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AfriGeneas Free Persons of Color Forum

Inquiry on the Color Line

Dear Free Persons of Color Forum Participants:

I am an independent scholar researching the history of race in the United States. I have a law degree and before law school worked as a journalist in West Africa and Southern California. At Paul Heinegg’s suggestion, I have been reading postings on the FPOC Forum. I am truly impressed with and grateful for the depth and range of the discussion, and I am hoping that you will be able to help me with a project that I have been working on for several years.

Recently, I received a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship to spend 2004-05 examining how courts, lawmakers and communities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries defined the color line and lived with and experienced racial ambiguity. More specifically, I am focusing on three issues. First: the extent to which people were able to cross the color line and assimilate into the white world (and to what extent crossing the line involved “passing” as we know it, or if people thought about racial mixture and mobility in different ways). Second: how white communities responded to localized instances of racial ambiguity (for example, a number of court cases from the years between Reconstruction and World War I show that people knew that certain of their neighbors had some kind of mixed ancestry, but had no problem with them marrying into their communities). And third: the process by which white communities were able to forget that a great many whites had some African ancestry, a collective amnesia of sorts that contributed to the ascendance of the one-drop rule and presumptions/myths of “hypodescent” and white racial purity. If you are interested, here is a link to a short magazine article from last year that describes some of my early work on the subject, , as well as a link to a longer (35-page) academic essay that I published in the April 2003 issue of the Yale Law Journal: .

At this point in my project, I would like to ask for your advice and suggestions about finding and tracing free African American families that split into black and white branches, or that otherwise crossed the color line and became white. I am also hoping that I can talk with people who have been researching their own families across the color line. Any stories that you might have or suggestions of people to interview would be invaluable and much appreciated. Many thanks for your help, and happy holidays.


Daniel Sharfstein

(617) 868-6438

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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