In the 1920s, interracial marriages were at the center of controversy. None of them compare to the controversy involving the Jones and Rhinelander families of NY.
Here's an article written by Seattle Weekly on the 1925 case:
A failed interracial romance can't escape scrutiny.
LOVE ON TRIAL: AN AMERICAN SCANDAL IN BLACK AND WHITEby Earl
Lewis and Heidi Ardizzone (W.W. Norton & Company, $26.95)
AT THE HEIGHT
of the Roaring Twenties, Kip Rhinelander, the wealthy son of white New York
plutocrats, fell in love with Alice Jones, an attractive young woman of
mixed-race ancestry who occasionally worked as a domestic. In 1924, after a
three-year romance that included the exchange of nearly a thousand love letters,
they married. Almost immediately, a court battle began that gave newspapers
throughout the nation front-page stories for more than a year: Rhinelander
sought an annulment, alleging that Jones had deceived him into thinking she was
Could a member of the elite class in a racist society have failed to
notice, after spending countless hours with the Jones family, the dark skin of
his lover's father and brother? Prior to the marriage, hadn't Rhinelander told a
friend that he didn't care what race Jones belonged to? Was Rhinelander's
father, a bigoted real-estate magnate worth millions, secretly forcing his son
to seek an annulment so the family name would stay "pure"? What did Jones'
racial identity mean, anyway? Did the fact that her father was born in England
give his skin color a different significance?
Historians Earl Lewis and Heidi
Ardizzone address such questions in Love on Trial: An American Scandal in Black
and White, a well-researched social history aimed at a general audience. It's a
fascinating, suspenseful (if sometimes redundantly told) tale of interracial
love in an era of radical change. The book alternates dramatic episodes in the
lives of the main characters with lively commentary on race, immigration, class,
female sexuality, and popular media during the Jazz Age.
interesting is the theme that American ideas about race have always been
shifting social constructions. Sometimes a drop of blood in the veins made a
person black; sometimes people were categorized as octoroons, quadroons,
coloreds, Negroes, and mulattoes; sometimes those with a black ancestor came to
be considered white if they had pale skin, European parents, and no connection
to the black community. But, as this book vividly shows, all such definitions
had a common purpose: to maintain clear boundaries between the races, even after
blacks and whites were made equal under law throughout the U.S., and mixed-race
marriages were legalized in many states, including New York.
NEWSPAPERS and judicial system supported this policing of racial lines. During
the Rhinelander trial, reporters described Jones as "dusky," a "tropical
beauty," or "of a Spanish complexion," and photos of her face were captioned
with the question that readers were expected to agonize over: "Does she look
like a Negro?" The judge actually approved a motion by attorneys to have Jones
disrobe before the jury and reveal her true color.
The trial was an ordeal
for both parties. Sometimes the press and the court made Rhinelander appear to
be "an example of what wealth and privilege produced: inarticulate,
self-centered, powerful, frivolous, and carnal." Sometimes they painted him as
stupid and gullible, seduced by a lascivious, dark-hearted vamp whose sole
desire was to enter the upper class.
Yet Jones told reporters she felt
indifferent about questions of social status and didn't see "a single wholesome
thing in the life of the so-called 400 [best families]." She quietly insisted
that she married Rhinelander because she loved him. Rhinelander's physician
testified at the trial that Jones' tender affection for her lover had begun to
heal his chronic stammer and other nervous afflictions. We'll never know the
true quality of this relationship or the true motives of either partner. These
stories were destroyed, along with the marriage itself, by the one told in court
and by the national media.
Love on Trial unforgettably dramatizes the
American use of race to define the self, decide what others are like, and draw
lines that separate or connect the self and others. Even now, 75 years after the
Rhinelander scandal, the habit is hard for many of us to shake.