In 19th century America, those who took on different racial identities were mostly people of African descent passing as white to escape racial discrimination. A White man passing as Black or African American was rare, but that is exactly what Clarence King, a fair-skinned man, did.
A Yale-educated man who worked as a geologist in the 1800s, his story was remarkable as despite being blue-eyed and sandy-haired, he was able to pose as a Black man without being discovered. He lived a secret life as James Todd, a Black train porter with a wife and five children in Brooklyn.
Even his wife did not know he was White until he lay dying on his deathbed. All she knew was that her husband was called James Todd, a fair-skinned Black man from Baltimore who worked as a Pullman porter (a good job for a Black person at that time) and was one who had to spend weeks and even months away from home because of that job.
But his real name was Clarence King. He was not Black and was not a Pullman porter but a very well-educated White explorer who was well connected too, often dining at the White House.
“Two of his closest friends were Henry Adams — the grandson and great-grandson of presidents — and John Hay, who had been Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary and would become the secretary of state,” author Martha Sandweiss told NPR.
In the city of Manhattan, he was a distinguished Yale-educated scientist, who lived in luxury residential hotels and kept company with the elite. Back home in Brooklyn and Queens, he was Todd, an African-American porter who lived with his African-American wife called Ada Copeland and their five children. Copeland had been born into slavery in Georgia before moving to New York in the 1800s.
Thanks to his secret double life throughout his 13 years of marriage, King was able to earn enough to support his family. When King told his wife who he really was while lying on his deathbed, he also made her know that he had created a trust fund for her and their children, which was in the care of a friend. Copeland tried to secure the fund after her husband’s death but failed.
King also failed in his hopes that there would be, as he wrote in the 1880s, “no more Irish or Germans, Negroes and English, but only Americans, belonging to one defined American race.”
King’s double life
King was able to pass as Black owing to the laws at the time that defined racial identity not by appearance but by blood, according to The New York Times. Author Sandweiss, whose book about King entitled, Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line, said King’s life shows how Americans viewed race in the past.
“Once enslaved people became free people, many Southerners became very anxious about how they could keep Black people in their place, so to speak,” Sandweiss explained to NPR. “How could you recognize a Black person if they were no longer an enslaved person?”
Some Southern states in response decided to pass race laws, some of which said that “If one of your eight great-grandparents is black, you are black, no matter what your skin looks like,” Sandweiss said.
She went on: “Those laws meant to ‘fix race’ made racial designations extremely fluid. And they made it possible for a light-complexioned, blue-eyed, blond-haired man like Clarence King to claim African ancestry when he actually had none at all.”