In 1865 the U.S. Civil War was ended after the forces of General Lee surrendered to General Grant. The war was not only important because it was fought for the future of the Union but also because of a side-story, the abolition of slavery in America. For centuries, when the British Crown was still the undisputed ruler of the American colonies, a steady stream of African-American slaves was brought to this country. They were treated as if they were mere objects.
They were the properties of their masters and most of the plantation owners in the South who used slaves as one would use a beast of burden. It is easy to understand why they were oppressed and why no white man would like to be associated with them. But in 1865 there was hope for change, and yet in 1983, Susie Guillory Phipps sued Louisiana because the state considers her a Negro when she believes that she is Caucasian. America may have abolished slavery, but the specter of racism remains.
The New World was sustained by the blood and sweat of African slaves. In the Age of Reason, Americans believed that they have the right to own slaves, human beings just like them but different only in the color of their skin. This belief allowed them to trade for slaves as if they are merely trading for cattle, spices or other commodities.
Even when America was victorious against their British overlords, they continue to believe that there is no connection between the oppressive rule of the Royal Crown and the way they treated Negro slaves. It was impossible for them to understand that they are doing something immoral and downright despicable.
American citizens and their leaders even created a Constitution, a symbolic document that asserts man’s equality in the eyes of God but even after doing so they were blind to their sins and continue to believe that there is an exception to what they call as the inalienable right of every person to be free. The Negro slaves were never considered citizens of America, and therefore they do not deserve human rights.
The heroes of the American Revolution – the successful War for Independence against British hegemony – went into the battlefield fighting for freedom and equality but after the war, they would go back to their plantations and will never feel the slightest discomfort upon seeing a Negro slave staggering from the weight of his labor.
In the South, there is an abundance of arable land making it a suitable place to establish plantations. After America was liberated from the clutches of the British Empire, these plantations became an essential aspect of the new economy.
The Northern states were the first to understand the inconsistency of savoring American freedom and yet maintaining a coterie of slaves in their backyard. The Southern states, on the other hand, cannot afford to feel the slightest tinge of guilt.
One has to understand that while the Northern states can continue to make money through their factories and other industries, the Southern states had to rely only on their plantations. And without the muscle power and talents of Negro slaves – men, women, and children – it would be impossible to maintain an agriculture-based economy on the strength of a few hired men alone.
In the years after the American Revolution, the children of white men get to interact with the children of black folks. But they would never play and socialize as equals. Therefore, the impressionable minds young white boys and girls were conditioned to believe that this is the reality of life.
They are the masters, and when they grow up, they will have black men and women who will scurry about their domain serving them as if they are born royalty. It required little to create a society governed by unspoken rules and an imaginary wall that separates the white from the black. There were two social classes, and they will not mix.
As mentioned earlier, slavery was the side-story to the Civil War, but soon after the conflict, it became a significant issue especially when the South was devastated by a rampaging army coming in from the North. Union soldiers invaded the South and wreaked havoc transforming what was tranquil and postcard-perfect scenery into scenes of mayhem and carnage.
The Southern states paid a dear price for opposing the Union. They paid dearly the blood of their sons and property destroyed by cannons, rifles, and the boots of angry soldiers. The proud Southerners were humiliated and at a loss on how to pick up the pieces and begin to build from the ashes of war.
But more than that they something valuable was taken from them, and it is the right to own and trade slaves. The first few months felt surreal for many of them. But they were not alone in feeling strange about their new circumstances; the newly freed Negro slaves were also at a loss on how to move on from there.
Millions of Negro slaves were emancipated but what can a person who was born and raised a slave do after suddenly given freedom, not just freedom of movement like a prisoner set free from jail but freedom to do everything – be in love, buy property, relocate, etc. Because of this newfound freedom, they have to learn to co-exist with their former masters, to share in the same land where they once toiled, and yet they are no longer required to help the white man make money or clean his house.
But that was the only thing they had when it comes to material possessions they had nothing. Nobody in the Northern states, nobody in Washington – the seat of the U.S. government – anticipated the outcome of the Civil War especially when it comes to Negro slaves who were never educated and knew nothing except to work in the fields.
They were free, but they do not know how to survive in a transformed society, in an in American South that was as clueless as them when it comes to former slaves that all of a sudden has been given the full rights of citizens of the United States of America. The whites and the blacks had to learn to live as equals, but many could not accept the implications of these changes. As a result, the whites and the blacks share the same space, but they will never commingle in the same way that oil will never be able to combine with water.
The Wall of Prejudice
One reaction to the emancipation of Negro slaves was segregation. For the Federal Government all blacks were free from slavery, and they no longer had to answer to any master. But from the perspective of many Southerners, the South still belongs to them, and if the Federal Government insists on giving some rights to African-Americans, then it has to be done their way.
They created new norms and ordinances that will limit the interaction between whites and blacks. They heavily regulated the places that the Negroes can enter and the establishments that are strictly forbidden for them. There are also public facilities no black man, woman or child can use because these were made exclusive for white folks.
There were public schools for white children, and there were public schools for black children. Some restaurants will only allow white patrons and strictly enforce the rule that says no Negro allowed inside. There were water fountains that only white people can use and off-limits to the members of the Negro race.
The same thing is true for public transportation. There were train cars and buses that were off-limits to blacks. In buses where whites and blacks can use, it was understood that the Negroes should occupy the seats in the rear. It may look and feel strange to have these laws put in effect in the South, but for many whites, it was an attempt to create order out of chaos because it was disorienting for many to meet and greet former slaves, former properties walking around the cities of Mississippi or Louisiana as free men.
The second facet of the wall of prejudice is the strict abhorrence to biracial marriages, and as a result, there were laws and other unspoken rules regarding the union of white and blacks. Nevertheless, it is impossible to prevent such kinds of union. Furthermore, even before the abolition of slavery white plantation owners found nothing wrong with the idea of taking in a black mistress producing illegitimate children in the process.
Aside from that, it is not uncommon for some of them to rape black female slaves. Thus, there were many “half-breed” children in the South. The wall of prejudice was constructed higher and higher and yet it became more and more challenging to separate blacks and whites. On the other hand, why is there a need to separate humans from each other?
A Hundred Years Later
In 1977, Susie Guillory Phipps, the wife of an affluent seafood importer decided to apply for a passport and so the first thing she did was to get a copy of her birth certificate (White et al., 1997). When she finally got hold of an official copy of the said document she discovered that in 1934 the Louisiana Division of Vital Records had issued a birth certificate for her and it says that Phipps is “colored” or black (Bird, 2009).
Now, there is one problem because Susie Guillory Phipps looks like and talks like a member of the white race. According to one commentator, “Mrs. Phipps claimed she was ‘shocked’ that this classification was listed since she had always thought she was white, had lived as white and twice married someone of the white race” (Bird, 2009).
All her life she never knew that the State of Louisiana had already classified her racially as belonging to the Negro race (Trillin, 1986). She looked and behaved like an ordinary white person and more than that her brothers and sisters were all fair-skinned and some even had blue eyes (Davis, 1991). It was unthinkable for anyone to suggest that Phipps was black.
She challenged this pigeonholing tactic to classify her as a member of the Negro race for obvious reasons, aesthetically speaking and culturally speaking there was no trace of her being black, and so she can see herself being classified as one.
No doubt there it was a significant social stigma for a white woman, especially someone as affluent as her, to be labeled as such. She had no black friends she does not know how to live within a black community, and so there was nothing else to do but challenge the classification system used by the state of Louisiana.
H.M. Westholts, who was back then the chief of the New Orleans section of the General Counsel of the Louisiana Department of Health and Human Resources, decided to dig a little deeper and was able to prove that there was nothing wrong with the details of the said birth certificate (Trillin, 1986). H.M. Westholts hired a genealogist to ascertain his claim.
With the full resources of the state backing him up, he discovered that in 1770 a French planter named Jean Gregoire Guillory took a black mistress named Margarita and two centuries later he had a great-great-great-great-granddaughter named Susie (Davis, 1991). It did not matter that the children of plantation owner married white people the single drop of Negro blood in her veins made her black according to the law.
The story did not end there. Mrs. Phipps decided to pursue her passport application, and in the form where one has to declare one’s race she checked the box next to “white” when her birth certificate says she is “colored” (Bird, 2009). This was a serious misrepresentation, and thus she was denied her passport. This did go well with her and so in 1982 Phipps sued the state (White et al., 1997).
This was her premise according to one historian: “She challenged the bureau’s practice because race-mixing allegedly was so extensive in Louisiana that the entire native-born population would be considered black under its stringent definition (Moran, 2001). It was known in legal circles as Susie Phipps, 470 So. 2d 369, 1970 Lawsuit La. Rev. Stat 42.267 (Bird, 2009). It is also known only as Jane Doe v. the State of Louisiana (Davis, 1991). She was soundly defeated in the courts.
Precedence and Other Legal Aspects
There are at least four legal landmarks – if one is allowed to call it as such – that will help explain the significance of the Susie Guillory Phipps case. And these are:
- The law against interracial marriage;
- The government census defining what makes a person black or white;
- The Plessy vs. Ferguson case;
- The Brown vs. Wade case.
After an overview of these cases and various legalese relating to this problem, one will have a clear understanding as to why Susie Guillory Phipps had to go through what she had to go through and why the United States had a hard time dealing with the issue.
There were laws concerning public transportation and how blacks should behave when using buses or trains. There were also laws meant to separate black and white children, and thus provisions were made to have a public school for the “colored” students and another one for the whites. And if this was not enough interracial marriage was forbidden. A black man can be castigated for courting a white girl, and he can go to jail if he marries her. Imagine the consequence if a man is in the same predicament as Mrs. Phipps.
In the State of Louisiana, one of the most significant laws that were passed regarding segregation is the Separate Car Act (Elliot, 2006). Those who are colored were forced to take a separate car if they choose to travel via the railways. Some cars were for whites, and there were cars for blacks.
The NAACP was one of the major organizations that were committed to the Civil Rights movement and fighting on behalf of the black man so that they can live in an egalitarian society. The NAACP devised a way to exploit the weakness of the said law, and at the same time force, the government acknowledges that it is morally wrong to separate blacks and whites. And make the Federal Government admit that the Separate Car Act was unconstitutional.
It was an elaborate plan that requires the help of a man named Homer Plessy. The reason that they chose Plessy for the mission was simple. Plessy was the male version of Mrs. Phipps. By law, he is a Negro but based on physical appearance he was a member of the white race. By boarding the segregated trains, Plessy will create a moral dilemma for the management and then for the whole of American society.
When he boarded the train, he went straight to the compartment designated for the white people, and he breezed through security checks and all of the protocols.
Everyone thought that this was just an ordinary passenger anxious to take the train home. But after a short, while later, when everybody was settled down, Plessy announced to the crowd that he has one-eighth Negro blood and therefore the State has to declare him black. As a result, the train official had to force him out and transfer him to the compartment that he was supposed to occupy. Plessy refused to heed that command.
Plessy broke the law, and he had to be charged. He had to pay for his actions. A judge found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. What he did was a significant violation of Louisiana law, and he was offender according to the state. Believe it or not, Plessy was arrested by the authorities. However, he was out on bail. And he waited for his arraignment (Elliot, 2006). The NAACP realized that it was time to move in and so they filed a case in court, and it was known in U.S. legal history as the Plessy vs. Ferguson case.
The significance of the Plessy vs. Ferguson case to that of Mrs. Phipps can be seen in two distinguishing aspects of the case. First of all the litigation was made in 1896 (Davis,1991). This means that the problem of racism was already dealt with at the turn of the 20th century. In other words, there was no need for Mrs. Phipps to suffer the same problem all over again.
Secondly, Plessy was just like Mrs. Phipps; they were the evidence that says a drop of Negro blood makes one a member of the Negro race but for those who are not aware of this fact they will treat the person as a member of the white race. This means that segregation and classification of people into groups and sub-species is just not right.
Brown vs. Wade
The NAACP lost the legal battle in the Plessy vs. Ferguson case. However, the NAACP never gave up and continued to find ways to show the unconstitutionality of the segregation laws. Another opportunity came their way when they assisted in another landmark case; it was the struggle of the black community against segregated schools in the South.
It was Oliver Brown et al. against the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas (Balkin, 2002). Oliver Brown argued that he should have been able to enroll her children to a public school nearest to their home. There is such a school, a few blocks away from their home.
However, when he went to enroll her children at Monroe Elementary School at Topeka, Kansas, he was told that he could not enter her child because it was the law that public schools in the State were segregated. Those who belong to the “colored” race had to enroll their child to a public school that is for blacks and not for whites. There is only one problem his daughter, Linda Brown had to walk a long distance from her house to be able to board a bus that will take her to her school.
Oliver Brown protested the irrationality and the blatant demonstration of discrimination. The parents of other black kids joined in the complaint and argued in the same line of thinking – they could not understand why their children had to walk long distances and then travel to a school situated miles away from home if there is a public school nearby.
It was not a fight against a specific law but a struggle against a doctrine that came out as a result of the Plessy vs. Ferguson case debacle. Plessy and his lawyers made arguments using the principles found in the Fourteenth Amendment state that all people are created equal. The Supreme Court struck down this case by saying that whites and blacks can be equal in the eyes of the Law and yet segregated.
In other, local and state officials believed that although the black kids in Topeka, Kansas had to endure a longer commute to attend a public school far away from home, they could not and should not complain because that particular is of the same standards as the one nearby. This case is an important source of legal information in understanding the complaint filed by Mrs. Phipps because in this instance the Supreme Court acted in favor of the black race.
It also sheds light on the mindset regarding the desperate need to separate blacks and whites. The insanity is spending an excessive amount of money on building two-high quality schools just so a Negro’s child could not sit in the same classroom as the child of a Caucasian.
And finally, the importance of this case is seen in the reasoning used by the Supreme Court as to why it awarded victory to Oliver Brown and company. In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled that separating blacks and whites are not good for black children and can even be harmful because they were prevented from co-mingling with white children (Balkin, 2002).
The separation will plant in their minds the idea that they are inferior to the white children and can negatively affect them for life. So the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the black community in Topeka, Kansas and all over America. Starting that year all public schools were desegregated.
The same argument can be extended to the Phipps case. Why is there a need for classification? It can only lead to segregation. Furthermore, the Supreme Court made a ruling in 1954 while Mrs. Phipps sued the State of Louisiana in 1982. Twenty-eight years had passed, and many were still unable to grasp the essence of this case. It is not good to erect a wall of prejudice.
Aside from segregation laws – the need to separate whites from blacks – there is also the problem of interracial marriage and how it was viewed by society was the determining factor why in the 1970s there were still regulations regarding the classification of American citizens into black or white. In other words, Mrs. Phipps had to endure ridicule because the primary reason of state laws was to discourage whites from intermarrying with blacks.
There is a concept called contamination (Abernathy & Perry, 1993). For the longest time, the color of the person’s skin was viewed as so repugnant that white must never be contaminated by the genetic characteristics found in the Negro race. There was such a significant backlash when two people from opposing camps decide to cross the line and fell in love; it was forbidden for a white to mix with a black.
Mixed marriages were thought of as a threat to society. They believe that children born from this union are weaker and prone to sickness. Nevertheless, there was no scientific proof that children coming from racially mixed marriages were prone to miscarriages or born with deformed limbs. It does not require a scientist to prove that biracial marriages can produce healthy babies. Thus, there is another reason for the hatred of interracial marriages.
If one will dig even close he or she will discover that the root of the problem is cultural assimilation. This means that no one knows how to deal with a couple coming from two different cultures and social perspectives.
How will their relatives treat them in family gatherings or reunions? There was also a significant adjustment needed to deal with a child with slightly different physical features such as a black person with blue eyes or a white person with kinky hair. Furthermore, there is a problem on how to label them, if they will be classified as black or white.
As a result, biracial couples will instantly feel the wall of prejudice coming up. Their respective families would try to dissolve the relationship before it is legalized by marriage. If the pair continues with their plans, then they will be made to suffer. This is clarified through the following statements:
The white members’ social status has been diminished as a result of marrying someone black. While they may enjoy social and psychological rewards with whiteness when they are alone, as members of a minority-status family their value may be compromised. Similarly, the black partners’ status may be in disgrace within the black community for marrying outside their race. They may be viewed as traitors and treated with anger and contempt (Brown, 2001).
It is easy to understand white people opposing the marriage of their children to members of the Negro race but what is difficult to accept is the fact that blacks are opposing biracial marriages.
After all that they had been through one would expect that they should be more open-minded when it comes to race issues. But the black community are not opposed to interracial marriage per se; they are merely thinking about the future welfare of their children because they know what their children and their grandchildren will have to go through in that situation.
This is perhaps the reason why Phipps was adamant that her official classification must be a member of the white race. It could become a problem for her children if they were also labeled as blacks hence the urgency of her legal battle with the courts. Besides, “Individuals with any African ancestry traditionally were barred from all of the privileges associated with white identity” (Moran).
There is also the stigma of a phenomenon called passing as a white person when in truth he or she is a member of the Negro race. This was explained succinctly in the following statement: “Passing became a way for some blacks to circumvent the color line without directly challenging it” (Moran, 2001) Apparently Mrs. Phipps was not content to merely be mistaken as white she must be legally and officially accepted as white.
The Case of Mrs. Phipps
After Susie Guillory Phipps went to the court to plead her case, it did not take long for her to experience setbacks. She lost in the District Court (Trillin, 1986). She appealed her case to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, but they were ruling upheld the District Court’s decision (Trillin, 1986). She had no other recourse but to go to the Supreme Court.
It is interesting to note that the one who prepared the birth certificate saw the baby was fair skinned and could not have known the information regarding Mrs. Phipps ancestor and yet the midwife was confident enough to declare that she is black. It turned out that midwives have other means of classifying the race of the baby. The midwife can rely on the information given by parents or the status of the family in the community (Davis, 1991). This is significant because it exemplifies the mentality of the residents in the state of Louisiana.
It is also interesting to note the reaction of Mrs. Phipps – she did not know that she was black. The state had to produce witnesses to challenge her claims. And according to one report, “Some of her relatives, however, gave depositions saying they considered themselves ‘colored’ and the lawyers for the state claimed to have proof that Mrs. Phipps is three-thirty-seconds black” (Davis, 1991). This so-called “one-drop-rule” was enough for the District Court to say no to Mrs. Phipps.
The legal precedents that came before her may have contributed to her loss. For instance, the failure of the NAACP in the Plessy vs. Ferguson case strengthened the arguments of racists and segregationists, and as a result, they were able to shoot down every case and every complaint that will be raised by the black community and like-minded people who only desire for freedom and to create an egalitarian society.
They were not asking for too much; these rights and privileges are already authorized under the U.S. Constitution, but bigotry and hatred must be dealt with first to remove the scales blinding the courts.
The importance of the U.S. Supreme Court could not be stressed enough. According to one commentary: “The United States Supreme Court plays a unique role in the United States’ system of government …the Supreme Court can overrule any law passed by Congress and state legislature and can set aside any policy adopted by the president if it determines that the law or policy breaks a rule of the U.S.
Constitution” (Anderson, ). If America can be considered as the battleground, then the Supreme Court was the judge deciding which party was correct in their interpretation of the law and which party was in error.
The Supreme Court is not infallible though. In the case of Mrs. Phipps, the Lousiana Supreme Court declined to review the decision, and in December 1986 the U.S. Supreme Court explained why it also would not review the decision: “The appeal is dismissed for want of a substantial federal question” (Davis, 1991).
The final court of appeals in Louisiana and the highest court in the United States found no compelling reason to disturb the one-drop-rule of the state (Davis, 1991). But there was a partial victory for her because of the publicity of the case, the state of Louisiana abolished the one-thirty-second-rule in 1983 and restored the right of the parents to choose the race of their newborns (Fluehr-Lobban, 2006). However, Mrs. Phipps will die classified as black and not white.
The United States has come a long way; from a nation that used to trade for African slaves as if they were cattle is now a bastion for democracy. However, even after the abolition of slavery in the latter part of the 19th-century racism and prejudice were still evident even in the 20th century.
The best example is the classification of babies into blacks or whites. There was still this stigma associated with being labeled as black and the main reason why Mrs. Phipps wanted her birth certificate to show that she is white rather than black. She sued the state and lost. However, the publicity generated by the trial forced Louisiana to abolish the rule that makes a person black even if he or she possesses the physical characteristics of a member of the white race. Nevertheless, this is just a drop in the bucket when it comes to racism in America.
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