The American Heritage of Race, Interracial Sex & interracial Marriage

November 10, 2009

Four student readings explore the sensitive and controversial issues of race, interracial sex and interracial marriage--including the Jefferson-Hemings relationship and Michelle Barack's ancestry.

To the Teacher:

The student readings below explore the sensitive and controversial issues of race, interracial sex and interracial marriage. The first reading uses Louisiana Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell's recent refusal to marry an interracial couple as the starting point for a discussion of the concept of "race," including the contrast between the social and conventional reality of race and the scientific reality. Following an account of the Jefferson-Hemings relationship are two readings on the American heritage of interracial relations, including in First Lady Michelle Obama's ancestry. Discussion questions and activities for student inquiry follow.

For suggestions about "Teaching on Controversial Issues," click on "Ideas and Resources" at TeachableMoment and scroll down.


Student Reading 1:

Classifications—social realities and biological realities

Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell of Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana, recently refused to marry an interracial couple, something he had declined to do at least three times before. Bardwell, whose term of office runs until 2014, told the Associated Press: "I'm not a racist. I just don't believe in mixing the races that way. I have piles and piles of black friends. They come to my home, I marry them, they use my bathroom. I treat them just like everyone else."

He also told a local Hammond Daily Star reporter, "I don't do interracial marriages because I don't want to put children in a situation they didn't bring on themselves. In my heart, I feel the children will later suffer." He said if he married one interracial couple, he would have to do the same for others. "I try to treat everyone equally."

Bardwell later resigned without explanation after Louisiana officials, including Governor Bobby Jindal, called for his ouster. In the meantime, Beth Humphrey and Terence McKay, the interracial couple, were married by another justice of the peace and have filed a federal lawsuit against Bardwell.

The words "race," "white," negro," "black," "mulatto," and "interracial" express social and conventional realities, not biological and scientific ones. Compare, for instance, the racial classification system during white rule in South Africa and that used for centuries under white rule in the southern U.S.

South African whites divided people of color into three categories: black, colored, and Asian (mostly Indian). American whites divided them into multiple categories, among them: negroes, mulattos, quadroons, and octoroons. A Negro was a black; a mulatto a mix of black and white ancestry; a quadroon either an individual with three white grandparents or three black grandparents; an octoroon an individual with one-eighth black ancestry, typically with one great-grandparent of black African descent and seven great-grandparents who were white.

"'Race' in our [American] society," anthropologist Ashley Montague wrote, "is not a term which clearly and dispassionately defines certain real conditions which can be demonstrated to exist, but...the word acts rather as a stimulus which sets off a series of emotional changes that usually bear as much relation to the facts as bees do to bonnets." (Man In Process) Montague wrote this book in 1961, when the same description would have applied to South African society.

For "certain real conditions which can be demonstrated to exist," one must turn to the work of biologists, anthropologists, and paleoanthropologists. They tell us that all human beings, whatever their shadings of color or other physical characteristics, are descended from the same human branch of the primate fossil tree.

On October 1, scientists announced the most recent addition to that fossil tree. Seventeen years ago, some remains were found at the Awash River in Ethiopia. After exhaustive studies, scientists now know that they came from an adult female about four feet tall weighing about 120 pounds who lived 4.4 million years ago. She walked upright and was also an agile tree-climber.

She has been named Ardipithecus Ramidus: (Ardi= "ground" or "floor" in Afar, an East African language; from pithekos= "ape" in Greek; ramidus= "root" in Afar), to suggest that this hominid is at the ground floor or root of evolution. (

Scientists said that Ardipitecus Ramidus has opened a window to "the early evolutionary steps that our ancestors took after we diverged from our common ancestors with chimpanzees."

Dr. Gen Suwa, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Toronto and a specialist in fossil teeth, said that the more than 145 teeth collected along the Awash River site had "the size, shape and wear patterns showing that the individuals were eaters of plants and nuts, as well as small mammals, but were not as big consumers of fruits as are living chimps and gorillas." (New York Times, 10/2/2009)

Contrast this finding with the statement of G.O. Ferguson, who wrote in 1916: "It is probably correct to say that pure Negroes, Negroes three-fourths pure, mulattoes and quadroons, have, roughly, 60, 70, 80, and 90 percent, respectively, of white intellectual efficiency." ("The Psychology of the Negro," Archives of Psychology, April 1916, quoted in Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy).

The "realities" expressed by G.O. Ferguson reflect the social conventions of his time. They rested on unsupported assumptions about the intellectual abilities of "Negroes" based on how much "white" ancestry they have. The realities expressed by Dr. Suwa are paleoanthropological and rest on collected evidence and scientific study of fossil teeth.


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Justice of the Peace Bardwell won't marry interracial couples because, he says, he wants to protect children "from a situation they did not bring on themselves." Will his policy on marriage of interracial couples protect children? Why or why not? What do you make of his comment, "they use my bathroom"? Would you call him a racist? Why or why not? How do you define "racist"?

3. Explain the differences between social and conventional realities, on the one hand, and scientific realities on the other.

4. How do you explain why white South Africans and white American Southerners thought it necessary to create classification systems for people of color?

5. What do you think Montague meant when he wrote that the word "race" "acts as a stimulus which sets off a series of emotional changes that usually bear as much relation to the facts as bees do to bonnets"?

6. What do scientists tell us about the origins of all human beings? On the basis of what evidence? What did white South Africans and white Southern Americans tell us about race? On the basis of what evidence?


Student Reading 2:

Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings

In 1785 when Thomas Jefferson became the American minister in Paris, he began a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings. She was a 16-year-old slave he had brought with him from his plantation in Monticello, Virginia. Jefferson was 42. Three years earlier, in 1782, Jefferson's wife Martha had died after the birth of their sixth child and 10 years of marriage.

Martha and Sally were half-sisters, for both had the same father, John Wayles. Sally's mother, Elizabeth Hemings, was one of Wayles' slaves. Elizabeth herself was the daughter of an English sea captain named Hemings and an African slave.

When Wayles died in 1773, he left nearly all of the Hemings family, including Sally, to his daughter Martha Jefferson.

During several hundred years of slavery in America, sexual relations between male slave owners and their female slaves were commonplace and resulted in many mixed-race children:

Sea captain Hemings + female African slave = Elizabeth Hemings
Slave owner John Wayles + Elizabeth Hemings = Sally Hemings and other children (although not all of them were fathered by Wayles)
Slave owner Thomas Jefferson + Sally Hemings = six children

In 1789 Sally Hemings returned with Jefferson to Monticello and lived there with him until his death in 1826. While there were rumors about their relationship at the time, he kept his private life a secret. To have been open about it would probably have kept him from becoming secretary of state in George Washington's administration, vice president to President John Adams, president himself from 1801 to 1809, and, in the following years, chief founder of the University of Virginia.

How did 16-year-old Sally Hemings feel about her new relationship with Jefferson in Paris? Was it consensual? What were her feelings during the 37 years that they lived together at Monticello? How did she relate to the creator of the Declaration of Independence, which declared that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"? We do not know and never will.

We do know that in his will Jefferson freed all of Sally Hemings' children, but did not free her or any other slave family during those years. After Jefferson's death, his daughter Martha allowed Sally to leave Monticello to live with two of her sons in Charlottesville, VA. Sally Hemings died in 1835, and was buried in a Negro burying ground, not with Jefferson at Monticello.

For 200 years the Jefferson-Hemings relationship was a subject of controversy, but DNA evidence and Annette Gordon Reed's groundbreaking research and award-winning The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family established it conclusively.

In his "Notes on Virginia, Query 18," (or Chapter 18), written between 1781 and 1783, a dozen years before his relationship with Hemings began, Jefferson wrote, "The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other."

This, of course, does not necessarily describe Jefferson's later relationship with Hemings. But Jefferson lived much of his life among other slave owners. He clearly knew about the oppressive behavior of countless slave owners and the humiliation felt by countless slave women.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. How would you explain the fact that Jefferson wrote in 1776 that "all men are created equal," yet remained a slave owner for the next 50 years of his life?

3. Why do you suppose that for 41 years Jefferson kept his relationship with Sally Hemings secret?

4. How do you think Jefferson reached the conclusions about master and slave that he included in Notes on Virginia?


Student Reading 3:

Miscegenation, "a humpbacked, ugly" word

In 1850, David Patterson, the white owner of a South Carolina estate with 21 slaves, listed among his possessions the "Negro girl Melvina," a 6-year-old slave girl who was later valued at $475. After Patterson's death in 1852, his daughter Christianne and her husband, Henry Shields, owners of a 200-acre farm with three slaves near Atlanta, Georgia, became Melvina's owners.

In about 1859, when Melvina may have been only 15, she gave birth to Dolphus, who was "very light skinned-some say he looked like a white man." The name of the father is unknown. Henry Shields was then in his late forties and had four sons from ages 19 to 24.

By 1870, Melvina, now free, had four children. Three of them, including Dolphus, were listed on the census as mulatto. All had the last name of Shields-but this does not necessarily mean that any of the Shields' men were their fathers. Former slaves often took the surnames of their masters.

Census records show that when Melvina was in her 30s or 40s, she left the farm near Atlanta. She reunited with Mariah and Bolus Easley, former slaves from her childhood on the Patterson estate. The three settled near the Alabama border in Bartow County, Georgia. Melvina's son Dolphus later married an Easley daughter, Alice, who gave birth to a son, Robert Shields. They moved to Birmingham, Alabama, sometime before 1888 when Robert was in his 30s. Dolphus owned a home by 1900 and later had a carpentry and tool sharpening business.

Robert became the father of Purnell, who became the father of Marian Shields, who married Fraser Robinson III. Their daughter is Michelle Robinson, now named Michelle Obama, the First Lady of the United States. Marian Sheilds, whose husband died in 1991, lives in the White House helping to care for the two young Obama daughters.

Michelle is the great-great-great granddaughter of Melvina, who died in 1938 and whose death certificate has the words "don't know" in the space for her parents' names. She is also the great-great granddaughter of Dolphus, who died in 1950. (Sources: Megan Smolenyak, a genealogist, and the New York Times, "First Lady's Roots Reveal Slavery's Tangled Legacy," 10/8/09)

Webster's Dictionary defines miscegenation as "marriage or cohabitation between a white person and a member of another race." The word, though not much used today, would have been used in 1859 to describe the act of the white man who "cohabited" with Melvina and was the father of Dolphus.

Barack Obama, the son of a black man from Kenya, Barack Obama Sr., and a white woman from Wichita, Kansas, Stanley Ann Dunham, wrote that the word miscegenation is "humpbacked, ugly, portending a monstrous outcome... it evokes images of another era, a distant world of horsewhips and flames, dead magnolias and crumbling porticos...." (Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance)

Obama writes: "In 1960, the year that my parents were married, miscegenation still described a felony in over half the states in the Union. In many parts of the South, my father could have been strung up from a tree for merely looking at my mother the wrong way; in the most sophisticated of northern cities, the hostile stares, the whispers, might have driven a woman in my mother's predicament into a back-alley abortion...Their very image together would have been considered lurid and perverse..."

And yet, despite such attitudes, sexual relations between blacks and whites have been going on for a long time. "The slaves imported from Africa by no means represented 'pure Negro races,'" wrote Gunnar Myrdal in his classic study, An American Dilemma. Many blacks in African tribes had sexual relations with Mediterranean peoples.

"The slave traders themselves were known frequently to have had promiscuous intercourse with their female merchandise," Myrdal wrote. "Even more important as a source of infiltration of white blood into the Negro slave population before arriving in what is now the United States was slavery in the West Indies." Some of these slaves came directly from Africa, others by way of Spain and Portugal. "It seems there was extensive miscegenation in these two European nations..." Some of the children and grandchildren of these couplings were sent to the West Indies and the United States.

In their article "The American Melting Pot? Miscegenation Laws in the United States," Bárbara Cruz and Michael Berson reported: "The first recorded interracial marriage in North American history took place between John Rolfe and Pocahantas in 1614. In colonial Jamestown, the first biracial Americans were the children of white-black, white-Indian, and black-Indian unions.

"By the time of the American Revolution, somewhere between 60,000 and 120,000 people of 'mixed' heritage resided in the colonies. During his presidency, Thomas Jefferson begged Americans to consider "let[ting] our settlements and [Indians' settlements] meet and blend together, to intermix, and become one people. The idea that Africans and their descendants were not only different from, but inferior to the English was prevalent in the days of Shakespeare and consequently migrated to America." (Bárbara Cruz and Michael Berson,


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What do you think Barack Obama meant by his comments about the word "miscegenation"?

3. Why would the "very image together" of Barack Obama's parents have "been considered lurid and perverse"? What do you think was the source of such feelings? Why was the idea prevalent that Africans and their descendants were "inferior to the English"? If you don't know, how might you find out?


Student Reading 4:

Interracial relationships then and now

"Everywhere in the ante-bellum South marriages between whites and Negroes or 'mulattos,' whether free or unfree, were prohibited," Kenneth Stampp wrote in The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. But this did not prevent interracial relationships. "Sometimes these extra-legal alliances were remarkably open and durable, but usually they were clandestine, casual, and brief—a simply matter of a white using a Negro to satisfy an immediate sexual urge."

Nobody knows how much interracial sexuality there was, but "the evidence nevertheless suggests that human behavior in the Old South was very human indeed, that sexual contacts between the races were...a frequent occurrence involving whites of all social and cultural levels." A Kentucky judge declared it "too common, as we all know."

The result? "According to the census of 1860, more than a half million (about 12 percent) of the colored people in the slave states were 'mulattoes.' This is certainly an underestimate, because the census takers classified each individual entirely on the basis of appearance." Individuals with dark complexions listed as Negroes might have had white ancestors, those with very light complexions Negro ancestors. "The practice of 'passing over' had already begun in the ante-bellum South."

Women lived under a double standard. White females "known to have cohabited with a Negro irretrievably lost the respect of society, but the white male paid no such price... Unmarried slaveholders and the young males who grew up in slave-holding families, some bearing the South's most distinguished names, played a major role. Indeed, given their easy access to female slaves, it seems probable that miscegenation was more common among them than among the members of any other group."

Stampp wrote that much of this interracial sex often brought suffering even for the whites involved. "A Virginia woman grieved for the 'white mothers and daughters of the South' who had seen their dearest affections trampled upon-their hopes of domestic happiness destroyed' by husbands, sons, and brothers who gratified their passions with female slaves."

White men who had sexual relations with slave women might simply ignore the consequences for the woman who became pregnant. "But for many white men the problem was not so simple." They "suffered because they felt a deep attachment for some slave women and knew that marriage was impossible. For them the alternatives were painful separation, a secret alliance, or a life beyond the pale of respectable white society."

But "one can hardly escape the conclusion that the principal victims were the colored females who were directly involved in it...It is certain that few escaped without serious damage to their psyche." Emotional involvement for some was inevitable, but almost certainly the relationship would be broken off. "The shock to an inhibited slave female whose submission was more or less coerced is obvious enough...

"Miscegenation under slavery, then, was above all an indignity to Negro women...first, because they were rarely in a position freely to accept or reject the advances of white men; second because those who enslaved them took advantage of the sexual promiscuity that slavery itself encouraged; and last, because the veneration of white womanhood combined with the disrespect for Negro womanhood was a peculiarly cynical application of a double standard."

"No one should be surprised anymore to hear about the number of rapes and the amount of sexual exploitation that took place under slavery; it was an everyday experience," said Jason Gillmer, a law professor at Texas Wesleyan University, who has researched liaisons between slave owners and slaves. (New York Times, 10/8/09)

In 1661, Virginia adopted a law prohibiting interracial marriage and later one that fined any minister who married an interracial couple 10,000 pounds of tobacco. As late as the 1960s, 15 states had such laws on their books-Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Virginia. But in 1967, the Supreme Court ruled Virginia's law unconstitutional, also bringing to an end laws in the 14 other states.

Though interracial marriages are now legal and commonplace, secrecy about interracial sex has not died. The white politician Strom Thurmond had a sexual relationship with Carrie Butler, a black maid, when he was 22 and she, like Sally Hemings, was 16. One result was a daughter born in 1925 whose existence Thurmond never acknowledged publicly.

Thurmond rose to prominence after Democratic President Harry Truman desegregated the US army, supported the elimination of the poll tax that prevented many Southern blacks from voting, and called for anti-lynching laws. Thurmond, also a Democrat, opposed all these actions and ran against Truman in 1948 as a candidate of the States' Rights Democratic Party, better known as the Dixiecrats.

In one campaign speech, he said, "I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there's not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches."

Thurmond represented South Carolina in the US Senate from 1954 until his death at 100 in 2003. Carrie Butler died in 1948.

After Thurmond's death, Essie Mae Washington-Williams revealed that she was the daughter of Strom Thurman and Carrie Butler. She said that he had helped pay for her college tuition and her living expenses for many years afterwards, but denied any agreement with Thurmond to keep silent during his lifetime. She had said nothing about their relationship because it "wasn't to the advantage of either one of us."


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What was the practice of "passing over" and why do you suppose that the practice developed?

3. While interracial sex could obviously provide pleasure, it inevitably also meant suffering. For whom and why?

4. Why wasn't it "to the advantage" of Essie Mae Washington-Williams or Senator Thurmond to reveal their relationship?

5. What is a racist? Does the term describe Thurmond? Why or why not?


For inquiry

A. What is a race?

The US Census Bureau's "racial categories" have shifted greatly over the years.

1790: free white male, free white female, other persons, which included free blacks,
slaves, and taxable Indians

1860: new categories added: Mulatto, Chinese, American Indian

1890: new categories added: White, Black, Quadroon, Octoroon, Japanese

1910: census bureau eliminated the categories Mulattos, Quadroons, and Octoroons
(anyone with African American ancestry was counted as black from this date on)

1990: the census bureau required a choice one of following racial categories: White,
Black, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Eskimo/Aleut, or Other. Checking
off "Other" and using the write-in blank, almost 10 million Americans identified
themselves as members of one of nearly 300 races, 600 American Indian tribes, 70
Hispanic groups, and 75 different combinations of multiracial ancestry. (Cruz and

2000: The Census Bureau allowed people to check as many racial categories as they felt applied.

What do these shifting categories tell you about race? How useful is the concept of "race"? Why? What does science tell us about the concept?

B. What are the sources of white racism?

As students respond, note, without comment, their answers on the chalkboard before beginning any examination of them. The following questions may be useful:

1. How do you know what you think you know? What is your evidence? Where does it come from? How credible is it?

2. What do you think you know, but are unsure about?

3. What questions do you have about white racism?

Develop with students a set of questions for further inquiry. See in the high school section of TeachableMoment: "Thinking is Questioning" for ideas and exercises to help students learn how to ask good questions. See "The Plagiarism Perplex," also on TeachableMoment under "Ideas and Essays," and scroll down for a detailed outline of a method for student inquiries.

C. 'Driving while black'

"The experience of being mistaken for a criminal is almost a rite of passage for African-American men. Security guards shadow us in stores. Troopers pull us over for the crime of 'driving while black.' Nighttime pedestrians cower by us on the streets. And black men who work as undercover cops are occasionally shot to death by white colleagues, as happened to a young officer named Omar Edwards last month in New York City....

"These pervasive and often unconscious biases affect social transactions of all kinds. They drive voting behavior. They make it likely that black defendants will receive longer sentences than whites for comparable crimes. They wreak havoc with the job possibilities of young black men. And that gives the lie to the idea that the United States is becoming a 'postracial' country."

—Brent Staples, "Even Now, There's Rise in 'Driving While Black,' New York Times, 6/15/09

1. What statistical support is there for Staples' comments?

2. How might voting behavior be driven by "pervasive and unconscious biases"?

3. What is a "postracial" country? Is the U.S. such a country? What evidence supports or contradicts this idea?




This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: