Originally created 03/28/04

Taboos, not laws, prevented most unions



Blacks and whites have been falling in love in America since the arrival of the first Europeans and African slaves.

For the better part of U.S. history, there were laws forbidding interracial romance and marriage, mostly in Southern states, and couples who lived together as man and wife faced jail time.

Throughout the South, penalties ranged from one to seven years' imprisonment, said Charles F. Robinson II, an assistant professor of history at the University of Arkansas who researched old court cases for his book Dangerous Liaisons: Sex and Love in the Segregated South.

While laws banned all forms of interracial marriage, enforcement in the South overwhelmingly singled out blacks and whites. In Western states, such as California, enforcement focused on whites and Asians.

Dr. Robinson said he didn't know how many people were convicted or jailed, but the number seems to be small.

"First of all, it's not the law that's preventing them from coming together. Primarily, it's the social taboos," he said. The law was difficult to enforce, especially when people were spread out over large rural areas, he said.

In Georgia, a 1927 law said that interracial couples who married, and the ministers who married them, faced one to two years in jail. The state Board of Health was required to report births of interracial children to the attorney general's office, which was to prosecute the parents.

An 1868 law in Georgia banning marriage between whites and persons of African descent set punishments of up to $100 in fines, six months in jail and 39 lashes.

In South Carolina, the state constitution prohibited interracial marriage. The punishment for couples and ministers was a minimum $500 fine, a minimum 12 months' incarceration or both.

A 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia, nullified all remaining anti-miscegenation laws, but South Carolina's remained in the constitution until 1998. It was removed after a statewide referendum in which 38 percent of voters said they wanted to keep the provision.

Alabama had a similar referendum to remove the clause from its constitution in 2000. It was repealed with 59.5 percent approval from voters.

Anti-miscegenation laws date back to Colonial times, when white indentured servants often fell in love with the black slaves they worked beside, said Rachel Moran, a professor of law at the University of California in Berkeley and author of Interracial Intimacy: The Regulation of Race and Romance.

The laws were established to maintain racial differences and send a message to white servants that they were to exercise "moral restraint," she said.

Dr. Robinson said the purpose of the laws up through the early 20th century was to maintain white supremacy.

"It was to prevent blacks from attaining any social equality with whites," he said. "And also, in a more practical sense, to prevent blacks from attaining the economic benefits that came from being able to inherit from white fathers."

Still, there were couples whose affection outweighed their respect for the law. It was riskier if they lived together and had children, and there were risks beyond being arrested.

In 1896 in Louisiana, a mob of 20 people attacked Patrick and Charlotte Norris, white and black respectively, who had married before it became illegal. They were shot, placed on their bed, then hacked to pieces with axes.

Affairs rarely led to prosecution, Dr. Robinson said. It was easy for white men to get away with, but not so easy for white women, whose sexual choices were another thing the laws were meant to control.

In 1881 in Arkansas, Mary Jones, a black woman, was arrested for being "a trifle too intimate" with a white man. She was fined $25 after telling the court she loved the man. The man, who denied feeling the same way, got a $10 fine.

"The real issue was relationships that suggested loving interaction between people - serious relationships, as opposed to simply sex," Dr. Robinson said. "If you had sex without the relationship aspect of it, then you could escape conviction, and that was universal, no matter where you were in the South."

What the old laws said

Georgia
Passed in 1927: "It shall be unlawful for a white person to marry anyone except a white person." The Legislature defined non-whites as anyone with an "ascertainable trace of either Negro, African, West Indian, Asiatic Indian, Mongolian, Japanese, or Chinese blood in their veins."

Punishment: One to two years in prison

South Carolina
From the state constitution, inserted in 1895: "It shall be unlawful for any white man to intermarry with any woman of either Indian or negro races, or any mulatto, mestizo (part Spanish, part American Indian), or half-breed, or for any white woman to intermarry with any person, other than a white man, or for any mulatto, half-breed, Indian, negro or mestizo to intermarry with a white woman." Courts defined a non-white as anyone with e or more Negro blood.

Punishment: A minimum of a $500 fine and/or a minimum of one year in prison

Other states that had anti-miscegenation laws in 1967: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi. Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia. Fourteen other states had repealed their laws.