Where Are Louisiana’s “Race Flagging” Files?

Where Are Louisiana's "Race Flagging" Files?

A.D. Powell

by A.D. Powell
July – October 2005

Almost every student of racial and ethnic stratification in the United States has heard of Mrs. Susie Guillory Phipps, and how the overwhelmingly white (slightly more than 1/32) Louisiana native unsuccessfully sued the Louisiana Bureau of Vital Records to change the racial classification on her birth certificate from "colored"  (now defined as "black") to white (1982-83).  In 1983, the State Supreme Court denied her motion and upheld the state's right to classify and quantify racial identity. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case and thus left standing the lower court's decision. These students are left with the false impression that Mrs. Phipps descended from privileged whiteness to degraded blackness and are never told or encouraged to address the following questions:

  • It is and was impossible for Louisiana's government to keep African ancestry out of the white population.  Only an idiot does not realize this.  Mrs. Phipps was not ordered by the state to change the "white" designation on her other documents.  She was still the mother of "white" children and had twice married "white" men as a "white" woman.  Mrs. Phipps was only one of many thousands of mixed whites whose "tainted drop of Negro blood" successfully penetrated the charade of white racial purity.  Moreover, Latinos and Arabs (who are nearly all part-black) and anyone whose ancestors did not have the misfortune to be born or die in Louisiana could happily declare themselves "white" in that state, with no telltale documentation for its racist government to trace.  Why was Louisiana obsessed with forcing the "black" classification on its native residents while observing a gentlemen's agreement to look the other way when it came to "Negro blood" they couldn't document so easily, even if that "blood" was obvious (as is often the case with Latinos and Arabs)?
  • Why did the media never tell Americans that other Southern states, such as Virginia, were notorious for doing the same as Louisiana?
  • Why did the mostly sympathetic mainstream media trumpet the headline "Who is black?" and not "Who is White?"   Why didn't they point out that, in the name of white racial purity, Louisiana was harassing predominate whites with small amounts of "black" ancestry while the federal government was classifying as "white" Latinos and Arabs with buckets as opposed to drops of "black blood."  If biological purity is the objective, why did they accept this discrepancy?  Why did they promote it?
  • Above all, they are never told that Mrs. Phipps is a hero for defying Louisiana's version of the Nuremberg Laws. Thanks to her, Louisiana elites were at least forced to change their racist law stating that someone with more than 1/32 "black blood" could be legally defined as "black" (based on the racist assumption that miscegenation "improves" the "inferior" black race and degrades the "superior" white race) to the more vague but cowardly standard of a "preponderance of the evidence."   Speaking of the Nuremberg Laws, what would happen if a state government were to keep files on the genealogies of its citizens with Jewish ancestry, denying them classification as "whites" and assigning them to unwanted and inaccurate racial classifications?  Wouldn't the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) be on their asses and never let up?  The answer is that such files exist in Louisiana, but because they were persecuting whites with "black blood" instead of Jewish blood, American liberals and conservatives say nothing against them.
In the very valuable but little publicized book, White by Definition: Social Classification in Creole Louisiana by Virginia R. Dominguez (Rutgers University Press, 1986), we learn for the first time about the secret files the state government of Louisiana kept on white families of mixed or suspected "black" ancestry:           
In 1938, in Sunseri v, Cassagne (191 La. 209, 185 So. 1 – affirmed on rehearing in 1940, 195 La. 19, 196 So. 7) – the Louisiana Supreme Court proclaimed traceability of African ancestry to be the only requirement for definition of colored.  In 1949, Naomi Drake assumed the post of supervisor and deputy registrar of vital statistics at the Louisiana Bureau of Vital Statistics, and she figures prominently in the cases filed against the bureau through the mid-1960s.

Armed with the traceability criterion established by the court in 1938, she followed the practice of race-flagging, pulling out a birth certificate that lists a baby as white but bears a name common to blacks.  Such birth certificates are checked against a “race list” maintained by the Vital Records Office.  If the name appears on the “race list,” then a further study of genealogical records maintained by the Vital Records Office is conducted (a description given to the New Orleans States Item, June 5-16, 1978, by a Dr. Doris Thompson who had been assistant secretary of the State Department of Health and Human Resources, of which the Bureau is a part). pp. 37-38

If the bureau determined through study of its genealogical records that the person in question had any African ancestors, the applicant was then informed that a certificate would be issued only if it declared the person to be colored.  If the applicant refused to accept such a certificate, the bureau in turn refused to issue a certificate.  There is evidence that between 1960 and 1965 a minimum of 4,700 applications for certificated copies of birth certificates and a minimum of 1,100 applications for death certificates were held in abeyance by the bureau under the supervision of Naomi Drake (188 So. 2nd 94)…
Individuals petitioned the courts to force the bureau to change the racial labels that appeared on the birth or death certificates of members of their families.  They presented evidence that purported to prove that these people were white despite the imputations of bureau genealogists.  In each case, the bureau questioned the authenticity of much of the evidence adduced, or the nature of the evidence introduced during the proceedings.  Plaintiff’s job was to dispute the authenticity of the document(s), prove that (s)he was the child of a different marriage or of a sexual union resulting from a parent’s remarriage or concubinage, or dispute the meaning of the specific social label that in the eyes of the bureau implied Negro ancestry. p. 44
Why aren't these victims of Louisiana's racist "purity" laws as well known as the victims of the Nuremberg Laws?  Moreover, why was this practice continued long after both the federal government (including the U.S. Supreme Court, which had refused to hear Mrs. Phipps' case) and Louisiana's state government had officially overturned the "Jim Crow" racial segregation laws and pledged themselves to promoting a society of racial equality?

The fact is, however, that the practice of race-flagging and withholding certificates continued long after Naomi Drake’s departure from her post.  We have no way of estimating the number of applications for birth or death certificates withheld since the mid-sixties (this information is now considered confidential and is carefully guarded by clerks and bureaucrats), but other indices are telling. Twelve mandamus proceedings against the bureau have been initiated since Drake’s official departure.  Also on May 26, 1977, Wayne Parker, at the time registrar of vital statistics, admitted to me in an interview that in 1977 the bureau employed two full-time clerk investigators to handle only cases concerned with racial designation, and that the bureau spent some six thousand man-hours in 1976 exclusively on race cases.  Parker estimated that between sixty and a hundred surnames were regularly flagged by the bureau and checked in a special file room against fairly extensive genealogies kept by the bureau on the many branches of these families. Thompson (cf. New Orleans States Item, June 5-16, 1978) estimated that 250 names of “white” families with partially black ancestry were kept at the bureau.  p. 49

It should be pointed out that one does not actually have to have any African ancestry in order to be a victim of "race flagging."  Few Americans know, for example, that words such as "colored" or "mulatto" were often used as synonyms for non-white and often included people with no African ancestry at all:
…Especially problematic is the use of the term mulatto.  As the Louisiana Court of Appeals acknowledged in rendering its judgment…U.S. censuses did not provide many alternatives for racial identification. This meant that the term mulatto was often applied loosely. The late nineteenth century census records allowed only five options: white, black, mulatto, Chinese, or Indian…Limited lexical options meant that the term mulatto was used to denote anyone who did not appear all white or all black. p. 49
Again, why has the American Civil Liberties and other organizations supposedly concerned with privacy and civil liberties shown no interest whatsoever in demanding that Louisiana reveal the location of these files, explain why they are keeping them and how they are used.  How are Louisiana genealogical files any more legitimate than the FBI's COINTELPRO files on political dissidents?  I would say that the Louisiana "race flagging" files are even less legitimate, since the only "crime" its victims were suspected of was having the wrong ancestors.
I strongly suspect that the strange silence of the ACLU and other supposed defenders of liberty and rights has a lot to do with the fact that the American black intelligentsia is overwhelming in favor of promoting a "one drop" myth of blackness and eagerly engages in character assassination against mixed whites they accuse of "passing for who they really are."

Leave a Reply

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