Please note that there may be some use of quoted historical racially charged words and /or slurs. Please proceed with caution if this something you feel sensitive about. They are only used when directly quoting a source.
Any romance reader knows that interracial relationships are a popular trope. Coupling them with a historical twist makes the romance extra-forbidden due to the laws and attitudes that have existed surrounding interracial relationships in the United States. Indeed, my own book, The Baroness of New York, explores such a topic in turn-of-the-century New York, when such marriages and pairings were virtually unheard of.
In this article, we’ll take a brief look at the real-life history of interracial marriage in the United States, and some of the pioneering couples who helped move the practice from taboo to commonplace.
It may be a shocking fact for some, but interracial marriage was not legal across the entire united states until June 12, 1967, after the landmark Loving v Virginia case which ruled that so-called “anti-miscegenation” laws were unconstitutional. And what may even be more shocking still, is that at one point in history, mixed marriages were illegal in almost every state save a handful. In fact, local interracial marriage laws existed as recently as 2000, the last one repealed that year in Alabama.
Also jarring is that the majority of west coast states, for example, kept these intermarriage laws on the books until after World War II, which is a surprising fact for many who see these states as bastions of liberal ideas and pioneers in social change. Even “crunchy California” did not allow legally allow mixed-race couples to marry until after the second world war.
But what constitutes a mixed-race marriage and how have they been viewed over time in the United States?
The very first recorded interracial marriage was in 1614, between Powhatan Matoaka and English John Rolfe. Better known as Pocahontas and John Smith in the subsequent Disney film, the pair’s marriage was less about love and more about British colonizers showing their strength over the “savage” indigenous people of the land. Matoaka was thus taken to England to be baptized and “civilized,” a symbol of what the English could do in the New World.
We know, unfortunately, that interracial “relationships” often existed throughout the history of the United States in circumstances of unbalanced power dynamics. As people interested in history, most of us are no stranger to the horrible reality of slave masters taking advantage of their female slaves, and mixed-race children being born as a result of these non-consensual relationships. Such “relationships” also existed between colonizers and First Nation women.
But what of fully consensual relationships?
Unfortunately, even in states that lacked laws prohibiting interracial marriages, families often pressured those involved in such couples to break-up or divorce, both due to their own prejudices and worry of what other people might think of the family’s social status.
Such an example of this is the highly publicized Rhinelander v Jones divorce case. It drew national attention, as well as attempted to answer the question of what exactly race is and if it is possible to put every person in a “white box” or “black box,” especially concerning those with a mixed background.
Oddly enough, the Rhinelander v Jones case took place in New York, one of the very few states to never have a so-called “anti-miscegenation” law. Yet, the lack of law didn’t stop the racism from Rhinelander’s family, nor did it stop the public from being scandalized over their relationship.
Kip Rhinelander, a wealthy American born in New Rochelle, New York, married Alice Jones after a three-year courtship. Jones, born to a working-class family, had a white mother an interracial father. He had one white and one black parent. Despite Jones’ parents warning the couple that Rhinelander’s would never accept them due to their extreme class difference, the pair tied the knot in 1924 in a small civil ceremony.
At the civil ceremony, both Rhinelander and Jones listed themselves as “white” on their marriage certificate. It was later reported that the clerk failed to ask if either of them was “colored.”
Because of Rhinelander’s social standing, any marriage of a person from his class would be reported in the paper. However, the couple allegedly paid reporters to keep them out of the papers. After repeated threats from Rhinelander and his agents to clamoring newspapers, the New Rochelle Star broke the story anyway, entitling it, “Rhinelander’s Son Marries Daughter of a Colored Man.”
Although the pair tried to stick together, Rhinelander’s parents threatened to disinherit him, which moved him to attempt to annul the marriage. The main reason for the annulment was the claim that Jones had deceived him by pretending she was white and thus hiding her bi-racial identity. Therefore, Rhinelander’s team argued, the marriage was void.
During the ensuing trial, Jones was forced into acts of humiliation so that the all-white and all male jurors could examine her skin color. They were very interested in her “dusky colored” breasts and legs, which she was oblige to allow them to examine.
Ultimately, the annulment was denied, and the pair had to resort to a divorce. The jurors ruled that, “Alice’s court victory may have been enabled by the fact that Alice performed her racial identity as the all-white, male, married jurors expected of a colored woman, and that Leonard failed to perform his racial, gender, and class identities as expected of him as a white, wealthy gentleman.”
Such a line makes it clear that even in more “advanced” states who had never upheld such a law against mixed marriages, societal expectations and legality were very much (no pun intended) divorced.
Jones was then given a large lump sum and a monthly stipend from her husband for the rest of her life, on the condition that she not go public with the story. She upheld her end of the bargain.
The landmark case that would make interracial laws illegal was that of Loving vs. Virginia, as portrayed in the Oscar nominated film Loving, as well as several other artistic renderings.
Mildred and Richard Loving were a long-time couple who lived together without being married due to the strict laws in their home state of Virginia. But when they found out Mildred was pregnant, they decided to seal their union. The pair made a trip to Washington, D.C., where their marriage would be legal.
Upon their return to their home-state of Virginia, they were arrested in a raid that took place in July of 1958 in the middle of the night. Although both spent time in jail, as a black woman, Mildred was treated considerably worse for her “crime.”
Knowing they would forever be harassed by the police in their native Virginia, the pair moved to DC so they could continue their marriage without reproach. As their family was in Virginia, they always wanted to return, feeling it was unfair that they had to move away from them.
Beginning in 1963, the pair began an exhausting legal fight to make interracial marriage legal in all 50 states. Four years later, on June 12, 1967, the pair was victorious as the Supreme Court ruled laws against interracial marriage unconstitutional. Many states still had local laws on the books declaring intermarriage illegal after this landmark decision, but the laws were not enforceable.
Although not widely known to the uninitiated, June 12 is known as Loving Day which celebrates interracial love and relationships.
Loving v Virginia was not only historical in that it set a precedent for interracial marriage, but it also helped model the case for same-sex marriage.
While Loving v Virginia helped the sun set on interracial marriage laws in the United States, it hardly closed the book on societal shunning of the practice. Even today, many interracial couples face pushback from their family, friends or communities for marrying “outside their race.” As such, it seems this kind of pull from society may become lesser over time but may never completely cease.
Thankfully in 2020, there is no place in the United States where interracial couples will face legal discrimination or legal harassment for their choice to love as they please.