More on Multiracial-descended whites who embrace “one drop”

Family Secrets, produced by Alice Pifer for ABCs 20/20, follows Simms on a trail back into her shrouded – and painful – past. Early on Simms, perceptibly a 30-ish white woman, describes the sense of shame she had growing up in her family, because they were hiding something. What they were hiding was their black ancestry, which Simms confirms as she researches the life of her great-grandmother Anita Hemmings, the first African American woman to attend the prestigious Vassar College. Hemmings passed for white there until her roommate outed her; she graduated in spite of the scandal.

I just was overwhelmed, Simms says. I saw so many of my family in her. I was so proud of her. I just was overcome.

Lynn Sherr shares the stage of “Family Secret” with Jillian Atkin Sims, who followed the faint trail of her grandmother’s hints to discover that her white family had black ancestors. The subject matter was fertile ground for helping viewers understand a significant slice of race relations, and Sherr, with producer Alice Pifer, made good use of the opportunity.

To understand the place shame plays in a white family’s discovery of black heritage, viewers needed historical context, and if the story was to achieve a measure of authenticity, it needed Sims’ voice.


  1. How is Ms. Sims embracing the one drop rule. From the article, it’s clear that she is in fact honoring her mixed race category and rejecting the racial stratification of our society. To me, Ms. Sims seems to be at peace with herself and her family history, embracing not a tainting of her family but a vein of gold she did not know existed.
    What’s terrible about her doing celebrating her African Ancestry?

  2. Jill Sim, here. 2004, and I see A.D. Powell is/was still excoriating me for “embracing” one drop. I did and do not. My journey into my ancestral research has remained a work in progress. I find Ms. Powell’s continued intolerance of this process suspect and take great exception to her characterizations of me throughout the years — as have others who come from bi or tri, etc., racial ancestry who are examining the ambiguity and arbitrary nature of race in this country and who have felt the particular sting of Powell’s poison arrow.
    Some of us came late to the table and didn’t always posess the inner resources necessary to come to the “right” conclusions that Powell has, which I believe arise from a refusal and reluctance, more than a solid position, to study the past in a more balanced fashion.

    The fact is, the woman whose race I supposedly hijacked, my great-grandmother’s, lived with family who were very much part of their “black” community, were well-known leaders of it, and who listed themselves as black and who were identified by their society and by government as black — as was my ancestor. It would be one thing if my ancestor lived all her life as white, however there was a discernible split from black to white and such a change, once called “passing”, and the effects on future generations, and there are effects, are what I have studied and continue to study today.

    That said, there is much to agree with A.D. Powell, but I find her style, for lack of a better word, is fatal to constructive dialogue.

    Thanks for the comments above.

    Jillian Sim

    1/17/2005 9:37:06 PM

  3. Sim does not know the difference between “mulatto” and “black” nor does she realize that “colored” was not synonymous with “black” in the 19th century. She also confuses a social handicap (“colored” or nonwhite status) with one’s “true” ethnicity and “race.” Did Jews become literal non-Aryans when the Third Reich degreed them to be so? Do we honor the Nazis by maintaining their racial nomenclature? NO!
    Facts Sim chooses to ignore: Anita Hemmings, her great-grandmother, knew that the “colored” or “Negro” label did not describe her and chose to embrace an identity that she felt more accurately reflected who she was. She married a man who shared her views. A person who is “raised black,” as Sim and her confederates would put it, is no more obligated to keep that designation than one is obligated to honor a parent’s political party or history of abuse by carrying it on to the next generation without question.

    Sim says, “It would be one thing if my ancestor lived all her life as white…” In her American Heritage article, Sim denounces her grandmother, Ellen Love, as a “black” who “passed for white” DESPITE the fact that Ellen had been REARED AS WHITE. Now that she’s been caught in that lie, can Sim say exactly when her family changed from “black” to “white”?

    7/13/2005 4:43:23 PM

  4. I happen to agree with a lot of Ms. Powell’s comments on the subject of “passing” (for lack of better term, but I am sure Powell can furnish one), but find the continual attack mode, seven years on, and the failure on Powell’s part to appreciate nuances and complexities of American history, suspicious, adding up to an agenda. She insists that I lied and hijacked my ancestors’ race when she doesn’t stop and think that it wasn’t I who did the hijacking, but contemporaries of my relatives who persecuted them, when they tried to mind their own business and live their lives. I did not “out” them, nor did I attempt to. What I tried to do was to uncover facts, tell a story, and to point out the arbitrary nature of race during a particular time in American history. And I’ve been trying, ever since, to challenge my own ignorance of it and evolve.
    I believe I’ve been quite candid and also reasonable in my posture that some of my previous misconceptions were exactly that, and I’ve always been very explicit in saying that my quest, or whatever you want to call it, was — and is — a work in progress. I don’t claim to be any kind of expert or master except of my own opinions.

    There were some folks down the line who were curious about my family and tried to ‘out’ them way before I had any hand in it — not that I ever tried to out them in the first.

    My grandmother was born into a black community, her mother was listed as black on several census returns, as was her father, her uncles, her aunts. In short, Ellen’s entire immediate family was listed as black on record. And I’m supposed to ignore these facts when I’m compiling the data of her life?

    Both my grandmother and her sister were referred to, by contemporaries, as “Negroes” when they were of college age. So how am I “lying”, exactly?

    Would anyone here sit back and allow Ms. Powell to point the finger and act the expert of all of our family histories and dynamics? It’s like the old saying: no one ever knows what goes on in a marriage. We can use this axiom and then well imagine how difficult it would be to summarize or generalize what goes on in families; without knowing the players in question, how can Powell really be sure of her conclusions about them? I knew some of the players in question very well.

    Jill Sim

    8/9/2005 2:32:40 AM

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *