the greatest negro?

I immediately thought of Obama while reading this article and am quite, quite certain that most agree that he is indeed a “Negro.”  That there was debate around Douglass’ negrocity ( I like to make up words sometimes) is of interest to me because I’m fascinated by the fact that mulatto was a valid and recognized identity in America before 1920.  Then it wasn’t anymore.  The ranking of Negroes from greatest to least strikes me as ludicrous.  That being said, the question, “Will Obama go down in history as the greatest Negro who ever lived?” popped into my head.  And then I thought that seeing as he isn’t one “in the full sense of the term,”  MLK probably outranks him.  How quickly I went from judging the system of rankings to ordering some myself!

Knoxville’s farewell to a civil-rights icon

By Robert Booker


A large crowd packed into Logan Temple A.M.E. Zion Church to honor the memory of the country’s best known civil-rights advocate. Among them were Knoxville’s black elite.

It was Feb. 25, 1895, and they had come to say farewell to Frederick Douglass, who had been born into slavery and died six days earlier.

Two days before the memorial, The Knoxville Tribune had its say about Douglass and wondered if he was a true Negro: “If we consider Douglass as a Negro, he was the brightest of his race in America. But he was not a Negro in the full sense of the term. Although born a slave, his father was a white man and his mother was a mulatto. Born a bastard and a slave, he rose to distinction and influences, and there were those among a class of white people who delighted to honor him.

“There are those who class him as the greatest Negro. This estimate of him is extravagant and unwarranted. In the first place he was not a Negro, and in the next place he is outranked by other Negroes. The greatest Negro who ever lived was Toussaint L’Ouverture the Haitian general, whose death was and will always be a dishonor to France. No Negro in this country ever approached L’Ouverture in intellect.”

L’Ouverture (1744-1803) was the Haitian independence leader who took part in the slave revolt in that country in 1790. He joined the Spaniards when they attacked the French in 1793, but fought for the French when they agreed to abolish slavery. By 1801 he had virtual control over Hispaniola, but was arrested and died in a French prison.

The blacks who spoke at the Douglass memorial took issue with the Tribunes’s assessment of him.

Attorney Samuel R. Maples said he wanted “to correct a statement in one of the local papers that Douglass boasted of his white blood and denied being a Negro. This was not true. Douglass never denied being a Negro. He was very proud of his race.”

Attorney William F. Yardley, who had introduced Douglass when he spoke here at Staub’s Opera House Nov. 21, 1881, said Douglass “Was the victim of the great American curse – slavery. He slept with dogs and ate the crumbs from his master’s table, but his great mind and energy lifted him to the loftiest heights of fame. He was not a creature of circumstance but of force. He was tireless and had been the greatest blessing to his race.”

Charles W. Cansler spoke of Douglass as “An anti-slavery agitator who represented a great moral principle and not a minister of malice. He was seventy-eight years old when he died and spent his life earnestly in the extension of freedom and in establishing justice among men. He was the Moses of his race, and it is hard to tell what his heath means to us.”

Rev. J.R. Riley, pastor of Shiloh Presbyterian Church, spoke of Douglass as a leader: “He was carved by the hand of deity to be a great leader, though cradled in the most iniquitous institution – American slavery – and schooled in dire adversity, his power of mind and greatness of spirit had surmounted all, and he stood out boldly as the greatest man of his race and the peer of all great men.”

It seems that Riley, who was pastor of Shiloh from 1891 to 1913, knew Douglass personally and they had many experiences together. He said his friend had “great personal magnetism. His quick wit and ability to read men made him irresistible in his influence among men.”

the cover of the sheet music for Frederick Douglass's funeral march

This image shows the front cover of “Frederick Douglass Funeral March.”  At each corner of his portrait are pen and ink drawings in circular frames that depict the slave trade, bondage, auction block, and freedom.


Thank you, Lee, for turning me on to this little “gem.”  Horrifying sums it up well.  I don’t know what content I find most horrifying.  I’m picking up lots of “tragic mulatto” and “jezebel” (the cover page photo!) innuendo though those specific terms aren’t used.  In fact, the passers don’t have to be mulatto at all.  As I’m constantly told, as a nation and a people we’re all mixed and there are plenty of “black” people that are lighter than some mulattoes such as myself.   I do like this notion of “one honest goal: the elimination of the invisible color boundary which for so many years unfairly kept him from his rightful place in the sun.”  We’re still workin’ on it.


…it seems well-nigh incredible that some five million Negroes have turned their backs on their own race and are passing as white. For almost a quarter of a century, this fantastic lie has been lived by large groups of Negroes with no sign of abatement despite the strong gains that have been made by the champions of anti-segregation.

In the year 1960 alone more than 60,000 negroes are expected to “disappear”, cross the invisible color line into the world of whites. These are not just dreamed up figures. They are actual facts. Just as it is a fact that no one ever reports a Negro to the Missing Persons Bureau unless they are absolutely sure the missing human isn’t passing.

Many shocking incidents were brought to light some years back in a sensational book, ‘Black Metropolis’ by St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton. The authors claim that many “white negroes” as passers are called— hold strong positions in the white world as physicians, scientists, and public administrators—despite the fact that many such jobs are also held by Negroes unashamed of their race.

The late Walter White, himself a Negro, and one of the prime movers in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, once attempted to clarify the problem of passing. He said: “Negroes naturally resent the loss of some of the brilliant minds which would be an asset to them in their grim struggle for survival. But if any Negro believes he will be happier living as a white and thereby escape the barbs and handicaps of prejudices, or if he believes he can use his ability and training to greater advantage on the other side of the racial line, most Negroes wish him well.”

When it comes to passing, although most Negroes today refuse to condone it, they will not tell on one another. Most seem to understand the reasoning that prompts lighter-hued members of their race wanting to cross over.

“We know there are stronger anti-discrimination laws than ever before,” they will tell you, “but when a negro has a white skin, he seems to have a compulsion to live the way of the people who have so long opposed him. He doesn’t seem to realize that scientists have proven that the very people who condemn him might not be in a position to do so.”

A scientist like those mentioned above is Dr. Caroline Day, of Atlanta University, who wrote in her famous Harvard African Studies: “The grim joke of the whole matter is that for 150 years and more the Negro has been absorbed and his descendants are constantly rubbing elbows with some of the very ones who are discussing them.”

Even the fact that people, who believe all passers are eventually found out because their children are sure to be black, are merely deluding themselves, hasn’t deterred the practise of passing. Science took the inherited color theory apart a long time ago, with the aid of such eminent savants as Amram Schienfeld, Dr. Ernest A. Hooten and the late Dr. Edward M. East, who theorized thus; “If one of the parents is pure white, the baby cannot he darker than the darker parent. If they both have Negro blood, the baby may be slightly darker than its parents hut the chances are against it.”

With the legalization of racial intermarriage approved in some 22 states, nobody has been able to upset their theory – though, obviously, chances to do so have been many.

Yet the “passers” themselves seldom worry about theories. The “permanent passer”, going over the line, never comes back. He prefers to end his days living a big white lie; and women passers who marry bear children and keep their secret for life.

Only under unusual circumstances, such as the one that befell the wife of a prominent socialite, does a sensational exposure ever occur. This was the Leonard Kip Rhinelander case, which rated lurid headlines when the socialite playboy sought to have his marriage to Alice Jones set aside. Rhinelander claimed his wife was colored and failed to tell him so. In her defense, Alice stripped to the waist and bared her breasts to the jury, thus providing the sensation-seeking New York Graphic with a classic composite-photo of this closed door session for its front page.

Besides the “permanent passer”, the “segmental passer” stands without guilt or censure. The “segmental passers” lead a dual life; whites by day, Negroes by night. You’ll often find them in jobs where opposition to Negroes is strong but secret-Some are telephone operators, receptionist, typists, clerks in large corporations and in department stores, where, though some Negroes are employed the unspoken policy is “Enough is enough.”

On Broadway, particularly, the Negro girl has a tough time getting a chorus or showgirl job. There is a story current of a Negro showgirl, allegedly passing as white, who was recognized by a popular Negro singer, but he refused to reveal her secret. He also reportedly wouldn’t talk to the girl, not because of her “passing” but because of her more than passing interest in a white socialite-playboy who met her nightly.

“Obviously she hasn’t learned yet that mixed marriages are no longer looked on with horror,” a Negro artist told INSIDE STORY, “so she’ll go on living her lie and, in the long run, probably find her heart broken because she feels she can’t reveal her secret to the man should he want to marry her. Life will never be easy for her. She not only sometimes has to listen to blasts against her race, but worry every moment about being exposed.”

While there’s no way of truly gauging the number of passers operating, some estimate is arrived at by studies of census reports, immigration records, vital statistics and information from other sources. Yet this does not take into account the ‘’segmental passer” or the passer who, in the past, was known as an “occasional” a reference to light-hued Negroes who occasionally went downtown to segregated areas and, as a lark, spent their money on white entertainment.

Actually, when it comes to “passing”, the shocked might as well face these facts: Passers not only go through life as white, they have children who look (and are) white. Any anthropologist will tell you that if a person has one-sixteenth or less of Negro blood—it is impossible to determine his or her ancestry.

Yet, the practice of passing still continues, much to the chagrin, not necessarily the shame, of the Negro who believes in living as he was born. To such a Negro, there can be only one honest goal: the elimination of the invisible color boundary which for so many years unfairly kept him from his rightful place in the sun. The passer, working in the movies, working as a white actress or a showgirl, or a model or a clerk, or a receptionist doesn’t think of this. He’s thinking of himself. Or herself. And that, to a good many Negroes, is a “shameful secret!

making the best of it

Taking into consideration the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960, I think this is a remarkable story…

Area Woolworth’s first black sales clerk calls hiring proud moment

Jean Fisher Curry was hired in 1961 to work a cosmetics counter in the front of the store.

By Tom Stafford

SPRINGFIELD — There were no lunging police dogs with bared fangs, no fire hoses knocking people to the ground, no instigators putting cigarettes out in the hair of protesters at lunch counter sit-ins.

The first apparent outward sign that Springfield’s F.W. Woolworth store would have its first ‘‘Negro’’ employee — to use the word customary at the time — was a note Jean Fisher, 15, received in class during the fall of 1961, her junior year at South High School.

“I was never in trouble,” said Jean Fisher Curry of Springfield. So when she got the note from the counselor’s office, “I thought, what did I do?”

It wasn’t what she did that was notable but rather what she was about to do.

Like other Distributive Education students, she was told she’d have to meet the standards: keep a B average and take special classes in the department.

“I think (Distributive Education) was the forerunner of the vocational school,” Curry explained.

But if she met the standards, she could work at Woolworth’s — the downtown one at High and Limestone streets.

The importance of that was not lost on Curry: “They didn’t have black people working in the store.”

A happy clerk

“I thought I’d be cleaning,” Curry said.

That might have been OK. Her mother had done that for years in what was called “private family work” — working as a domestic at the Tanglewood Drive home of Seymour and Anne Klein.

Jean Curry hugs her mother, Alberta Fisher, whose encouraging words helped her break new ground as the first black sales clerk at Springfield's Woolworth store. Staff photo by Marshall Gorby

Jean Curry hugs her mother, Alberta Fisher, whose encouraging words helped her break new ground as the first black sales clerk at Springfield’s Woolworth store. Photo by Marshall Gorby.

Being a domestic “never bothered her,” Curry said, “because that was honest work.”

And when the Kleins asked Alberta Fisher to run the lunch counter at Victory Lanes, it showed “they trusted her,” Curry said. “And she was happy with that.”

The job at Woolworth’s wasn’t a cleaning job, however — likely because the Distributive Education program didn’t train people for that task.

“They told me it was a sales clerk,” said Curry,” and I said, ‘Yeah.’ ”

As it turned out, her post would be at the cosmetics counter in front of the store, where she’d be seen by all who walked in the main entrance.

The sightings began soon after she turned 16 on Sept. 15, 1961, and got her work permit.

Shades of discrimination

Curry discovered a shade of racial reasoning involved in her placement in the store.

“They hired a black girl from North and me from South,” she explained. “Because I was light (-skinned), I worked at the front of the store. Because she was darker she worked in the back of the store with the pets.”

Asked whether that was the real reason for the assignments, Curry was emphatic: “There’s no doubt. I knew it, she knew it, and she resented it.”

Curry said that colored her attitude toward her own work: “What was I going to be mad about? I didn’t feel discrimination like somebody darker.”

The attitude ran in her family.

When the census came, the light-skinned Curries listed their race as mulatto., and in the militant black pride era, they joked about being “high yellow.”

Still, they had to follow rules of the racial road.

Springfield then was a town in which blacks weren’t allowed in the Liberty Theater and in which blacks were suspicious of drinking out of segregated fountains, wondering what white people put in them.

Blacks also tended to “stay within our culture,” Curry said, taking the elevator in the Arcade to the music store that catered to their tastes and frequenting the Center Street YMCA.

Woolworth’s also had its rules: Blacks could order only carry-out from the food counter.

And when Curry started, “we were told when we gave people change to lay it on the counter,” she said, thus avoiding problems with white customers who were uncomfortable having physical contact with blacks.

“But like I told (the girl from North),” Curry added, “we may get some money.”

At first, the pay was 65 cents an hour. The following year, it would go up to 85 cents — this in an era when $1 an hour was considered decent pay, Curry said.

In her youthful enthusiasm, “I didn’t think it was a job. I thought it was a career.”

In the same spirit, Curry, who knew that the actress Betty Hutton’s sister, Barbara, was part owner of the chain, half expected one or the other Hutton sister to show up some day, coming through the front door right into her area.

When she told people she worked at Woolworth’s “I always said ‘F.W.’ like I knew him.”

“I couldn’t even tell you what F.W. stood for.”

Her mother and God

The non-Hutton whites who came into her area in the front of the store fell into a couple of categories, Curry said.

“The older ones, the little white-haired ladies, they liked me,” she said.

“They were used to black people working in their homes and knowing their place. And I knew my place.”

“The other ones, I had to grow on them,” she said.

And she did, using the enthusiasm and bedrock values her mother taught her.

Part of it was common courtesy. “I was always very friendly. You just do that,” Curry said.

Also, “we were very religious,” she said. “We went to church. I think God had a place in that.

Constantly on her mind at that time was the desire “to make my mom and dad proud of me,” Curry said.

Finally, there was the work ethic her mother sought to instill in her children.

Throughout their childhoods, Mrs. Fisher recited a saying to her children to encourage them to do the best they could in everything they did.

“She said it so much to me that I knew it by heart,” Curry said.

All that you do, do with your might.  Things done by half are never done right.  All that you do, do with a zeal.  Those that reach the top, have to climb the hill.

Touching moments

If some of the white people of the time were uncomfortable touching blacks, the black friends and family who came to the store were the opposite.

They’d reach out, touch her and say “It’s so good to see you” when they came in, Curry recalled.

Her mother was especially proud.

“Out of all the girls, they chose her to be there,” said Mrs. Fisher, now 91, who also lives in Springfield.

“I was excited about it, really I was,” she continued. “All my whole family — my sisters, everyone — I was just telling everybody. And I still tell it now.”

Curry said the Woolworth’s experience helped her to feel a part of the larger community.

Already with a sense that Woolworth’s was a cut above the competitors of Kresge and McCrory’s, Curry soon got to know the downtown merchants as they stopped into Woolworth’s — people like William Greene, owner of an exclusive dress shop.

“I could go into stores and they’d let me lay things away. A lot of time black people couldn’t go into those stores,” she said.

Knowing as a customer, the mistress of one of the downtown businessmen also marked her as an insider.

“I felt like I was part of Springfield because I was doing those things,” Curry said.

“It wasn’t that I wanted to be white. I was being accepted for who I was, making the best of it. And I said some day I’ll tell these stories to my grandchildren, and they’ll love it.”


carol channing



In her autobiography, Just Lucky I Guess, the 81-year-old performer told the story of the day she learned that she is biracial.

She recalled that she was 16 years old and heading to college when her mother told her that she was “part Negro.”

“I’m only telling you this,” Channing recalls her mother, Peggy, saying, “because the Darwinian law shows that you could easily have a Black baby.”

Her mother continued by explaining Carol’s unique look. She told the doe-eyed performer that because of her heritage that was “why my eyes were bigger than hers (I wasn’t aware of this) and why I danced with such elasticity and why I had so many of the qualities that made me me.”

The revelation didn’t bother Channing, who said, “I thought I had the greatest genes in showbiz.”

George Channing, Carol’s father, was the son of a German American father and a Black mother. While still very young, his mother, who worked as a domestic, moved him and his sister from his birthplace of Augusta, GA, to Providence, RI, where she thought people would never recognize his “full features.”

Channing’s paternal grandmother didn’t raise her father and his sister because she “didn’t want anyone to see her around her children” because she was “colored,” the performer surmised.







Interview With Carol Channing

Aired November 27, 2002 – 21:00 ET


KING: Lets start early in that truth. Your father was black. 

CHANNING: No, he was not black. I wish I had his picture. He was — he was a — his skin was the color of mine. I don’t know maybe. Yes, it’s all right. Well any, no. My father — you read the tabloids, don’t you? 

KING: No, it says in my notes your beloved father, George Channing, a newspaper editor, renowned Christian Science lecturer listed as colored on his birth certificate.

CHANNING: Yes, and the place burned down, but nobody ever knew that. But I know it. Every time I start to sing or dance, I know it, and I’m proud of it.

KING: So he was black?

CHANNING: No, He had in — there was a picture in our family album and my grandmother said — I never saw them. My grandfather was Nordic German and my grandmother was in the dark. And they said no that was — she was — and I’m so proud of it I can’t tell you. When our champion gave me that last third (UNINTELLIGIBLE) on “Hello Dolly!” Again. No white woman can do it like I did. KING: So you’re proud of your mixed heritage?

CHANNING: Very, when I found out. I was 16-years-old and my mother told me. And you know, only the reaction on me was, Gee, I got the greatest genes in show business.

KING: Some people years ago discovering that might have been disturbed by it?

CHANNING: Yes, years ago because when I found out about it, you don’t want to do that.

KING: You don’t say it.

CHANNING: You don’t say it. There’s a lot of it down South.

KING: People are ashamed of it.

CHANNING: I’d proud of it.

KING: I’m glad to hear it. 

CHANNING: I really am. I mean look, what makes you, you? You don’t know. None of us knows our heritage. Not in the United States. 

KING: We’re all immigrants. 

CHANNING: Exactly, this is the changing face of America. I’m part of it. Isn’t it wonderful? 

KING: You damn right. 

CHANNING: I’m young again.


Tiffany: She’s proud, but she can’t name “it”….