Miscegenation Law and the Politics of Mixed-Race Illegitimate Children in the Turn-of-the-Century United States

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 8:50 AM
Centennial Ballroom B (Hyatt Regency Denver)
Nicholas L. Syrett, University of Northern Colorado
At the close of the nineteenth century some African American activists engaged in the politics of racial uplift focused on what they perceived as a rash of illegitimate black children across the United States. Such children, studies found, were more likely to be impoverished because few had legal claims upon their fathers for support and because they also were denied the rights of inheritance. While some activists blamed working-class blacks for loose morals and eschewing legal marriage, others focused on the long history of interracial sex and rape that continued to produce mixed-race children in the United States, many of them the products of sex between white men and black women. This paper focuses on these activists, particularly the way they targeted anti-miscegenation law in states where it existed and protested against it in those where legislatures proposed such measures. While many of these activists opposed such law on the basis of its obvious racial prejudice, others invoked the fate of the mixed-race children that they believed would inevitably be produced by sex that could never be legitimated through matrimony. I argue that the mixed-race bastard child in this discourse was more than just a rhetorical trope, but also represented a pressing social issue in its own right as increasing numbers of such children were born. Anti-miscegenation law was, these activists realized, a tool for the perpetuation of African American poverty in the form of a generation of legally fatherless black children.