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Archive for the ‘one drop rule’ Category

The Rhinelander case (1925) was news across America, it was on the front pages of the New York Times for a month: Leonard “Kip” Rhinelander, son of one of the richest men in New York, took Alice Jones to court for tricking him into marrying her by passing for white.

Her love letters were read in court and she was made to show her breasts to the judge and jury (in private), but she won: from her breasts Rhinelander would have known she was black. And while Jones looked white, acted white and lived white, her father was clearly part black, which made her black too by the One Drop Rule. So either way Rhinelander had to know.

She won, but the Rhinelanders got her to agree to give up all rights to the Rhinelander name and fortune in exchange for a nice sum of money. But, as she was the last of them to die, she put “Rhinelander” on her gravestone all the same.

Mixed marriages were not against the law in New York. But if Jones had presented herself as a white woman then Rhinelander was not marrying who he though he was, making the marriage no good.

Alice Jones became the first black person ever to marry into New York high society. The Rhinelanders were not just rich, they had been rich longer than even the Vanderbilts. Jones herself was a servant, the daughter of a taxi driver.

It is clear that Rhinelander was in love with her, but his father was against it and threatened to cut him off from the family and its fortune.

Both sides in the trial agreed Jones was black. The question was not that, but whether Rhinelander knew it at the time of marriage.

Yet the case would never have gone to trial unless Jones stood right on the colour line between black and white: she was white – yet not white.

Both sides in the case took advantage of this by using stereotypes to persuade the jury of white men:

  • Rhinelander’s lawyers wanted the jury to think of Jones as a black woman: black women were (and still are) seen as loose, as using sex to get their way with men: the Jezebel stereotype.
  • Jones’s lawyers, on the other hand, were able to get the jury to see her mainly as a white woman and apply the pure white woman stereotype. This kept her off the stand and made Rhinelander look like someone who was taking advantage of her – instead of the other way round. It worked.

The NAACP had this to say:

If Rhinelander had used this girl as concubine or prostitute, white America would have raised no word of protest; white periodicals would have printed no headlines; white ministers would have said no single word. It is when he legally and decently marries the girl that Hell breaks loose and literally tears the pair apart. Magnificent Nordic mentality!

Blackface entertainer Al Jolson was at the trial to watch and give testimony.

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