American Lives: The 'Strange' Tale Of Clarence King

Clarence King i i

Scientist and scholar Clarence King is at the center of a singular and striking story from American history — one that author Martha Sandweiss says illustrates just how fluid and complicated our ideas about race really are. U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Library hide caption

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Clarence King

Scientist and scholar Clarence King is at the center of a singular and striking story from American history — one that author Martha Sandweiss says illustrates just how fluid and complicated our ideas about race really are.

U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Library

Ada Copeland, an African-American woman born in Georgia just months before that state seceded from the Union, moved to New York City in the mid-1880s. There, she met a man named James Todd. He was light-skinned, handsome, had a good job for an African-American man in that time — a Pullman porter.

They hit it off, and eventually married. They had five children and a house in Brooklyn. Their story would be unremarkable if not for one detail: Nothing James had told his future wife was true.

"James Todd was really not black, he was not a Pullman porter, and he was not even James Todd," author Martha Sandweiss tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "He was in fact Clarence King, a very well-educated white explorer who was truly a famous man in late 19th century America."

Famously connected, too: "Two of his closest friends were Henry Adams — the grandson and great-grandson of presidents — and John Hay, who had been Abraham Lincoln's private secretary and would become the secretary of state."

Passing Strange
Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line
By Martha A. Sandweiss
Hardcover, 384 pages
The Penguin Press
List price: $27.95

Sandweiss' book, Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line, examines why King chose to live a double life — and how his experience reflects and represents how Americans, both past and present, have thought about race. In the aftermath of the Civil War, particularly, the U.S. had to recast some of the ways it thought about questions of race and identity.

"Once enslaved people became free people, many Southerners became very anxious about how they could keep black people in their place, so to speak," Sandweiss explains. "How could you recognize a black person if they were no longer an enslaved person?"

Some Southern states came up with various "solutions." Among other things, Sandweiss notes, they passed race laws — laws that said, effectively, "If one of your eight great-grandparents is black, you are black, no matter what your skin looks like."

Paradoxically, Sandweiss says, "those laws meant to 'fix race' made racial designations extremely fluid. And they made it possible for a light-complexioned, blue-eyed, blond-haired man like Clarence King to claim African ancestry when he actually had none at all."

King's "passing" as African-American was extremely unusual. In 19th century America, those assuming a different racial identity were usually looking to move "towards greater social or legal privileges," Sandweiss notes. In other words, they were far more likely to be people of African descent passing as white.

King's case is also remarkable because he didn't inhabit his assumed identity all the time. When he was away from his family, says Sandweiss, King went by his real name and moved easily through white society. In essence, he lived two lives.

"In the city of Manhattan, he was the wittiest after-dinner speaker at the Century Club," Sandweiss says. "He was a leading scientist. But he had a secret life. He would move across the Brooklyn Bridge, perhaps shedding his Century Club suit for his Pullman porter's coat, and go home to his wife Ada. ... And when he moved into Brooklyn and into her house, he became the black man known as James Todd."

Incredibly enough, Sandweiss believes that Ada Todd had no idea her husband was living a double life.

"Marriage to a white man would have been very difficult," she explains. "She would have been ostracized — by other black people, as well as white people." Conversely, given the assumptions and prejudices of the age, "marriage to a very light-skinned African-American would have seemed to her a step up in the world."

And Ada didn't seem to have been concerned about concealing the relationship.

"In 1900, we know from a newspaper account, she gave a party at her house. And this party was covered by the black press," Sandweiss says. "I simply don't believe that if she thought herself married to a white man, she would have allowed that kind of scrutiny of her private life."

Ironically enough, Ada's party was a masquerade.

"If her husband was there, he was absolutely wearing a mask," Sandweiss says, laughing. "And, you know, that's the kind of detail — I'm not a novelist. I couldn't make that up."

Across The Decades, Changing Labels For The Same Lives

The Clarence King/James Todd story "teaches us something about the fluidity of race," Sandweiss says. "Pinning down just what race is has always been difficult."

It was difficult, to be sure, for Ada and Clarence's children. Their two daughters both married white men — and, what's more, each daughter bore witness on official forms that her sister was white as well.

Later, as World War I began, their brothers registered for the draft — and were assigned to all-black Jim Crow regiments. Not long after that, they were living in Brooklyn with their mother and legally classified as mulatto.

"The designations were always shifting," Sandweiss says. Which means a survey of the official boxes available for checking across the decades can be eye-opening.

"In 1880, at the height of the Jim Crow laws and [the] obsession with defining what black people were, the federal government allowed you on your census form to be white, black, mulatto, quadroon or octoroon" — meaning one-quarter or one-eighth black. But just 10 years later, the census' racial designations got a lot narrower.

"You were white, or you were black," says Sandweiss.

The "mulatto" option made a brief reappearance in the early 20th century, but it disappeared again in 1930. From that year until 2000, in fact, the census would not allow respondents to identify themselves as mixed-race.

This back and forth proves that while contemporary Americans may think of changing racial consciousness as being a recent development, debates about what makes a person black, white or something else altogether have been going on for a long time.

For his time — and really for ours — Clarence King was "a racial radical," says Sandweiss. In the 1880s, he imagined and wrote about an American future in which "the composite elements of American populations are melted down into one race alloy — when there are no more Irish or Germans, Negroes and English, but only Americans, belonging to one defined American race."

"His friends never believed him when he said this, but he truly believed that miscegenation, or mixed race, was the hope of America," Sandweiss says. "Very few people believed that in the 1880s."

Excerpt: 'Passing Strange'

Passing Strange
Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line
By Martha A. Sandweiss
Hardcover, 384 pages
The Penguin Press
List price: $27.95

An Invented Life

Edward V. Brown, the census taker, moved slowly down North Prince Street, knocking on each and every door in this Flushing neighborhood of Queens, New York. It was June 5, 1900, a mild and sunny day in the first spring of a new century. And as federal census agents had done once a decade for more than a hundred years, he was counting Americans, compiling a mosaic portrait of the nation. Who lives here, he asked at each residence, and what is the occupants' "color of skin," their sex, their marital status, their age? For each of the inhabitants he recorded a birthplace, as well as the birthplaces of their parents, and for the foreign born he noted when they had emigrated and whether they were citizens of the United States. He wrote down everyone's occupation, asked whether he or she could read and write, and separated the renters and boarders from the home owners. In his careful, neat hand, Brown dutifully recorded the data on the preprinted census sheets that would eventually find their way to Washington, D.C., and become part of the official twelfth census of the United States. Queens, that census would show, was much like the more densely settled community of Brooklyn, just to the west: it was overwhelmingly white, about 98 percent, with close to a quarter of those white residents foreign born.

As Brown made his way down North Prince Street, he encountered immigrants from Germany, England, Ireland, and Poland, families supported by men who worked as policemen, machinists, and clerks. At number 50, he met Mary Chase, a sixty- year- old widow from Rhode Island who ran a small boardinghouse, and took note of her black housekeeper, the widowed Deborah Peterson. He had counted seventy- two white residents on the street thus far, and Peterson, who descended from an African American family long resident in New York, was the first black person he had encountered. But then he walked next door and knocked at the large and comfortable home at 48 North Prince Street. Two black servants lived here. Phoebe Martin was a thirty-three-year-old widow, and Clarine Eldridge, just fourteen, was scarcely older than the children she had been hired to watch. It was afternoon, and Grace, age nine; Ada, age eight; and Sidney, age six, were home from school, perhaps playing with their three- year- old brother, Wallace. Whoever answered the door probably invited the census taker into the parlor; neither the servants nor the children could have answered his long list of personal questions about the family. And so Edward Brown entered the home to talk to Ada Todd, the lady of the house. Her husband, James, was away, she said, so she would answer the census agent's long list of questions herself.

Brown hardly needed to ask her race. With a glance at her dark complexion and wavy black hair, he noted her "color of skin" as "black." Mrs. Todd reported that her parents came from Georgia, and she told Brown that she could read and write. She said that she had been born in Georgia in December 1862. If Brown remembered his history, he might have wondered if Ada Todd had been born a slave. That question was not on his list, though, and he would not have asked.

Mrs. Todd then told Brown about her husband, James. She said that she had married him eighteen years earlier, in 1882. He was a black man, some twenty years her senior. Born in the West Indies, he had come to the United States in 1870, she said. Now a naturalized citizen, he had a job as a traveling steelworker. Perhaps Brown noted that the house seemed proof that Mr. Todd had done pretty well for himself, even if his work often kept him away from his home and his children. Mrs. Todd explained that there had been five: the four still at home and a fifth who had died as a toddler.

Edward Brown took pride in the accuracy of his records, in the neat way in which he filled in the 1,350 blank boxes on each of his census sheets, recording into being a portrait of the polyglot neighborhood springing up in the sparsely settled borough of Queens. And so, he would have been stunned to learn that almost nothing Mrs. Todd told him was true.

To begin with, she had knocked two years off her age, a gesture of vanity, perhaps. And she and her husband had been married for twelve years, not eighteen, a fact of which Mrs. Todd was surely aware, and a lie that seems hard to fathom, since the children's ages raised no questions about their legitimacy. But the other untruths were more stunning. Her husband was not black. He was not from the West Indies. He was not a steelworker. Even his name, James Todd, was a lie. Ada Todd was in fact married to Clarence King, an acclaimed public figure and the person Secretary of State John Hay once called "the best and brightest man of his generation."

King was a larger-than-life character: an explorer of the American West, a geologist, an accomplished writer and storyteller. He hobnobbed with presidents and congressmen and counted some of the nation's most distinguished writers and artists among his closest friends. His physical agility and bravery, combined with his keen intellect and wit, commanded near reverence from those who knew him best. With King, the historian Henry Adams wrote, "men worshiped not so much their friend, as the ideal American they all wanted to be." But of all this, of her husband's true identity and even his real name, Ada had not a clue.

Not until he lay dying of tuberculosis in Phoenix in late 1901, his last desperate hope of a desert cure gone, did James Todd write a letter to his wife telling her who he really was.

***

King sustained his double life for thirteen years. He lived as the celebrated Clarence King — a man who traced his English ancestry back to signers of the Magna Carta — in his workplaces, in the homes of his friends, in his Manhattan clubs. But he was James Todd, the black workingman, when he went home to his wife and children in Brooklyn and later in Queens. His well- to- do friends in New York and his family back in Newport, Rhode Island, thought him a bachelor; they never knew about Ada. And she knew nothing of them. Secrecy bounded his separate worlds. An attentive watchfulness governed his every move. No wonder King found married life fraught and complicated.

Ada, however, found nothing particularly clandestine about her domestic life. She might sometimes find it hard to understand why she never met her husband's family or friends, or difficult to explain to neighbors why he was so often away. But her life as Ada Todd gave her a foothold in a middleclass world she could scarcely have dreamed of as a girl in Civil War and Reconstruction Georgia. She embraced the world her marriage gave her and took pleasure in being Mrs. Todd. When she became a widow, she claimed the name of Ada King and did everything she could to assure that the peculiar circumstances of her married life would not remain a secret or become a source of shame to her children.

James and Ada Todd thus understood their life together in different ways. We know the story they told the world. Ada's report to the census taker conveys the public tale, or at least one of them. But precisely what they said to each other or, indeed, to themselves lies beyond all knowing. Clarence King took care to make sure that scant record of his secret life would survive. No pictures of the two of them together exist. No piece of paper bears both his signature (either one) and hers. The wedding ring he gave to her had no inscription inside the gold band.

Excerpted from Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line by Martha A. Sandweiss. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright February, 2009.

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