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The Author Speaks

Interview With Daniel J. Sharfstein

His powerful new book examines how three American families became white

Q. You could change race by moving to another state?

A. There were court cases where people who could not marry in North Carolina would move to South Carolina to get married. That started to tighten at the end of the 19th century, when a lot of states started to adopt "one drop" rules [which defined anyone with any African ancestry as black].

Q. Weren't many of the people you discuss in the book legally white?

A. Sure. At the same time, I think it matters less how a court rules on somebody than how a community regarded somebody.

Q. How did you select the three families you highlighted?

A. Finding these three families was actually a long process. I initially researched hundreds of families. From 1880 to 1930, every couple of months, a newspaper would publish some story that involved people who were bending the color line in one way or another. I was surprised at the wealth of detail I could find. I wanted stories that revealed the diversity of experience of families who changed their racial identities from black to white.

Q. What are some of the key distinctions among these families?

A. Each family became white at a different point in American history. The Gibsons assimilated into a community of South Carolina farmers right before the Revolution. It was a time when racial categories were a little less set in stone. People needed to rely on each other in ways that could transcend race. The Spencers became white right before the Civil War. It was a much more polarized time racially. And the Walls become white at the dawn of Jim Crow, around 1900, and again this was a time when people were thinking about race in very hard-line terms, and politics and law were following suit.

Q. There were class differences among them as well.

A. They moved across the color line from different social positions. The Gibsons were wealthy landowners. What mattered wasn't that they were black or white, but that they were planters, that they owned land and owned slaves. The Spencers were poor subsistence farmers in Appalachia. They remained poor and really hovered on the line between white and black for most of the 19th century. The Walls were educated professionals. Many had gone to Oberlin College. O.S.B. Wall was a member of Howard University's second graduating class of lawyers. And the Walls traded in a legacy of African American achievement for anonymous lives as whites clinging to the edge of the middle class.

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