American Lives: The 'Strange' Tale Of Clarence King Clarence King was a geologist, a best-selling author -- and a liar. He lived an elaborate double life, and his story -- told by Martha Sandweiss in her book, Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line -- sheds light on our complicated ideas about race.
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American Lives: The 'Strange' Tale Of Clarence King

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American Lives: The 'Strange' Tale Of Clarence King

American Lives: The 'Strange' Tale Of Clarence King

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We are exploring more American lives this week and focusing on how race is woven into them.


Yesterday, we learned of a senator who opposed slavery and owned slaves.

WERTHEIMER: Today, we begin with a woman who was born a slave, around 1860.

INSKEEP: Martha Sandweiss wrote a book about the marriage of that former slave. The woman was Ada Copeland and the book is called "Passing Strange."

Ms. MARTHA SANDWEISS (Author, "Passing Strange"): Ada Copeland is someone we know very, very little about. We know she was born in West Point, Georgia just months before Georgia seceded from the union. We know that she likely spent her childhood in a world of violence and confusion...

INSKEEP: The Civil War.

Ms. SANDWEISS: Georgia... Exactly, during the Civil War. And we know that some time in the mid-1880s she moved north to New York City. And somehow she met a man on the streets of New York who introduced himself to her as the Pullman porter named James Todd.

INSKEEP: He said that he was African-American, or let her assume that he was African-American.

Ms. SANDWEISS: All Pullman porters were African-American, and if he was a Pullman porter, he must be black.

INSKEEP: Now, help me understand this because we're getting to the heart of the story here. This man named James Todd - was anything that he had just told his future wife true?

Ms. SANDWEISS: Absolutely not. James Todd was really not black, he was not a Pullman porter and he was not even James Todd. He was in fact Clarence King, a very well-educated white explorer who was truly a famous man in late-19th century America.

INSKEEP: And connected to a lot of other famous men?

Ms. SANDWEISS: Two of his closest friends were Henry Adams, who was the grandson and great-grandson of presidents; and John Hay, who had been Abraham Lincoln's private secretary and would later become the secretary of state.

INSKEEP: Now, I think this story will be surprising to a lot of people, starting with the question of how a man who was white - seemingly about as white as you could be - could possibly pass for a black man.

Ms. SANDWEISS: That is something that surprises most people when they hear this story. But we have to think about what was going on in America in the decades following the Civil War. Once enslaved people became freed people many southerners became very anxious about how they could keep black people in their place, so to speak. How could you recognize a black person if they were no longer an enslaved person?

So, throughout the South, states passed laws that effectively said this: if one of your eight great-grandparents is black, you are black, no matter what your skin looks like. And paradoxically, 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.

INSKEEP: And this is a reminder, isn't it? This is a period when a fair number of people passed - as it was called - from one racial designation to another, although usually it would've gone the other way, a black person passing as white.

Ms. SANDWEISS: That's correct. I mean, passing involves the idea of assuming a different identity in order to pass towards greater social or legal privileges. So, yes, many Americans of African-American descent passed into the white world, but it was extremely rare at this moment, or at any moment, for a white person to claim African-American identity.

INSKEEP: And did he end up living two separate lives then?

Ms. SANDWEISS: He did. In the city of Manhattan, he was wittiest after-dinner speaker at the Century Club, he was a leading scientist, but he had a secret life. And 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 eventually they had five children. And when he moved into Brooklyn and enter her house, he became the black man known as James Todd.

INSKEEP: Are you sure that his wife didn't know what he was doing?

Ms. SANDWEISS: I don't believe she really knew who he was - and let me tell you why. For Ada Copeland Todd, marriage to a white man would've been very difficult. She would have been ostracized by other black people as well as white people whom she knew. But marriage to a very light-complected African-American, would've seemed to her, a step up in the world.

In 1900, we know from a newspaper account, she gave a party at her house and this party was covered by the black press. I simply don't believe that if she thought herself married to a white man, she would've allowed that kind of scrutiny of her private life. And let me add one thing: the party was a masquerade.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Everybody had a mask on. Everybody was...

Ms. SANDWEISS: If her husband was there, he was absolutely wearing a mask. And, you know, that's the kind of detail - I'm not a novelist; I couldn't make that up - but this one really happened.

INSKEEP: What does this story make you think about the racial and ethnic divisions that seem to mean so people then, and would seem to mean so much to people now, although in a somewhat different way?

Ms. SANDWEISS: I think it's a story that teaches us something about the fluidity of race. Pinning down just what race is has always been difficult. I mean, look at this family, for example. Clarence King and Ada King, as she later became known, their two daughters both married as white women, they went to City Hall in New York, married white men, and each swore for the other on the official form that the bride was white.

But a year or two later, their brothers went to register for the draft for World War I and they were both assigned to all-black Jim Crow regiments. A few years later, they're back home living with their mother and they're all designated as mulatto. The designations are always shifting.

It's interesting to go back and look at how the federal census forms allowed people to designate their own races. In 1890, at the height of the Jim Crow laws and kind of an obsession with defining what black people were, the federal government allowed you, on your census form, to be white, black, mulatto, quadroon or octoroon.

INSKEEP: Octoroon meaning one-eighth black.

Ms. SANDWEISS: One-eighth, one great-grandparent of African descent. Ten years later in 1900, gave you no possibility of being a mixed-race person. You were white or you were black. Later in the early 20th century, there's a designation that you can be mulatto - that is of mixed race. But in 1930 that disappears. From 1930 until the year 2000, you can only be black or you can be white or you can be of, you know, some other descent. There's no possibility of a mixed-race designation between 1930 and the year 2000.

INSKEEP: It's changed again, hasn't it?

Ms. SANDWEISS: Right. And now Americans can indeed check that they are of mixed descent.

INSKEEP: Which is another thing to learn here, that we might think of a lot of these changes in racial consciousness as being recent, but just what you said, suggests the way that the debate has gone for well over a century - centuries really.

Ms. SANDWEISS: Exactly. And I think Clarence King, in a way, was a racial radical. In the 1880s, he was writing about a proposed monument, and he said there can be no true American style because there's no true American people. And King envisioned an American future - and I quote here - "when 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."

So, in fact, his friends never believed him when he said this, but he truly believed that miscegenation, or mixed-race, was the hope of America. Very few people believed that in the 1880s.

INSKEEP: Martha Sandweiss is the author of "Passing Strange." Thanks very much.

Ms. SANDWEISS: My pleasure. Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: And our series American Lives continues tomorrow with the story of the writer James Baldwin, who was black and openly gay.

Unidentified Man: Right out of the box, Baldwin was going to blaze his own path - and he got away with it, where a lot of people would have had the door slammed in their face.

INSKEEP: James Baldwin's story tomorrow on MORNING EDITION.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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