For more than two centuries, many African Americans left their families and identities behind, crossing into white society as a way of securing freedom, self-preservation and economic advancement, two university professors who have researched the phenomenon told a Monticello audience on Saturday.
Known as “passing,” many African Americans and Americans of mixed race chose to present themselves as white in order to attain privileges, freedoms and security. Passing often meant turning their backs on family, friends and hometowns, sometimes for the rest of their lives.
Lisa Page, co-editor of “We Wear The Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America,” joined Catherine Kerrison, author of “Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America” in the program. The panel is part of a slate of events and exhibitions by Monticello during Black History Month.
The lecture was moderated by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Clarence Page, who is married to Lisa Page.
Lisa Page is an assistant professor of English and creative writing director at George Washington University. Kerrison is a professor of history at Villanova University.
Kerrison’s book focuses on three of Thomas Jefferson’s daughters, including Harriet, whose mother was Sally Hemings, an enslaved person at Monticello who gave birth to six of Jefferson’s children. Hemings and Jefferson’s relationship is widely acknowledged by historians and by Monticello and the University of Virginia.
Born into slavery, Harriet left Monticello after she turned 21 and was set free by Jefferson.
At the time, Virginia law required anyone who was enslaved and then freed to leave the state or risk being re-enslaved, even though Harriet’s ancestry gave her about seven-eighths European descent. Sally Hemings herself was likely the daughter of John Wayles, Jefferson’s father-in-law, and Elizabeth Hemings.
“[Harriet] grew up knowing her life was going to be lived elsewhere than in Charlottesville,” Kerrison told an audience at Monticello’s Howard and Abby Milstein Theater. “Passing as a freeborn white person meant she had to act and dress like a freeborn white person. We don’t know much about her because Harriet had to disappear. Her brother Madison, 50 years later, said no one would ever guess she was Harriet Hemings from Monticello.”
Hemings’ sons Beverly and Eston similarly passed permanently into the white world after gaining freedom.
Passing was used as a way around laws restricting the association of whites and blacks and as access to everything from voting and financial opportunity to marriage grew more onerous. Between 1924 and 1930, Virginia’s legislature passed racial integrity laws that defined anyone with any ancestor of African descent as “colored” and enforced segregation in public places.
“What does it say about the country, that cutting any family connection and excluding yourself from family for the rest of your life looked like a better way to live your life,” Kerrison said. “When Harriet left, she said goodbye to her mother and her two younger brothers and she may never have seen them again in order to keep in her new life.”
Lisa Page recalled that her mother, a white woman, moved to Mexico after retiring in 1992 and would not tell expatriate friends in her new community that she had been married to a black man and had children of mixed race.
“My mother felt she had had a sullied life, that she was tainted by my father and [her children]. We would visit, but we couldn’t visit her at her new home,” Page told the audience.
According to sociological studies, the primary reason for a person “passing,” or assuming a new persona as a member of group category different from themselves, whether race, ethnicity, social class, sexual orientation, gender, religion, age or disability status, is to gain privileges, rewards or even self-protection.
During World War II, many people of Jewish descent passed as Christian to avoid the Holocaust and people of many ethnic origins, including Roma, passed as ethnic groups that were acceptable to the Nazis and those in power.
“What is interesting to me is that there are many different kinds of passing still going on,” Page said. “They do it for many reasons. Here, there are some Muslims who pass as non-Muslim because they have to get on planes. There are Latinos who pass to avoid problems. Look at the Rohingyas [in Myanmar]. In some places, people have to do it to survive.”