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American Lives: The 'Strange' Tale Of Clarence King

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."

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."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.