skin. Such individuals continued to curry favor with the European American community as well. This subject is taken up in more detail later. While some African Americans were striving for a closer fit within European American society, others attempted to distance themselves as far as possible.


While the majority of people of African descent struggled or simply hoped for freedom, and free mulattoes tended to side with European American society, others had had enough of European racial hegemony and sought to emigrate to anywhere outside of America. Africa was their first choice. This movement began in the eighteenth century when eighty Boston Africans petitioned the state legislature for funding to repatriate. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries other African Americans petitioned local and state governments for reparations for the purpose of repatriating back to Africa. Others formed their own organizations and attempted to migrate home (see Bittle and Geiss 1964; Blyden 1967; Drachler 1975; Esedebe 1982; Redkey 1969; Shick 1980; Uya 1971).

In 1816 a group of prominent European Americans  5 calling themselves the American Colonization Society (ACS) petitioned the federal government for funds to send Africans in America to Liberia. While many Africans and mulattoes wanted to emigrate, their motivations were different from those of the ACS, who were interested in ridding the United States of free Africans (Ferkiss 1966:292; Weisbord 1973:12–13). The fear was that they would incite enslaved Africans to rebel—a concern that plagued the European plantocracy throughout the slave era.

Many Africans, free and slave, strongly objected to repatriation efforts, asserting that they had shed their blood for America, that they had become part of its fabric, and would struggle for their freedom in the land they had come to know as home. But others went gladly. Between 1822 and 1867 the ACS shipped more than 18,000 people back to Africa (Liebenow 1969:8). Other diaspora Africans from the Caribbean were also taken to Africa under ACS auspices, including five hundred Jamaicans (mostly maroons) who were shipped to Nova Scotia and then Sierra Leone in 1800. Again, the impetus for Europe’s role in these ventures was to make the island of Jamaica safe for European suzerainty. Insurrectionary Bajans (Barbadians) were exiled to Sierra Leone in 1819 for similar reasons (Fyfe 1962:136, 147, 291).

Many diaspora African repatriates in West Africa felt themselves a cut above their indigenous kin and considered Africans to be heathens just as European slaves traders and explorers did, and exploited them for their land and labor. In spite of this, there were well-known returnees who advocated that diaspora Africans learn the ways of their African brothers and sisters. Among them was Edward Blyden from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, who clearly articulated these ideas when he wrote:

Black people who have lived in civilized communities, where there are different races, know the disparaging views which are entertained of Negro people by their neighbors, and often, alas, by themselves. Negroes in such communities, experience the greatest imaginable inconvenience. They never feel at home. In the depth of their being they always feel themselves strangers, and the only escape from this feeling is to escape from themselves. It is painful in America to see the efforts which are made by Negroes to secure outward conformity to the appearance of the dominant race. (1967:76–77)

Blyden, along with Henry McNeal Turner, Paul Cuffe, Martin Delany, and Marcus Garvey, was among the more prominent advocates of cultural and economic pan-Africanism. Although these leaders spent a good part of their lives attempting to reunite diaspora Africans to their homeland, their plans faltered for a number of reasons; most important was the lack of adequate funds. If diaspora Africans had received reparations after slavery, as their masters did, they may have been more successful. As it was, many emigrants went to Africa with very little. This and the fact that the environment and infrastructure on the continent lead many to their deaths did not bode well for a full-blown repatriation movement. Many of those who survived attempted to return to the United States. In spite of these minority efforts to settle in the motherland, the majority of people of African descent were wedded to the Americas. But marriage within a hostile environment born in slavery proved difficult, at best.


Even after the Civil War, internecine color struggles persisted as Jim Crow laws became more entrenched. Lynchings increased and African Americans continued to work the soil and reap few of its benefits. Economic advancement was further curtailed by a peonage system that kept African Americans beleaguered and indebted to former slave masters. Under this system, landless African Americans were compelled to rent land, tools, and animals in order to produce crops for sale and subsistence. But high rents and fixed scales left African Americans empty-handed at the end of the day. Thus, while European Americans were forceful and singular in their siege upon African people, African Americans weakened their own efforts for de facto freedom due to fissions around issues of class and color. Even the African American church, which served as the locus for organizing freedom movements, operated within a color caste system (Frazier 1963:31).

In 1870, the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church split off from the African Methodist Episcopal Church based on color hierarchy. This appellation was only changed from “Colored” to “Christian” in 1954. Color-conscious congregations existed in many parts of the United States and usually used a lightness test to determine who was eligible for admittance. In some churches, African Americans were subject to the bag test which involved placing an arm inside a brown paper bag. Only if the skin on the arm was lighter than the color of the bag would a prospective member be invited to attend church services. Other churches painted their doors a light shade of brown, and anyone whose skin was darker than the door was politely invited to seek religious services elsewhere. And in still other houses of worship throughout Virginia and in such cities as Philadelphia and New Orleans,

a fine-toothed comb was hung on a rope near the front entrance. If one’s hair was too nappy and snagged in the comb, entry was denied. (Russell, Wilson, and Hall 1992: 27–28)

In Nashville, Tennessee, the First Congressional Church was known as a blue-vein institution or as “the B.V. church” (Robbins 1980). In Savannah, Georgia, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church was known as a color-coded institution dominated by light-skinned aristocrats. In 1872, when a near-white vestryman attempted to exclude all dark-skinned people from the church, J. Robert Love, a dark-skinned member of the congregation, strongly objected to this proposal and ultimately, along with other African Americans, formed their own St. Augustine Church. It was not until 1943 that the two congregations merged to form St. Matthews church.

St. Thomas African Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, the first African Episcopal church in the United States, was another example of a church that rose out of African American expungement from a European American congregation; in this case, St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. St. Thomas soon formed the Sons of St. Thomas, whose constituents were elite members among Philadelphia’s most well-to-do African Americans.

There were many such churches throughout the country, but, according to Gatewood (1990:281),

Few if any other [B]lack Episcopal congregations acquired a reputation for exclusiveness equal to that of St. Marks in Charleston, South Carolina. Founded in 1865 by fair-complexioned people of color who were freed before the Civil War, St. Mark’s was for years the center of a controversy prompted by its effort to obtain representation in the Diocesan convention of South Carolina.

Among its founders were prominent families such as the Bennetts, McKinlays, Holloways, Dereefs, and Kinlochs, among others. The exclusive character of elite society was indicated by the fact that many of the members of St. Mark’s were also members of the Brown Fellowship Society. St. Mark’s did not allow anyone who was not an octoroon to become a member. St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Chicago, the Episcopal Church in Arkansas, All Saints’ Church in St. Louis, and St. Phillips Church in Omaha, Nebraska, were also elitist, colorist, and nepotistic. The racial makeup of these organizations was not only reflected in skin color, but in the substance and tenor of the services as well. The mannerisms, dress, and music were more sedate and more like European American services.

For decades following slavery, mulattoes continued their endogamous patterns and formed private clubs to consolidate their social and political privilege (Russell, Wilson, and Hall 1992:24–26). Among these were the Orpheus Glee Club, the Monocan Club, and the Bon Ton Society in Washington, D.C. With the exception of the Bon Ton Society, which had formal rules regarding color, color-coded membership rules were tacitly instituted. Membership requirements made it such that only the upper class could join. That most of the upper class were mixed-race and tended to be insular in their social relations was well-known.

The Blue Vein Society, organized in Nashville, Tennessee (1889), was another organization primarily based on skin color. The rules for inclusion left nothing to the imagination because the

applicant had to be fair enough for the spidery network of purplish veins at the wrist to be visible to a panel of expert judges. Access to certain vacation resorts, like the Highland Beach on Chesapeake Bay, was even said to be restricted to blue-vein members. (Russell, Wilson, and Hall 1992:25)

In spite of its importance to African American historiography, very little substantive work has been written on the BVS and similar organizations.  6 Whether scholars thought that this beacon of racial exclusiveness was unimportant or whether they did not want to fully expose the internal color hierarchy in African America is unclear.

After the formation of the Blue Vein Society in Tennessee, “blue veinism” became a generalized term used by darker-skinned African Americans to refer to mixed-bloods who thought themselves superior. Mulattoes in other cities also formed exclusive organizations that consolidated social and economic privilege among its members. While they may not have referred to themselves as “blue vein,” the character of their clubs reflected the attitudes and practices of the Nashville group. So common were these societies that a reiteration of their policies and sentiments often appeared in nineteenth and early twentieth century novels written by mulattoes, other people of African descent, and European Americans (see, for example,. Tourgée 1890 and Hughes 1979).

Detroit was another city where color clearly marked people of different classes within the African American community. Detroit’s “cultured colored” families regularly intermingled with Whites in political organizations, reform clubs, and small business ventures while their social activities moved parallel to but independent of White society (Fishel 1980).

Many members of the elite in major cities were well educated, light-skinned, professional people who were teachers, lawyers, doctors, or small businessmen. Other nouveau riche included barbers, servants, stewards, and waiters who acquired their wealth from the large tips doled out in private clubs, steamboats, and the like. Many of these mulattoes lived ostentatiously and soon ran out of cash and so died in poverty. Many mulatto elites with old money were public figures who made a name in African American historiography through their work in politics, business, or literature.

Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858–1932) was one of the more prominent authors who focused on the vicissitudes of the internal color line. His specific reference to blue veiners and the plight of the mulatto can be found in his short stories, including The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (1967) and The House Behind the Cedars (1900). Although he wrote sensitively and sometimes derisively about these issues, he himself was a member of the Social Circle in Cleveland, Ohio—a city that was at the pinnacle (or, if you wish, the nadir) of colorism. Along with the Chestnutts were other prominent individuals of the Circle including John Green, Leon Wilson, John Hope, and Powhattan Henderson. These and other mulattoes in Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus held themselves aloof from other African Americans and rarely took part in their social or political affairs. When not cavorting among themselves, they took great pains to join European American religious and secular institutions. Sometimes to their dismay, they were rejected from these arenas because in the eyes of European Americans, they were inextricably tied to those who were more obviously African (Gerber 1976:133).

Other organizations that were virtually limited to light-skinned members (or brown-skinned people whose economic credentials compensated for their skin color), included the Douglass Literary Society (Columbus, Ohio); the Kingdom, the Lotus Club, and the 400 (Washington, D. C.); and the Manasseh Society in the Midwest. While this list of organizations is not exhaustive, it is indicative of the proliferation of such groups around the country.

It is important to note here that most African Americans, regardless of skin color, have assumed European American cultural habits—this has been the case since the days of slavery. At the same time, we have maintained and developed our distinctive cultural habits and identities. What is significant here is that a proportion of mixed-race people have always seen themselves as a cut above the rest, and have been endogamous in their social and kinship relations. In an Ebony magazine article (1955:55), “Negro Blue Bloods,” the “brown aristocracy” continued to keep to themselves in family matters, social gatherings, and other milieu. That class was positively correlated with light skin is made clear in other Ebony articles, including “Society Rulers of 20 Cities” (1949:62–66) and “America’s Ten Best-Dressed Negro Women” (1953:32–35).

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, class is less frequently correlated with the degree of African ancestry; however, a significant correlation persists (see Keith and Herring 1991:760–780). In social matters there is ample evidence that color remains a major factor within the African American community in matters of mate selection and the formation of criteria for beauty standards. I take this topic up in more detail in the following chapters.


As debates and tensions persisted within the African American community, European American racism continued at ideological and legal levels. Resistance to this state of affairs was consistent throughout slavery in America and continued after its demise. One of the signature cases that characterized the post-bellum era was Homer Adolph Plessy vs. The State of Louisiana, popularly known as Plessy vs. Ferguson). This case is relevant not only because it characterizes the racial climate of the day, but for its instructiveness on the complexity of color consciousness among European and African Americans. This landmark case is well recorded, thus only a brief outline is necessary here.

On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy, a shoemaker from New Orleans, was incarcerated for sitting in a “White Only” railroad car of the East Louisiana Railroad. Plessy took the case to court and argued that the Separate Car Act violated his Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. John Howard Ferguson, a lawyer from Massachusetts who adjudicated the case, decided that the state had

a right to uphold the Separate Car Act on interstate travel. Plessy appealed to the state Supreme Court, where Justice Henry Brown upheld Ferguson’s decision. The language in his decision clearly demonstrates the power of white privilege to reinterpret the law in ways that worked to majority advantage. Brown declared that the Separate Car Act does not conflict with the Thirteenth Amendment since it had no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races. … The object of the [Fourteenth Amendment] was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races below the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinction based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality, or a comingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.

The only dissenter in the case, Justice John Harlan, emphasized that the Constitution was intended to be color-blind and that “in respect to civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.” For decades to come, Harlan’s words fell on deaf ears in the South and other parts of the country and African Americans had yet to enjoy the freedoms promised by the Reconstruction Amendments. Moreover, Plessy vs. Ferguson effectively redoubled the effects of the 1883 constitutional amendment that overturned the 1875 Civil Rights Act that declared public accommodations equally available to all citizens. With their ability to change state and constitutional law at their discretion, European Americans extended their dominance and white-skin privilege.

What is even more interesting about Plessy’s case for our purposes here is that Homer Plessy was not outraged because the rights of African Americans were once again abrogated. Instead, his concern was that he was not regarded as a European American. He was an octoroon, seven-eighths European and one-eighth African descent. He argued that property was considered part of citizenship and that his European genealogy was property. Even though Plessy had been living as a European American and looked visibly “White,” the court considered him to be a person of African descent.

Not only was Plessy vs. The State of Louisiana a landmark case because it reversed prior legislation that sought to incorporate African Americans into the American fabric, it also accomplished at least two other feats. It provided a legal precedent for the reinstitution of segregation laws in religious, social, and educational institutions for the next five decades.  7 It also strengthened the foundation for Europeans to define people of African descent. The latter remains true today for all Third World people in the Americas whose identities are, in part, determined by the forces that oppress them.


Near the end of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, there was a proliferation of cultural and self-help groups in African America. Many of these organizations were organized and developed by women. Important for our purposes here, the vast majority of these groups did not segregate its members or audiences based on skin shade or hair texture. Nevertheless, given the relationship that developed during slavery between light skin and privilege, a large percentage of these organizations were headed by well-to-do mulatto individuals—a point to which we shall return momentarily.

Women were particularly active in establishing educational and social institutions for the African American masses. These organizations existed in many parts of the United States, but were most prominent in larger metropolitan areas. Washington, D. C., boasted a number of such clubs including literary societies, art and music clubs as well as benevolent and charitable organizations (Moore 1994). While Mary Church Terrell, first president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), has become synonymous with African American women’s “club movement” at the turn of the century, there were many other women who labored unselfishly for the advancement of the race.

Helen Appo Cook (1837–1913) is but one example. Cook was the first president of the Colored Women’s League and worked arduously to improve the condition of African American women and children. She also served on the Board of Managers for the National Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children (NARDCWC) in the 1890s. Cook, like Terrell, was a mulatto aristocrat of color who, along with Lucy Morten, Charlotte Grimke, Josephine Bruce, and Anna J. Cooper, worked for the social and economic improvement of less privileged African Americans (Smith 1996:137–139).

Betty Cox Francis was also active in NARDCWC and was one of the founding members of the Colored Social Settlement founded in 1902. The objectives of this organization were to:

  • design educational activities;
  • provide domestic and industrial training;
  • promote volunteer service; and
  • encourage cooperation and unity among colored people. (Moore 1994:413–414)

These goals were laudable, and with European American support and government cooperation many African Americans enhanced their skills, housing opportunities, and recreational facilities. These accomplishments notwithstanding, the nature of educational and training programs tended to reinforce gender-based roles that were predicated on European American cultural standards. Boys were encouraged to develop into “strong and wholesome men and sober citizens” (414), while girls were taught domestic skills such as sewing and cooking. But this emphasis was not unusual because most of the prominent (and some of the not so prominent) African American women sought to embody Victorian values in their private and organizational lives. Upper-class European Americans took pride in emphasizing gentility and “high culture” and proposed that these virtues distinguished them from the lower echelons of society. Middle-class African American men and women emulated these values and in doing so set themselves apart from other African Americans whom they regarded as more impulsive and lacking in self-restraint. African American women in particular were hindered by the Victorian model because it focused on and reified their domestic roles. Although many leaders in the club movement were independent thinkers and did not see themselves as being relegated to the home, the message that they imparted to the women whom they served emphasized domesticity.

Not coincidentally, most of the leaders of reform organizations headed by women were mulattoes of high socioeconomic class. A cursory look at the photographs in the literature (see, for example, Davis, E. 1996) also attests to the fact that the vast majority of women leaders near the turn of the century were mulatto, quadroon, or octoroon. Indeed, in a few instances it is difficult to discern the race of the women. Although “shadism” did not determine membership eligibility in most cases, race and class played important roles in the political nature of the work these organizations accomplished. On the whole, women’s organizations, like men’s, were conservative in their political demands and took an assimilationist approach to civil rights efforts.

This political position was in keeping with the times—a generation after slavery—when influential African Americans were not trying to raise the ire of European Americans who ruled the day. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Booker T. Washington advocated this approach, which endeared him to European Americans in influential positions. Washington was in league with European Americans who had money to fund African American organizations and who had influence to make determinations regarding political positions. If Washington did not give the nod, then those who sought political positions or funding to build or sustain organizations would be out of luck. The African American women’s “club movement” was no exception.

In 1881, with the backing of European American funding, Washington founded the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, in Alabama. Tuskegee was founded on the principles of Hampton Institute in Virginia, which concentrated on teaching domestic and industrial skills to African Americans and Native Americans. This meshed well with Washington’s philosophy, which posited that African Americans should focus on industrial and agricultural skills and not disturb the status quo by insisting on political gains and social equality. By now it is well-known that this stance caused a long-standing feud with W. E. B. Du Bois and eventually with other prominent African Americans. But for a long time, Washington controlled African American life through his influence with the powers that be.

When Washington established his National Negro Business League in 1900, he extended his power over African American organizations across the country. So influential was he that President Theodore Roosevelt sought his advice before considering African Americans for various government posts. That “club women” were directly influenced by Washington’s hand is exemplified by the fact that his third wife, Margaret Murray Washington, was president of the National Association of Colored Women from 1912 to 1916. Booker T. Washington’s influence was augmented through his wife, who subsidized and edited National Notes, the NACW literary organ.“Some club women argued that this was why articles critical of Booker T. Washington and his policies never appeared there” (Goggin 1993:1227). Another prominent and elite African American woman who held sway in the organization and who benefited from Washington’s influence was Mary Church Terrell.

Terrell was a privileged member of Washington, D. C.’s African American elite. Both of Mary Church’s parents were born in slavery, sired by European American fathers. In many of these cases, the children of such unions were given technical and educational opportunities not afforded to other people of African descent. Robert Church, Mary Church’s father, was apprenticed to a carpenter by his father. After Church was freed, he bought a saloon in Memphis, Tennessee. He later capitalized from the deaths resulting from the yellow fever epidemic and bought several pieces of real estate that later made him the first African American millionaire in the South. Mary’s mother, Louisa Church, a quadroon, was also fortunate in ways that most other African Americans were not. During slavery, her owners taught her to read and write and to speak French. After emancipation, Mrs. Church “opened a ‘hair store’ where Memphis’s wealthiest ladies flocked to buy curls and chignons and to have their hair coiffed for important occasions. The store was so successful that Louisa’s earnings paid for the Churches’ first home and carriage” (Sterling 1988:121). So Mary Church grew up in a relatively well-off household where most of her playmates were European American (121) and where she enjoyed some of the economic and social privileges of European American society.

This circumstance was augmented with her marriage to Robert Terrell, also a mulatto, in 1891. Robert Terrell graduated from Harvard University with a degree in law. It was Terrell’s association and political alignment with Booker T. Washington that led to the former’s appointment to a four-year term as judge of the Municipal Court in Washington, D. C.

The Terrell’s privileged position, along with that of other Washington elites, made them key figures in the “upliftment” of less fortunate African Americans. This largess notwithstanding, most of them offered their services at a distance from the masses whom they viewed with disdain. Terrell was unequivocal about where her sentiments lay:

In no way could we live up to such sentiment better than by coming into closer touch with the masses of our women. Even though we wish to shun them, if we hold ourselves entirely aloof from them, we cannot escape the consequences of their acts. (Jones, B. 1990:26)

Although Terrell was a leading figure in civil rights and women’s rights, she went about her “upliftment” with a paternalistic air, and saw herself as a cut above the masses. She even managed to form hostile relations with other women within the NACW such as Anna Julia Cooper and Ida B. Wells, both of whom, while not poor, were not of the same economic class as the Terrells.  8Cooper and Wells were less cautious in their political philosophies because they did not have husbands who were dependent on Booker T. Washington’s support to hold their positions. The most powerful women in the NACW, Terrell and Mary Washington, were known to exclude Wells from important meetings because of the latter’s political position and outspokenness. According to Hine (1993:846), Wells’ “reputation for creating controversy was not a desirable commodity in an organization attempting to unite factions of Black women and to provide a public image of reserved, ladylike leadership.” Hines and other scholars also suggest that being ladylike meant embodying a middle-class Victorian ethos. Although Wells was an upright, formidable woman, she did not hesitate to defend herself or her beliefs regardless of the political or social issues involved. I suggest that Terrell’s color privilege, her elitist position, and her popularity over other African American leaders were mutually reinforcing.

Very few of the women in leadership positions addressed the issue of color privilege within the African American community. One of the exceptions was Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879–1961). Burroughs was born in Orange, Virginia, in 1879. In 1909 she founded the National Training School for Women and Girls in Washington, D. C. (the school was later named Nannie Helen Burroughs School). Although Burroughs was also a member of the National Association of Colored Women, she did not socialize with the leadership of this organization. As Moore states: “Part of this disinterest may have stemmed in the fact that she had no impressive family background and had darker skin and strong African features, both characteristics that worked to her disadvantage in terms of social status” (1994:411–412). Not coincidentally, Burroughs was one of the few women of her time to openly address color issues. “No race is richer in soul quality and color than the Negro. Some day he will realize it and glorify them. He will popularize black” (Burroughs 1927:301).

Burroughs was not only outspoken about the color schisms within African America; she also advocated for women holding equal power in organizations where they were the workers, but where men enjoyed the accolades. In 1900 Burroughs delivered a historic speech, “How the Sisters are Hindered from Helping,” which was a major event in the social dynamics between African American men and women in the early twentieth century. Men held leadership positions in religious (and other) organizations, while women performed most of the day-to-day work in these same institutions. Burroughs speech railed against this imbalance of power within the Baptist church and, in so doing, gave rise to the Women’s Convention Auxiliary, the largest African American women’s organization of the time. Although she worked tirelessly to organize women politically, African American historiography has not afforded her the same attention bestowed on African American men or women who were mulatto and upper class.

In addition to the Terrells, other African American elites in Washington, D. C., including prominent families such as the Syphaxes, the Wormleys, the Cooks, and the Grimkes—to name a few—used European American high society as a template for their own social organizations, which, by their very nature, excluded the masses of African Americans. Although they fraternized with less privileged African Americans in their work, they were essentially endogamous in matters more social. In the 1880s one such group was the Monday Night Literary Society, whose members included Frederick Douglass, Francis and Charlotte Grimke, Fannie Barrier, Mary Strange, Elizabeth Ensley, and Mary Shadd, all of whom were mulattoes, quadroons, or octoroons and were referred to as the Four Hundred. Many of the women in these elite families were wealthy in their own right, having benefited from the privilege gained by their parents based on their mixed-race status.

Organizations in other parts of the country, some of whose appellations were applied by African Americans outside of their group, included the Black Quakers, Black Brahmins, New York’s Café au Lait Society, the Shady Group in Chicago, and the Blue Vein Society of Tennessee (Hill 1952:34). All of these organizations sought to replicate European American social structures and habits within their own ranks.

The position of these individuals in African American women’s organizations influenced the trajectory of African American history, historiography, and political progress. As mentioned above, Terrell has been idolized as though she were one of a few women who fought for civil rights, when, in actuality, there were numerous women who preceded and followed her who were just as noteworthy, but who have not received the same recognition. More important, the accomplishments spearheaded by mulatto women were bound to be reformist because they were not likely to disturb the status quo that might have jeopardized their own wealth. This is also true in terms of their struggle for women’s rights.

Being educated and privileged women, they could afford to live lives that did not require them to be wholly domestic. Ironically, these are the skills that they promoted for African American lower-class women. The contradiction is an interesting one, at best, if only because class, political ideology, and color were—and remain to a certain degree—key factors in determining which African Americans received a sizable share of the American pie. The largest portion, of course, was reserved for men, first European American men, followed by African American men. Many notable African American men who fought for the end of slavery and for equality of citizenship did not consider African American women worthy of these inalienable rights. A few, but significant, examples will suffice.

Alexander Crummel (1819–1898), an Episcopalian minister and a leading exponent of reparations and repatriation to Africa, organized the American Negro Academy (ANA) in 1897 in Washington. The Academy’s objectives were to promote the scholarly works of highly educated African Americans and to promote cultural and educational attainment among youth. “Despite the liberal predilections of the academy’s male members [including William Du Bois, S. G. Atkins, L. B. Moore, W. H. Crogman] no women were ever admitted” (Banks 1996:58).  9 This was not for lack of the members’ knowledge of prominent women activists because in the struggle for racial equality, they were in close touch with women like Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Nannie Burroughs, and Ida B. Wells, to name a few.

Frederick Douglass, reportedly a staunch advocate of women’s rights, is also disappointing regarding the African American women’s inclusion in the annals of African American life. Banks (1996:53–54) reports that Monroe Majors asked Douglass if he could suggest names of African American women who should be included in Major’s manuscript on famous African American women. Although Douglass was well acquainted with many African American women writers and civil rights leaders of the time, he responded that in “his estimation, no [B]lack woman qualified as ‘famous’” (Banks 1996:54). There are numerous other examples throughout the history of African America. This is a sad and ironic state of affairs—African American women have always fought for the rights of African American men and women (sometimes favoring men’s rights and privileges over their own) while, in the vast majority of cases, African American men conceptualized freedom and equality only in male terms. Indeed, the conventional wisdom that purports that African American women are too assertive was spawned when women took the lead in fighting for the rights of African Americans as a group. Ida B. Wells’ efforts to end lynching in the United States is a glaring example of the resentment felt by African American men who chastised her for being too aggressive in these attempts  10 (Streitmatter 1994:56). Although Wells has gone down in history as being one of the seminal leaders in the quest for freedom in America, her struggles within the African American community are less celebrated than the accomplishments of her male contemporaries.

The status and roles of African American women, then as now, present a perpetual conundrum. African American women have long been the workers and foot soldiers in African American struggles, but have received fewer and less prestigious accolades than their male counterparts. At the same time, women have tended to uphold the sexist status quo by putting their rights as women as secondary to equality for African Americans. This would not be a problem if African American rights was not synonymous with African American men’s rights. In addition to women’s political marginalization, they are subordinated at personal levels as well.

Many African American women continue to accept domestic roles as primarily theirs. While they dutifully assume this character, men are free to do whatever they choose while women are expected to uphold the virtues of purity and domesticity and quietly acquiesce to the roles of gatekeepers of personal and cultural integrity.

The history of African American relations paints a clear, if dismal, picture of a people divided along class, color, and gender lines. Moreover, gender inequalities were not a wholly American institution but were carried over from the subordinate positions that women held in Africa. These uneven relations continue into the twenty-first century in African America with no end in sight. This historical thread is slightly tempered by the increasing number of African American women who are becoming better educated and therefore more economically independent; however, their roles as chief cooks and bottle washers and supporters of male agendas to the detriment of women’s rights has not changed significantly.


Indentured servants in the United States were essentially of three types. One group traded their labor for a fixed number of years in return for free passage to America. A second group was composed of many poor people in England who were kidnapped off the streets and sold in the United States. A third group consisted of homeless people and prisoners whom England was eager to expunge from its shores. According to Coldham (1992:7), from 1614 to 1775 some 50,000 women, men, and children, people who had been sentenced for crimes in England, were sent to the colonies.

When Anglo-Americans took over the territory in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase, they disarmed the African American militia, but by that time, social miscegenation was sufficiently embedded to safeguard its persistence.

Of the sources that address the Brown Fellowship Society, Marina Wikramanayake’s A World in Shadow. The Free Black in Antebellum South Carolina is the most comprehensive; see also Bernard Powers, Jr. (1994). Other important sources include:Willard Gatewood (1990), pp. 14–15, 80, 156, 225, 280, 282, 316, 340;Thomas Holt (1977) pp. 17, 65–66, 70; Kelly Miller (1925). Sources that briefly mention the Society include Sterling Stuckey (1987), pp. 199, 234.

Foner (1996:61) indicates that Delarge was the son of a “black tailor and a mother of Haitian ancestry.”

Some of the ACS members included Francis Scott Key, author of the “Star Spangled Banner,” Henry Clay, senator (KY), and Bushrod Washington, a judge and a relative of George Washington.

Works that add to the historiography of the Blue Vein Society include: Kathy Russell, Wilson, and Hall (1992); Adelaide Cromwell (1994), pp. 13, 16–17; Joel Williamson (1990) p. 82; Howard Rabinowitz (1978) p. 249. Blue Vein or blue veinism is used as a general term to describe upper-class, mixedrace societies in a number of texts including: David Gerber (1976), pp. 129, 327; Willard Gatewood (1990) pp. 153–161, 168, 174, 345.

With the Brown v. The Board of Education (1954) decision, which was fifty-eight years following Plessy, the Supreme Court overruled the “separate, but equal” mandate. Even with this latter ruling, die-hard segregationists resisted integration in the ensuing decades.

For a more detailed discussion of the class differences of Mary Terrell and Ida B. Wells, see Dorothy Sterling (1988).

Although Banks (1996:58) states that “no women were ever admitted” to the American Negro Academy, Harley (1996:194) avers that Anna Julia Cooper “is the only woman elected to membership. Even if Harley is correct, this exception strengthens the point regarding the exclusion of women from the organization.

In addition to her anti-lynching writings in Free Speech, New York Age, and other newspapers, Ida B. Wells documented the facts of lynching in Southern Horrors (1892) and A Red Record (1985). Her autobiography, Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, presents an expanded account of her fight for civil and women’s rights.


Source: Compiled from Joel Williamson, 1980: New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States. New York: Free Press, p. 112.

Source: U.S. Census, 1890: Population, Vol. 1, Part 1. Compiled by Reuter, 1918: The Mulatto in the United States. Boston: Richard G. Badger.

Source: Compiled from Fitchett, 1940: The traditions of the Free Negro in Charleston, South Carolina. The Journal of Negro History 25(2): 139–152.

Source: J.D.B. de Bow, ed. Compendium of the Seventh Census of the United States, p. 83. Quoted from Marina Wikramanayake, 1966: The Free Negro in Ante-Bellum South Carolina. Doctoral Dissertation. University of Wisconsin.

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census, Eighth Census of the United States, 1790–1860; Schedule I & II, South Carolina, Tax List of Charleston City for 1860.

Partial return for Charleston District.

Larry Koger, 1985: Black Slave Owners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790–1860.

Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Co., p. 21.

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census, Eighth Census of the United States, 1790–1860; Schedule I & II, South Carolina, Tax List of Charleston City for 1860 as cited in Koger 1985:20.

“Mulattoes and Color Consciousness in the United States.” Blue Veins and Kinky Hair : Naming and Color Consciousness in African America. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003. The African American Experience. Greenwood Publishing Group. 23 Mar 2013. <>

On Borrowed Ground: Mixedbloods-Life in Charleston, South Carolina