Question of the Month
Laws that Banned Mixed Marriages
Q: I teach social sciences, most of my students are 10th graders. We have discussed the significance of the U.S. having a bi-racial president; now we are starting the dialogue about laws that banned mixed marriages. What are major ideas that should be covered?
--Coreen Mortz, Dayton, Ohio
A: People of mixed heritage have been citizens of the United States since the country’s inception. Indeed, one scholar has insisted that “American History would be unrecognizable without ethnic intermarriage” (1). But while Americans proudly describe their nation as a “melting pot,” history shows that social convention and legal statutes have been less than tolerant of miscegenation, or “race mixing.” For students and teachers of history, the topic can provide useful context for a myriad of historical and contemporary issues.
Laws prohibiting miscegenation in the United States date back as early as 1661 and were common in many states until 1967. That year, the Supreme Court ruled on the issue in Loving v. Virginia, concluding that Virginia’s miscegenation laws were unconstitutional. In this article, we look at the history of miscegenation in the United States, some motivations for anti-miscegenation policy, the landmark decision of Loving v. Virginia, and some applications of the topic for the social studies classroom.
Miscegenation in U.S. History
The first recorded interracial marriage in North American history took place between John Rolfe and Pocahontas in 1614. In colonial Jamestown, the first biracial Americans were the children of white-black, white-Indian, and black-Indian unions. By the time of the American Revolution, somewhere between 60,000 and 120,000 people of “mixed” heritage resided in the colonies. During his presidency, Thomas Jefferson begged Americans to consider “let[ting] our settlements and [Indians’] meet and blend together, to intermix, and become one people” (2). American patriot Patrick Henry even proposed that intermarriage between whites and Indians be encouraged through the use of tax incentives and cash stipends (3).
Despite Henry’s proposal, interracial unions were not well accepted in the colonies and, in many cases, were made illegal. The idea that Africans and their descendants were not only different from, but inferior to the English was prevalent in the days of Shakespeare and consequently migrated to America with the first colonialists (4). With the introduction of slaves to the colonies, laws were developed to keep the races separate.
In An American Dilemma (1975), Gunner Myrdal states that miscegenation policy developed because intermarriage was a principal concern in the white man’s order of discrimination, followed by intercourse involving white women, use of public facilities, political franchise, legal equality, and employment. Similarly, Joel Kovel contends in White Racism: A Psychohistory (1970) that sexuality is at the core of racism and, subsequently, miscegenation laws. On the other hand, Oliver Cox asserts in his Caste, Class, and Race (1959) that economic exploitation, rather than a loathing of interracial sex, was the real basis for miscegenation prohibitions. Cox further argues that miscegenation laws also refused blacks the opportunity to attain the cultural status of whites. White colonists also were fearful of an alliance between African Americans and American Indians and the strength in numbers that such a union of oppressed peoples could produce (5).
Whatever the motivation for miscegenation policy, in 1661 Virginia passed legislation prohibiting interracial marriage and later passed a law that prohibited ministers from marrying racially mixed couples. The fine was ten thousand pounds of tobacco. Then, in 1691, Virginia required that any white woman who bore a mulatto child pay a fine or face indentured servitude for five years for herself and thirty years for her child. Similarly, in Maryland, a woman who married a Negro slave had to serve her husband’s owner for the rest of her married life (6). Over time, Maryland’s laws became increasingly strict, and in 1715 and 1717 Maryland’s legislature made cohabitation between any white person and a person of African descent unlawful. As the number of colonies grew, miscegenation laws became increasingly commonplace; by the time of the American Civil War, at least five states had enacted anti-miscegenation laws (7).
During slavery there were, of course, frequent mixed race births, many resulting from the rape of enslaved black women by white slave owners. Between 1850 and 1860, the mulatto slave population increased by 67 percent; in contrast, the black slave population increased by only 20 percent (8). At about this time, the notion of hypodescent, or the “one drop rule,” became prevalent. This is the idea that someone with even one distant African ancestor is black. The belief guaranteed that the children from these forced unions would remain slaves. In 1900 Booker T. Washington summed up the practice when he remarked:
It is a fact that, if a person is known to have one percent of African blood in his veins, he ceases to be a white man. The ninety-nine percent of Caucasian blood does not weigh by the side of the one percent of African blood. The white blood counts for nothing. The person is a Negro every time (9).
Increased immigration at the turn of the twentieth century generated discourse on the question of race&emdash;much of it negative. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, repeatedly expressed his belief that the Irish were of an inferior race, that Asians should not be allowed to enter the U.S., and that Jews had “not yet gotten far enough away from their centuries of oppression and degradation” to become a physically strong race (10). The concept of the American “melting pot” was not as humanitarian as it is sometimes portrayed. At the time, practices were put in place to “Americanize” immigrants by causing them to lose as much of their distinctive ethnic identity as possible and adopting Anglo-American culture. Although modern U.S. society considers people of Irish, Italian, Polish, and English descent “white,” in 1911 these four European nationalities were considered separate “races” (11).
During the 1920s there was a rekindling of racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, whose membership grew dramatically. Intolerance was also manifested in other ways. In 1924 a Virginia law was passed that prohibited whites from marrying anyone with “a single drop of Negro blood” (12). Virginia was not unique; marriage between whites and blacks was by this time illegal in thirty-eight states. Furthermore, in 1924 Congress passed the Immigration Act, a series of strict anti-immigration laws calling for the severe restriction of “inferior” races from southern and eastern Europe.
As late as the 1950s, almost half of the states had miscegenation laws. While the original statutes were directed wholly against black-white unions, the legislation had extended to unions between whites and Mongolians, Malayans, Mulattos, and Native Americans (13).
During the 1960s, the civil rights movement helped reverse many of the legal barriers against miscegenation. The Warren Court, through its 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, was actively striving to end discrimination against blacks. So when the case of McLaughlin v. Florida appeared on the docket in 1964, the Court was again ready to deal with the question of racial classification. In McLaughlin, the Court ruled as invalid a Florida statute that allowed more severe penalties for cohabitation and adultery by interracial couples than same-race pairs. Justice Potter Stewart in a concurring opinion concluded, “it is simply not possible for a state law to be valid under our Constitution which makes the criminality of an act depend upon the race of the actor” (14).
McLaughlin v. Florida was instrumental in paving the way for the 1967 case of Loving v. Commonwealth of Virginia. In that year, sixteen states still had laws that made interracial marriages illegal (15). The case was brought about by Perry Loving, a white man, and his African American and American Indian wife, Mildred Jeter. Since interracial marriage was illegal in their home state of Virginia, the couple was married in Washington, D.C. When they returned to Virginia, the newlyweds were arrested and put in jail for breaking the law. Before dawn one morning, police officers barged into their bedroom, shined a flashlight on them, and demanded to know what the couple was doing. Mr. Loving pointed to their framed marriage certificate on the wall, but the officers informed them that the D.C. license was not legal in Virginia.
At the trial, the Virginia judge gave the Lovings a choice: they could spend one year in jail or move to another state. In his opinion, the judge said:
Almighty God created the races, white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix (16).
The couple grudgingly moved to nearby Washington, D.C., and appealed their case, which eventually made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ultimately, the Court found the laws against interracial marriage unconstitutional. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the Court’s decision: “Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry or not marry a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed upon by the State.” With that decision, all the remaining anti-miscegenation laws in the country were null and void (17).
While the Loving decision fought racism in the legal arena, there is much more to be done in the social arena. The recent cases surrounding an “all white” Georgia cemetery and a school prom in Alabama illustrate the continuing intolerance for mixed-race unions and individuals that exists in the United States.
Applications for the Classroom
As teachers retell the history of the United States, it is important to include discussion of racism, intolerance, and continued prejudice. Because contemporary youth culture seems to blur the lines between racial classifications, students will undoubtedly find relevance in more recent applications of miscegenation policies in communities throughout the United States. The following case studies will facilitate classroom discussion and more in-depth examination of the issues associated with miscegenation laws and practices. The Suggestions for Further Reading, below, can also provide more detailed information and exploration of the topic.
Georgia Church Cemetery
By the late 1960s, the United States began to experience a “biracial baby boom.” Unfortunately, just because interracial marriages were now legal, that did not mean that interracial couples—or their children—were well accepted in society. This reality was made lamentably obvious during the 1996 case of a Georgia church whose leaders elected to disinter the body of a mixed race infant who was buried in the church’s all-white cemetery. After the decision gained national attention and protest, the church backed down and allowed the baby to remain in the family plot. But just one week later, the church made national headlines again when it refused to marry the baby’s parents, a white woman and a black man. This case study can generate purposeful discussion of views toward interracial marriages, local community mores, and racism in general.
Alabama School Prom
High school students will find the case of a 1994 high school prom in Alabama to be especially relevant. In February the white principal at the seven-hundred-student Randolph County High School called an assembly of seniors and juniors. The school’s student body was 62 percent white and 38 percent black. Hulond Humphries, who had been principal of the school for twenty-five years, asked if anyone was planning to attend the prom “with someone who was not of the same race.” When several students indicated that they were planning to do just that, the principal threatened to cancel the event. The junior class president, ReVonda Bowen, whose father is white and mother is black, asked the principal what his order meant for her. The principal allegedly replied that Bowen’s parents had made a “mistake” and that he hoped to prevent others from doing the same (18).
Community condemnation was swift. Parents organized demonstrations and called for a boycott of classes. In response, about one-fifth of the high school students did not attend classes for several days. Although the principal withdrew his threat of canceling the prom, he was suspended with pay by a four-to-two vote from the local school board. Bowen’s parents filed a civil rights lawsuit for the degrading comments their daughter endured. Even still, there were some white parents who applauded the principal’s strict approach, and Humphries was reinstated two weeks later. Eventually, Humphries was reassigned to the central office and a new white principal and black assistant principal were appointed. The Alabama prom case can be a useful case study to discuss the history of anti-miscegenation sentiment in the United States and how it can still be found in present-day society.
The recent census can provide another immediate source for discussion. For the 2000 census, the Census Bureau for the first time allowed people to check as many racial categories as they felt applied. In an effort to make it easier for citizens to take part in the survey, Census 2000 also used its shortest form since 1820.
The first U.S. census in 1790, supervised by Thomas Jefferson, placed people into one of three categories: free white male, free white female, and other persons (which included free blacks, slaves, and “taxable Indians”). Seventy years later, the government began adding other categories like Mulatto, Chinese, and American Indian. The 1890 census added further distinctions and had categories for White, Black, Mulatto, Quadroon, Octoroon, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian. By 1910 the Census Bureau had eliminated the terms mulatto, quadroon, and octoroon; it was assumed that three-quarters of all blacks in the United States were racially mixed anyway. Anyone with any African American ancestry would henceforth be counted as black. The 1990 census required people to choose one of the following racial categories: White, Black, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Eskimo/Aleut, or Other. These classifications had been adopted and in use since 1970.
By the 1990s, many Americans felt that the selections available did not adequately describe who they were, and so they opted to check off “other” and use the write-in blank. On the 1990 census almost ten million people marked their race as “Other;” most of these were Latinos who are unwilling to identify themselves as white, black, or Indian. Americans using the write-in blank self-identified nearly three hundred races, six hundred American Indian tribes, seventy Hispanic groups, and seventy-five different combinations of multiracial ancestry (19).
Census 2000 can be a useful starting point in the discussion of the concept of “race,” its ever-changing nature, and the transforming face of U.S. society.
Some Final Thoughts
Today there are more people of mixed heritage being born in the U.S. than at any other time in the nation’s history. In 1990 one in thirty-three children born was of mixed race. By 1995 the number had grown to one in twenty. In some states like California, one in every six births is a child of mixed race (20). For teachers, in effect these numbers mean that within one generation, there will be one mixed race child in every school classroom in the country (21). It is likely that most school classrooms already have some individuals who identify themselves as “mixed.” Not only is it historically accurate to include discussion of miscegenation in social studies classrooms, it is also a vehicle for making the curriculum more inclusive and representative of our population.
15. The sixteen states that had anti-miscegenation laws in 1967 were: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Other Sources Used
Ploscowe, Morris, Henry H. Foster Jr., and Doris Jonas Freed. Family Law: Cases and Materials, 2d edition. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.
Porterfield, Ernest. “Black-American Intermarriage in the United States.” In Intermarriage in the United States. Edited by Gary A. Cretser and Joseph J. Leon, 17-34. New York: Haworth Press, 1982
Cose, Ellis. “One Drop of Bloody History.” Newsweek (13 February 1995): 70.
Crohn, Joel. Mixed Matches. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1995.
Hodes, Martha, ed. Sex, Love, Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
Root, Maria P. P., ed. The Multiracial Experience: Racial Borders as the New Frontier. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1996.
———, ed. Racially Mixed People in America: Within, Between, Beyond Race. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1992.
Spickard, Paul R. Mixed Blood: Intermarriage and Ethnic Identity in Twentieth-Century America. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.
Wright, Lawrence. “One Drop of Blood.” New Yorker (24 July 1994): 6.
Zack, Naomi. Race and Mixed Race. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.
For Young Adults
Almonte, Paul, and Theresa Desmond. Interracial Marriages. New York: Crestwood House, 1992.
Bender, David, ed. Interracial America: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1996.
Cruz, Bárbara C. Multiethnic Teens and Cultural Identity. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2001.
Dodd, Johnny. “Portrait in Black and White.” People Weekly (23 February 1998): 19.
Gay, Kathlyn. The Rainbow Effect: Interracial Families. New York: Franklin Watts, 1987.
Gillespie, Peggy, and Gigi Kaeser. Of Many Colors: Portraits of Multiracial Families. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.
Smolowe, Jill. “Intermarried . . . with Children.” Time (Fall 1993): 66.
Related Web Sites
An American Love Story: <http://www.pbs.org/weblab/lovestories/>.
Frontline: Bi-Racial American Portraits: <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/secret/portraits/>.
Jei’s Interracial Resources Page
Metisse Magazine: <http://www.metisse.com/>.
The Multiracial Activist: <http://www.multiracial.com/>.
Triangle Interracial and Multicultural Experience (T.I.M.E.)
United States Census: <http://www.census.gov/>.
Bárbara C. Cruz is an associate professor of social science education at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Her teaching and research interests include multicultural and global perspectives in education as well as innovative strategies for teaching social studies.
Michael J. Berson is an associate professor of social science education in the Department of Secondary Education at the University of South Florida. His research explores global child advocacy and technology in social studies education.
May 2010 response by the Organization of American Historians.
Copyright © Organization of American Historians. http://www.oah.org/
All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.