By Evette D. Champion
What would you do if you had the opportunity to live as a white American, although you were actually #black?
A few years ago, Allyson Hobbs, a historian at Stanford, learned that she had a cousin that she never heard of. She learned that the cousin was living as a white woman in California, although she is racially black. The cousin embraced her new identity so much that she refused to go to her father’s funeral and has not seen her mother or siblings in years.
Because this familial story has haunted her through the years, she began researching instances where people chose to pass and leave behind their family, their community, and their culture in an effort to live as a white American.
Hobbs decided to write about passing for her dissertation and it is now the book, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racially Passing in America.
Once she began her research, the stories about passing came easily.
New Yorker, Theophilus McKee, was living as a white man his entire adult life. He later came forward in order to claim a very large inheritance of Col. John McKee, a veteran of the Negro Civil War. His claim for the inheritance, as well as the court battle between his biracial siblings, made headlines all over the country.
Then there is the story of Harry S. Murphy. Murphy’s commander assumed Murphy was white, and assigned him to be the ROTC cadet for the University of Mississippi. While attending the university, Murphy continued the charade. Then, when James Meredith, a black man, wanted to register as the first black student at the school, the university fought to keep him out. This is when Murphy proudly announced that “Ole Miss was fighting a battle they had no idea they’d lost years ago.”
Not all stories about passing are happy stories though. For Elsie Roxborough, the story ends in suicide. Roxborough came from a well-to-do Detroit family and became the first black woman to live in the dorms at the University of Michigan. She tried becoming an actress in California, but later moved to New York to live as a white woman. Mr. Roxborough refused to support her and as a result, she decided to take her own life. Her sister, who also passed as a white woman, collected the body so that Roxborough’s secret was safe—even the death certificate states she was a white woman.
Although passing is not widely practiced anymore, thanks to a much more diverse nation, it is still very much a part of the #African American story.