What Caused the One-Drop Rule? (C16)




Shows that two unpredictable events overlapped in the 1830s: First was a wave of White panic that African Americans, including White-looking ones, were secretly plotting to kill all Whites. Second was a need to strengthen solidarity among the newly emergent African-American ethnopolitical community. This is session C16 of a series on the emergence and triumph of the one-drop rule in U.S. history, discussed in my lectures on “The Study of Racialism.”

In 1835, Henry Bright, his wife, and their 3-year-old adopted daughter Elizabeth moved from Mobile Alabama to Cambridge Massachusetts. The toddler’s biological mother had been one of the family’s house-servants in Mobile–a slave.

The deceased woman had apparently been of mixed ancestry. Had she been freed before her death, she might have become a member of Mobile’s intermediate Colored group. Little Elizabeth could have been White to Gulf Coast Americans. The record does not show why the family moved to Massachusetts, but that Mrs. Bright had become an ardent abolitionist may have contributed to their relocation to a free state.

Over the next two years, the Bright family learned that, to Massachusetts eyes, Elizabeth was on the Black side of the North’s single impermeable color line. Family friends of the White group understood the Brights’ reasons for adopting the little girl, but court records invariably refer to her as non-White. Members of Massachusetts’s Black community, on the other hand, had no doubts regarding Elizabeth’s rightful place in society.

On September 17, 1837, when she was five years old, Elizabeth was kidnapped from her parents in Cambridge and taken to Boston by a Black couple. The Brights tracked down the kidnappers through an abolitionist friend.

The kidnappers, named John and Sophia Robinson, claimed that they had rescued the child from the former slaveowners. Through the intermediary, the Brights pleaded for the return of their daughter. The Robinsons agreed to return Elizabeth to her parents if the Brights promised in writing not to sell her into slavery. The Brights wrote such a promise, but the child was not returned.

The Brights then got the help of a “colored clergyman” named Snowden, who negotiated on their behalf. The Robinsons agreed to return Elizabeth if the Brights took out a $500 bond guaranteeing her freedom. The Brights took out such a bond, but the child was not returned.

The Brights then enlisted several abolitionists and Black leaders, who reported that Boston’s Black community was united in support of the Robinsons’ refusal to return the girl. They said that if the bond were increased to $1,000 (approximately $50,000 in today’s money), the child might be returned. The Brights increased the bond to $1,000, but the child was not returned.
Belatedly realizing that the Robinsons had no intention of returning their daughter, the Brights took the kidnappers to court in Commonwealth v. Robinson, 1837 Massachusetts.

The kidnappers said that (1) they did not know the child’s whereabouts and that (2) they would go to jail rather than return her to be raised by White people. How could a White family properly raise a Black child? Who would teach her African heritage? Who would even comb her hair, since Whites do not know how to comb Black hair? The court was unimpressed, ordering the defendants to produce the child on pain of imprisonment. They agreed and named a house where the Brights could retrieve their daughter.

When the parents arrived at the agreed-upon transfer point, the terrified child ran into her mother’s arms. Then, in what is arguably one of the most bizarre scenes in the history of U.S. race relations, “five or six colored people” burst into the house. Armed men, apparently Black, forcibly tore the screaming child from her mother’s arms and absconded with her again. In the subsequent investigation, Black witnesses claimed to have no idea who the men were.

When re-arrested on the kidnapping charge, the Robinsons denied any foreknowledge of the events. Other Black witnesses swore that Boston’s Black community would unite and fight with guns rather than allow a Black child to be raised by White people.

The jury thus concluded that a conspiracy existed. The Robinsons were convicted of kidnapping, “that the defendants seized and confined and imprisoned a certain female child with intent to cause her to be secretly confined in this state against her will.” They were sentenced to four months in the common jail. The convicts immediately posted $2,000 bond ($100,000 in today’s money), apparently collected from the Black community, and remained free while they appealed. Their conviction was upheld and they were ordered to serve their four-month sentences. They then offered to return the child in return for immunity for everyone involved in the conspiracy.

On October 22, 1838, over thirteen months after she was taken, Elizabeth Bright was returned to her parents. Commonwealth v. Robinson, 1837, was resolved in a deal that allowed all of the kidnappers to walk away.

The importance of Commonwealth v. Robinson, 1837 Massachusetts is that it shows coordinated action by a Black Yankee community to enforce something like a one-drop rule. Elizabeth Bright was not kidnapped because she was of one hundred percent African genetic admixture nor even because she was predominantly African–she was neither. She was kidnapped because Boston’s African-American ethnic group saw her as one of them, due solely to her having a trace of known African ancestry.


As explained in another topic, the concept of invisible Blackness, the idea that you could be of European appearance but be ideologically Black in some way arose rather abruptly in the free states in the 1830s. The one-drop rule then spread slowly southwards and became the unwritten law of the land throughout the nation by the turn of the twentieth century. It became statutory in the 1910s and 1920s.

This session addresses two questions. Why was the one-drop rule invented in the free states and not in the South? Why was it invented in the 1830s and not before nor after? The years between Gray v. Ohio (1831 OH) and Williams v. School District (1834 OH) marked the passing of an era.  The first ruled that anyone more than 1/2 Euro was White. The second ruled that even a rumor of Afro ancestry made you Black. What happened?

What happened between 1831 and 1834 that led much of mainstream northern society (the White group) to accept the concept that White-looking Black people could exist? The transition was pivotal to the history of the one-drop rule.
Look again at the key phrase, “White-looking Black people.” The phrase seems reasonable only because you are used to it. If someone said “tall-looking short people can exist” or “fat-looking thin people can exist,” you would laugh at the silliness. But you do not laugh at the notion of “White-looking Black people,” although a person from any other nation on earth would laugh. Why not?

It is because at some point in America’s past, membership in the Black endogamous group switched from reflecting appearance and blood fraction (recall that Eston Hemings was fully accepted as White in 1830) to reflecting ideology. To see this, compare the three phrases above with comparable ideological phrases: “Christian-looking Jews” or “American-looking communists.” Suddenly, the phrase is not silly. The earliest appearance of this peculiar usage was shortly after 1831.

What happened in those years was that a wave of terror swept the nation, the fear that the Blacks were plotting to massacre all of the Whites. Three historical threads just happened to come together at this point in time:

Three Threads Came Together in Time

First, secret meetings of Black leaders; Second, published calls for Black violence against Whites; Third, a massacre of over 50 unarmed White women and children at the hands of African Americans.

The three threads created a wave of suspicion and fear. Whites came to suspect that, among the Blacks who were secretly plotting to kill them, were some who looked just like their friends and neighbors. That is, some treacherous Blacks who looked White.

Secret Meetings of Black Political Leaders

The first secret meeting of Black leaders was summoned by Richard Allen in September, 1830. Allen was the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. Allen contacted other leaders and forty delegates from Brooklyn, Rochester, Wilmington, Baltimore, and Boston met in secret for five days at Bethel Church, Philadelphia, that very month.

No member of the White “racial” group was allowed inside the church. Despite the attempt at secrecy, the White press reported that a clandestine meeting of Black leaders had been held. The reality of the meeting’s discussion would have been anticlimactic, had it been reported.

As mentioned in a prior topic, the agenda of the first meeting of what was to become the National Convention Movement actually focused upon two mundane items. The first was support for the Ohio refugees. The second was rejecting the American Colonization Society’s plan to exile free Blacks to Africa. But White fears trumped Black reality and White Americans became uneasy with the secrecy of it all.

Published Calls for Black-on-White Violence

The published calls for Black violence against Whites appeared in a book by Boston haberdasher David Walker, titled Appeal in Four Articles (Boston, 1829).

According to the book, African Americans were, “the most degraded, wretched, and abject beings that ever lived since the world began…. Can our condition be any worse? They [Whites] are afraid to treat us worse, for they know well, the day they do it they are gone. They [Whites] think nothing of murdering us… therefore, if there is an attempt by us, kill or be killed.”

Despite Walker’s mysterious death after his book’s publication (or perhaps because of it), it immediately went through three editions. Four states (Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana) ruled it seditious and demanded the author’s arrest. White abolitionists were horrified. Antislavery publisher Benjamin Lundy wrote, “A more bold, daring, inflammatory publication, perhaps, never issued from the press of any country. I can do no less than set the broadest seal of condemnation on it.” Even William Lloyd Garrison deplored it as “most injudicious,” although he also said that it held “many valuable truths and seasonable warnings.”

Valuable truths, however were not what some White Americans sought. Walker’s book raised the question in White minds of just what those secret Black meetings were all about.

Gruesome Black-on-White Massacre

The massacre of over 50 unarmed Whites at the hands of Blacks was led by Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia, on the night of August 21, 1831.8 Reports of the event spread terror among White people across the country.

That it was an insurrection employing bloody violence against their tormentors, by people who were kept in chains by equally bloody violence, seemed to escape newspaper White readers. That it was an unprovoked attack by Blacks against defenseless White women and children was clear to the same White readers. To many fearful Whites, Nat Turner’s rebellion answered the question about what the secret meetings were about. Blacks, many Whites feared, were plotting another large-scale extermination of Whites, like the one that had taken place in El Cibao, Santo Domingo, in February of 1805 at the hands of Haitian Emperor Dessalines.

It is hard to overstate the significance of the nationwide terror that followed the Nat Turner incident. White women and children had been slaughtered in the horrifying way: slashed and stabbed with knives, beheaded with axes, shot with crude guns. The victims included non-slaveowners as well as slaveowners, kind owners as well as cruel ones, women and children as well as men. The victims had only one thing in common–they were White. As Joel Williamson put it, “The message of the slave insurrection was that when blacks rebelled, all whites died.”

And so the three threads came together in late 1831: secret meetings called by Black leaders, meetings that were closed to non-Blacks, public calls for organized Black-on-White violence, and the reality of a massacre in Virginia. It was a tiny step for White society to suspect that “they” might be secretly among “us.” Again, the mental image resonates with “Christian-looking Jews” or “American-looking communists,” not with short-looking tall people or thin-looking fat people.

Black leaders tried to repair the damage that their closed-meeting policy had inadvertently caused. Although Richard Allen died before the second annual National Black Convention in 1831, his successor, Lewis Cook took the Convention podium. He publicly deplored the horrific violence wrought by rebelling slaves, saying that, “the free people of color have lived peaceably and quietly… and have never been the cause of any insurrectionary or tumultuous movements.”

Threats of retaliatory White violence led organizers to move the third annual (1832) National Convention from Philadelphia’s Benezet Hall to the First African Church. Chairman Lewis Cook tried to quench the blaze. He opened the Convention’s doors to the public for the first time and explicitly invited “our white brethren” to attend as observers. White newspapers sent reporters, and some printed reassuring accounts, but it was too little too late.

White Consequences

Anti-Black feeling among Whites continued to worsen. Race riots and repressive legislation swept the North. Over the next two decades, waves of legislation disfranchised Blacks throughout free states and slave states alike. New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania quickly disfranchised their Black citizens. Tennessee disfranchised its Black citizens in 1834 and North Carolina did the same in 1835.

Disfranchisement via an early version of the one-drop rule was apparent in the case of Hobbs v. Fogg (1837 PA). In October, 1835, a resident landowner in Luzerne County named William Fogg tried to vote in the Pennsylvania general election. He was turned away on the grounds that he descended from Negroes, and so was not entitled to vote. Fogg sued the election board for damages and won.

The judge found that: (1) Free Black and biracial Pennsylvanians had voted since the Revolution. (2) The statute in effect explicitly gave the vote to all freemen, without mentioning color or “race.” And (3) the record of the legislative debates surrounding the statute, revealed that the legislators had considered limiting the franchise only to Whites but had explicitly voted to make the law color-blind.

The board of electors appealed, and Fogg’s victory was overturned. In July of 1837, Justice Gibson of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that allowing non-Whites to vote would violate a 1795 precedent that he had heard about from his father. Justice Gibson could find no record of the precedent, but since his father’s “remembrance of the decision is perfect and entitled to full confidence,” the unrecorded precedent stood.

Gibson explained that Pennsylvania’s explicitly color-blind constitution was actually intended to forbid Black voting. The actual words of the law were: “every freeman of the age of twenty-one years, having resided in the state two years before the election, and having within that time paid a state or county tax, shall enjoy the rights of an elector.” Judge Gibson explained that the spirit of the law was that: (1) Negroes, by definition cannot “reside in the state” and (2) Negroes, by definition cannot be “freemen.” He further explained that that the legislature’s explicitly voting forty years ago to strike the word “White” preceding “freeman” in the law meant that they considered the term redundant.

The point of this case is not to highlight Justice Gibson’s disregard of both precedent and statute. As shown in discussions of the antebellum Gulf Coast, judges everywhere often followed their own consciences. In fact, in that very year of 1837, the Pennsylvania legislature clarified the situation by decreeing that no person of African descent would ever again be allowed to vote in Pennsylvania.

The point is that, until William Fogg admitted under oath in court that he descended from Negroes, the court records made no mention of the fact. Apparently, the man looked White and was compelled to admit African ancestry only under oath. Hence, Hobbs v. Fogg, 1837 Pennsylvania, may be the earliest documentary evidence of a decision in favor of something like a one-drop rule in a U.S. court of law.

The 1830s wave of terror and anti-Black reaction not only disfranchised Blacks, but racially segregated Northern public schools. Consider the case of Crandall v. State (1834 CT). An 1833 Connecticut statute forbade teaching Blacks from out of state. The reason, according to the act’s preamble, was that teaching the three Rs to Black children from out of state, “would tend to the great increase of the coloured population of the state, and thereby to the injury of the people….”

Prudence Crandall ran a boarding house. Among her guests were Black students from out of state. Since these students attended a Connecticut school, Ms. Crandall was charged and convicted of violating the new law. The Supreme Court of Error of Connecticut, Windham (four justices presiding) overturned her conviction on the grounds that she was not operating a school, but a boarding house, and boarding houses were not illegal.

Nevertheless, it shows that Connecticut enforced its law against teaching Blacks children, even to the extent of initially convicting a boarding-house owner who merely provided accommodations for out-of-state students. The school itself was shut down. In contrast a harsh-seeming 1740 South Carolina law made it a crime to teach African Americans (slave or free) to read and write. It was ignored. The very next year saw the founding in Charleston of the state’s first school for slaves and free Blacks.

During the 1830s, legislatures also imposed oppressive anti-Black laws well beyond disfranchisement and school segregation. In 1832, Virginia legislature responded to the Nat Turner incident by passing a series of laws placing free Blacks under the same rules and regulations as slaves. Instead of paying fines for minor infractions, for instance, free Blacks would thenceforth be publicly whipped. Virginia also began strictly to enforce a previously ignored 1806 law that exiled former slaves from the state. No longer could the manumitted establish themselves as free Virginians. This, incidentally, is why Eston Hemings and his family were forced to leave Charlottesville and move to Chillicothe, Ohio.

Religious freedom was also curtailed. South Carolina imposed such harsh restrictions upon Black worship services that the AME church was driven out of the state.

The anti-Black wave of reaction of the 1830s was not limited to lawful oppression. According to Leon F. Litwack: “Between 1832 and 1849, Philadelphia mobs set off five major anti-Negro riots. In July, 1834, a white mob stormed though the Negro section, clubbed and stoned its victims, destroyed homes, churches, and meeting halls, forced hundreds to leave the city, and left many others homeless.”

In 1835 New Hampshire, a mob harnessed a hundred yoke of oxen and dragged into a swamp a building used as a school for Black children. In 1837 Illinois, abolitionist publisher Elijah P. Lovejoy was killed by a mob while defending his printing press.

Black Consequences

Tens of thousands of African Americans fled the United States. Within those two decades of the 1830s and 1840s, about twenty percent of the free members of America’s Black “racial” group escaped to other countries. Thirteen thousand of them (like Hezekiah Grice) went to Haiti. Sixty thousand went to Canada.

Starting around 1830, terror produced reaction, which produced ostracism, which then produced otherness and fear in a vicious spiral. Terror in the minds of White Americans is what led to the invention of the frightening notion of “White-looking Blacks.”

The terror of the 1830s eventually faded and life resumed its course. Had the notion of invisible Blackness arisen only within White popular culture, it might have faded out as well, along with the fears of massive uprisings and Black-on-White massacres. But by coincidence these were also the decades when Black Yankees invented African-American ethnicity. That you could be a member of the African-American ethnicity despite looking White matched similar beliefs among German-Americans and Irish-Americans.

Ultimately, as suggested by Nathan Glazer in his essay “Universalization of Ethnicity” (1975), the growth of invented ethnicities was a reaction to the industrial revolution’s urbanization, new occupations, mass education, and mass media. U.S. ethnicities were and are distinguished by meticulously patrolled borders, rather than by serious difference in content. Anything that made the edge of A-A ethnicity more ideological and less substantive was likely to be adopted and become tradition.

Three pieces of evidence suggest that the notion of invisible Blackness was embraced by Blacks from its beginning because it benefited the invention of African-American ethnicity. First, separatist Afrocentrist Martin Delaney and integrationist patriot Frederick Douglass both supported a one-drop rule as enhancing African-American ethnic solidarity, even though they disagreed on nearly everything else.

According to Judith Stein, in 1848, Frederick Douglass faced the challenge of mobilizing a Black Yankee community “who evidently did not identify with the slaves.” He tried to create unity and purpose among them to fight slavery and become abolitionists. He did this, according to Stein, “by asserting their oneness” with the slaves. “We are one people,” Frederick Douglass affirmed, “one in general complexion, one in a common degradation, one in popular estimation.”

Second, court cases, like Commonwealth v. Robinson (1837 MA), which opened this topic, show A-As using tactics (kidnapping an apparently European-looking five-year-old) which make sense only in the context of an internalized notion of invisible Blackness. Third, as pointed out in the prior topic, it was members of the African-American ethnic group, not Whites, wrote the first American passing novels and plays.

That the one-drop rule first arose in the free states in the 1830s will remain undisputed until someone uncovers an example of the notion of invisible Blackness anywhere before 1830 or in the South during the 1830s. Until then, the question is “why?”

What gave rise to such a world-unique and counter-rational concept?

The answer presented here is that the one-drop rule arose in White society as a consequence of a nationwide wave of terror after secret meetings of Black leaders, calls for Black-on-White violence, and the Nat Turner incident. At the very same time, leaders of the newly emerging African-American ethnic community embraced the notion of invisible Blackness in order to foster ethno-political solidarity, as evidenced in political rhetoric, passing novels, and court cases.

For the detailed text of this topic, complete with footnoted references, citations, and all the peer-reviewed material, visit Why Did Northerners Invent a One-Drop Rule?

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