The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Saturday, January 24, 2004

Charles W Chesnutt - the pass not taken

Chesnutt cropped up in the course of the piece (January 20) on Jim Crow, race and sex. I'd barely looked at the home page of the site devoted to the guy's work.

Going back to check the site out, I am - surprised - to find out that Chesnutt was, in fact, a Negro. (Or, perhaps one should say, of partial African descent.) The photo of him as an old man which appears top left did not for a second raise the possibility that he was other than white.

The site supplies a bio explaining something of his ancestry. Born in 1858, his parents were free Negroes, previously from North Carolina, who had moved to Cleveland. The page includes photos of both: both look white to me.

The family went to North Carolina after the Civil War, Chesnutt later married, and went back to Cleveland.

But there is no suggestion that any of them tried to pass at any stage!

Now, my understanding - no evidence I can cite, so treat as a hypothesis - is that, over a couple of generations following the War, more or less all those who conveniently could, started to pass [1].

No doubt there were plausible reasons why the South should have appealed to the Chesnutts; but why not return as white to some place where they were unknown?

In the earlier piece, Chesnutt crops up as having a conversation with a train conductor about the new Jim Crow law on trains: was Chesnutt passing then, I wonder?

I suspect that there is information on the point in Chesnutt's own writings (which are on the site). More to follow, perhaps.

  1. Much as a large proportion of those German Jews free to travel left Germany between 1933 and 1939 (from memory - same drill!). That they mostly moved to areas later under German occupation...

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