"Whenever the Constitution comes between me and the virtue of the white women of the South, I say to hell with the Constitution."

-- Coleman Livingston Blease,

governor of South Carolina, 1911-15; U.S. senator, 1925-31;

quoted in "Before the Mayflower," 1962.

Cole Blease was speaking out in defense of lynching, a brand of Southern "justice" well known to black men, particularly those accused of getting too familiar with white women. Convinced of the enduring lust of black men for white women, and fearful of what might happen if the two ever got together, voices such as Blease's in the patriarchal white South rose to the defense of lynching as well as of laws barring interracial marriage and cohabitation.

Okay, none of that is new, though a few die-hards still won't admit it.

What makes that sordid history ironic is the story of 22-year-old Strom Thurmond fathering the child of a 16-year-old black girl -- a household servant no less -- in 1925. Since I've already had my say about Thurmond, the teenager, Essie Butler (aka "Tunch") and their child, Essie Mae Washington ("No Party for Essie Mae," Dec. 21, 2002), there's no need to plow over that old ground. There is, however, more to be said about that era of rank hypocrisy, the "race mixing" that Blease and Thurmond so vehemently and publicly fought, and the profound effect such sexual exploitation has had on African Americans.

As riveting as the Essie Mae Washington-Williams story may be to those hearing it for the first time, it is by no means unique. There are in America today thousands of stories just like hers.

As I write this column, I am looking at a black-and-white photograph of Essie Mae Washington taken at South Carolina State College, the historically black institution that she attended in the 1940s. Williams is surrounded by 25 of her Delta Sigma Theta sorority "sisters." Essie Mae is very light-skinned, reflecting her interracial heritage. She does not stand out. Eighteen other women in the picture have similarly light complexions. Some could pass for white. As with Essie Mae, the other fair-skinned Deltas could probably trace their lineage back to white men who denounced "miscegenation" by day while slipping up and down the back stairs by night. And don't think for a second that this was a phenomenon limited to the parents and grandparents of South Carolina State co-eds.

We all know, or at least should know by now, about the sexual exploitation of female slaves by their white masters. There is also ample evidence of surreptitious interracial couplings having occurred well into the 20th century, the presence of Jim Crow and anti-miscegenation laws notwithstanding -- a fact extensively documented in Gunnar Myrdal's "An American Dilemma." Two footnotes in particular stand out.

One noted that Prof. Kelly Miller, as far back as 1914, wrote in "Out of the House of Bondage" that the 1,500-member Howard University student body was "composed largely of the mixed element." A second footnote reported that in 1939, Howard professor E. Franklin Frazier analyzed the records of 311 individuals listed in "Who's Who in Colored America: 1928-29," and found that 137 of their known grandparents were white. (That's of those who admitted it.)

Most of those children were not products of interracial marriages. What's more, most interracial childbirths resulted from unions between white men and black women, both in the North and the urban and rural South. And the sexual encounters often took place under conditions in which black women were performing tasks that put them in the personal service of white men.

But the legacy of the Thurmonds of America is more odious than the mere fact of having fathered but not publicly owned up to children they brought into this world. Those men left in their wake a cruel caste and color preference system that hangs like a funeral shroud over African Americans even to this day.

Myrdal documented it: The dark days of slavery, with its preference for fair-skinned house girls and yard hands; Reconstruction, when the better-educated and property-owning blacks of interracial heritage got a head start in just about every endeavor; the early 20th century, with black communities led by light-colored aristocracies.

The Thurmonds and their ilk, because of their valuation of skin color, encouraged a social stratification that extended greater advantages to folks with a heritage of lighter color. And it certainly didn't help the black masses to know that some of their fairer-skinned brethren and sisters also regarded themselves as culturally and intellectually superior because of their hue.

Pity the light-skinned girl who took a dark-skinned fellow home from school to meet her parents.

Even the "race" movies of the 1930s and '40s, with black performers, bought into that color and caste system. As John Kisch and Edward Mapp noted in "A Separate Cinema" (The Noonday Press, 1992): "While lighter blacks continued to play the leads, darker performers were sometimes relegated to supporting roles as comic figures, not too different from those in Hollywood films."

What pathology! Straightened hair; bleached skin; shame over Negroid features. Screwed-up goals, too: Work hard, join the black middle class, marry up, get a fair-skinned woman if she and her family will have you. Segregated world? So what? In the black community, a light skin, in matters of work, play and social mobility, had advantages.

Much of that, thank goodness, is dying out. With Thurmond's passing, the generations of African Americans who bought into the sick and evil system of color preferences are going with him.

Today, more and more men and women are coming together regardless of race or skin color to openly share in the gift of love, marriage and children. That is as it should be.

And ol' Cole Blease? Were it not for my upbringing, acculturation and desire to remain on God's good side, I'd say, "To hell with him."

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Remember my Nov. 22 column about Gregory Scarborough, the drug-addicted serial burglar who was caught, convicted and sentenced by D.C. Superior Court Judge Susan Winfield to 18 years in jail, only to have the sentence suspended and replaced with a 120-day drug treatment program? Last week, Scarborough tested positive for drugs he acquired while in jail and used while in his treatment program. Yesterday Judge Winfield imposed her original sentence of 18 years incarceration.

kingc@washpost.com