Driven by Love or Ambition, Slipping Across the Color Line Through the Ages

Clarence King, a Yale-educated white man who worked as a geologist in the 1800s and dined at the White House, lived a secret life as James Todd, a black train porter with a wife and five children in Brooklyn.

The railroad carried him to the hot springs of Arkansas, the copper mines of Montana and the gold fields of the Pacific Northwest. Weary, lonesome and ailing, he sent letters of love and longing to his wife in New York City.

“I can see your dear face every night when I lay my head on the pillow,” he wrote. “I think of you and dream of you, and my first waking thought is of your dear face and your loving heart.”

Ada Todd saved those letters, symbols of devotion from her husband, James Todd, a fair-skinned black man from Baltimore who worked as a Pullman porter in the late 1800s, and spent weeks and sometimes months away from home.

His earnings allowed the family to move from a cramped, predominantly African-American section of Vinegar Hill in Brooklyn to a more residential street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, to a spacious 11-room house in Flushing, Queens. It was only when he was dying in 1901 that Ms. Todd finally began to piece together the truth: Her husband was not from Baltimore. He was not a Pullman porter. And he was not a black man.

His real name was Clarence King. He was a white man, a nationally renowned explorer and surveyor who dined at the White House and hobnobbed with the elite at the finest clubs in Manhattan. More than a century before Rachel Dolezal burst into our national consciousness, Mr. King was slipping back and forth across the color line, using his work as a traveling geologist to sustain his secret life.

Ms. Dolezal, the white N.A.A.C.P. official who claimed to be African-American, made headlines in part because of her story’s seeming singularity. Countless African-Americans have passed for white to escape the racial discrimination that circumscribed their opportunities, aspirations and daily lives. But a white person passing for black?

Yet 19th-century history is dotted with such cases. White men and women driven by love, ambition or other circumstances sometimes leapt across the racial chasm, defying state laws and social conventions designed to keep blacks and whites apart.

“We’ll never know how many people did it,” said Martha A. Sandweiss, a historian at Princeton University who documented Mr. King’s double life for the first time in her book “Passing Strange,” which was published in 2009.

“If they did it well,” she said, “they’re invisible.”

Clarence King did it well.

In Manhattan, he lived the life of a prominent, Yale-educated scientist, sharing conversations and confidences with the luminaries of the day. (One of his best friends was John Hay, who served as the nation’s secretary of state.) He lived in several upscale residential hotels, including one on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street, where no one but the staff would notice how infrequently he slept in his own bed.

In Brooklyn and Queens, he passed as an African-American porter and steelworker and lived with his beloved wife, who had been born into slavery, and their five children. (One son died young.) There, he was Mr. Todd, the family man who explained away his frequent absences with his fictitious job on the railroad.

He was, in the words of Ms. Sandweiss, a “part-time black man,” whose prominence as a white scientist allowed him to earn enough (and borrow enough from wealthy friends) to support his black family and to preserve its dignity, at a time when interracial marriages in New York City were legal but viewed as shameful and scandalous.

He kept his secret during his lifetime, during all 13 years of his marriage. Others were not so lucky.

The Rev. Louis Fenwick served as the black pastor of St. Mark’s African Methodist church in Milwaukee until his congregation discovered in 1903 that he was white. Condemned by his flock, he ultimately left the church. (By 1930, he was living as a white physician in Chicago, according to census data provided by Andrew W. Cohen, a historian at Syracuse University who has unearthed several of these passing cases.)

Carrie Plant, the niece of a wealthy farmer in Gardiner, N.Y., darkened her face with burned cork so that she could marry the black man she loved in 1880. She took the step, even though it meant forgoing her share of her uncle’s estate, after several ministers who knew she was white refused to perform the ceremony.

In more recent times, Mezz Mezzrow, the white jazz clarinetist who lived in Harlem in the 1940s, often passed as black, describing his experience as a racial “metamorphosis.”

Ironically, state laws designed to indelibly label people of African ancestry helped to make this kind of passing possible. The laws defined racial identity by blood, not appearance, which made it possible for Mr. King, a blue-eyed, sandy-haired white man, to pose as a black man without being discovered.

“He hoped he wouldn’t die,” his wife, who took the name King after his death, said more than three decades after her husband’s funeral, “because he had a great interest in his children and had an education planned for them.”

On his deathbed, when Mr. King finally told his wife his real name, he also revealed that he had created a trust fund for her and their children, in the care of a good friend, Ms. Sandweiss said. He hoped it would secure his family’s future.

But that dream failed — Ms. King’s efforts to secure the fund were unsuccessful — as did Mr. King’s hopes for a future in which there would be, as he put it, “no more Irish or Germans, Negroes and English, but only Americans, belonging to one defined American race.”

His white friends dismissed his racial notions as outlandish and “whimsical.” They had no way of knowing how deeply he longed for a new kind of country where he would no longer have to hide.