A late-1800s photograph provides insight about the perceptions of race at that time.
By Breanna Fanta, Editorial Assistant
A photograph recently added to History Nebraska’s collection caught historians’ interest. Capturing a street view of the officers’ barracks at Fort Robinson during the late-1800s, the image is unusual for several reasons, but the group of Black and White children pictured are particularly significant.
“The little girl shown in this view is the daughter of a colored servant girl at this post. The little girl is white as any white person notwithstanding the fact that she has a negro mother,” reads the inscription on the back – a reflection of the period’s racism.
(“The scene then and now.” Photo by RaNae Calder, History Nebraska)
(At the time, Fort Robinson was home to the Ninth Cavalry, an all-Black regiment known as “Buffalo Soldiers.”)
This distinction of race followed the “one-drop rule,” meaning that any Black ancestry or “blood” present in someone’s lineage could define them as Black.
Karen Keehr, David L. Bristow, and Ben Kruse explored this in “‘White as any White Person’: an 1880s Fort Robinson Photograph,” featured in the Winter 2021 issue of the Nebraska History Magazine.
The rule was exclusive to American Blacks in the US, and when “Jim Crow” laws expanded to reinforce segregation, the rule became more solidified.
An 1896 US Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson, referred to the “one-drop rule” when a man was arrested for sitting in a Whites-only railcar. A Louisiana law (1890) established separate railcars for Black and White passengers. When the arrest happened in 1892, the Court described Homer Plessy as “seven-eighths Caucasian and one-eighth African blood” and ruled that the Louisiana law did not violate the Equal Protection clause under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court invented the concept of “separate but equal” as a legal precedent.
“Legal discrimination against Black people required a legal definition of Blackness,” but opinions varied across the states. In some states, any visible indicator of Black ancestry would classify the individual as Black, but in others, it depended on the prevalence of “blood” in one’s family history.
Mark Twain’s 1894 novel, Pudd’nhead Wilson, ridiculed the “one-drop rule” in a story of two identical babies switched at birth where the White child became a slave and the 1/32 Black child became the master.
In the early 20th century, W.E.B. Du Bois fought this “racial scientism,” arguing that race was more of a social construct than a biologically supported concept. While humans have physical variances, biologists in recent decades have agreed that the concept of race is “too crude to provide useful information” about its expression in genetics.
Unlike Du Bois, however, the writer of the photo inscription accepts the notion of race that was common at that time. The image itself sparked interest because photos of African American dependents at frontier military forts are rare, but its message provided deeper insight about 19th century perceptions of race.
(“The photograph’s field of view.” Graphic by Ben Kruse, History Nebraska)
The entire article can be found in the Winter 2021 edition of the Nebraska History Magazine. Members receive four issues per year.