The Slatest

The Short but Intriguing History of White Americans Pretending to Be Black

Jazz musician, marijuana dealer, and “voluntary Negro” Mezz Mezzrow.

William P. Gottlieb/Public domain/Wikimedia Commons

A Spokane NAACP officer and Africana Studies professor named Rachel Dolezal has been pretending to be black for nearly a decade, her avowedly Caucasian parents say. It’s an unusual story, but not one without precedent. On a number of occasions in American history, dating to before the Civil War, white individuals have claimed or implied that they were black:

Dave Wilson. Wilson, described in this local news story as a “gleeful political troublemaker” and anti-gay activist, ran for a spot on the Houston Community College board in a predominately black district in 2013. His campaign materials featured stock photos of black individuals emblazoned with the words “Please vote for our friend and neighbor Dave Wilson.” From the same local news story, under the headline “White guy wins after leading voters to believe he’s black”:

One of his mailers said he was Endorsed by Ron Wilson, which longtime Houston voters might easily interpret as a statement of support from a former state representative of the same name who’s also African-American. Fine print beneath the headline says Ron Wilson and Dave Wilson are cousins, a reference to one of Wilson’s relatives living in Iowa.

Wilson proudly announced his deception after winning the election—and is serving his term.

Mark Stebbins. A People magazine article from 1984 describes the controversial case of Stebbins, a city councilman in Stockton, California who sincerely self-identified as black—but wasn’t—and won election in a black- and Latino-heavy district.

Born in the rural Washington town of Colville, he came to a gradual realization, he says, that he was wrongly labeled, in a racial sense. At Washington State University he was active in the civil rights movement. He later enlisted in a variety of community organizing projects, arriving in Stockton in 1965 to help with the United Farm Workers’ boycott. About that time Stebbins decided he was black, “culturally, socially and genetically.”

Needless to say, his mother, Neta, is supportive but puzzled by her son’s claim. To hear her tell it, Mark’s racial conversion was like one of Archie Bunker’s worst nightmares about the seductiveness of ethnic foods. “He came down here,” she remembers, “tried some hot soul food and decided, ‘Wow, this is for me.’ Now he feels he’s genetically black.”

Neither Neta nor her husband, Vern, a retired farm-board employee, has any black ancestors that they’re aware of.

Stebbins was recalled from office and replaced by a “real” black candidate.

“Mezz” Mezzrow. A musician who played with some of the early greats of jazz, Mezzrow married a black woman, lived in Harlem, and called himself a “voluntary Negro.” Unlike some of the others on this list, he doesn’t appear to have tried to hide the fact that he wasn’t “actually” black—except for the time he was imprisoned after being caught with marijuana at the 1940 World’s Fair in Queens. This American Conservative piece points to a passage about the incident in Mezzrow’s autobiography, Really the Blues:

Just as we were having our pictures taken for the rogues’ gallery, along came Mr. Slattery the deputy and I nailed him and began to talk fast. ‘Mr. Slattery,’ I said, ‘I’m colored, even if I don’t look it, and I don’t think I’d get along in the white blocks, and besides, there might be some friends of mine in Block Six and they’d keep me out of trouble’. Mr. Slattery jumped back, astounded, and studied my features real hard. He seemed a little relieved when he saw my nappy head. ‘I guess we can arrange that,’ he said. ‘Well, well, so you’re Mezzrow. I read about you in the papers long ago and I’ve been wondering when you’d get here. We need a good leader for our band and I think you’re just the man for the job’. He slipped me a card with ‘Block Six’ written on it. I felt like I’d got a reprieve.”

Mezzrow, incidentally, has been called “the Johnny Appleseed of weed.”

Martha Griffith Browne. Browne was an abolitionist who wrote an 1857 book called Autobiography of a Female Slave under the assumed identity of, yes, a female slave. “After freeing the six slaves she inherited from her parents, she wrote her fictionalized narrative under a false name in order to raise the money required to resettle them,” the New York Times wrote in 2012. (After the Civil War, the paper adds, white writers with different politicial motivations released fictionalized narratives in the voice of black individuals asserting that they had been happier under slavery.) 

Clarence King. King is perhaps the most interesting case on this list; he was a 19th-century blue-blood society type who lived half his life as a well-known explorer and Manhattan man about town—and half as a black married man with five children in Brooklyn and Queens. From a Times review of Passing Strange, a book about King by Martha Sandweiss:

He was deeply devoted to his wife, Ada, a black woman 19 years his junior … Clarence went further than merely marrying Ada and concealing her existence from his friends. He also adopted the name Clarence Todd, under which he married Ada, and claimed to be a Pullman porter, a job held exclusively by black workers. Employment on a train helped explain to Ada why he was so well traveled and so frequently absent from home. (Later he would claim to be a clerk and a steelworker too.)

King only told Ada about his other identity in 1901, shortly before he died.

In a 2003 book called Interracial Intimacies (and in other work) Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy suggests that such transformations as King’s—and Stebbins’, which Kennedy specifically cites—should be allowed so long as a “white” individual’s self-identification as “black” is made in “good faith.”

A well-ordered multiracial society ought to allow its members free entry into and exit from racial categories, even if the choices they make clash with traditional understandings of who is “black” and who is “white” … Rather than seeking to bind people forever to the racial classifications into which they are born, we should try both to eradicate the deprivations that make some want to pass and to protect individuals’ racial self-determination, including their ability to revise stated racial identities.

It remains to be seen whether Dolezal’s alleged “passing,” which may have included false claims of having been racially harassed, was done in good faith—or whether, like some of her predecessors in scandal, she decided to falsify an identity to advance her own interests.