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5 black Chicagoans who passed for white

A baseball player who broke baseball’s color line decades before Jackie Robinson was born.

A pioneering politician who has a West Side school named after him.

An Emmy-winning “blonde bombshell.”

A poet at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance.

And a brilliant novelist who wrote a noted novel on “passing.”

Unlike Rachel Dolezal — the white Spokane, Washington, NAACP head who has become the U.S.’s biggest viral news story after she was exposed for lying about her past to pose as a black woman — all five of these sometime Chicagoans were black. But just like Dolezal, they spent at least part of their lives pretending to be something they weren’t, historians now suspect.

Baseball player William Edward White, politician Oscar DePriest, bandleader Ina Ray Hutton, poet Jean Toomer and writer Nella Larsen all at times passed as white, it’s believed.

It’s part of the history that makes Dolezal’s masquerade so fascinating to many Americans: for centuries, African-Americans were far more likely to attempt to pass as white than the reverse. Writing in “Opportunity: The Journal of Negro Life” in 1927, one of Dolezal’s predecessors at the NAACP, William Pickens, vividly described how both the violent threat of racism and the lure of white privilege exacted a powerful pull toward passing for black Americans who were able:

“If passing for white will get a fellow better accommodations on the train, better seats in the theatre, immunity from insults in public places, and may even save his life from a mob, only idiots would fail to seize the advantage of passing, at least occasionally if not permanently.”

Passing, which had mostly died out by the latter part of the 20th century, also came with a series of heavy costs: families broken by one relative’s denial of their ties to another; the constant fear of exposure; and the psychological damage of denying one’s true identity. But for these five Chicagoans, it may have been a compromise they felt forced to make.

William Edward White

Chicagoan William Edward White (second row, second from right, in hat) may be the first African American ever to have pleyed in the big leagues | (Slate)
Chicagoan William Edward White (second row, second from right, in hat) may be the first African American ever to have pleyed in the big leagues | (Slate)

Born in 1860 in Georgia, William Edward White the son of a Georgia businessman and one of his mixed race slaves. Legally, in the ante-bellum South, he was black, and a slave. But when he died in Chicago in 1937 at the age of 76 after slipping on an icy sidewalk, William Edward White’s Cook County death certificate declared him “white.” And when he played in his one and only big-league game for the National League’s Providence Grays (perhaps becoming the first black big leaguer ever) in 1879, his teammates and the fans watching likely all thought he was white, too, Peter Morris and Stefan Fatsis reported for Slate last year:

“After first baseman “Old Reliable” Joe Start broke a finger, the Providence Grays, who played in the National League between 1878 and 1885, recruited White, an 18-year-old freshman at Brown University, to fill in. On June 21, 1879, White got a hit, scored a run, stole two bases, and fielded 12 chances flawlessly in a 5–3 win over the visiting Cleveland Blues. The Providence Morning Star reported that White’s collegiate teammates “howled with delight” from the stands. The Providence Journal said White “played first base in fine style” and “has been engaged to cover first” in an upcoming series versus Boston.But White didn’t play for the Grays against Boston—outfielder and future Hall of Famer “Orator Jim” O’Rourke took over at first—or ever again, or for any other big-league team. Did the Grays decide they could make do without an extra player? Did the veterans balk at including a college student in the lineup? Or was White not invited to return because his mixed-race status became known or was suspected?” …Until she was contacted last month, White’s only grandchild, Lois De Angelis, said her family had been unaware of White’s role in baseball history, and of his racial background. De Angelis, who is 74 years old and lives in Grayslake, Ill., said she knew that her grandfather worked as an artist and had been published in the Saturday Evening Post or another magazine, and that he was separated from her grandmother, who worked as a secretary for Sears. Beyond that, De Angelis said she knew nothing about William Edward White.White’s wife, Hattie, lived until 1970. De Angelis doubted that Hattie would have known White was one-quarter black, at least before they were married. “My grandmother was very prudish, very English,” she said. Neither Hattie nor De Angelis’ mother, Vera, ever mentioned why Hattie and White had separated, De Angelis said. Perhaps, she speculated, White left the household because Hattie discovered his racial history. “That’s funny when I think of my grandmother,” De Angelis said. “She would die if she knew it.”

Oscar DePriest

Oscar DePriest, the first African-American elected to Congress from a northern state |(Oscar DePriest Elementary)
Oscar DePriest, the first African-American elected to Congress from a northern state |(Oscar DePriest Elementary)

Born in Alabama to former slaves, Oscar DePriest is remembered by history as the first African-American to be elected to Congress from a Northern state. He came to Chicago as a 17-year-old in 1889 to escape racial persecution in Alabama but — according to the Encyclopedia of African-American History — found Illinoisans deeply prejudiced, too:

“He found work as a painter, passing as white and, when discovered, moving from one job to the next.”

Later, DePriest became wealthy in real estate, and was elected to the Cook County Board, then Chicago City Council, and then — after a conviction for protecting South Side gamblers, later overturned — was in 1928 elected to Congress as a Republican, fighting for civil rights until his defeat in 1934. Oscar DePriest Elementary School on the West Side is named for him.

Ina Ray Hutton

Ina Ray Hutton — a “blonde bombshell” with a secret: she was black | (file photo)
Ina Ray Hutton — a “blonde bombshell” with a secret: she was black | (file photo)

Ina Ray Hutton was one of the most successful bandleaders of the Big Band era. She danced, she sang, she conducted her band, the Melodears, and she had her own variety show on TV. But her fans didn’t know her secret: that she was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, to a mixed race mother. In masterly example of storytelling, described here, KUOW radio reporter Phyllis Fletcher describes how she uncovered Hutton’s true story:

“There was something about the shape of her face,” Fletcher says of Hutton in the photo on the CD case, continuing to push the story ahead. “She had that big ’ol forehead. Big cheeks. Round lips. She looked like… me. Not that I’m a bombshell. But I have that big ’ol forehead. I have big cheeks and round lips. White people think I’m white all the time. But I’m white and black. So I went looking for Ina Ray Hutton in the Chicago census records, and the answer was there…”

Jean Toomer

Jean Toomer
Jean Toomer

Calling poet Jean Toomer a Chicagoan might be a bit of a stretch. But although he was better known for his ties to New York as a leading member of the Harlem Renaissance, Toomer studied at the University of Chicago and at the American College of Physical Training at Chicago. A leading chronicler of black life, he had a mixed African and European heritage, but was known to resist attempts to pigeonhole him as a “black writer.” In 2010, though, Harvard professor — and pal of President Barack Obama — Henry Louis Gates went further, publishing research with Emory Professor Rudolph P Byrd, indicating that Toomer was “a Negro who decided to pass for white.” The New York Times reported:

“…over the course of his life Toomer variously denied ever living as a black person; called himself racially mixed; and said he was a new kind of American, transcending old racial terms. Toomer did not want to be featured as a Negro in the marketing of “Cane” and later did not want his work included in black anthologies.

Archival research reveals a clearer picture, said Mr. Gates, the director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard: “Everyone on his family tree was black and didn’t claim to be anything else. Only Jean tried to cross over.””

Nella Larsen

Writer Nella Larsen was born the The Levee neighborhood, wrote a seminal novel on passing, and may have passed herself | (Yale)
Writer Nella Larsen was born the The Levee neighborhood, wrote a seminal novel on passing, and may have passed herself | (Yale)

Born to an Afro-Carribean immigrant father and a Danish mother in Chicago’s long-since gone “Levee” red-light district in 1891, novelist Nella Larsen wrote “Passing,” a seminal novel of two black friends who take different approaches to their racial identities.

Another star of the Harlem Renaissance, she may herself have passed as white in New York — just as one of her characters in “Passing” had in Chicago. In the book, she wrote of Clare, the protagonist who “passes” as white a comment that many may feel applies to Dolezal — in an entirely different context — decades later:

“The trouble with Clare was, not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too, but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folk as well.”