Essays on the Color Line and the One-Drop Rule
by Frank W Sweet
May 1, 2007
n this context, “myths” are counterfactual beliefs taught to the young in order to exemplify social standards that they will be expected to follow in adulthood. The U.S. endogamous color line is a rich source of such myths, believed by African Americans and non-Blacks alike. Ten color-line myths follow. Some come in two versions: Black and White.
Myth 1. White folks have no African genetic admixture. — In fact, about one-third of White Americans carry traces of sub-Saharan DNA from Black slaves whose descendants passed through the U.S. color line within the past three centuries to join the White endogamous group. (This is separate from knowing that the human species emerged in Africa, and non-Africans descend from a small band that crossed from Africa to Asia about 75 millennia ago.) Nevertheless, the amount of sub-Saharan DNA in White Americans is insignificant. Hence, there are two ways of looking at this, both accurate. One says that most of the DNA of sub-Saharan origin in the U.S. population is found inside the bodies of African Americans. The other says that there are twice as many White Americans as Black ones who have detectable sub-Saharan DNA.
Myth 2. All Black folks have some African genetic admixture. — In fact, about five percent of African Americans have no detectable sub-Saharan DNA. This is due to the difference between ancestry and admixture. Membership in the African-American community follows family histories via the hypodescent rule: children of interracial marriages are usually seen as Black. Hence, all African Americans have some Black ancestry. But half of your DNA comes from your father and half from your mother. The other half of parental genes are lost at each generation. If a family has had much out-marriage with Europeans, it can happen by random chance that all of an individual’s sub-Saharan markers may have been lost despite known Black ancestry.
Myth 3. European genetic admixture in African Americans comes from rape. — This myth comes in two versions. Some Whites say that admixture resulted from Black-on-White rape after the Civil War. Most African Americans and White liberals attribute it to White-on-Black rape during slavery. In fact, although rape has happened across the color line in both directions, the current levels of African genetic admixture in White Americans and of European genetic admixture in Black Americans match what one would expect from the number of actual documented intermarriages. Before 1691, intermarriage was routine. Before the Civil War it was nearly as common as today. The intermarriage rate fell drastically during the Jim Crow era but has now recovered beyond its former level. Also, for as long as records have been kept, Black male/White female intermarriages have been more common than White male/Black female intermarriages. In some places and times, such as 19th-century Boston, the difference was extreme. Finally, among Americans with “mismatched” mtDNA and Y markers (matrilineal from one continent and patrilineal from the other), most have patrilineal European markers, but a large minority show the reverse.
Myth 4. The one-drop rule was invented to decide whether you were a slave. — In fact, the one-drop rule (that you are Black if you have any Black ancestor, no matter how distant) was a Jim Crow era phenomenon. It was first made law in 1910 Tennessee and spread nationwide over the next two decades. During slavery days, racial membership was the opposite of the one-drop rule. A person of any visible European ancestry was presumed to be free. The court cases Gobu v. Gobu, 1802 North Carolina, Hudgins v. Wrights, 1806 Virginia, and Adelle v. Beauregard, 1810 Louisiana established the U.S. caselaw that if you had any discernible European ancestry you were presumed free, and the burden was on the alleged slave owner to prove that you were legally a slave through matrilineal descent. This law was then followed in hundreds of court cases without exception until U.S. slavery was ended by the 13th Amendment. The only identifiable U.S. group that consistently advocated the one-drop rule long before it was embraced nationwide, was the African-American ethnic community, first in the northeast, then in the south after Reconstruction. White Southerners fought against the one-drop rule until the 20th century because it might tarnish old-wealth Southern gentry. They eventually accepted and incorporated it into the Jim Crow system of state-sponsored anti-Black terrorism.
Myth 5. Before the Civil War, all African Americans were slaves. — In fact, about half a million African Americans were free in 1860 and about four million were slaves. The myth supports the notion that African-American ethnic traditions descend from the slave experience. But most of today’s African-American ethnic traits descend from the literate, civically active free Black communities of antebellum Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Such traditions include the AME church, church-centered neighborhood communities, ethnic self-identity and pride, even the term “African American” and the principles of hypodescent and the earliest one-drop rule. Those traditions were forged by such men as: Paul Cuffee, Prince Hall, Richard Allen, Martin Delaney, and Frederick Douglass, of whom only the latter was ever a slave. Many families of the Black communities of the Northeast had no slave ancestry, descending from colonial African indentured servants before slavery (lifelong hereditary forced labor) was adopted in British North America. In contrast, ethnic traditions in the Lower South, where most slaves were, resembled today’s Latin America, where most free citizens were mixed to some extent, almost everyone (slave or free) was of the same ethnic self-identity, and a single sharp color line did not exist.
Myth 6. All slaves were Black. — In fact, whether you were a slave had nothing to do with your appearance nor with how much African ancestry you had. Slavery descended strictly through the maternal line. You were a slave if your mother was a slave, and she was a slave only because her mother was a slave, and so forth. Thousands of genetically White (European) Americans were kept enslaved in the antebellum South because they had a distant matrilineal ancestor who was a slave. The most famous example was Thomas Jefferson’s son, Eston Hemings. Even though he was of overwhelming European ancestry, he was a slave because he had been born to a woman who was a slave at the time. But when he was manumitted by his father’s will, he took his place in the community as a White Virginian.
Myth 7. Before the Civil War, all White southerners were slave owners. — In fact, some White southerners did not own slaves. This myth comes in two versions. Defenders of the antebellum South say that few southerners owned slaves. This is correct. But it is correct because only the head of each household was usually considered the owner of all the family’s slaves, and most people are not the heads of their households. Detractors of the antebellum South say it the other way: “Most southern households owned slaves.” This is also correct, but the bulk of southern slave-owning households owned only one-to-three slaves, fewer families owned more than that, and only wealthy families owned entire plantations of slaves.
Myth 8. All slave owners were White. — In fact, many slave owners were of mixed Afro-Euro ancestry. This myth also comes in two versions. Confederate defenders say that hundreds of Black people owned slaves. This is incorrect. As of 1830, 474 wealthy biracial families of the South Carolina elite owned 2,794 slaves (about one South Carolina slave in a hundred), but they were not considered socially “Black.” Similarly, in 1830, 967 families of the French-culture Gulf coast gens de couleur libre owned 4,382 slaves (about one Louisiana slave in twenty-five). Seen another way, of the 1,834 Colored Creole households in 1839 New Orleans, 752 of them (41 percent) owned at least one slave. Again however, those families were not considered socially “Black” (a term applied back then only to people of unmixed African appearance). The Black version of the myth says that the only African Americans who owned slaves were those who purchased their own wives and children in order to protect them. Although this sometimes happened in Virginia after 1830, when manumitted slaves were exiled from the state, it is incorrect overall, as can be seen in the number of slave owners and the numbers of slaves recorded above. Some of the wealthiest and most famous slave owners and slave traders in the South were of mixed Afro-Euro ancestry.
Myth 9. Black soldiers fought for the Confederacy. — In fact, no Black soldier ever legally fought for the Confederacy. To the very end, the Confederacy enforced a national law forbidding Blacks to serve as combat soldiers. (They could serve as musicians, teamsters, and laborers.) The law was repealed in the last few days of the war but to no avail. Again, there are two versions of the myth. Confederate defenders imply that the biracial slave owners of South Carolina and the Gulf Coast who fought to defend slavery were Black. This is incorrect because they were not legally Black. They were seen as Coloured, biracial, or White with some Black ancestry. On the other side of the myth, some African-American re-enactors point to the Black regiments of the Corps d’Afrique of Louisiana who asked to be mobilized into the Confederate army, along with the other state regiments. But they were turned away due to the law mentioned above. Then they applied to, were enlisted in, and fought throughout the war as regiments in the Union army.
Myth 10. If it were true, I would already know about it. — The most destructive U.S. color line myth is that if a little-known fact were true, then everybody would already know it. As one person said: “Your claim that some Blacks were free before the Civil War is ridiculous. If it were true, it would be trumpeted to the skies. In my whole life, my entire life, I have never heard of such a thing.” — Written by a 15-year-old participant of an online discussion group.
At one level, ignorance of the nation’s history is understandable. K-12 schools cannot teach all of America’s past. Children and teachers cover an overwhelming amount of material. So whenever school boards discuss curricula, they must decide what to leave out. And they often decide that history-teaching should aim for citizenship skills, specifically, to teach those myths that students must learn if they are to function in U.S. society. Once they can function as citizens, if any of them want to learn the detailed facts, they can do it in college. At least, that is the rationale.
At another level, ignorance breeds more ignorance. Most people do not take college history and so they go through life thinking that what they learned in K-12 is all there is. In The End of Blackness (New York: Pantheon, 2004), Debra Dickerson tells a story of when Senator John McCain was informed that his great-grandparents were slave owners. He was dumfounded. According to Dickerson, although McCain often talked about how his ancestors had fought for the Confederacy and that they owned plantations, it had never occurred to him that they owned slaves.
When non-scholars suddenly learn historical facts in adulthood, many assume that their ignorance results from a vast conspiracy, rather than from their own lack of diligence. Dickerson, who repeats many of the above myths, explains her own prior ignorance by saying that, “whites cannot allow themselves to know their unbowdlerized, unexpurgated history.” But the facts are available in any college text or monograph to anyone who takes the time to read. She should have said, “not teaching kids historical facts during K-12 is harmful to society.” But being ignorant of college textbooks and then accusing them (which the person has not read) of falsification is the worst myth of all.
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Frank W. Sweet is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), an analysis of the nearly 300 appealed cases that determined Americans’ “racial” identity over the centuries. It is the most thorough study of the legal history of this topic yet published. He was accepted to Ph.D. candidacy in history with a minor in molecular anthropology at the University of Florida in 2003 and has completed all but his dissertation defense. He earned an M.A. in History from American Military University in 2001. He is also the author of several state park historical booklets and published historical essays. He was a member of the editorial board of the magazine Interracial Voice, and is a regular lecturer and panelist at historical and genealogical conferences. To send email, click here.
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