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Family Histories of ‘Passing’ from Black to White Documented in Book

In the summer of 1993, as American-born Daniel Sharfstein registered Blacks to cast their first ballot in race-riven South Africa, he volunteered alongside a South African woman, who professed to be as authentically African as any other Black. This, she told then college student Sharfstein, despite her family’s decades-old designation as Coloured, a mixed-race label that elevated her clan above Blacks in the old White-run government’s hierarchy of peoples.

Though being Coloured insulated her from brutalities apartheid reserved for the so-called purely Black, she was, physically, hard to distinguish from the Black activists who had dominated the anti-apartheid movement, said Dr. Sharfstein, now 38 and a Vanderbilt University law professor. She was dark-skinned, and wore her hair Afrocentrically-braided.

That her family would choose to be misclassified racially was both fascinating and bewildering, Sharfstein said. “I came home and was immediately interested in the question of whether the same thing had happened here,” said Sharfstein, who holds a law degree from Yale, and a degree in history, literature and Afro-American studies from Harvard.

His book, The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White, is the outgrowth of parallels Sharfstein drew between apartheid’s racial distortions and those of his own native land.

With this nation’s state-by-state variations on how many drops of Black blood legally made a person Black as both a backdrop and core of the 395-page tome, Sharfstein explores the human, financial and ephemeral costs of morphing from an imposed Blackness—notwithstanding one’s light skin, aquiline facial features and straight hair—to live as White.

Sharfstein tracks the true tales of well-to-do South Carolina landowners who became White in 1760; poor Kentucky farmers who, during a century beginning in 1840, “hovered over the line between Black and White”, and descendants of a slave-cum-lawyer and politico in Washington, D.C., who relinquished status, money, educational prospects and such for what they considered as the ease and benefit of Whiteness.

The descendants of O.S.B. Wall, who was freed by the Mississippi plantation owner who both fathered and enslaved him, Sharfstein said, “had a strong and solid place in an African-American community in Washington, D.C., that they had helped build.”

“O.S.B. Wall recruited the first students to enroll at Howard University. He would be a central figure in the Emancipation Day parades in Washington.

People knew him, people knew his wife, there was a real support network, and a huge circle of friends and family,” Sharfstein said, noting that Wall entertained suffragist Susan B. Anthony in his home, and was a confidante of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Still, as roiling White racism began to quash the post-Reconstruction surge in Black political power, Wall’s descendants chose White anonymity over Black status. Many, but not all, of them fled Washington for other regions.

Cape Cod, Mass., is where Isabel Wall Whittemore’s forebears ended up.

“Until I read [Sharfstein’s] book, I didn’t realize that, in my mom’s day, 1/16 [of Black blood] was considered Colored,” said Whittemore, 74, now residing in Hickory Flat, Miss., with her oldest daughter Lisa Colby. “To tell you the truth … I’ve always gone as Caucasian. I had no reason not to. I’d love to know what I should be calling myself now, but it doesn’t matter to me either way … Race isn’t important.”

Roughly a decade before the February 2011 release of Sharfstein’s book, a homework assignment for Colby’s daughter revealed their place on the branches of O.S.B. Wall’s family tree. “I’ve met a lot of cousins who I didn’t know,” Colby said. “I, myself, think this is great … in terms of the history. My great, great-grandfather was able to come up from being a slave to being a lawyer.”

Not everyone who’s learned of their ties to Wall has been so effusive. One informed Sharfstein that “he’d become more racist since learning about his descent than ever before,” Sharfstein said. “Initially, he was so intent on maintaining his White identity—and nothing makes you more ‘White’ than hating Black people. That’s my inference.

“Yet, he couldn’t stop researching. Over time, he came to embrace this history. It connected him to a big part of the American history … This guy’s discovery was a crisis and a celebration,” Sharfstein says.

The Melungeon Heritage Association—named for a self-isolating group of Appalachians of White, Black and Native American ancestry—aims to draw out the multiracial history of people in that region. Many among the 1,500 people on the association’s database have spotlighted “The Invisible Line” and are using it to buttress their own research, said S.J. Arthur of Frankfurt, Ky., president of the association.

“Sharfstein has managed to take these hidden histories of individual families and placed their stories in the context of our nation’s history and the regional dynamics of the time,” said Arthur, a retired state government worker, now enrolled in Kentucky State University. “ … He’s also created a work which gives many Americans an opportunity to contemplate the complexity of this race question.”

Dr. Diana Irene Williams of the University of Southern California places Sharfstein’s book along a continuum of titles ranging from White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Twentieth Century South, by Dr. Martha Hodes of New York University; to What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America, by Dr. Peggy Pascoe of the University of Oregon; to Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, by Annette Gordon-Reed of NYU and Rutgers University.

“Dan has been with this topic since 1994,” said Williams, a friend, Harvard classmate and author of the forthcoming They Call it Marriage: Race, Gender, Families, and the Law Before Plessy v. Ferguson.

She continued: “It’s really because of conversations I had with Dan that I became aware of the subject of racial passing, of that area of legal history. I ended up reading his undergraduate thesis when I was writing my own, and actually was moved to tears … It took courage to be such an intrepid writer back then, when there was no such thing as Google.”

He immersed himself in research early on, Sharfstein said, and was especially taken by the scholarship of Charles W. Chestnutt, born in 1858, a lawyer, essayist and novelist who explored the fault lines of race—and lived as a Black man though he could pass for White.

Ferrall vs. Ferrall, a White man’s failed bid in 1910 to divorce his light-skinned Black wife, is one of the cases that also helped shape Sharfstein’s book: “The wife probably descended from a free man of color from a rural county north of Raleigh. People knew it. When they were courting, rumors were flying and anonymous notes were sent … But the courts said she was White because no one could prove that her granddad wasn’t White: ‘If we make it too easy to reclassify people who’ve been living as White, then husbands all over North Carolina would leave their wives for this reason,’” Sharfstein said.

It provided some justice, perhaps, for the wife. “At the same time, these were not radicals,” Sharfstein said. “Their job was to keep North Carolina’s Jim Crow … This did not make for racial tolerance.”

Neither did it settle the question of racial identity, which, Sharfstein adds, is as complex today as it was back then. “What all of this really shows is that we still have to rethink what these various racial categories mean.”

Daniel Sharfstein, author of The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White, will appear at George Mason University’s annual fall book festival, Sept. 18 through 23; and the Southern Festival of Books, Oct. 14 through Oct. 16 in Nashville, Tenn.

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