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Creoles of the Mountains: Race, Regionalism, and Modernity in Progressive Era Appalachia

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 September 2020

Michell Chresfield*
Affiliation:
University of Birmingham
*
*Corresponding author. E-mail: m.chresfield@bham.ac.uk

Abstract

This article investigates how Progressive Era writers, both popular and scientific, helped to construct multiracial identities alongside competing efforts to enshrine race into strictly black and white terms. Existing scholarship on race in the Progressive Era has not sufficiently analyzed the presence of multiracial populations. Instead, scholars have treated state and federal efforts to police racial boundaries, namely through anti-miscegenation laws and the census, as evidence that multiracial persons were a legal impossibility. However, scientific and popular writing on Appalachia provides a conceptual space in which multiracialism was not only a conceptual possibility, but was engendered. Appalachia took on increased importance during the Progressive Era as both intellectuals and reformers used the region to frame their anxieties about the limits of modernity and the threat of racial mixing. The region was home to white mountaineers who appeared arrested in time, existing in uncomfortable proximity to newly discovered groups with white, black, and Native American ancestry who also seemed to have been shunned by civilization. In attempting to understand the peculiar conditions of Appalachia, these Progressive Era writers helped to advance some of the first ideas about what it meant to be mixed-race in America.

Type
Article
Copyright
Copyright © The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE)

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References

Notes

1 “Hill Dwellers Live Like Nomads,” Duluth News Tribune, May 29, 1921, 4.

2 Ibid.

3 “Town Puzzled by Wild Family,” New York Times, May 2, 1921, 16; William James Dobbin, “Wild Men Within Commuting Distance,” New York Tribune, June 12, 1921, D1; and “Village Shrinks From Contact with ‘Poor, Unwashed Whites,’” New York Tribune, May 1, 1921, 2.

4 “Family Living Like Barbarians,” Tulsa World, May 22, 1921, 4.

5 “Finds Wild Family From the Ramapos,” New York Times, May 1, 1921, 7. The racial ambiguity of communities like the Jackson Whites is also borne out in their name, which carried as much lore as the population itself. While two separate origin narratives are thought to explain the etymology of the Jackson Whites, the most common claims that the term is a contraction of “Jacks”—the term used by white northerners to refer to freed slaves—and “Whites”—the white mountaineers who lived in the region and intermarried with the freed slaves and local Native Americans. It should be noted that the term “Jackson White” is held in disrepute by a majority of this community, as the term is seen as pejorative in nature and a denial of their long-standing claim to indigenous ancestry. Known today as the Ramapough Mountain Indians, the shift in nomenclature is evidence of a decades-long battle to determine the boundaries of black and native identity. For the purposes of this paper, the author will use the terms “Jackson White” as well as “Ramapo people” as the historical texts used them. However, this usage should not be read as a commentary on the racial identity of the group in question, but merely in keeping with the usage of the time. For more on the nomenclature and identity struggles of the Ramapough Mountain Indians, see Cohen, David Steven, The Ramapo Mountain People (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986)Google Scholar.

6 “Hill Dwellers Live Like Nomads.”

7 Calvin Beale coined the term “triracial isolates,” although these communities are known by a number of derisive names, including “racial dropouts,” “racial miscreants,” and sometimes “racial islands.” Beale, Calvin L., “American Triracial Isolates: Their Status and Pertinence to Genetic Research,” Eugenics Quarterly 4 (Dec. 1957): 187CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 “Hill Dwellers Live Like Nomads.”

9 For examples of scholarship illuminating this thread of progressive reform, see Petit, Jeanne D., The Men and Women We Want: Gender, Race, and the Progressive Era Literary Test Debate (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2010)Google Scholar; Southern, David W., The Progressive Era and Race: Reaction and Reform, 1900–1917 (Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 2005)Google Scholar; and Spiro, Jonathan Peter, Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant (Burlington: University of Vermont Press, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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12 In this essay, I rely on Jill Olumide's definition of “mixed-race,” which she defines as “the patterns and commonality of experience among those who obstruct whatever purpose race is being put to at a particular time.” Olumide, Jill, Raiding the Gene Pool: The Social Construction of Race (London: Pluto Press, 2002)Google Scholar.

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18 For examples of scholarship that focus on the role of disease and culture as explanations of atavistic behavior, see Rafter, Nicole Hahn ed., White Trash: The Eugenic Family Studies, 1877–1919 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988)Google Scholar; English, Daylanne, Unnatural Selections: Eugenics in American Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004)Google Scholar; and Ring, Natalie J., The Problem South: Region, Empire, and the New Liberal State, 1880–1930 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012)Google Scholar. For a work that argues for thinking about the primacy of the body and the contributions of biological sciences to atavistic discourse, see Seitler, Dana, Atavistic Tendencies: The Culture of Science in American Modernity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 6Google Scholar.

19 Lawrie, Forging a Laboring Race, 100.

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21 Those states included Montana (1909), Arkansas (1911), Nebraska (1913), Oklahoma (1917), Tennessee (1917), Virginia (1924), and Alabama (1927). Pascoe, Peggy, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2009), 118Google Scholar.

22 An Act to Define Who Are Persons of Color and Who Are White Persons, to Prohibit and Prevent Intermarriage of Such Persons, and to Provide a System of Registration and Marriage Licensing as a Means for Accomplishing the Principal Purpose, Ga. Law no. 317 § 14 (1927), 272–73.

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30 “Strange Folk: Live Among Mountain Fastness of New York,” Louisville Courier-Journal, Apr. 13, 1913, 4.

31 Ibid.

32 Dobbin, “Wild Men Within Commuting Distance.”

33 “Strung Up A Negro.”

34 Aikman, K. B., “Race Mixture,” The Eugenics Review 25 (Oct. 1933): 163 Google ScholarPubMed.

35 For an explanation of hybrid vigor and its consequences, see Mueller, H. J., “On the Variability of Mixed Races,” The American Naturalist 70 (Sept.–Oct. 1936): 409–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 Conklin, Edwin G., Heredity and Environment in the Development of Men (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1915), 15CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The perceived moral character of a racial group also impacted views on race mixing. Marjorie MacDill, a journalist who typically wrote on issues related to zoology and ecology, posited that the “thrift” and “mental superiority” typical of the Chinese-Hawaiian qualified this group as a successful hybrid. By contrast, the Filipino-Hawaiian, a mixture of “Japanese, Chinese, Caucasian, and Negro blood” was “overly emotional and weakly inhibited,” most likely due to the conflicting racial strains present. See MacDill, Marjorie, “Will the Blending of Races Produce Super-Men?,” Science News-Letter 12 (Nov. 1927): 338 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

37 For examples of scholarship stressing the physical and psychological disadvantages of race crossing, see Dunn, L. C., “Some Results of Race Mixture in Hawaii,” Eugenics in Race and State 2 (1921): 109 Google Scholar; Dickinson, A., “Race Mixture: A Social or Biological Problem,” The Eugenics Review 41 (July 1949): 8185 Google ScholarPubMed; and Mjoen, John Alfred, “Biological Consequences of Race Crossing,” The Journal of Heredity 17 (May 1926): 175–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

38 “A Primitive New Race Created in the ‘Jackson Whites,’” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Oct. 1, 1911, 8.

39 Ibid.

40 Estabrook, Arthur H., “Triple Crosses in the South: Indian-Negro-White,” Eugenical News 9 (1924): 59 Google Scholar.

41 Beale, “American Triracial Isolates,” 187.

42 Harkins, Anthony, Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004), 3Google Scholar.

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44 Warner, Charles Dudley, Studies in the South and West with Comments on Canada (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1889), 20Google Scholar.

45 Cabbell, Edward J., “Black Invisibility and Racism in Appalachia: An Informal Survey,” in Blacks in Appalachia, ed. H. Turner, William and Cabbell, Edward J. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985), 5Google Scholar.

46 “Race, Ethnicity, and Identity,” in Encyclopedia of Appalachia, ed. Rudy Abramson and Jean Haskell (Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 2011), 981.

47 Despite a long history of depicting Appalachia as a solidly white region, scholarship of the more recent past has begun to explore the region's diversity, particularly in regard to the racially transgressive nature of the region's social relations. For example, Darlene Wilson and Patricia Beaver have attributed the high incidence of interracial coupling in Appalachia to the social and geographic isolation of the region, which shielded residents from the same legal and social regulations against miscegenation operating in other parts of the country. See Wilson, Darlene and Beaver, Patricia D., “Transgressions in Race and Place: The Ubiquitous Native Grandmother in America's Cultural Memory,” in Neither Separate Nor Equal: Women, Race, and Class in the South, ed. Smith, Barbara Ellen (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999), 50Google Scholar.

48 John Hartigan, Jr., has argued that southern migrants from Appalachia—both blacks and whites—shared commonalities of speech and lifestyles, yet he nevertheless designated them into two groups: blacks and hillbillies. See Hartigan, John Jr., “Name Calling: Objectifying ‘Poor Whites’ and ‘White Trash’ in Detroit,” in White Trash: Race and Class in America, ed. Wray, Matt and Newitz, Annalee (New York: Routledge, 1997), 4156 Google Scholar.

49 “Backward Americans,” New York Tribune, Sept. 25, 1917. Dobbin, “Wild Men Within Commuting Distance.”

50 “The ‘Jackson Whites’: Curious Folk of the Ramapo Hills A Hybrid Race,” New-York Tribune, Jan. 5, 1896.

51 Vincent, George E., “A Retarded Frontier,” American Journal of Sociology 4 (July 1898): 4CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Campbell, John C., The Southern Highlander and His Homeland (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1921), 120Google Scholar.

52 William Aspenwall Bradley, “Hobnobbing with Hillbillies,” Harper's Monthly Magazine, May 1915, 132.

53 Ada Carver, “Redbones,” Harper's Monthly Magazine, Feb. 1925, 257; and “The Jackson Whites: Strange People Living Between New York and New Jersey,” The Sunday Herald Tribune (New York), Jan. 26, 1896.

54 Arthur Estabrook, “Blood Seeking Environment,” Eugenical News (1926): 106–14; and Roland Harper, “The Most Prolific People,” Eugenical News (1938): 29–31.

55 Ibid., 30.

56 Vincent, “A Retarded Frontier,” 4.

57 “The Jackson Whites: Strange People Living Between New York and New Jersey.”

58 Estabrook, “Triple Crosses in the South,” 58–59.

59 James Lane Allen, “Through Cumberland Gap on Horseback,” Harper's Monthly Magazine, June 1886, 69.

60 Bond, Horace Mann, “Two Racial Islands in Alabama,” American Journal of Sociology 36 (Jan. 1931): 552–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and “The Jackson Whites: Strange People Living Between New York and New Jersey,” 21

61 Campbell, The Southern Highlander and His Homeland, 132; and “The Jackson Whites: Strange People Living Between New York and New Jersey.”

62 Dann, Kevin T., Across the Great Border Fault: The Naturalist Myth in America (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 117Google Scholar.

63 Estabrook, “Blood Seeking Environment,” 112.

64 Borges, Dain, “‘Puffy, Ugly, Slothful, and Inert,’ Degeneration in Brazilian Social Thought, 1880–1940,” Journal of Latin American Studies 25 (May 1993): 275 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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67 Wilson and Beaver, “Transgressions in Race and Place,” 50.

68 Wray and Newitz, White Trash, 2

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71 “Better” was a common term used in eugenic parlance and was rhetorically linked to a raced, classed, and gendered ideal.

72 Kevles, Daniel J., In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 37 Google Scholar.

73 Between 1907 and 1932, thirty states passed legislation permitting the involuntary sterilization of mental degenerates. See Stubblefield, Anna, “‘Beyond the Pale’: Tainted Whiteness, Cognitive Disability, and Eugenic Sterilization,” Hypatia 22 (Spring 2007): 164–65Google Scholar.

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76 Eugenicists believed that if a trait could be found in more than one generation, then that trait was heritable. Later studies on “cacogenic”, meaning unfit families also discussed the heritability of promiscuity, a trait they observed in successive generations of poor rural families. See Rafter, White Trash, 6–9.

77 Ordover, American Eugenics, 33–35.

78 Laughlin, Harry, “Eugenics in America,” Eugenics Review 17 (Apr. 1925): 28Google ScholarPubMed.

79 Goddard, Henry H., The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness (New York: Macmillan, 1912), 102CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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82 Starting with the story of Deborah, a pseudonym for a Vineland resident named Emma Wolverton, the Kallikak study provided a cautionary tale about the dangers of poor mate selection as Deborah was the descendant of hereditary line that began with a dalliance between an upstanding American Revolutionary soldier and a feebleminded barmaid. Along with Richard Dugdale's 1877 study, “The Jukes”: A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease and Heredity, the Kallikak study provided justification for a number of eugenic interventions across the United States. See Dugdale, Richard, “The Jukes”: A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease and Heredity and Further Studies of Criminals, 3rd ed. (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1877)Google Scholar; Goddard, The Kallikak Family; Smith, J. David and Wehmeyer, Michael L., “Who Was Deborah Kallikak?,” Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities 50 (Apr. 2012): 169–78CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

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85 Rafter, White Trash, 21.

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87 Kite, “The Jackson Whites.”

88 Ibid.

89 Ibid.

90 Ibid.

91 Ibid.

92 “Blood Combination Has Bred Moron People,” National Labor Tribune (Pittsburgh, PA), Nov. 24, 1932, 5.

93 Both the Jukes and the Kallikak families, the subjects of the two most popular eugenic studies, were believed to have engaged in interracial sex. See Estabrook, Arthur H., The Jukes in 1915 (Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1916)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Dugdale, “The Jukes”; and Henry H. Goddard, The Kallikak Family.

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104 The one-drop rule is a legal and social convention asserting that any person with at least a drop of black blood is considered black. It has historically operated in the United States as a cornerstone of America's racial formation project, whereby mixed-race persons become illegible because they are routinely assigned the racial status of the subordinate group. See Davis, F. James, Who Is Black? One Nation's Definition (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991)Google Scholar.