Daily Archives: 15 May 2008

Evading Jim Crow in Caroline County, Virginia

New York Times editorial board member Brent Staples has some interesting background on how people of mixed race (as legally defined) evaded the Jim Crow laws in Caroline County, Virginia. It’s entitled Loving v. Virginia and the Secret History of Race:

Americans born in the 21st century will shake their heads in disbelief on learning that 40 states once had laws prohibiting interracial marriage. [Note: There were only 11 states in the Confederacy.—J.] The Supreme Court struck down the last of these statutes in the 1967 case of Mildred and Richard Loving, a black woman and a white man who were arrested and banished from Virginia for the crime of being married….

Like many rural areas in the Jim Crow South, Caroline County was governed by two competing racial ideologies. The impulse toward segregation was of course etched in law. But Central Point, which had been a visibly mixed-race community since the 19th century, was home to a secret but paradoxically open interracialism. The community’s story goes a long way toward explaining how the Lovings thought about race and why they behaved as they did.

Virginia slave owners, including Thomas Jefferson, were notorious for fathering children with their slaves. The 19th-century diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut could easily have been speaking of Caroline County planters when she wrote: “Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines; and the mulattoes one sees in every family partly resemble the white children.”

Many of the mixed-race men and women in Caroline County settled in and around Central Point. They were already thriving by the early 20th century. Their church, St. Stephen’s Baptist, was, as one historian noted, “the largest and most costly house of worship in Caroline, white or colored.” People in the congregation and community were “as a whole, very nearly white,” the historian wrote, “and, out of their community, could not be recognized or distinguished as colored people.”

Inside Caroline County, Virginia’s strict laws on segregation applied. But when they ventured beyond Caroline County — where no one knew them — many of Central Point’s residents found it a simple matter to “pass” as white. They visited white-only movie houses and restaurants. They also served in all-white units of the segregated Army during World War II.

The community developed a system for protecting the racial identities of Central Pointers who moved away and married into white families. When they took their white relatives back with them to visit, their younger brothers and sisters, who attended the colored school, just stayed home. This was well known to the teachers at the school, who apparently accepted the absences without question.

The state officials who enforced segregation were clearly aware of what Central Point’s residents were up to and tried to stop it. They circulated lists of families described as descendants of black people. For a time, the state “corrected” birth certificates to note the “real” race of the bearer. It didn’t change things much in Central Point.

By the time that Richard and Mildred had begun to date in the 1950s, they had lived their whole lives in a community that had made an art form of evading Jim Crow restrictions on relationships.

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