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Stories of racial passing, from the pages of Nella Larsen to Detroit's upper class

Ellen and William Craft
"Still's Underground Rail Road Records," 1886
Boston African American National Historic Site
To escape slavery in Georgia, light-skinned Ellen Craft and her dark-skinned husband William posed, respectively, as a white gentleman traveling with his enslaved manservant in 1848.

Elsie Roxborough was born in 1914 in Detroit to one of Michigan’s most prominent Black families. When she died in New York City in 1949, her death certificate listed her race as white. She had lived there as a white woman for over a decade, working for a time as a model while aspiring to acclaim as a playwright.

“She almost immediately goes to New York City after graduation from the University of Michigan,” said Ken Coleman, a journalist who has researched the Roxborough family. Elsie Roxborough “at least professionally changed her name to Pat Rico at one point, and then ultimately, Mona Manet, and her brown, brownish-black hair becomes Lucille Ball auburn.”

Roxborough represents one of the few documented historical instances from Michigan of a Black person choosing to live nearly full-time as a member of white society. This phenomenon, known as racial passing, has received renewed popular attention through recent artistic works like Rebecca Hall’s film adaptation of Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing and Britt Bennett’s novel The Vanishing Half. 

One striking aspect of Elsie Roxborough’s story is both her ability and her choice to slip away from her position as a visible member of America’s Black upper class.

Writer and reporter Ken Coleman tells the story of Detroiter Elsie Roxborough, who was born into a wealthy, Black family in Detroit. But when she died in 1939, her death certificate listed her as white.
University of Michigan Alumni Association
Bentley Historical Library
Prolific playwright Elsie Roxborough was born into a wealthy, Black family in Detroit. But when she died in 1939, her death certificate listed her as white.

Elsie’s father was elected Michigan’s first Black state senator in 1930. As a child, Elsie summered at Idlewild, an elite Black resort community in Manistee. She dated boxer Joe Louis; their joint denial of a wedding engagement made front page news in 1935. At the University of Michigan, she was among the first known Black students to live in a campus dormitory. She had a robust network that included her classmate and fellow Michigan Daily staffer, Arthur Miller, and a close connection with Langston Hughes, who considered her a promising writer.

Despite her talent and her ties, Roxborough saw racism as putting a ceiling on her success.

Elsie Roxborough's adapting to the times that suggest to her, in order to be what she ultimately wants to be — a great playwright — that it's advantageous for her, because of her light skin, to pass, to cease from being a Negro or being colored to being white,” said Coleman.

How common was it for Black Americans to live across races like Elsie Roxborough?

It’s hard to say. By design, passing stories tend to get lost to history. But evidence suggests that cultural representations of passing were far more frequent and socially potent than real-life cases.

“I don't think it was that common,” said Sandra Gunning, Professor in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies and the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan. And, she emphasized, “different contours of passing get expressed depending on what's going on.”

“There's always the assumption that if the person is passing for white, then they reject Blackness.” Gunning said. “You might have people doing it not because they shun blackness necessarily, but because at the time, it's something that they need to do.”

For example, to escape slavery in Georgia, light-skinned Ellen Craft and her dark-skinned husband William posed as a white gentleman traveling with his enslaved manservant in 1848. And at least three Black men passed to enlist in all-white regiments to fight for freedom in the early stages of the Civil War, before the Union recruited Black soldiers.

More commonly, light-skinned Black people who could have passed refused to. A few made a public point of their choice, such as writer Charles Chestnutt (a celebrity neighbor of the Roxboroughs at Idlewild).

“He sees his job as using his fiction to confront white people with their fears and their completely untrue assumptions about black people,” said Gunning. “So he has characters who are mixed race, but he uses them as a way of saying to the white reader, ‘What is the difference between you and this character?’”

“I look at passing literature as part of the larger, longer tradition of writing about this mixed-race light-skinned character,” said Gunning.

Since before the revolution, African American writers used mixed-race figures to challenge white supremacy.

“By the time you get to Nella Larsen and other writers in her era, eugenics is at an all time high,” said Gunning. Many Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries believed that you could look at someone’s features and draw definitive conclusions not only about their race, but also about qualities like intelligence, health, or criminality.

<em>Passing</em>, by Nella Larsen
Signet Classics
Passing, by Nella Larsen

Real or fictional, light-skinned Black people who were physically indistinguishable from white people suggested the patent absurdity of this spurious racial “science.”

“Part of what the writers are saying is this racial hierarchy, this racial philosophy is nonsense because if it was true, you wouldn't be able to have passing, right?" said Gunning.

Gunning said that she appreciated Hall’s artistic choices in Passing that continue to destabilize contemporary audience expectations about what whiteness and Blackness look like and mean.

“We're using the same [racial] terms that come up in the 18th century. So the film kind of put us on notice, and it makes us feel confused. I mean, how far removed are we in 2022 from all the eugenics assumptions that were rife in the 19th century and in the earlier part of the 20th century?”

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