The Politics of Skin Color
Among African Americans
Midge Wilson, Ph.D.
Ronald Hall, Ph.D.
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers
:';V I 2 1992
The Color Gap in
Power and Privilege
Whiter and whiter, every generation. The nearer white you are the more
white people will respect you. Therefore all light Negroes marry light Negroes.
Continue to do so generation after generation, and eventually white people
will accept this racially bastard aristocracy, thus enabling those Negroes
who really matter to escape the social and economic inferiority of the
The Blacker the Berry
After the Civil War the mulatto elite no 10ngerJ!a~ !he distiill1i..on
freedom-"""' to' :..s~pa~ate~>irom
~t.!.?~S, ~.senf~~nchisedby thl( war effort, suff~~d not only from
the loss of property, business, and wealth but also from the backlash
Soiith;mers:~ome ~f whom-h~dprevi.2u_s!liU'pP~~-;~
To preserve their status this colored elite began to ~~gg~
Intiie pro:.ess thex. ac!!.velydiscriminated.- _._'~.
In many ways, the
_. -their darker-skinned
--..--mulatto eJite acted' no differently than any other upper-class group
attempting to secure its status. Rich White people attend preppie
schools, form exclusive business associations, and join fancy country
clubs in order to mingle and mate with the "right" kind. Light-skinned
Blacks were simply doing the same. In another sense, however, the
mulattoes' behavior differed in that a single visible attribute, skin
color, detennined who would be accepted. The elitism that had begun
before the Civil War became further entrenched after it, and still remains evident today in the color gap in power and privilege that divides the Black community.
Mulatto elite social clubs like the Bon Ton Society of Washing24
25 / The Color Gap in Power and Privilege
ton, D.C., and the Blue Vein Society of Nashville were fonned during
Reconstruction, when southern cities were flooded with the "sot-free,"
Negroes freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. The elite group of
those who had been free before the war, in many case for generations, called themselves the "bona fide" free and reacted to the upheaval by fonning exclusive social clubs based on color and class,
which provided an effective way to maintain the old hierarchy. Membership was considered an honor, and the "blue veiners" and "bon
tonners" were thought to have the finest of bloodlines. In practice,
however, admission to a blue vein society depended not on family
background but on skin color. An applicant had to be fair enough for
the spidery network of purplish veins at the wrist to be visible to a
panel of expert judges. Access to certain vacation resorts, like Highland Beach on Chesapeake Bay, was even said to be restricted to
Many Negroes, mulatto and otherwise, thought the blue veiners
ridiculous and called their clubs-blue "vain" societies. Others, like
the writer Wallace Thunnan, were alarmed by the organizations' political agenda. The fictitious blue-vein-society credo quoted at the beginning of this chapter was an attempt by Thunnan. to call attention
to the true nature of these clubs.
Not until after.the Black Renaissance Qf the J920s did the influence and prevalence of the mulatto social clubs weaken, although
snobbish attitudes about skin color and class persisted. To this day
exclusive Black social clubs like Jack & Jill and Links have a significant majority of light-skinned members. Many churches, schools,
sororities, fraternities, businesses, and even neighborhoods are also
reputed to be p~ial to light-skinned Blacks.
. Virtually every major urban center across the ~ountry has a section where predominantly light-skinned Blacks reside. In Philadelphia, mulattoes live in areas unofficially called "lighty ~righty" and
"banana block." In Chicago, the Black bourgeoisie can be found in
Chatham and East Hyde Park, and in New York, certain sections of
Harlem remain reserved for descendants of the light-skinned mulatto
Although most Americans think of Harlem as a wastelandof drugs
26 / The Color Complex
and crime, two small areas prevail as reminders of what the neighborhood once was. Strivers Row, located between West 138th and
West 139th streets and Seventh and Eighth avenues, was originally
occupied by wealthy White families who quickly vacated when Blacks
began to "invade" Harlem in 1918. Light-skinned doctors, lawyers,
ministers, journalists, teachers, and other professionals, haughtily
known as the "Elite of African Descent," were only too happy to
take up residence in the beautiful brownstonehouses the fleeing Whites
left behind. During the roaring twenties Strivers Row was the place
to live for New York's mulatto socialites. Harlem CongressmanAdam
Clayton Powell, Sr., wrote of living there in the 1940s, when the
neighborhood was still very much in vogue.
. . . in Strivers Row. . . were the dowagers of Harlem's society. These queenly, sometimesportly, and nearly always lightskinned Czarinas presided over the Harlem upper class. . . .
There was an open door for all who were light-skinned and
for most of those of the professional group. The entire pattern
of society was white. . . . [And] if invited Harlemites brought
with them [to a social function] their dark-skinned friends,
they were shunned and sometimes pointedly asked to leave.
Another exclusive neighbo~hood is nearby Sugar Hill, so-called
because the people who live there are said to lead such a "sweet"
life. The "Hill" slopes from West 145th to West 155th streets between Edgecombe and Amsterdam avenues and overlooks the "Valley," where, with the exception of Strivers Row,. the less-fortunate
Harlemites reside. In the 1920s light-skinned Blacks with money,
talent, social prominence, and intellectual distinction migrated to the
high-rent white stone apartment houses of the "Hill." The fourteenstory building at 409 Edgecombebecame a particularaddressof choice.
It remains tony today, and one past occupant who does not speak for
others in the building believes that "unless you are of light skin color,
you are not welcome" as a tenant. According to this source, when
the tenants of 409 are called on their color classism, as they often
are, they tend to respond in a tone of innocent sarcasm, "Not 409!'
27 / The Color Gap in Power and Privilege
Historical~?__t!terehave been c~I!ain B~£~_~~urchesJ!!~':.Vere
color c0!l!.cio~ as~~l. Churches have generally played a
,--------more vital role in the lives of Blacks than in those of Whites. The
sociologist W. E. B. DuBois once referred to the church as "the
social center of Negro life." Thus, like members of social clubs,
churchgoers have tended to congregate by color and class.
The earliest church in America established exclusively for Negroes was the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), founded
in 1793 in Philadelphia. By 1870, with color increasingly dividing
the Black community, the lighter-skinned worshipers split off to form
their own denomination, called the Colored Methodist Episcopal (the
"C" in CME was changed in 1954 to stand for Christian). Fairskinned bishops were the rule in the CME, a pattern that prompted a
prominent Black newspaper editor to write, in 1910, "there is now
but one of the dark hue, all the others being mulattoes, quadroons or
At the congregation
turn of the century,~~k
to pass to
the door, or the comb test. The paper-bag test involved placing art
arm inside a brown paper bag, and only if the skin on the arm was
lighter than the color of the bag would a prospective member be
invited to attend church serv;ces. Other churches painted their doors
a light shade of brown, and anyone whose skin was darker than the
door was politely invited to seek religious services elsewhere. And in
still other "houses of worship" throughout Virginia and in such cities
as Philadelphia and New Orleans, a fine-toothed comb was hung on
a rope near the front entrance. If one's hair was too nappy and snagged
in the comb, entry was deniedJ
Although such qualifying tests for church membership have long
since disappeared, the congregations of certain Black society churches
continue to be noticeably lighter than others. Inside these churches
one hears none of the loud gospel singing, hand clapping, or foot
stomping stereotypically associated with Black churches. In Atlanta,
the locals joke that no one can join the First Congregational Church
unless his or her skin is as light as the lightest faces in the stainedglass windows. Like St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Savannah,
2 8 / The Color Complex
First Congregational was often referred to as a blue vein, or b.v.,
Perhaps the most insidious form of color discriminationwas found
at the Black preparatory schools and colleges established by and for
the mulatto elite. Dark-skinned Blacks were often denied admission
regardless of their academic qualifications. At the Palmer Institute in
Sedalia, North Carolina, in the early years of the twentieth century,
one of the more prestigious Black preparatory schools in the country,
headmistress Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown even avoided using the
terms Black or Colored in discussions with her mostly light-skinned,
fine-featured students. Instead she said "one of us" or "our kind."
And although White features might signal illegitimacy, Dr. Brown
apparently thought it was not a bad thing to have a White ancestor or
two somewhere back in the family tree. A similar attitude prevailed
in New Orleans at the St. Mary's Academy for Young Ladies of
Color, a finishingschool for the daughtersof well-to-doCreoles. Darkskinned students who managed to get accepted at these schools were
often ostracized. At the legendary M Street High School (later renamed Dunbar) in Washington, D.C., a graduate of 1905 claimed
that while a dark-skinned youth might receive a good education there,
the children of the old mulatto families would never accept him as a
social equal. These schoolday social patterns were extremely important, since friendships formed early in life were often the basis for
useful political and business contacts later on.
Cliquish social circles and biased admissions policies were also
common at many of the historic Black colleges and universities established in the nineteegth century, including Wilberforce in Ohio
(1856), Howard in Washington, D.C. (1867), Fisk University in
Nashville (1866), Atlanta University in Georgia (l8()5), Morgan (today Morgan State) in Baltimore (1867), Hampton institute (today
Hampton University) in Virginia (1868), and Spelman Women's College in Atlanta (1881). At some of the most pre~tigiousof the schools,
including Spelman, applicants were allegedly required to pass a color
(:;-.t test before being admitted.
A' ~IJ... A..£ri"-cipalmission_~!!'1e~c:.schools was~~oom
t;: ~", >.
..:fhe genteel mores
students received a primarily
- of the bourgeoisie;
~.. ~. /
29 / The Color Gap in Power and Privilege
liberal arts.edu~ation: Ma~c~demic .~ ministrat~.!1~id
e~ed it a _ill
waste of tlme-1Q tnJln dark-<;kJnnecL1ie..grnes
for paths m. hfe that ~
~uld be closed t2-thel!!.Land as recent!L!s 191tLit was ~si!mated j
that 80 [!ercent of t~~y:dent"-8f .thi;?e_.Blacl),..c.qlleges~~.Jight
skinned and of mixed ancestry.
--rG'nie"'d ~libe;al "7irtsed~~ation,dark-skinned students began turning to schools like Tuskegee Institute of Alabama, founded in 1881
by Booker T. Washington.Tuskegeeoffered all Black studentsa ~tric~
vocational curriculum of "industrial education" because Washmgton
thought that Negroes, particularly those who were not members of
the aristocracy, should concentrate their energies on becoming skilled
Another college president who rejected a liberal arts education in
favor of vocational training was Mary McLeod Bethune, a woman of
blue-black coloring who established the Bethune-Cookman College
of Daytona, Florida, in 192i)Her institution, originally called the
Daytona School for Girls, was founded expressly for "Black girls,"
not the fair-skinned daughters of doctors, lawyers, and clergymen
who attended Palmer. Bethune students took a curriculum of basic
skills, including home economics, cooking, and even housekeeping,
so that upon graduation they would be fully prepared to do real work
in the real world.
Although Washington was himself a mulatto, advocates of industrial education were often darker-skinned while proponents of liberal
arts studies tended to be members of the mulatto elite. (When Washington died in 1915, a dark-skinned Black man, Robert Russa Moten,
was named to succeed him as president of Tuskegee.) The separate
educational paths taken by light-skinned mulattoes and dark-skinned
Negroes at the turn of the century fl!rther divided the Black community. Evidence began to mount that an industrial education did nothing more than channel dark-skinned Blacks into low-paying menial
Does skin color still affect educational and occupational opportunities for African-American college students today? In the late 1980s,
Ronald Hall questioned Black students from comparable social and
educational backgrounds attending a predominantly Black university
30 / The Color Complex
in the South about their career plans. He found a strong correlation
between skin color and occupational goals: the light-skinned students
aimed for far more prestigious jobs than their darker-skinned peers.
Students on Black college campuses also claim that skin color
affects their social opportunities, especially within the Greek system.
Some maintain that membership in the more exclusive organizations
still depends largely on having the right hair texture and skin color.
However, many "Greeks" dispute this claim, arguing that skin color
has never been a factor distinguishing Black fraternities and sororities, since most were founded at the turn of the century when the vast
majority of students were mulatto. Others confess that when students
from more varied backgrounds started attending college, color did
start to become a factor in the hierarchy of Greek organizations: the
more elite the fraternity or sorority, the lighter-skinned its members.
The highly regarded Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and Kappa Alpha
Psi fraternitymust still contend with reputationsfor being partial toward
Blacks with light skin and "good" hair.
In the past, even guests of student members at color elite organizations were subject to the paper-bag tests. From the 1920s well into
the 1960s "color tax" parties were common in Black fraternitiesthe darker a brother's date, the higher the tax he had to pay at the
door. While most students deny that there is any such outright color
prejudice today, nonetheless those of similar shading and features do
seem to gravitate together, as Spike Lee showed in his film School
Historically,Black businessorganizationsdiscriminatedon the basis
of skin color as well, particularly in cities like C~arleston and New
Orleans where relatively large populations of mulattoes lived free before emancipation. In Charleston, the Brown Fellowship Society was
established in 1790 by free people of color to facilitate business contacts among Negroes, but membership was restricted to those whose
skin was light to medium brown. (Ambitious darker-skinned Black
men were left to form their own business organization. the Society
of Free Dark Men.) Clubs and organizations like these kept mulattoes
a distinct class apart from the rest of the Black community. By socializing only with each other, they produced generations of light-
3 1 / The C%r Gap in Power and Privilege
skin~.edBlacks-an aristocracy whose money and ancestral portraits
often went back to great-great-grandparents who were free before the
By the turn of the century, this mulatto elite had clearly emerged
as the intellectual and political leaders of the Black community. The
visibility and power of this select group was never more clear than
when a volume of essays devoted to various aspects of the "American Negro problem" was published by the Pott Company in 1903.
Contemporary Black intellectuals were invited to make scholarly
contributions; all but one of the seven were mulatto. An essay by
W. E. B. DuBois called on the Negro community to "produce a
college-educated class whose mission would be to serve and guide
the progress of the masses." Among those DuBois designated to help
lead the way were twenty-one men and two women, all but one of
whom were mulatto. This list of leaders, popularly known as the
"Talented Tenth" (a reference to the "top" 10 percent of the Negro
B. K. Bruce
R. B. Elliot
H. H. Garnett
R. T. Greener
D. A. Payne
J. W. C. Pennington
Phyllis Wheatley Peters
J. B. Russworm
Bishop of A.M. church
Governor of Liberia
32 / The Color Complex
B. T. Washington
Principal at Tuskegee
Despite being named as one of the "upper tens," the educator
Booker T. Washington was among those who rejected DuBois's
premise that a few shining examplesof successful,well-educatedBlacks
at the top would in any way help the average Black person at the
DuBois and Washingtonmay have differed in their political views,
but they both had light skin and Caucasian features. Washington had
reddish hair and gray eyes; DuBois, with his mixtureof French, Dutch,
and African blood, was so light that some said he could easily have
passed as White. As DuBois's "Talented Tenth" list made abundantly clear, possessing a degree of mixed ancestry was a definite
asset when it came to being considered a voice for the Negro race.
Frederick Douglass, for example, was one of the earliest Negro
leaders in the United States. Born in 1817, the son of a White Maryland slaveholder and a slave woman, Douglass was raised as a slave.
In 1838, however, he escaped north to freedom, and within two years .
he had become known as a stunning lecturer as well as a leading
abolitionist. By the end of his life Douglass had been a newspaper
editor, the president of the Freedman's Bank, the U.S. minister to
Haiti, and a U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia.
Robert Purvis, the son of a free mulatto woman and a wealthy
Charleston merchant, was another important early Black leader. Sent
north to be educated at Amherst College in Massachusetts, he later
became one of the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society.
And James Augustine Healy, the son of a mulatto slave and an Irish
planter, was also educated in the North and then went abroad, where
he was eventually ordained as a priest at Notre Dame Cathedral in
Paris. When he returned to the United States he served in Portland,
Maine, as this country's first Black bishop. From 1873 to 1882 he
was president of Georgetown University, and is considered its second
Healy must have felt very much at home in the District of Colum-
33 / The Color Gap in Power and Privilege
bia, one of the hubs of mulatto society. During Reconstruct ...
Purchase answer to see full