My Father-In-Law Passed As White

Black and white photo of a middle-age man with a dark complexion and dark hair bent over and holding an infant with a fair complexion. The man is wearing tan or light brown slacks and a long-sleeve white dress-shirt. The baby is wearing a white shirt, a diaper, and white shoes. The baby is crying. Nearby is a chair with a beer can on the seat. A sawhorse is visible in the background.
Family photo of James and Daniel in early 1952.

My husband did not know he was Black until after his dad died.

Growing up, my husband Daniel never questioned his “white” identity, even though the truth was clear to see. Daniel’s father James was as dark as Barack Obama, but since he worked outdoors as a carpenter, my husband attributed his dad’s skin color to having a tan. James kept his tell-tale hair cropped short and often wore his cowboy hat. James never discussed his depression-era childhood, aside from saying he was an orphan, and my husband never pushed him for additional information.

The clues were there.

In the 1950s and 1960s, when my husband was growing up, Las Vegas was a segregated town where nearly all the Black folks lived in North Las Vegas aka the Westside. During his childhood, Daniel frequently accompanied his dad to North Las Vegas to visit friends. Growing up, James always took Daniel and his younger brother to the same barber in the Westside to get their curly hair cut short. Daniel never thought much about the fact that his dad had a lot of Black friends at a time when it was not common. When James cooked it was either steak on the Bar-B-Q or Soul Food like fried chicken, ham hocks and beans, and collard greens. It was normal fare for the family. James was a gifted piano player who played by ear; he never learned how to read music. Later, Daniel learned that in his younger days, James worked as a vaudeville performer.

Relatives finally revealed the truth.

A few years after James died following a stroke, questions began to emerge in Daniel’s mind. He confronted his mother’s sister, who confirmed his suspicions. She had been sworn to secrecy by Daniel’s mother, who died the same year as James—1979. Afterwards, Daniel questioned his mother’s cousin, who also confirmed the family secret. Since that time, Daniel has been on a quest to discover his family history with some success.

DNA testing eventually confirmed the truth.

In the early 2000s, Daniel took his first DNA test. In those days, he could only be tested for a Paternal Lineage Test. In other words, it showed a man’s paternal line from father to father to father. No female heritage was accessible. This test showed that James’ father was white. It was not much help, aside from showing that James was Black on his mother’s side. Given that he was born in 1911, it made sense that a Black woman got pregnant by a white man and not the other way around. In those days, few white women were marrying Black men; it was illegal in most states. It was more likely that a Black woman was raped by a white man or pressured into having sex. In 2015, Daniel took a more advanced DNA test with and 23andMe. These testes conclusively showed that he was 14% African and had links to Early Virginia African Americans. His only disappointment was that he was only 14% Black, which made him 1/8 Black, which was called an octaroon during the days of slavery. His father James would have been a quadroon, and James’ mother would have been half Black—a mulatto.

Finding his family was a challenge.

Daniel grew up with two younger full siblings and two older half siblings on his father’s side whom he only met once or twice. After confirming his Black heritage, Daniel attempted to locate his older sister and brother. We sent out letters to everyone who shared my husband’s last name that we could locate nationwide; it was the 1990s—before the Internet. We never got a response. In 2002, Daniel got a phone call from his niece, his older sister’s daughter. When we finally made contact with his sister “Sissy”—before the second DNA test—she shared her knowledge about their father. Sissy grew up knowing she was part Black. It turns out that she is 35% African according to her DNA. Sissy’s mother claimed to be part Native American, but she was also of African ancestry. Sissy has no Native American DNA. Lying about being Native American instead of Black was common in the early- and mid-20th century, since Native Americans faced less discrimination. Sissy dearly loved her father James, and was devastated when he abandoned her mother to marry another woman—Daniel’s French Canadian mother. Unfortunately, Sissy had little additional information about James.

We figured out why James never told his second family they were Black.

After meeting Sissy, Daniel had a couple of phone calls with his half-brother Mike, who has since passed away. Mike’s antisemitic views and various conspiracy theories made any close relationship difficult. Randomly, Mike admitted that he received the letter we sent years earlier looking for him and Sissy, but he never responded. Last year, we had a phone conversation with Mike’s ex-wife Donna. She told us how badly Mike was bullied in school in Los Angeles during the 1940s and 1950s because he was Black. We assume that is why James kept his African American heritage a secret from his second batch of kids.

A lot of people passed as white in the 20th century.

Between Jim Crow laws and outright racism, many African Americans chose to abandon their Black heritage. James probably did it initially to get better jobs, but the other benefits of not facing discrimination would have also influenced his decision. My husband desperately wishes his father would have confided in him. Daniel regrets not having deeper conversations with his father. He and his siblings know nothing about James’ childhood and young adult life. James’ generation was more secretive and tended to hide uncomfortable truths from their offspring. Daniel always assumed that being an orphan, James’ past was too sad to share.

The struggle continues. 

We have reached out to many of Daniel’s relatives on, but only a few have responded back. Thanks to a white, first-cousin, we determined that James’ father was a white shop owner in Lawrence County, Alabama, and we have traced many Black relatives to Lawrence County as well. James’ Social Security information, his children’s birth certificates, and voter registration documents state he was born in Chicago or Detroit; both of which are consistent with the Great Migration of Blacks from the South to Northern cities. However, James’ first marriage certificate to Sissy and Mike’s mother states that he was a native of Alabama and identifies him as Negro. We do not have a birth certificate for James. On the 1920 and 1930 census records James is listed as white, while the 1940 census lists James as Black; these census records seem to reflect who he was residing with at the time. Our hope is that eventually the right person will test on, and we will finally learn the identity of James’ mother.

The cost of passing as white is a denial of family history.

James was not unusual in his determination to pass as a white man. From the days of slavery in this country, those who could pass generally did in an effort to escape racism and discrimination. For James and others, the cost of passing was the abandonment of one’s culture. My husband and my daughter take pride in their African American ancestry. With continued DNA testing, more Americans are finding out that they too are part Black.

Family photo of James and his granddaughter in 1975.

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