Virginia’s Caroline County, ‘symbolic of Main Street USA’

Only a few easily overlooked markers note the importance of Mildred and Richard Loving in Caroline County, where five decades ago the sheriff rousted the white man and his black bride from their bed and carted them off to jail.

A small brass plaque in the county courthouse credits their landmark 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia, with overturning laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Their names are engraved on a granite obelisk, at the end of a list of prominent local African Americans. The county Web site devotes a page to their case.

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Watch a preview of the HBO documentary "The Loving Story."

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People who identify themselves as being mutiracial. Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey
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People who identify themselves as being mutiracial. Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey

Yet their legacy is everywhere in the small Tidewater towns and family farms that make up Caroline County, where a soaring number of people identify themselves as multiracial.

In the 2010 Census, 3 percent of Caroline County’s 28,500 residents were counted as of two or more races. Most are younger than 20. The phenomenon is both old and new.

Historical records show multiracial children in the county going back to slave-holding Colonial times. Today, their increasing ranks are part of a national trend that is changing the way people think and talk about race.

Peggy Loving Fortune, the sole surviving child of Mildred and Richard Loving, said she is reminded of her parents and their legal battle by the many multiracial children at Caroline Middle School, where she is a teacher’s aide.

“Kids relate with each other a lot more than they used to,” said Fortune, who lives not far from the tiny church cemetery where her parents are buried. “It’s not just black and white. It’s Indian children and Spanish-speaking kids, too. They all get along fine. Race isn’t a barrier. They can marry who they want to.”

At a time when a biracial man is president, views on racial identity are evolving rapidly, not just in Caroline County but all over the country as well. In 2000, the first year the census offered the option of reporting more than one race, fewer than 7 million people nationwide said they were multiracial. A decade later, the number had swelled by at least a third, to more than 9 million, or 3 percent. In Virginia, once home to the capital of the Confederacy, the percentage now matches the national average.

The actual number is almost certainly much larger, because many multiracial people marked the single race with which they most identify. President Obama, for one, has said he reported himself as African American even though his mother was white.

Caroline County grew some over the past decade because of its proximity to Interstate 95 between Washington and Richmond, but its multiracial population exploded, more than doubling. Newcomers weren’t the only ones to register more than one race.

“The makeup of the community you see now is how it always has been,” said Linda Thomas, a past president of the Virginia NAACP and a Caroline County resident for a quarter-century. “The difference is, folks don’t have to be compartmentalized into being only Native American, only African American or all white. We now have the opportunity to self-identify, to embrace all of what we are, without having to fit into a box that we check. I think that makes us freer to talk about it, freer to embrace it and not feel like we’re losing anything in the process.”

An unlikely flash point

Even in 1958, Caroline County was an unlikely place for an interracial couple to be arrested. An area known as Central Point had so many multiracial residents of white, black and Native American heritage that during segregation, their children all attended the county’s all-black high school. A major feature of Central Point is Passing Road — a name attributed in local lore to the many residents who could “pass” as white. Elderly residents of Central Point say they recall other interracial couples who had married out of state and lived quietly in the area.

Richard Loving, who was white, and Mildred Pierce, who was black and Native American, grew up in Central Point. Their story is attracting new attention because of an HBO documentary, “The Loving Story,” scheduled to air on Valentine’s Day. In addition, photos of the couple taken for Life magazine are on public display until May 6 in a show titled “The Loving Story: Photographs by Grey Villet” at the International Center of Photography in New York.

The change in the racial climate since the Lovings’ arrest has been dramatic, said Donna Jeter, 43, an FBI analyst and one of Mildred Loving’s nieces. Growing up as Native American and black, Jeter said, she was picked on by other kids, who tapped their hands to their mouths to make war whoops when she passed.

“She made it easier,” Jeter said of her “Aunt Millie.”

Jeter’s sister, Dorothy, 35, said she now sees many more interracial couples and biracial children in Caroline County. “I feel Aunt Millie had a big part in that,” she said.

One of those children is 16-year-old Bo Hayes, the child of a German-born mother and African American father. Bo considers herself multiracial and has good friends of various races. “I speak two languages, German and English,” the Caroline High School sophomore said. “I have a German side that’s basically white and a black side. I’m just mixed.”

Her younger brother, Jimmy, who is 14, said he has friends who are biracial, too.

“My friend, his brother is white, and he’s black,” he said. “Kids don’t say nothing about it. They don’t mind. Nobody thinks it’s a big deal.”

In Caroline Middle School, 6 percent of the students identify themselves as multiracial.

Teachers say they never assume they can match the parent with the child by looks alone, because so many parents have skin colors different from their children’s.

“It’s much more than that,” Principal Angela Wright said of the official count of 61 multiracial students. “Maybe 61 in one grade.”

Comfort in numbers

The presence of so many multiracial children has helped make it a more comfortable place for Michael Tinnermon and Latoya Hogan to raise their two sons. Tinnermon, 32, a small-business owner, has a black father and white mother, and he appears to be white. Hogan, 26, a cosmetology student, is African American.

“It seems like everybody else here is mixed-race,” said Tinnermon, who grew up in Gaithersburg and said he considers Caroline County a more tolerant place. “We’ve never felt not accepted.”

When Desmond, 7, and Judiah, 3, ask why, as brothers, they have different skin colors, Tinnermon said he tells them, “It’s because Mommy’s dark and Daddy’s light.”

Floyd Thomas, 56, an African American who is a county supervisor and is married to the NAACP’s Linda Thomas, remembers segregation well. He could not go into the ice cream store on Main Street because of his color.

In his two decades on the board, he championed the construction of the courthouse obelisk commemorating African American contributions and the conversion of the formerly all-black Union High School to a community center and library.

“We’ve made great strides,” he said. “The county is symbolic of Main Street USA. It’s a place where you pick your friends on the things you have in common, not race.”

It’s not known how Mildred Loving, with her black and Native American heritage, identified herself in the 2000 Census. She died in 2008, 33 years after her husband died in a car crash. But in the 2010 Census, their daughter decided to check only one box when faced, like so many millions of other Americans, with boiling down a complex ancestry on a bureaucratic form.

“Native American,” said Peggy Loving Fortune, who is 52. “Just Native American.”

Yet she gives a different answer when children at Caroline Middle ask her what she is.

“I’m a mixture of colors,” she said she tells them. “I’m a rainbow.”

 
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