Jim Crow Guide: The Way it Was

by Stetson Kennedy 1959


Chapter IV - Who is Colored Where

From THe Archives of Stetson KennedyAFTER that briefing on the blood-letting, brain-washing, and fence building intended to make the U.S.A. a "white man's country", the next thing you need to know is: Who is colored where.

The U.S. Government and the 29 states, which have statutory definitions of race, variously define colored persons. Are you sure you're white? Or Negro? Or some other color? Perhaps you can legally change your race by changing states.

In fact, you will find there are intrastate as well as interstate variations on the legal definitions of what constitutes a colored person, and conversely who may qualify as white. Hence a person rated as white in one state may be labeled colored in another state, and be segregated accordingly.

Then there are some states where a person who passes the racial prescription for attendance at white schools and who enjoys all other benefits of whiteness under the segregation laws may nevertheless be defined as colored by anti-miscegenation laws, and thus forbidden to marry a white person.

Most of the American laws defining race are not to be compared with those once enforced by Nazi Germany, the latter being relatively more liberal, In the view of the Nazis, persons having less than one fourth Jewish blood could qualify as Aryans, whereas many of the American laws specify that persons having one-eighth, one-sixteenth, or 44 any ascertainable" Negro blood are Negroes in the eyes of the law and subject to all restrictions governing the conduct of Negroes.

The Nazi Nurnberg Code made a distinction between half-Jews and quarter-Jews, who were classified respectively as Mischlings (mongrels) of the first and second degrees, and both were forbidden to marry Aryans. The American laws permit no such gradations: you are either white or nonwhite.

The U.S. Census Bureau, in its Enumerator's Reference Manual, instructs census-takers to "Report 'Negro' for Negroes and for persons of mixed white and Negro parentage". This represents a change from the 1930 Census, in which only those persons having one-half or more Negroe blood were Negroes, Negro blood was listed as Negroes, while those having less were recorded as mulattoes.

The Bureau goes on to say: "A person of mixed Indian and Negro blood should be returned as a Negro, unless the Indian blood definitely predominates."
On the other hand, if you are of mixed white and American Indian blood you can qualify as white under the Census if you are not more than one-fourth Indian.
The Census Bureau further instructs its enumerator to "Report race of nonwhite parent for persons of mixed and nonwhite races. Mixture of nonwhite races should be reported according to the race of the father."


This means that if your father is white and your mother is Negro, you are recorded as a Negro. On the other hand, if your father happens to be Chinese and your mother a Negro, you arc recorded as Chinese.

Under U.S. Census regulations, you are neither asked nor informed how your race is to be recorded: "The race question is answered by the enumerator from observation."
Moreover, U.S. Census-takers are told to "Assume that the race o related persons living in the household is the same as the race of your respondent".

The constitutional and/or statutory definitions of race which exist in 29 of America's 48 states arc of comparatively modem origin, and have been tightened several times since the Civil War.
These definitions are so at variance that anyone living or visiting in the U.S.A. should study carefully the following tabulation, which gives the formulas for nonwhites by states. Where the races are not legally defined, the courts decide.

"The term 'negro' includes 'mulatto'. The term 'mulatto' to person of color' is a person of mixed blood, descended on the part of the father or mother from negro ancestors, without reference to or limit of time or number of generations."
Anyone having any Negro blood whatever.
American Indians.
"Persons in whom there is a visible and distinct admixture of African blood shall be deemed to belong to the African race; all others shall be deemed to belong to the white race. "Anti-miscegenation law.

"The words 'persons of negro race' shall be held to apply to and include any person who has in his or her veins any negro blood whatever." -Anti-concubinage law.
Anyone having Negro blood "to the fourth generation" (1/16th Negro blood-as much as one Negro great-great-grandparent). - State constitution.

Anyone having 1/8th or more Negro blood (one Negro great grandparent or more). -Anti-miscegenation law.

"The term 'white person' shall include only persons of the white or Caucasian race, who have no ascertainable trace of either Negro, African, West Indian, Asiatic Indian, Mongolian, Japanese, or Chinese blood in their veins.

"No person, any of whose ancestors has been duly registered with the State Bureau of Vital Statistics as a colored person or person of color, shall be deemed a white person."
Author's Note: The term "West Indian" may include anyone with a West Indies background, regardless of whether his antecedents were British, French or Spanish Caucasians, Negroes, or American Indians.
Anyone having 1/8th or more Negro blood.
Anyone having 1/4th or more Negro blood - Early anti-miscegenation court ruling. Anyone having an "appreciable" amount of Negro blood.-Court decision (1911) imposing school segregation on a person having 1/16th Negro blood.
All "persons of color". Defined by courts to include anyone having 1/16th or more Negro blood. Louisiana courts have taken judicial cognizance of the following categories of color

 Negro                 3/4th or more Negro blood               Griffe               
 1/2 Negro, 1/2. mulatto               Mulatto               1/2 Negro, 112 white            Quadroon                
 1/4 Negro, 3/4 white                Octoroon                 1/8 Negro, 7/8 white  

Anyone having Negro blood to "'third generation inclusive' (1/8th or more Negro blood). Malays.


Anyone having 1/8th or more Negro blood.-Anti-miscegenation law. Anyone having any "appreciable" Negro blood.-Court ruling on school segregation. Anyone having 1/8th or more Mongolian blood.

Evidence of Whiteness

Among the evidence of whiteness declared to be admissible by the courts is testimony to the effect that a person:

  1. Is reputed to be white.
  2. Associates with whites.
  3. Enjoys high social status.
  4. Exercises the rights of whites (attends white theatres, votes, etc.)

Although in all ordinary cases the rules of evidence will permit only experts (as in ballistics, fingerprinting, handwriting) to voice their opinions from the witness stand, the courts in race cases will allow any witness to give his opinion as to the race of the defendant or party in question. No American court has ever called an anthropologist to appraise a person's race.
Any person, whose race is being judicially appraised, as well as relatives both direct and collateral, may be required to appear in court and submit to a physical examination by judge and jury.

Physical appearance is regarded as among the best evidence of race. Photographs and hearsay are also admissible. Among the characteristics commonly held by courts to be evidence of Negro blood are dark complexion, curly hair, full lips, and broad nostrils. It has been ruled that for a person to prove he is of Sicilian or other Mediterranean stock does not necessarily prove he is white.

In conducting courtroom examinations into a person's race, one court required the witness to remove his shoes, it having been asserted that persons of color have a peculiar configuration of foot.

Another court required a woman to bare her breasts to the jury, following testimony that the nipples of colored women lack a pinkish pigmentation said to be found in white women only.
Appearance is important

In many parts of the U.S.A., your race may be judged by the, clothes you wear, the way you cut your hair, or the language or accent in which you speak.

If you are a white man and wish to avoid the many disabilities and hazards incumbent upon being nonwhite, you should avoid wearing anything suggestive of the so-called zoot-suit, whose distinguishing characteristics are a drape coat and peg trousers. The white community has come to look upon the zoot-suit as a badge of rebellion against its style dictates, and consequently not even a white person may wear one with impunity.

In 1943 in Los Angeles, California, a number of people were killed, hundreds were injured and thousands were arrested for no other ostensible reason than that they were wearing zoot-suits. in fact, the affair is known -as the "Zoot-suit Riot". Most of the victims were of Mexican ancestry, although some were of Negro and Japanese antecedents. To cope with the situation, the Los Angeles City Council adopted a law forbidding the wearing of zoot-suits. Thousands of youths were caught in police dragnets (after being assaulted by gangs of U.S. servicemen), fingerprinted, photographed, their zoot-suits cut off, and their "Argentine ducktail" haircuts shaved.

Passing is Prohibited
In the 2.9 states having laws governing certain relations between whites and nonwhites, it is of course illegal for the latter to "pass" as the former, or vice versa, when such passing entails violation of the segregation or anti-miscegenation laws.

Nevertheless, an estimated five to eight million persons having some ascertainable amount of Negro blood have passed over into the white community, in order to enjoy the special privileges and immunities everywhere enjoyed by whites in the U.S.A. This explains what happened to the half-million. Persons who were registered as mulattoes in the Census of 1910, but as whites in 1920. Every year an estimated 50,000 Americans make this changeover. To facilitate such passing, a giant multi-million-dollar industry for skin bleaching, hair straightening, and plastic surgery has developed.

When Jay Jones, a Creole native of New Orleans, applied at the Bureau of Vital Statistics for a copy of his birth certificate, the clerk discovered that on the original form the space for designating Jones' race had somehow been left blank.

"What is your race?" she asked Jones.
"What do you mean?" Jones countered. "I don't know-does it matter?"
"Why yes, we must put down either white or Negro."
"I don't think I'm either one."

"But you must put down something," the clerk insisted.
"Well, which one offers the most advantages?" Jones asked.

At that, the clerk handed him his birth certificate-the space for indicating race still blank.

For such "raceless" individuals to be at large in the segregated territory is said to create quite a problem for the law enforcement authorities; and it is to liquidate this legal problem that the laws are so stringently drawn for the specification of every individual's race according to fixed formulas. Every effort is made to eliminate the factor of "reasonable doubt" in the determination of race.

The advantages of passing are psychological, social, economic, political, and biological. In the matter of health and longevity, the advantages of living a white life are manifest. Because of their color whites enjoy better living conditions, sanitation, public health services, and medical facilities. The results are interesting.

For instance, if you live the life of a white the chances arc that you will live ten years longer than if you lived the life of a Negro.

As a white, there are Only 43 chances out of 1,000 that your children will die at birth, as compared to 72 chances if you were a Negro. Moreover, the odds of your dying while giving birth are only 3 Out Of 1,000 if white, 8 if Negro.
Negroes are five times as likely as whites to contract tuberculosis, eight times as apt to get syphilis.

It Pays to Be Un-American, Sometimes
Interestingly, you will find that foreign born nonwhites are sometimes extended all the privileges enjoyed by white Americans, while native-born nonwhites are relegated to second class citizenship.

Thus, if you are an American nonwhite you may be able to achieve emancipation merely by affecting some foreign dress, accent, and a superior air.

The Rev. Jesse W. Routte of Jamaica, New York, found that by donning a turban and affecting a "slight Swedish accent" he could travel freely as a white man throughout the segregated territory, where he was treated as a "visiting dignitary". In conversing with whites he was careful not to forget his affected accent, lest he be "late getting home".

The affectation of a foreign accent has also proven effective in gaining admission to restaurants, hotels, and theatres which cater to whites only, in the nation's capital as elsewhere. If you are nonwhite, you may want to acquire some knowledge of a foreign language, such as Spanish, to this end.

A further example of the way it pays to look un-American took place, when a group of 29 students from the University of Ohio-including natives of India, Brazil, Argentina, China, Norway, and Turkeyarranged through the Young Men's Christian Association to visit the' nation's capital. When, upon their arrival, it was discovered that several of the Americans were Negroes, YMCA. officials insisted, that they be quartered in the Negro branch of the organization.

The classic example of this sort of thing occurred during World War II, when captured Nazi German prisoners of war were welcomed to cat in a Southern restaurant, while American Negro soldiers were obliged to pass hungry through the town because there was no restaurant for Negroes.

That it pays to be un?American if you are nonwhite is further attested by the policy of the Congress of the U.S.A., which permits foreign?born nonwhites to dine in the House and Senate cafeterias at the invitation of a member, but not native?born nonwhite Americans.

According to a report of the Committee on Civil Rights in the Nation's Capital, a noted American Negro educator, having taken advantage of an invitation to dine in the House cafeteria, was approached by a Congressman who asked:

"Sir, are you a colored man?"
"Are you an American colored man?"
"Then you can't eat here!"

Needless to say, if you are a dark?skinned native of some foreign country, it will pay you to cling to your own national dress and accent while visiting in the U.S.A.

A number of American states have adopted laws requiring the registration of the race of each individual in the population. The Virginia Act of 1930, entitled Preservation of Racial Integrity, is typical of these. Even in some states which lack such laws the Bureau of Vital Statistics often takes an exceptional interest in the matter of race, as witness the following news item from the Miami, Florida, Herald:


An interchange of birth certificates made Friday in state records officially switched a Miami baby's race from Caucasian to Negro.

The unusual quirk diverting the course of the 20?month?old girl's life was disclosed when the state registrar at Jacksonville directed the Miami office to substitute an adoption birth certificate listing the names of negro foster parents for the original birth certificate which recorded the natural parents as of white lineage.

On the face of the official records it appeared that a negro couple was adopting a white child.
The child was born to a twenty year old white mother in Jackson Memorial Hospital and kept for a year in a white family before its Negroid characteristics became evident. The mother, months earlier, had been sent to a mental hospital.

The experience and precedents accumulated in the United States of America have provided the prototype for much of the Union of South Africa's apartheid segregation system. The U. of S.A.'s Population Registration Act of 1950 for example, has much in common with Virginia's Preservation of Racial Integrity Act Of 193o. The former requires everyone in South Africa to carry an identity card complete with photo and labeling the bearer as "European" (white), "Colored" (mixed white and nonwhite), "Asian", or "Bantu" (native African Negro).

Like an echo of the Miami, Florida, story of a decade earlier came the following United Press dispatch from Capetown, South Africa, in 1958:


A young South African with two children who has lived 0 his life as a white man was informed today that in the future he would be considered colored under the dominion's Apartheid policy.
The decision was typical of hundreds made in the List four years but now being stepped up by a newly opened Regional Population Registration Office here.
The man until today held a responsible position in a white factory. He and his family lived in a European suburb.

In the future they will have to carry an identity card labeling them as nonwhite. The man will have to quit his job and his residential district. His children will have to go to colored schools.
The first indication that the family was suspect came a few weeks ago when the man and his wife were summoned to the Registration Office.

Tactfully the officials took notes of the color and texture of their hair, eyes, skin and bone structure of the face.

Then they were submitted to a searching inquiry on their ancestry, social habits, and friends. The classified details were sent to the administrative capital, Pretoria, and assessed by officials who had never seen the man or his wife.
No figures of how any South Africans are forced to change their "official" race status were immediately available.

In judicially appraising the race of registrants the South African magistrates have also generally made use of the precepts embodied in American court procedures and findings. Mass protest meetings took place in 1955 in Johannesburg, when hundreds of people who had been living as "Coloreds" were officially classified as "Bantu". A Labor Party member of the South African Parliament, Leo Lovell, pointed out that for a 25 year old bricklayer who had been living as a "Colored" to be reclassified as a "Bantu" represented, among other things, the imposing of a 40,000 dollar fine payable in monthly installments-racial wage differentials being what they are. In 1958, the United Press had this to say further about events in the U. of S.A.:

Thousands of people in the Cape Province are today on the thin edge of an awful doubt - are they, white or nonwhite in the eyes of the law? And their doubt mounts daily into a nagging horror as they realize that the thud of a rubber stamp on an identity card may place them in another social world. For that official stamp could mean that they are no longer white. It could mean that they are colored-persons of another racial group-with all the humiliations and indignities that follow in the wake of racial reclassification.

For these people, living as they are today in the turmoil of uncertainty, will have to give up the social contacts they have enjoyed for years. They will have to live in a colored area. Their children will be taken from white schools and transplanted to institutions that cater to nonwhites.

And capping the misgivings is the knowledge that once they are reclassified the "Whites Only" notices in public places will apply to them.

Today, officials of the Interior Department are going ahead with their examination of some of those cases who they say are on the borderline between different racial groups.
The Population Registration Act is linked solidly with the Group Areas Act, which specifies certain areas for the various racial groups, and with the Mixed Marriages Act, which forbids marriage between persons of different racial groups.

It states that persons are classified as white if they are obviously white in appearance or by general repute and acceptance.

But if by general repute persons are colored they would not be considered white even if they are white in appearance. Anyone who has sunk culturally or socially into the lower group is considered to belong to that group. So the officials who sit in judgment decide to what racial group they belong by way of life as well as by appearances.

Reports based on the physical tests are conflicting. Interior Minister Dr. T. E. Donges himself admitted recently that the definitions of the Act on the different races are unsatisfactory.

Of course the U. of S.A. has only been seeking to administer such laws for a single decade. Those states of the U.S.A. which have pioneered in this field have long since ceased to experience any real practical difficulty in determining who is white and who is not. Indeed, the white community has constituted itself a Committee of the Whole (approximately), which maintains such a pervasive surveillance over the nonwhite community that passing, even in the larger cities, has been made surprisingly difficult. White Southerners quite generally fancy themselves "expert" in the detection of any admixture of Negro blood. Even they are under some constraint to proceed with caution, however. When a lower court in South Carolina ruled that a white person whom someone called a Negro could not sue for damages unless he could show specifically that he had been damaged thereby, the state's supreme court in 1957 overruled the lower court and reaffirmed that to call a white person a Negro is libelous per se.


Continue on to Chapter 5