Escape into Whiteness


Tickets to the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial were a hot item in the spring of 1922. Tens of thousands of people converged on the Mall for a day of celebration that included parades, music, and speeches by President Warren Harding and Supreme Court Chief Justice William Howard Taft, under whose presidency the memorial had been initiated.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture/New York Public Library
Mary Church Terrell, circa 1902

One of the better-known black Washingtonians on hand that sunny Memorial Day was Whitefield McKinlay, former collector of customs at Georgetown and real estate manager to many of the city’s light-skinned mulatto elite. Nearing his seventieth birthday, McKinlay had lived through the best and the worst of what the post–Civil War world had to offer people of color. He had enrolled in the University of South Carolina during the heady days of Reconstruction and then been expelled when the Democrats rose to power there and created a particularly virulent form of the Jim Crow state. He had seen black politicians swept into office by newly enfranchised black voters and swept out again when the franchise was revoked.

Through this same process, Washington, D.C., had been transformed from what one of McKinlay’s more prominent real estate clients had termed “The Colored Man’s Paradise”—a place of considerable freedom and opportunity—into what the historian David Levering Lewis aptly describes as a “purgatory,” where Negroes were barred from hotels and restaurants, driven from federal jobs, and generally persecuted by Southerners in Congress who seemed intent on erasing the colored presence from the city.1 Though he does not deal at length with McKinlay, Daniel Sharfstein, an associate professor of law at Vanderbilt, brings this part of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Negro society vividly to life in his authoritative and elegantly written The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White.

McKinlay had been pleased by the beautifully engraved invitation to the event at the Lincoln Memorial and seems to have viewed it as a sign that Harding and the resurgent Republicans intended to relax the strictures of segregation. He and his wife learned otherwise when they presented their tickets at the entrance to the platform section, where they expected to be seated in comfortable folding chairs. They were instead marched to a weed-filled zone nearly a block away whose seating consisted of rough-hewn, backless benches. There the McKinlays encountered other prominent members of the colored race—doctors, lawyers, judges, professors, and businessmen—cordoned off from the white portion of the audience and presided over by uniformed Marines. When the McKinlays took seats along an aisle, a Marine demanded that they move to the center to make way for others yet to come. When the couple hesitated, the soldier barked that they should “think damned quick.” The Jim Crow section erupted in protest and the McKinlays vacated the…

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