Posted on 02/22/2009

Photo taken on January 1, 1869

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Former Slave
Charles King
Alias James Todd
Ada Copeland
Passing for Black
Secretive Marriage
First director of the United States Geological Survey
'Passing Strange' by Martha A. Sandweiss

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Why did a well known and successful white man pretend to be black in the late 1800s --- only to reveal the truth on his deathbed?

Why did a well known and successful white man pretend to be black in the late 1800s --- only to reveal the truth on his deathbed?
Photograph taken in Washington DC., at the time of the sitting he was 27yrs old.
U.S. Dept of Interior

Clarence King (1842 - 1901), was a blond blue blood from Newport who distinguished himself at an early age. He traveled West in the 1860s, found work with the California State Geological Survey, helped to map the Sierra and became geologist in charge of the United States Geological Exploration of the 40th Parallel in 1867, when he was 25. He then became a familiar luminary in both New York and Washington. But his early years of roaming were just a prelude to what seems to have been a permanently rootless state.

Or so it seemed to his friends, who became used to his unexpected absences and thought of him as a perennial bachelor. What they did not know was that when Clarence was not living in various clubs and hotels, he was married and the father of five children.

He was deeply devoted to his wife, Ada Copeland, a black woman 19 years his junior. This blue-eyed man, descended from signers of the Magna Carta, had successfully cultivated the impression that he was black, too.

The existence of Ada and their children became publicly known only in 1933, at a trial in which Ada tried to recover the trust fund Clarence had promised her.

He had been dead for more than 30 years, so the shock waves generated by the trial were considerable. Most dramatic, is the way that revisionists demoted Clarence from hero to "tragic hero," not to mention "the most lavishly overpraised man of his time," upon discovering that he had been married to a former slave. This was typical of the sickening headlines surrounding the trial: "Mammy Bares Life as Wife of Scientist."

All of this has long been a matter of record. The fact that King went further than merely marrying Ada and concealing her existence from his friends and family. He also adopted the name James Todd, under which he married Ada, and claimed to be a Pullman Porter, a job held exclusively by black workers. Employment on a train helped explain to Ada why he was so well traveled and so frequently absent from home. (Later he would claim to be a clerk and a steelworker too.)

Clarence's wife Ada came from Georgia, was born pre-Emancipation and traveled to New York City to live as a domestic and children's nursemaid. In other words, she went from one set of strictures to another, and only with King did she achieve some kind of autonomy in a middle-class household.

Todd family members were variously designated "white," "negro" or "mulatto," based not on evidence but on context. Ada and Clarence's sons were deemed black when seen with their dark-skinned mother. But their two daughters married white men and effectively turned themselves into white women.

"Civilization so narrows the gamut!" King once wrote to Hay. "Respectability lets the human pendulum swing over such a pitiful little arc." But in rebelling against that notion, King created an arc wider than anything he might have imagined and lived a more profound lie than dissemblers about race or gender usually can.

The book 'Passing Strange' by Martha A. Sandweiss offers a fine, mesmerizing account of how one extremely secretive man, "acting from a complicated mix of loyalty and self-interest, reckless desire and social conservatism," could encapsulate his country's shifting ideas about race in the course of one family's anything but black-and-white history.

Dying of tuberculosis he would eventually reveal his secret to his wife and children. His wife (Ada Copeland) assumed her husband to be a 'mulatto.'

Info: "Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line," By Martha A. Sandweiss, Penguin Press