An American Scandal

In Black and White

By Earl Lewis and Heidi Ardizzone

Norton. 301 pp. $26.95

On Nov. 13th, 1924, Leonard Kip Rhinelander and Alice Beatrice Jones had been happily married for four weeks when a local Westchester paper splashed this across its cover: "Rhinelander's Son Marries Daughter of Colored Man." The Rhinelanders were one of New York's oldest and richest white families, which meant the story landed on the front pages of newspapers across the country by morning. Adding to the scandal was the fact that Alice's father was not only black but a cab driver. Such crossing of color and class lines, along with the window the scandal opened onto the private lives of the story's players, guaranteed continued newspaper coverage of the ill-fated marriage for months.

In Love on Trial, Earl Lewis and Heidi Ardizzone draw on these newspaper accounts to relate the story of the trial at which Leonard, under pressure from his family, sought to annul the marriage. The authors, both academics, place the story in the context of the usual triumvirate -- race, class and gender -- arguing convincingly that the Rhinelander case put on trial not only the couple's marriage but also long-held notions about class, men and women, sexuality and, most significant, the way that Americans defined race.

Annulment suits in cases of suspected interracial marriages were not uncommon in the early 20th century. These trials usually focused on establishing the "true" racial identity of the spouse through genealogical evidence and inquiry into the race of the spouse's forebears. The Rhinelander case is unusual in that the question of Alice's racial identity was not considered -- her lawyer conceded for the purpose of the trial that "she has some colored blood." The suit then became a matter of whether she'd deceived Leonard about her race. This strategy on the part of Alice's defense placed the onus on Leonard to explain why, given that Alice's father and brother-in-law (whom he knew) looked black, he didn't realize that she was black, too. Alice's lawyer gambled correctly on the jury's willingness to believe that black and white were distinct and separate, and that any reasonable person could tell the difference between them. It was not a big gamble, considering the climate of the times.

America in the 1920s witnessed the rebirth of the Klan, widespread segregation throughout the South, and growing concerns about racial purity. Although interracial marriages were not illegal in New York (as they were in more than half the states in the union), such relationships were discouraged through social controls. White parents, for example, might commit a daughter to an insane asylum to end her relationship with a black man.

Articles in popular journals warned that thousands of people with "Negro blood" were passing silently into white society each year, and instructed young people to look for hidden African ancestry in potential spouses. Scientists developed physical markers -- measurements of hair texture and jaw angles -- to distinguish between the two races. Popular methods included checking a person's fingernails for a dark blue tint. Twenty-nine states had legal definitions of race: Some cited a percentage, most commonly one-eighth, of African blood that made a person legally black, and the rest offered vague definitions or invoked the one-drop rule. This rule, conceived during slavery, held that a person with any known African ancestry was black and served as the de facto method of racial identification for most Americans.

The imprecision of these efforts, however, serves to highlight the elusive nature of race. The racial identity of someone like Alice Jones is determined by an unspoken equation of her looks, the people with whom she associates, how she talks, what she says she is, and what people take her as. For this reason, Leonard and other witnesses, while being acquainted with her dark-skinned father and her visibly black brother-in-law, could claim that they believed Alice was white because she looked white and wasn't a member of the black community. As one woman testified, in light of the 20 or so "refined white people" she had witnessed at the Joneses' table, the family's attendance at a white Episcopalian church and Mr. Jones's English accent, it had never occurred to her that the Jones family might not be white.

Another example of the shifting nature of race, and a clinching moment in winning Alice's case, was her lawyer's decision to have her strip for the jury. The move was an open appeal to the notion that "blackness" was visible on a person. More subtly, Alice's nakedness in front of the 12 white men of the jury cast her as black in their minds by sexualizing her, by not granting her the privacy and decency afforded to white women, by invoking memories of inspecting slaves on the auction block. By treating her as black, Alice's lawyer made her so, and the jury ruled accordingly: She had not deceived Leonard about her race because, the implication was, he should have known it for himself.

Unfortunately, the authors didn't uncover what race, if any, Alice considered herself to be. A shortcoming of the book is its almost exclusive dependence on newspaper coverage. While the trial's recorded testimony has been lost, other sources such as oral histories could have fleshed out the principals and their story more. Alice Jones died in 1989; surely one person could have been found who knew her.

Nevertheless, Love on Trial compellingly probes an enduring American dilemma: the simultaneous demand for and difficulty in locating a color line in a pluralistic society. Eighty years ago, that line was drawn because of segregation and paranoia about racial purity. Today, efforts to redress that legacy -- through affirmative action, enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, and monitoring of school integration -- require that black be distinguished from white. Yet the question remains: at what cost to people like Alice Jones, who don't fit neatly on either side of the divide? *

Bliss Broyard, author of "My Father, Dancing," is working on a second memoir about her late father, Anatole Broyard.