Blacks Became Whites

The following passage is about Sundown Towns. It is from a book by Elliot Jaspin, Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America. The standard story is how black populations disappeared from towns all across the United States and ended up seeking safety in numbers in the inner cities.

Sometimes a token black person would remain in these towns who became symbolic of the “good black”, supposedly unlike all the blacks who were forced to flee for their lives. In other cases, blacks disappeared by no longer identifying as black. They all of sudden identified as white, a magical transformation of race.

One assumes these were light-skinned blacks, but even so it is interesting that the local white population apparently accepted these local blacks turned white. It was a forced assimilation that seems to have gone along with a collective denial. No one talked about it.

These blacks passed as whites, not because they were fooling their neighbors who knew them their entire lives, but because it was convenient for everyone to pretend they were white. It avoided the ugliness of racism. It avoided the shame and guilt of what happened to all the other black people. They could go on pretending to be good neighbors, just as long as they ignored the obvious. The power of denial is immense.

This is a theme of Sundown Towns, a silencing of what happened. Some blacks took advantage of this silencing by pretending to no longer be black. It was a racial conversion.

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Kindle Locations 3617-3662:

In most racial cleansings there is some sudden and violent event in the county’s major town or city that is followed by an ultimatum: Leave or die. The black population closest to this epicenter, like the one near Salyersville, all but disappears. Most, but not all, move to another county and are never seen again. However, some blacks, hoping to hang on to whatever life they had, settle at the county’s periphery like the Meadows District. These refugees from the city or town join black farm laborers who are being protected by their white employers. When the next census arrives, the white population has remained steady or risen slightly while the black population has been at least cut in half. In Magoffin County the white population rose by about 1,600 people between 1900 and 1910 while the black population dropped to fifty-four. For those hiding on remote farms and settlements, life becomes increasingly problematic. Barred from the major trading center, mundane tasks like buying farming supplies or clothes or getting medical care become major logistical headaches. If the black church was in town and is still standing, it is now off limits. Shared experiences that give meaning to life like funerals, weddings, religious education, and social events are curtailed. Two decades after the cleansing, census figures show the black community is either reduced by half again or disappears altogether.10

Magoffin County fits this pattern but only up to a point. When the census canvased the county in 1910, it found something very strange: Between 1900 and 1910, several black people became white. People who said they were black in the earlier census now claimed to be white. The entire Nickels family, for example, who had lived outside of Salyersville, went through this amazing transformation. In the 1900 census they were black, and in 1910 the six family members became white. In total fifteen people experienced a racial conversion. All, save one, became white. Sidney Gipson, nineteen, became an Indian.11

The most remarkable pilgrimage was taken by Sambo Gipson. Although he does not show up in the 1900 census, you can find his other family members. They are black. In 1910 Sambo and the rest of the Gipson family become white. In the 1920 census Sambo reverts to being black. But when he died in 1945, his death certificate said Sambo was a white man.12

As strange as the racial transubstantiation of Magoffin County may seem, the truth is that race in America has always been fungible. Races come and go like fall fashions and people are moved from category to category depending on who is doing the counting. One year Hungarians are of the “Mongol” race and another year they are white. Some whites—Italians or Jews—are less white than other whites while some white people become black because they have “protruding heels.” (That was how one witness in a trial said you could tell if a person was a Negro.)

Ironically, it was in the course of trying to codify race that its malleability came most clearly into focus. The strange story of Dr. Walter Ashby Plecker illustrates the point. In 1912 Dr. Plecker, a native son of the Old Dominion, became the head of Virginia’s Registrar of Vital Statistics, a seemingly innocuous post, unless, of course, you were Dr. Plecker. A humorless and aloof man, Plecker was convinced that the white race faced disaster from “mongrelization.” When the different races lived near one another, Plecker warned, there would be interracial sex. And the only result of interracial sex would be “the final deterioration or complete destruction of the white or higher civilization.” Faced with this apocalyptic vision of the future, Plecker and his supporters convinced the Virginia legislature in 1924 to pass the Racial Integrity Act. The law prohibited a white person from marrying anyone but another white person. Since by state law every person’s birth certificate had to list their race, the man who would decide which people could legally marry was Dr. Plecker.13

That was when the fun began.

A Lynchburg woman who listed her baby’s race as white got a curt letter from Dr. Plecker. “This is to inform you that this is a mulatto child and you cannot pass it off as white.” On another occasion, he spied twins in an orphanage. Although they appeared to be white, Dr. Plecker tried to get them evicted. He reasoned that, because they were born out of wedlock, “chances are 10-1 they are of negro blood.” He decreed that anyone in Amherst County with the last name of Adcox, Johns, Branham, Hicks, Hamilton, or Redcross should be classified as Negro. Because there was no appeal, in the end your race was whatever Dr. Plecker thought it should be.14

What drove Dr. Plecker was the fear that his race would be “destroyed.” By the same token it is possible that what drove Sambo Gipson was the more immediate concern that he would be destroyed. Gipson may have changed his race because he thought he could “pass” in a hostile white world. From his death certificate there is evidence that he could have been light-skinned. On the census rolls his mother and father are listed respectively as white and mulatto.

But in a county of only about 13,000 people, how easy would it really have been to “pass”? Perhaps there is another explanation for these cases of racial transformation. If Magoffin was anything like Sharp County, people may have been conflicted about what happened. In that context either Gipson or sympathetic whites might have decided that it was better for everyone concerned to pretend that he and his family were white. When time and the danger had passed, the charade could be dropped.

The truth is that we do not know. Unlike in Sharp County, there are no newspapers or contemporary accounts that describe what happened in Magoffin County at the turn of the century. Until something surfaces, we are left with the fact that the black population collapsed, and of those that remained, a number chose to become white.

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