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passing strange

5 january 2010

If evidence were uncovered that an eminent American Victorian – let's say John Hay – had actually been of African-American ancestry, and had spent years passing for white in high society . . . well, that would be a sensation among historians, for sure. But it would be a sensation of the dog-bites-man variety. We think of "passing" as passing for white. Hence Martha Sandweiss's revelation in Passing Strange that John Hay's best friend, the famous geographer Clarence King, spent over a decade passing for black in 19th-century Long Island is passing strange indeed.

It had long been known, as a footnote to history, that Clarence King had children by an African-American woman named Ada. He did not acknowledge this family during his lifetime. After Clarence's death in 1901, Hay and his heirs bought Ada Copeland King a house in Flushing, Queens, and paid her a monthly stipend for her living – and implicitly, for her silence. But Ada King didn't keep silent forever. She believed that King had established a considerable trust fund for her, and in the 1930s she broke her silence to sue his estate for the balance of that fund. She lost, but in the process her connection to King, and Hay's role in supporting her, became public.

Of course, prominent white men having secret black mistresses and children are not exactly thin on the ground in American history either. What dawned on Sandweiss as she gathered material about Clarence King, however, was that Ada, during their life together, never knew her partner was Clarence King. She almost certainly believed him to be an African-American Pullman porter named James Todd. That's what he told her; and when they were married in 1888 by prominent black clergyman James Cook, that's the surname she took, becoming Ada Todd.

How was this possible? Clarence King was a scion of the Newport monde, with a social circle that included dukes and Presidents. For one thing, as photographs show, Clarence was literally lily-white. But American social construction of race in the 1890s meant that any number of visibly white people were black under the law. Homer Plessy, whose lawsuit against segregated accommodation became a by-word for Jim Crow, was as white as King. J. Douglas Wetmore, a lawyer who fought segregation and was fictionalized by James Weldon Johnson as the archetypal "ex-colored-man," was as white in complexion as either, and spent his life crossing and recrossing the racial divide. Simply by claiming to be a Pullman porter, Clarence King could establish his credentials as a "colored man."

Except for John Hay and another old friend, James Gardiner, none of King's white friends knew about Ada (though I wonder if their mutual friend Henry Adams, who was given to arch commentary about King's predilection for women of color, wasn't also in on the secret, but just too refined to acknowledge it on paper). No surprise there; but a significant surprise that Ada did not seem to know that her husband was passing, either.

For husband he was. King never married a white woman, and doesn't seem to have had any engagements or serious courtships among the blueblood Establishment. The Todds were not a second family but his only family. From his letters, it's clear that he was devoted to Ada, even as he spent most of his time away from her. Not only did he have a vigorous social life, and a valetudinarian mother to support, but King was chronically broke, and his profession was as a mining consultant. While supposedly off tending sleeper cars, he was in fact off around North America advising on silver mines from Durango to the Klondike. But he longed for Ada, always returned to her in the home they made together in Flushing, and seemed to care deeply for their five children (four of whom lived to adulthood).

It can be difficult, in 21st-century America, to realize that "mixed marriage" was, within living memory, such a profound taboo that structures of deception as elaborate as Clarence King's double-insulated identity had to be erected to conceal it. But even more astonishing to a reader in 2009-10 is the attitude that the social class of Hays, Gardiners, and Adamses had toward the redoubtable Ada King. Ada, who reached the age of 103 and lived through everything from emancipation to "I have a dream," is the heroine of Sandweiss's story. She insisted that her identity be known, even as Clarence King insisted on hiding his. She lost her suit for the notional $80,000 trust fund that Clarence had promised her (a pipe-dream, since King died deeply in debt). But she won something better than money: a name for herself and for her children with Clarence.

That name was disparaged by lawyers for Gardiner and Hay. They strove to dismiss Ada as an adventuress, always prefacing her name in court with "negro" or "negress," calling her children "shiftless," treating her as ignorant and credulous. And as Sandweiss shows in a coda to her study, Ada's name was disappeared by subsequent generations of historians. Thurman Wilkins of Queens College published the definitive biography of Clarence King in 1958, a book that Sandweiss calls "masterful" in its depiction of King's role in mapping the American West. Wilkins mentions Ada briefly, referring to her as King's "kept mistress." And when the biography appeared, Ada herself was alive, alert, and well, living a few blocks away. Wilkins never interviewed her. Imagine writing a biography of some famous figure and never bothering to look up that figure's surviving spouse.

The reason for this omission is simple, of course: Ada King just didn't register on white America, from her birth as a slave in 1860 to her death in 1964. Belatedly, she registers now, in a book that deserves to be seen as a masterpiece of American history and historiography.

Sandweiss, Martha A. Passing Strange: A Gilded Age tale of love and deception across the color line. New York: Penguin, 2009.