(Warning: the below article contains excerpts from historical material that are explicitly racist and offensive to today’s readers. The author does not share the views of the material presented.)
Sometimes a random search can take you to unexpected places. For me it began a few months ago when I was asked to conduct a post-sale training session with a group of students at a university in Japan. I was told beforehand that the students were studying American History, including African Americans and other minorities, and I was asked to prepare an example that would match their interests.
Having very little knowledge about this period or the topic, I started casting around for interesting material using the Gale Primary Sources cross-search. I was trying various keywords that came to my mind – very simple words – when I happened to enter a random combination of the words “negro” and “japan” into the search box.
This search returned a few items, and the very first one caught my attention. The title said, “Miscegenation: the theory of the blending of the races, applied to the American white man and negro”. Miscegenation? – I had never heard of such a word. And the subtitle, “blending of the races”, also struck me as rather strange.
I clicked through to the title, navigated to the exact page which had both of my keywords – “negro” and “Japan” – and read this sentence:
“May we not hope that in the happier hereafter of this continent [presumably the American continent], when the Mongolian from China and Japan and the negro from his own Africa, shall have blent their more emotional natures with ours [presumably white Americans], that here may be witnessed, at once, the most perfect religion, as well as the most perfect type of mankind the world has yet seen.”
What a strange quote! I re-examined the bibliographic information. This title was from Gale’s Sabin Americana archive, a large collection of America-related books. The publication date was 1864. What was happening in America in 1864? This must have been written during the Civil War!
Curious, I searched the word “Miscegenation” in Gale Virtual Reference Library, our e-reference platform containing numerous encyclopaedias. I found an article on the topic in Gale’s Encyclopedia of Sex & Gender. It explains that the word was coined in a Civil War pamphlet entitled “Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races” – the exact work that I had stumbled upon – and it was a piece of propaganda “written to hurt Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party and tarnish the abolition movement”.
So this pamphlet was deliberately written to create the false impression that the ultimate goal of the abolitionists – and of Lincoln’s Republican party by extension – was to encourage intermarriage between whites, blacks, and all of the races, to create a single, blended mixed race. In other words, this pamphlet was “Fake News” of the time! The author of the pamphlet knew that even people who supported abolition on humanitarian grounds were probably not prepared to go that far.
Having found this new topic, I decided to do some more research using the keyword “miscegenation”. Although during the above mentioned student training I was limited to searching the databases that the university had access to, I was curious what other results I could find if I searched “miscegenation” across all 40+ products available on the Gale Primary Sources platform.
First, I did a Term Frequency visualisation to see how often the word appeared across the years. It was clear from the resulting graph that the word “miscegenation” was practically nonexistent before 1864, when that pamphlet was published, after which it skyrocketed in frequency with more than 250 items in 1864 alone. Although the popularity of the term wanes somewhat afterwards, it continued to appear in varying frequencies throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Next, I looked at examples from the year 1864 to examine some of the reactions to the newly coined word and its implications.
Across the Atlantic, The Times was quick to take the “miscegenation” bait. In the below article a Times correspondent seems to take the pamphlet’s arguments at face value, and contrasts the utopian ideals suggested by the word with the bleak reality in America, where African American Union soldiers were derided by a racist crowd in New York.
Gale’s newly-released archive, American Historical Periodicals from the American Antiquarian Society, contains another interesting example from 1864, this time from America. The publication is The Liberator, an influential abolitionist newspaper published in Boston. In it, the newspaper is quick to distance itself from “miscegenation”, stating that although they support freedom and civil rights for “colored men” they have never advocated “amalgamation” or a mixing of races.
Even after the Civil War, the word remained in public use. From Nineteenth Century Collections Online (NCCO), in an 1869 pamphlet arguing for women suffrage, the author assures her audience that simply allowing women to vote would not result in all women rushing to the polls, as some feared. She compares it to “miscegenation”, saying that just because the law does not prohibit inter-racial marriage it does not follow that women would engage in “indiscriminate miscegenation”, which she adds would be “revolting to the taste”.
It is interesting that even the suffragettes, who would be considered progressive in their views for their time, also shared the same racial prejudices, and even appealed to such prejudices to make their arguments more palatable to their public.
Such prejudices against interracial marriage persisted well into the twentieth century. Perhaps the most bizarre example is found in a 1908 racist novel from the American Fiction 1774-1920 archive entitled The Call of the South, whose principle theme, according to its ad, is the “danger to society from the increasing miscegenation of the black and white races”. In the novel, a white woman falls in love with a mixed-race male, and marries him against the protests of her father, who dies of a heart attack after seeing his “black” grandchild. In the novel’s climax the women herself goes insane, shouting for a knife to let out her “polluted” blood.
It was not until a mixed raced couple from Virginia, Richard and Mildred Loving, appealed their case to the US Supreme Court that various “anti-miscegeneation” laws were ruled unconstitutional in the United States. This was in 1967, more than a century after the 1864 “miscegenation” pamphlet was published. In the Sunday Times Digital Archive one may find detailed reporting on the landmark decision.
As the 2016 documentary film about their fight to legalise their marriage noted in its choice of title – Loving, it seems only befitting that the “Loving” case defeated the anti-miscegenationists.
The above ends my case study with Gale Primary Sources, but in case my choice of rather dismal material left the reader in an unpleasant state, I would like to refer to a recent New York Times article about an interracial couple from nineteenth-century South Carolina, who began an affair during the Civil War, officially married in 1872 and remained so until the husband’s death in 1912.