January 29 - Prejudice Comes in Many Colors

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On January 29, 1898, Alice Ruth Moore in Brooklyn wrote a frustrated letter to her fiancé Paul Laurence Dunbar in Washington, D. C., revealing some of her attitudes about race.  Alice was a teacher at Public School No. 83, but she had requested a transfer to a different school where there were no Black students or staff.

I leave Thursday and go to No. 66, a school where there are neither colored teachers or pupils.  I can always get along with white people.  There was always an intense feeling in No. 83 against me, you know.  As long as I had the principal, who is white and the former head of department -- Miss Goodwin, also white -- on my side, I was all right.  These last two were staunch supporters of mine.  I made my friends exclusively with the white teachers, ate with them, went to and fro with them.  I look forward with great pleasure to my new school.
 

Alice Ruth Moore to Paul Laurence Dunbar, January 29, 1898.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 8).

In other letters, Alice complained to Paul about her Black supervisor at Public School No. 83.

This has been a tough week for me.  I think I will change schools quite soon.  Our old head of department, Miss Goodwin, who was a good friend of mine and as sweet a woman as could be, was removed, and Miss Lyons is to take her place.  I hate to work under Negro women, never did it and my heart sank at the prospect.  I was informed that I would soon be removed to No. 66, a school where there are no colored teachers.  I am awfully glad of this because that gang in No. 83 makes me tired.
 

Alice Ruth Moore to Paul Laurence Dunbar, January 7, 1898.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 8).

Things are going so crooked at school until I feel like resigning.  We have a new head of department, a Negro woman, Miss Lyons, who hates me and I despise her.  So you can imagine how cheerful things are.  I've asked for a transfer.
 

Alice Ruth Moore to Paul Laurence Dunbar, January 10, 1898.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 8).

At the same time Alice was criticizing her Black supervisor, Paul wrote a dialect poem that praised a woman specifically for her dark skin.  The narrator of the poem is glad that Dely is "pure" colored and not of mixed race.

I am going to try my hand at a bit of a sonnet this afternoon.  I wrote a darkey dialect love-poem yesterday called "Dely," so I want to balance the effect.
 

Paul Laurence Dunbar to Alice Ruth Moore, January 28, 1898.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 8).

Dely got dem meltin' eyes,
Big an' black an' tendah.
Dely jes' a lady-size,
Delikit an' slendah.
Dely brown ez brown kin be
An' huh haih is curly;
Oh, she look so sweet to me,
Bless de precious girlie!

 

Dely brown ez brown kin be,
She ain' no mullatter;
She pure cullud, don' you see
Dat's jes' whut's de mattah?
Dat's de why I love huh so,
D'ain't no mix about huh,
Soon's you see huh face you know
D'ain't no chanst to doubt huh.

Excerpt from "Dely," by Paul Laurence Dunbar.  Published in Lyrics of the Hearthside (1899).

Though she was of African descent and her mother had been enslaved, Alice had light skin.  She grew up in New Orleans, where racial identity was complex.  Alice wrote articles describing Louisiana's social caste system, which was based on skin tone and bloodlines.

The offspring of slave and master -- a mixture of French white and African blood -- took a higher position in serfdom than unmixed blacks.  He despises a black American;  he will tolerate a fair-skinned one, and condescend to a white one.  He will treat the black Creole with pitying good-nature and embrace the white Creole with open arms.
 

"A Creole Anomaly," by Alice Ruth Moore.  Leslie's Weekly Illustrated (New York, New York).  July 15, 1897.  Page 43.

The gens de couleur, colored people, were always a class apart, separated from and superior to the Negroes, ennobled were it only by one drop of white blood in their veins.  The caste seems to have existed from the first introduction of slaves.  To the whites, all Africans who were not of pure blood were gens de couleur.  Among themselves, however, there were jealous and fiercely-guarded distinctions.
 

"People of Color in Louisiana:  Part I," by Alice Dunbar-Nelson.  The Journal of Negro History (Washington, D. C.).  October 1916.  Page 361.

Writers on fire with the romance of this continental city love to speak of the splendors of the French Opera House, the first place in the country where grand opera was heard, and tell of the tiers of beautiful women with their jewels and airs and graces.  Above the orchestra circle were four tiers, the first filled with the beautiful dames of the city;  the second filled with a second array of beautiful women, attired like those of the first, with no apparent difference;  yet these were the octoroons and quadroons, whose beauty and wealth were all the passports needed.  The third was for the hoi polloi of the white race, and the fourth for the people of color whose color was more evident.  It was a veritable sandwich of races.
 

"People of Color in Louisiana:  Part II," by Alice Dunbar-Nelson.  The Journal of Negro History (Washington, D. C.).  January 1917.  Page 62.

In describing people of mixed race, Alice used terms that were common at the time, but are obsolete and offensive today.  An octoroon was a person with seven white great-grandparents and one non-white great-grandparent;  a quadroon had three white grandparents and one non-white grandparent.  By hoi polloi, she meant common or lower-class people.

Black women who wanted to have lighter skin sometimes used a skin whitening cream.  Alice endorsed a product called Black and White, although she said she never used it herself.  In her diary, Alice mentioned an advertising campaign for Black and White that featured her photo.

Stayed in in the morning and finished Lady Chatterley's Lover.  Some book.  Beautifully written, but quite gorgeously frank.  See my picture advertising Black and White in all the papers -- Courier, Afro, Tribune, etc.
 

Diary entry for June 11, 1931.  Published in Give Us Each Day:  The Diary of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, edited by Gloria T. Hull.  W. W. Norton & Co. (New York, New York). 1984.  Page 434.