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Grant number: FB-50300-04

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FB-50300-04

Daniel J. Sharfstein
Vanderbilt University (Nashville, TN 37240-0001)

The Color Line: A History of Race, the Law, and American Lives

This project examines cases heard in Southern state courts between 1890 and 1930 in which judges and juries had to determine whether someone was white or black. At the start of legal segregation in the 1890s, most Southern states drew the color line with a variety of fractional rules--people with one-fourth, one-eighth or one-sixteenth "Negro blood" were legally black. By the 1920s, however, the "one-drop rule" prevailed--anyone with any African ancestry was black. The redrawing of the color line accompanied the transformation of the post-Civil War South into a segregated society devoted to maintaining absolute racial purity. Yet despite the hyperbolic fears of racial mixing that dominated the era, Southern state courts often showed great reluctance to alter the legal status of ostensibly white people. Courts made it relatively easy for people who looked white to sue if their racial backgrounds were questioned, and judges interpreted statutes and fashioned common-law rules in ways that often made it difficult to prove that someone who was ostensibly white was legally black. The courts' reluctance, I argue, was related to the evidence revealed in these cases that many people across the South who were socially accepted as white had African ancestry. Witnesses in these "color-line cases" unselfconsciously described how they worked, prayed with and married people who were rumored or known to have mixed ancestry. Courts recognized that unless they trod softly near the color line, their decisions risked destabilizing white communities. This history of the law and politics of the color line--and the lives lived in its shadow--is an untold story of racial ambiguity and acceptance that illuminates how for the past century Americans have defined themselves and ordered their worlds.

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Project fields:
Law and Jurisprudence

Program:
Fellowships for College Teachers and Independent Scholars

Division:
Research Programs

Total amounts:
$40,000 (approved)
$40,000 (awarded)

Grant period:
9/1/2004 – 8/31/2005